Saturday, October 22, 2016

Honing Our Writing Skills with Workshops

Scott D. Parker

If you’re a carpenter, the tools you use to craft wooden products dulls over time. When the tools don’t perform as well as they need to, carpenters hone the tools, sharpen the edges, and make the tools as good as new.

The same is true for writing.

Now, I’m not saying my tools have dulled. I’m too new in the career of a fiction writer to have that happen. But I am cognizant to realize I can learn new skills or a new way of approaching the profession of fiction writing. Some of the best places are from the folks who have been doing it a long time.

One of those gentlemen is Dean Wesley Smith. His bibliography is multiple decades long. He has written traditionally starting in the 1980s, and he is a long-time writer who has seen the potential of independent publishing and has made the transition. Successfully, as it turns out. I can’t remember exactly when his blog showed up on my radar, but it’s been a few years now. I’m a regular reader, and an admirer of his stories and work ethic.

He’s also a teacher. So is his wife, writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. They have a series of online workshops. The Classic ones are videos only and you can sign up and take anytime. The main workshops are six weeks, and contain both a series of video lectures as well as writing assignments. The topics are wide and varied and all focused on the business of fiction writing.

I enrolled in the Speed workshop. I’m a writer with a day job, and I wanted to maximize the available time I have to write. I’m only halfway through the workshop, but I’ve already learned valuable lessons. Heck, I even learned something about my writing that doesn’t even pertain to speed.

But that’s what you get when you have a teacher who has walked the walk in the professional writing sphere. Dean has wisdom that only comes from decades in the business. I can already tell a difference in my daily writing.

If you want to hone your writing skills, I recommend taking a look at all the workshops Dean and Kristine offer. There’s bound to be one being offered that help the exact deficit you might have. And, like me, you might even find another one you never knew about, and can fix. I know I did.

Dean’s website
Kristine’s website
WMG Publishing (the list of workshops) website

Friday, October 21, 2016

Why is The Exorcist so damn scary 40+ years later?

Buckle up, this one's long. I wrote this three years ago to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist, and the site I published it on has gone the way of the buffalo. Happy Halloween!

Forty years ago The Exorcist opened to the greatest hype of any R rated film before or since. Lines stretched around the block despite the cold weather, additional showings had to be added to cater to the masses desperate to see it, it earned a ten minute segment with Tom Brokaw on the national news program, and reviews of the film made the front page of newspapers around the world. Reports of audiences responding by jumping out of their seats, running up and down the aisles, fainting, and leaving the film early in horrified tears came in from all over. By the time The Exorcist hit the UK, the theaters had ambulances standing by during showings. Something else happened at these showings, too. Something more interesting than reports of a man in San Francisco charging the screen in an attempt to kill the demon possessing Regan MacNeil. When people left the theaters, whether they left early or made it all the way through, they didn’t go home. They loitered around the theaters eager to connect with their fellow viewers over what they had just witnessed. People couldn’t stop talking about The Exorcist, and it appears we still can’t. The obvious question is: why?

The Rev. Billy Graham had harsh criticisms for the film, insisting that it had “a power of evil”, and believing the mass viewings would damage the souls of the nation. Other religious leaders condemned the film, too, but interestingly, many applauded it. Father Robert J. Henle of Georgetown was so supportive of the film that he not only allowed director William Friedkin full access to film anywhere on campus, including his own office, but also gave him the diaries of the two priests that performed the last sanctioned exorcism in America. William Peter Blatty, author of the book and screenplay, believed that by confronting evil, he was doing something positive for the Catholic Church. Many Catholics agreed.

Hype and controversy aside, one element of the film stands out in a way that may explain the public’s reaction to it. Realism. Blatty said he believed that the real reason audience members suffered nausea, panic, and fainting was not the horror elements of the film, but the realism of the medical procedures. In the scene Blatty cites as the one he can’t stomach seeing, the doctors perform a procedure on young Regan known as an Arteriogram. This scene was shot at the NYU Medical Center, using the actual lighting of the room, and rather than using actors, a radiologist and neurosurgeon from the university performed the fake procedure for the cameras.

It’s important to remember than in 1973, filmmakers did not have CGI, green screens, or even equipment modern filmmakers take for granted, like steady cams. What we see while watching the film is what actually happened on set. Friedkin was intent on making this film feel like a documentary, to make the symptoms of Regan’s possession as real as possible, sometimes going to dubious lengths to achieve that realism. Perhaps the most famous example is how cold the working conditions were on set. He wanted the actors’ breath to be visible. In today’s filmmaking, breath would be added in postproduction, but Friedkin did not have this kind of technology. So in addition to having the room on pneumatic wheels to simulate earthquake, he refrigerated the room to at least 30 below zero, leaving the cast and crew in ski suits, and Linda Blair restrained to the bed in nothing but a nightgown and long underwear. The lights and body heat warmed the room so quickly that they could only film for an hour or so before it became too “warm” and they had to stop filming and turn everything off so the temperature would drop again, and the breath would again be visible when the actors spoke. Crewmembers recall coming to the set one morning to find “snow” that had been created as a result of the overnight cooling mixing with the natural condensation inside the room.

Friedkin was not above endangering the actors to get a perfect scene. In one instance, Ellen Burstyn approached him to ask that her harness not be pulled so hard in the scene where she is thrown from Regan’s bedside, because she was afraid she would be injured. He agreed with her but instead had the man working the rope pull as hard as he could, yanking her back and slamming her into the floor, resulting in intense back pain for the actress. Friedkin’s response to her screams of pain was to motion for the cameraman to get in for a close up. That is the cut that made the film. When the real Jesuit priest playing Father Dyer couldn’t affect the emotion required of him as he performed last rites on the character Father Karras, Friedkin slapped him across the face as hard as he could, causing the young priest to cry and shake through the final take of the scene. Friedkin was rumored to have fired a gun off at random times during filming to shake the actors. Chris Newman, a sound engineer, said that Friedkin “would do anything to motivate an actor.” Burstyn had a different opinion, she said in the BBC documentary Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist that Friedkin went “beyond what anyone needed to do to make a movie.” It is rumored that her back injury affected her throughout her life, while some who worked on the film claim it wasn’t a serious injury. So many times, what the audience sees isn’t acting at all, but a response to a real stimulus that wasn’t filmed (or in some cases, was).

Some of the more impressive feats are seemingly small in light of today’s technology. To get an unbroken shot from the front door of the house, all the way up the stairs to Regan’s room, they had to build a chair rigged up on a wire that could be moved smoothly and quickly, lighting the scene with extreme care to keep the rig from casting shadows. For a very small scene, where Regan injures the psychiatrist visiting her, they built a contraption the actor could lay on, with a camera mounted in front of his face to get the shot of him falling just the way Friedkin wanted it. There were a number of devices built specially for the film, but perhaps the most unsettling was the life sized, photo realistic dummy of Linda Blair they used to film the scene where her head turns completely around. Blair claimed that she didn’t even want to be in the same room as the thing. Watching the film, it’s nearly impossible to tell it is a dummy, even if you already know. One of the things that add to that realism is that they made sure the dummy “breathed” during the shot, her breath condensing in the freezing room.

Not only are the visuals incredibly realistic, and the actors responding sometimes genuinely to fear and pain inflicted on them by the director, but the story itself is about what happens when otherwise pragmatic people cannot find a logical explanation of events. Father Karras is a Jesuit priest who has lost his faith, and is considering leaving his position. Chris MacNeil is described by Blatty as “an atheistic woman”. When faced with the strange behaviors, vulgarity, and violence of her daughter, she first turns to her doctors, then to psychiatry, and only after one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, where twelve year old Regan is shown stabbing herself in the vagina with a crucifix, bleeding and taunting her mother, shoving her face into the bleeding crotch, does Chris seek the counsel of Karras. One of the many things Jesuits are responsible for is education, and Karras was sent to medical school by the Church to become a psychiatrist. He neither knows much about, nor believes in, exorcism and possession. He isn’t even sure he believes in God. He attempts to find an alternate explanation, even tries to point Chris MacNeil back to psychiatry, but in the end, he has to admit to himself that this is a genuine possession.

What is terrifying about this, is the feeling that we could be wrong. I don’t believe the viewer is afraid that they or someone they love will become possessed nearly as much as they fear the idea that events could conspire to prove our understanding of the world around us completely void. In many ways, this film doesn’t rely on the supernatural to get under the audience’s skin, it relies on the failure of medicine, science, and logic. Blatty himself doesn’t consider the story “horror” at all. He once said that while writing the book he never set out to scare anyone, while admitting that his words would be “an admission of failure on a stupefying level”, he felt that this story was a “supernatural detective” story. Friedkin says he never saw it as a horror film, either, going so far as to say, “Anyone who thinks this is a horror film is wrong”. They both claim it is a story about the mysteries of faith. Through the beginning of the film, that by modern accounts is quite slow, it is a mystery. Is the girl possessed? Will her mother realize it in time? Will Father Karras be able to help her? But the questions it raises when paired with the incredibly real effects create a horror, whether Blatty and Friedkin intended it or not.

William Peter Blatty wrote The Exorcist in a cabin that cost $70 a month, holed away from his wife and children, only leaving to buy groceries and visit his mother who was in a convalescent home. Originally a comedy writer, it was the first time he wrote without the intention of getting laughs, and the first time he felt that the characters had taken over. He said he never had a plot in mind, but instead used notes on the physical symptoms of a possession instead. After a seven year correspondence with a priest named Father Bowdern, a man who had actually performed an exorcism, his notes must have been fairly in-depth. He based the characters on people he knew, and inserted his own grief over the loss of his mother into Father Karras’s narrative. Some of the events in the story were inspired by actual events unrelated to possession and exorcism, like the story he tells of a student attempting to steal a physics test from a classroom and being discovered, only to launch himself through a window and down a set of stairs. Even the bits not based on Father Bowdern’s 1949 exorcism case are steeped in realism.

The effects, make up, and compelling journey from skepticism to belief was so compelling that the cast and crew felt a deep unease. After a mysterious fire on set that delayed filming, and some accidents on set like Linda Blair’s back harness coming loose, causing her to be thrashed about on the bed while screaming, “It hurts! Make it stop!” which also happened to be her lines for the scene, it was believed that there was a curse on the film. Some posited that the Devil himself was attempting to keep the film from being made; afraid it would reveal him to the world. Most horror films have rumors of a curse surrounding the filming, as it adds a mystique to the film. The Exorcist is no different. Several members of the cast and crew said that nine people who were involved in the film died. It is difficult to corroborate the number as they counted relatives of the cast, and rarely name more than four people, to include the ninety-year-old woman who played Father Karras’s mother. The deaths all appear to be from natural causes, and some occurred years after the making of the film. Still, during filming the cast and crew were so unnerved that Friedkin asked a priest to come in and exorcise the set. The priest refused, in part because it was nearly impossible to get Church approval for an exorcism at the time, and because he felt it would only serve to unnerve the cast and crew further. He did come in and bless the set and speak with the cast and crew in an attempt to calm them.

Even after the filming was complete, the sense of evil looming infected people working on the postproduction. Not satisfied with the 150 hours of work the sound people put into making Linda Blair’s voice sound demonic, Friedkin hired renowned radio actress Mercedes McCambridge to do the vocal work. McCambridge asked to be bound to a chair, and have the restraints tighten during the lines where Regan was distressed. To achieve the rasping, deep, demonic voice she drank whiskey, chain smoked, and swallowed raw eggs, even her breathing sounded ominous. Despite her dedication to the role, or perhaps because of it, she had to take frequent breaks to be comforted by priests and read scripture. There were times that she spontaneously erupted into tears while recording, as she was so disturbed by the work.

Adding to the idea that the film was cursed, or evil in and of itself, it was sent to 666 Fifth Avenue to be edited. Friedkin writes in his autobiography that if he had believed that there was a curse he would not have been able to go on with it, despite asking for an exorcism and having priests standing by during postproduction voice recordings. In the same writing, Friedkin shares that Fr. Bowdern had written to Blatty saying, “I can assure you of one thing: The case I was involved in was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then, and have no doubts about it now”. He also claims that Fr. Henle had felt that Blatty’s writing was a faithful, but fictionalized account of the 1949 case Fr. Browdern had participated in. Given his inclusion of the letter that wasn’t even addressed to him, is difficult to believe that Friedkin was completely divorced from the idea that the film was cursed or under some sort of supernatural black cloud, even as he talks about the good he feels the film did in confronting evil and bringing matters of faith to the mainstream.

The end result of all of this is a film that produced visuals years ahead of its time. Audiences had never seen a film where so much attention to detail and innovation had been put into what ended up on screen. Regan’s levitation was accomplished with a trick the director of photography had learned in advertising – if you paint dotted lines on the strings holding her and light the scene just right, the lines become invisible. Without the experience of seeing hundreds of films using CGI to create illusions, film goers of the seventies saw a girl rise up from the bed and float in midair, without any evidence of the device allowing it to happen apparent on screen. When the bed shook, jumped, or bucked like an untamed horse, it required the use of four different mechanized beds. Even the scene where Father Karras jumps out of the window and to his death, tumbling down those infamous stairs, a stunt man had to do just that.

In addition to that, we have the unsettling visual of Regan MacNeil’s demonic, gashed, bleeding and cracking face, the result of hours in the make up chair each day, but not so overwhelming that the audience cannot see the young, innocent girl beneath the demonic thing inside of her. Audiences were faced with the kind of vulgarity that was not commonplace in films of the time at all, let alone from the mouth of a twelve-year-old girl. Friedkin admits that casting Regan proved incredibly troublesome, as he needed a young actress that could portray innocence as well as possession, and could also deal with the subject matter and the possible results of portraying the character. Blair won the part after he had auditioned thousands of girls to no avail, and her mother brought her to his office without an appointment.

To hear Linda Blair tell it, she “simply did as she was told”, and in many cases had no idea what the things she did and said meant. Friedkin recalls the masturbation scene, telling her she had to thrust the cross into her crotch, and Blair responding that she wouldn't do that because it was “bad”. He had to coax her into it, and even then Blair says she didn’t really understand what she was doing, she just thrust the cross into a box between her legs that held a sponge soaked in Karo syrup, without fully understanding the vulgarity. Further, she says that her Lutheran family didn’t speak much of the Devil or evil, and thus she didn’t understand much of what she was portraying. As an adult, she says her mother told her “To play Jesus or to play the Devil will change your life forever”. She recalls having to explain to people that she was okay, that the film was just a film, and she had not been affected in any significant way by portraying Regan MacNeil.

Part of the reason The Exorcist lives on in several rereleases, documentaries, interviews, and books is because the themes are universal. One cannot put a date stamp on the fear that results from not being able to find a logical answer to a terrifying problem. There will always be things we cannot explain, things we cannot put a name to, things that get under our skin and cause us to doubt what we believe. Whether this doubt is doubt in a particular god or religion, or it is doubt of the institutions we have grown to trust in our modern world – hospitals, psychiatry, scientific research—it still arises for everyone at one time or another. So long as religion asks for blind faith, and so long as science leaves some questions unanswered, people will face disappointment in both. The story of Regan MacNeil put the audience face to face with that reality and forces us to ask ourselves how we would respond to an unanswered question with such high stakes.

Poor special effects have dated and made irrelevant many films. In refusing to take the easy route, Friedkin insured that the effects seen in The Exorcist will never be distracting. The realism of the film itself, when paired with the realism of the characters, and the questions of faith and logic, make this a timeless tale. It’s a film I watch at least once a year leading up to Halloween and it never fails to entertain me. It has aged well thanks to Friedkin’s obsessive directing style that took the film almost three times over budget, leaving the viewer unable to laugh off the more intense parts of the film because of dated effects. Though Blatty and Friedkin will disagree, I think it is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and deserves both the hype it drummed up in the seventies and the continued interest in the film and the work done to make it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the book is, in fact, better than the movie. Some things are harder to communicate on celluloid, and Friedkin and Blatty worked hard (and argued often) about what would be included and what would be cut. We cannot get inside Father Karras’s head as he does everything he can to convince himself that Regan is suffering from a psychosomatic illness, or be drawn by his interior arguments that keep leading him to possession as the only answer. The friendship between Father Dyer and Father Karras is likewise explored more deeply in the novel, giving Karras’s sacrifice a more intense sting. The feeling of dread, the feeling of evil, and feeling of logic being stripped away little by little as things escalate are captured in the film brilliantly, but they will overcome the reader of the novel.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Outsiders author vs Twitter: Stay gay, Ponyboy

By Steve Weddle

This week, S.E. Hinton was asked on Twitter whether she'd intended for two characters in her novel, The Outsiders, to be gay.

I spent years in academia, arguing that the white whale was Jesus, that Holden Cauliflower was a communist, that Nathaniel Hawthorne was readable. Heck, five years ago at this very site, I wrote a thing about "what the author meant."

And I've seen many, many, many authors get beaten about on Twitter for saying things about their own writing. One sci-fi author caused trouble when he said he didn't think he was very good writing women's voices. Another best-selling author was in the middle of trouble when he was asked why he, a white guy, didn't write more about race in his novels. The author said, well, you know, I don't have many black friends. And so on and so on. You could spend days reading the results of "author twitter controversy."

Which brings us back to Hinton.

As a white, cisgen middle-class dude, I had plenty of people to identify with in books. At times, it seems to me that nearly all of the books in the stores, on the shelves, being reviewed are books written by people like me about people like me. While I was writing this paragraph, another coming-of-age novel about a white guy in Brooklyn was published.

I don't know what it is like to grow up gay. I do know that if I were a gay kid reading a book and found someone who seemed to be like me, I'd think that was pretty cool. Before social media, I'd just kinda hope it to be true, I guess. But, imagine if you were that kid and you could ask the author something along the lines of, "Hey, I think maybe I can kinda identify with this character. Is that cool?"

Again, I can't really know what that must be like, because so many of the books I was handed as a kid were about people like me -- straight and white and middle-class. Hell, even the guys in Murakami's books listen to the Beatles, you know?

Anyhoo, on Twitter @MrCadeWinston posted about The Outsiders and asked Hinton the question::

Now, there we go. Boom. Done. Here's my copy of this book. Here's my reading of this book. I can identify with these characters and love this book. Or maybe you're straight and this character seems gay, and so it makes you dig the book more. Or a parent in a book, who is written as a nice guy, seems to have an undercurrent of meanness that you've picked up on. 

Your reading of a book is super personal. Which, you know, is why I like books and hate movies. In movies, actor read lines. In books, you're allowed to read between the lines. It's cute, but it's cute. And speaking of cute, well, here we go (screenshot from's story): 

Yup. They nailed it. "Are they gay?" someone asks. "No. Did you read them that way?" or whatever. Or, as others have pointed out, it could have gone something like this: "Are they gay? They seem gay to me?" the reader says. To which, the author responds, "Well, I didn't write them that way, but it's totes cool if you read them that way. Cheers." or something about how there are 13 ways to look at a blackbird or skin a cat or whatevs. But, as everyone has said, the "cute" response was a bit of a turning point. If you've been on social media for more than three or four minutes, you can look at that Tweet and know you're about to see some fireworks.

Which, you know, is understandable. Next week folks will move on to something else, of course. Heck, maybe sooner if Franzen gives an interview somewhere.

What's left after the smoke clears is a kid who maybe identified with two of the characters. While you can scroll through Twitter (at your own peril) and see the many mistakes made by many people, what we're left with is someone asking about a hope, a dream, a connection. Yeah, we've got an exciting Twitter squabble and everyone gets to take sides and it's fun and political and share-worthy and all that.

Out there in Tulsa or Wichita Falls or Lyons, someone is reading a novel a little differently than the author intended. Someone is finding something hidden in there, making a connection that the author set up, but maybe didn't quite mean to deliver on. So what? Who cares? That kid who isn't like me cares. That kid who was assigned a dozen books in school to read, each book about straight, middle-class cisgen white folks. Who is going to write about race? Not Franzen. Who is going to write about gay boys? Not Hinton, it seems. But who is going to read about them? Who is going to read about people like you? You are. 

If you're reading one of the Greasers as gay, please be careful asking the author if your reading is the "right" reading. If a character seems like you and you're digging the connection, I dunno. I get wanting to have "the answer" and how validating that would be. It's just, well, you should never meet your idols. I mean, you can if you want. Don't let me stop you. Just, be prepared for disappointment and sadness and vague nausea that hits each time you hear an Air Supply song afterwards. Believe me.

That Hinton appears to have shut down this reading of characters saddens me, but it's understandable. She was asked a question and answered honestly. Things went sideways from the "cute" exchange. You know, if you're asked a question, it's reasonable to think you'd want to answer it honestly. 

Of course, we're fiction writers. We should know better how to lie our way to something better than facts, something more beautiful than the truth.

If you're looking for LGBT reads that are, ahem, open about their characters, here are some lists:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Punk's Not Dead, Right?

Guest Post by S.W. Lauden

There’s this meme you might have seen on social media. It’s a recent picture of two punk icons: Henry Rollins of Black Flag fame, and Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi.

I had a good laughed the first time I saw it years ago, and I’ve definitely shared it a couple of times since then. It always seemed like a good way to poke a little fun at a self-series scene, while acknowledging that my punk-loving friends and I are getting older too. But lately something has changed.

Writing the Greg Salem series—about a disgraced East LA police officer by day and a punk musician by night—gave me the opportunity to fall back in love with 70s and 80s punk rock. I mean, I never really stopped listening, but long ago lost that childish fascination with the people who made the music and their lasting legacy.

Doing research for BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION and GRIZZLY SEASON has meant diving deep into the catalog of my favorite bands, but something unexpected happened along the way—my passion for punk got reignited, and now I can’t get enough of these fantastic stories.

So here’s a list of some punk books and films I’ve consumed in the last couple of years. As the Descendents would say, “Enjoy!”

  1. Filmage: The Story Of Descendents/ALL directed by Matt Riggle/Deedle LaCour—This one tops the list because I recently saw Descendents play in Hollywood. The show was high-energy and fast-paced, but more enjoyable after watching this documentary about the band’s colorful history. Great to see drummer/songwriter/producer Bill Stevenson get credit for being the driving force behind some of the hookiest punk songs ever.
  2. MY DAMAGE: THE STORY OF A PUNK SURVIVOR by Keith Morris/Jim Ruland—Keith Morris is a founding member of two groundbreaking SoCal bands, Black Flag and The Circle Jerks (among others). But this well-written book goes beyond those stories to show you his winding path to underground infamy. It’s been a strange trip for this soulful punk icon, and it just keeps getting more interesting.
  3. TROUBLE BOYS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE REPLACEMENTS by Bob Mehr—There have long been theories about why this Minneapolis punk outfit-turned-critical darlings never achieved their long-predicted commercial success. Rumors of self-doubt and self-sabotage were the stuff of legend. This well-researched book sets the record straight in a way that even the most die-hard fans will appreciate.
  4. Danny Says directed by Brendan Toller—What do The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, The Modern Lovers, The MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges have in common? The answer is a quirky and outspoken impresario named Danny Fields. Danny Says is less the story of the bands and more about the man that brought them into the spotlight. Music fans will love this unique peek behind the curtain.
  5. UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF L.A. PUNK by John Doe/Tom DeSavia—This collection of overlapping essays about the first-wave of LA punk is a fascinating look at how legendary scenes are born. It’s incredible to think that a hundred kids, one apartment building and a handful of clubs gave us decades of great music from bands like The Germs, X, The Go Gos, The Minutemen and The Blasters. It goes by fast, so read it twice.
  6. Every Everything: The Music, Life And Times Of Grant Hart directed by Gorman Bechard—I’ve been a Husker Du fan for as long as I can remember, but could never explain why I loved them so much. This heartbreaking documentary about the band’s drummer/singer puts a fine point on it. Hart’s personal story challenges you to consider what it really means to dedicate your life to art.
  7. The Decline Of Western Civilization (Part 1) by Penelope Spheeris—What can I say? My wife and kids went out of town and I was alone with the TV…so I watched it for the hundredth time. If you’ve never seen this groundbreaking documentary about the early 80s LA punk scene, or if you haven’t seen it in a while, do yourself a favor. The interviews with X, along with the Black Flag footage shot at the infamous church in Hermosa Beach, are worth the price of admission alone. And Eugene of course.


S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, was published on October 11, 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available from Down & Out Books.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Tijuana Donkey Boy: An Interview with Adam Howe

For the second time in a few months, Adam Howe is at Do Some Damage, this time to talk about his new book, Tijuana Donkey Showdown.  I talked to Adam when his last book came out – that was Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet – and if you want to take a look at that chat, you can do it right here.  
Adam’s a writer of hilariously ferocious stories that mix elegant writing with questionable (in the best sense) taste, and Tijuana Donkey Showdown, his first novel, lives up to the expectations of his earlier works. So….let’s get to it:

Scott Adlerberg: I loved Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet and have been wondering since what kind of book you would write for an encore.  You go to some extremes in the three novellas in that book, and I was wondering whether you’d go deeper into this vein, and if so, how, or whether you’d take a different direction.  Tijuana Donkey Showdown answers that question.  Reggie Levine is back from the "Damn Dirty Apes" story in the preceding book, and he’s up to his neck again in all sorts of unsavory activity.  Anything you can tell us about the impulse that drove you to continue exploring the life of this engaging but slightly pathetic man?

Adam Howe: After Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, the plan was to take another crack at my long-gestating novel, 80s action throwback, One Tough Bastard.  But I tend to be at the mercy of my muse and just couldn’t get cooking on it.  Pretty frustrating because I know I’ve got a great story to tell, and until I start writing novel-length fiction it’s hard to grow my readership.  On the plus side, I did manage to iron out some of Bastard’s structural kinks, and hope to take another look at it next year.
Meantime, I had to write something or I’d go crazy – crazier – I can’t leave this stuff to just stew in my mind. 
I had a helluva time writing Damn Dirty Apes, thought the Reggie Levine had legs, and decided to revisit his world.  When I started writing Tijuana Donkey Showdown, early readers of Die Dog were telling me that Damn Dirty Apes was their favourite of the stories; midway through, all I was hearing was that Apes was the – shall we say – least awesome of the three… Which was a massive confidence boost.  But I stuck with it, for better or worse.
Again, I had a blast writing about Reggie.  “Engaging but slightly pathetic,” huh?  Hey!  You know Reggie’s semi-autobiographical, right?  Nah, that description sounds about right.  I call the style of the Levine stories, schadenfreude noir.  

In an odd preface before the book, you mention that while writing Tijuana you discovered you were going to be a father for the first time.  If I understand the preface correctly, you became worried about how your future child would regard having a father who writes what you write.  Can you elaborate on that?

Oh, man.  It’s bad enough my mum reads my stuff, let alone my daughter.  When I proudly presented to my mum my first novella, Of Badgers & Porn Dwarfs, from the Black Cat Mojo collection, her feedback was, “Who’s going to want to read THIS?”  Not the genteel ladies at her book club, it would seem.  And judging by my sales, she might’ve been right.  So I’m hoping the kid will be less critical.  And right now she’s a captive audience.  In fact, if you removed the hardcore violence and deviant sex from my work, there’s a lot for a child to enjoy.    
But as I say in my preface to Tijuana Donkey Showdown – or disclaimer – on learning I was to be a father for the first time, my first impulse was to destroy the manuscript, much as Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson threw her husband’s first draft of Jekyll & Hyde into the fire.  Sadly, I was already under contract to deliver the book to my publisher.  On the advice of my lawyer, who has yet to forgive me for the controversy caused by Damn Dirty Apes, and the ensuing legal battle with the Society for the Preservation of the North American Skunk Ape, I grudgingly honored the contract.  When it expires in four years, I intend to withdraw Tijuana Donkey Showdown from publication, along with my other books, and reinvent myself as a reputable ‘author’ of ‘literature’; I only pray my daughter will not have learned to read by then, and will make every effort to stunt her development to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Tijuana Donkey Showdown has to do, among other things, with a drug mule, but you take that idea and do something with it that definitely elicited a chuckle from me.  Did you have to do any research to see whether such a drug smuggling operation is physically possible?

Given the animal theme of my work, it was a no-brainer to use an actual mule as my drug mule.  Of course, me being me, and the Reggie Levine stories requiring more than a dollop of sleaze, a mere mule wasn’t gonna cut it.  So I made my mule a porn star donkey called Enrique.  Once the beloved star of Mr. Ed porn parody, Mr. Head, in which the talking jackass cuckolds and cock-blocks Wilbur at every turn, Enrique has since fallen on hard times, and is seeing out his days as a live performer in a Mexican ‘donkey show.’  As Reggie says, “It beats the glue factory.”
Did I do my research?  Oh, sure.  Always.  As the author of titles such as Jesus In A Dog’s Ass, and Of Badgers & Porn Dwarfs, readers have come to expect a certain gritty realism from me, and I wouldn’t wanna disappoint. 
So I solicited the advice of my veterinarian, who thought at first that I was proposing an actual drug deal.  To my surprise, he agreed it would be possible for a donkey to ‘mule’ narcotics, and for the drugs to later be removed as described in the book – on a strip club pool table, with whiskey used as anesthetic – and for the animal to actually survive the operation.  Admittedly I took rather more license than the fine details he described, and I would advise drug traffickers (a large part of my readership, I’m told) to consider other means than a jackass for smuggling your product.
My biggest regret is that, due to family commitments, I was unable to attend an actual donkey show to prep for the book; although Gabino Iglesias, who moonlights as a jackass wrangler for such events, assures me the offer remains open the next time I visit the States.  In the name of research, I did investigate this particular paraphilia at notorious bestiality website, Rustler.  The site has since been shut down pending the outcome of a lawsuit issued by Larry Flynt’s Hustler; curious parties should contact me personally for the video(s).  Rest assured, though, I was thorough in my research.  And that it was not my proudest wank.

You also had something about an allergic reaction in the story?  Did you make that up or it that particular reaction to the substance that caused it based on real world science?

The inspiration for Randy-Ray Gooch’s allergic reaction came from a documentary I saw about counterfeit laundry detergent dealers, also known as ‘bucket sellers.’  It was a fly-on-the-wall documentary in which we followed an overzealous Anti-Counterfeit Agent (think David Brent with a badge and gun) as he busted a dirt-poor bucket seller brewing bootleg Tide in his garage to sell at swap meets.  This was a full-blown arrest involving SWAT team, K-9 unit, choppers, you name it – Seal Team 6 didn’t have resources like this when they took down Bin Laden – all to collar this one poor schmuck.
Playing up to the camera, the Agent in Charge started giving the bucket seller a hard time.  Like the guy was a heroin pusher selling dope to school kids.  “You ever see the rashes this stuff gives people!”  He reminded me of Frank Oz in the movie Trading Places: “Angel dust!  You ever see what this stuff does to kids!”
The entire operation was so overblown, and peculiarly American, that I found it hilarious, and somehow it crept into the story.
In the book, Randy-Ray suffers an especially violent reaction to the counterfeit detergent, something akin to elephantiasis of the scrotum, after his wife uses it to wash his jockey shorts.  Is such a reaction possible?  As the bucket seller says himself, the ingredients for his detergent are “trade secrets.”  But I should point out that the bucket seller character is named Pruitt.  Now that’s a name that’ll set alarm bells ringing among members of the crime fiction community.  If anyone could concoct the kinda counterfeit laundry detergent capable of causing elephantiasis of the scrotum, it’d be Eryk Pruitt.

I don’t think it’s possible to read your stories, and Tijuana in particular, without confronting the Nicolas Cage obsession.  Is it fair to call your affection for this actor that?  Or am I overstating?  Can you tell me a little about your movie watching history as it relates to Nicolas Cage?  He’s a man of course who’s given a number of great performances in stellar films and then, well, there are the slew of less than great films he’s made.

The Nicolas Cage ‘thing’ – and I can neither confirm nor deny that Mr. Cage makes an explosive, gotta-read-it-to-believe-it cameo in Tijuana – happened quite by accident, albeit fortuitously. 
In the closing pages of the previous Reggie Levine misadventure, Damn Dirty Apes, I made a throwaway reference to Cage, which I was obliged to take further in the sequel.  Within the world of the story it seemed perfectly plausible that Nicolas Cage would play Reggie Levine in the movie adaptation of Apes.  Needless to say this would not be one of Cage’s prestige pictures, but rather a shoddy Video on Demand affair, with an unconvincing CGI skunk ape, and most likely directed by Uwe Boll.  This is not how I myself would wish to see a potential Damn Dirty Apes movie produced.  (For what it’s worth, producers, I always liked Danny McBride for the role of Reggie…with Nicolas Cage playing the great white skunk ape hunter, Jameson T. Salisbury.)  But within the world of the story, I reckon this is how things would’ve panned out for poor Reggie; that the film of his life would be trashed by the critics, and sweep the board at the Razzies.
I should state for the record that I am a great admirer of Mr. Cage.  It’s a travesty that for today’s younger viewers, Cage is perhaps better known as an internet meme – “Not the bees!” – than for his sterling acting work.  Today his truly great films are few and far between, but Cage himself is never less than extraordinary.  I struggle to think of a single film in which Cage phones in his performance, even when the film is clearly beneath his talents.  Also, and this is relevant to Tijuana, I am always fascinated to see which hairpiece Cage brings to a role; a conservative hairpiece often indicates Cage’s greater commitment to a character, especially when paired with a mustache.
Back in my screenwriting days, I once worked on a screenplay which, last I heard, the producer had earmarked for Cage.  As of this writing, nothing has come of the project, although I understand Cage remains interested.  Should it ever see the light of day, I suspect it will be the kinda movie of which Nicolas Cage memes are made.  And the hairpiece promises to be spectacular.

Getting back to your daughter for a second: I’m sure that you, as a devotee of B movies, action cinema, and just trash cinema in general, will want to share your enthusiasms with your child.  Any plans on where to start when she’s old enough?  Do you have a kind of movie watching syllabus planned for her?

It remains to be seen if she’ll even like this kinda stuff; her mother only barely tolerates it.  But just sitting on my knee in front of the idiot box, the kid’s already seen some pretty hardcore stuff, even if she is just reacting to the moving lights and not Steven Seagal snapping some motherfucker’s arm.
Early Spielberg’s ‘Truck and Shark’ period, including Raiders, seems like a good place to start.  (Stevie once worried about being typed as a director of ‘truck and shark’ pictures.  I’d happily be known as a ‘truck and shark’ writer.)
Then, around the time she starts teething, I’ll begin introducing John Carpenter and Joel Silver into the mix.  I’ll be disappointed, and know I’ve failed in my fatherly duties, if she isn’t quoting Goodfellas by the time she’s toddling.
“I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with—”
“H!  Is that a fucking helicopter following us?”

You are, I must say, a writer who really makes me laugh as I read.  I’m sure many of your readers feel the same way.  A question I’ve been meaning to ask you, in all seriousness: Who are the writers who’ve made you laugh the most?

The funniest book I’ve read recently remains Johnny Shaw’s Big Maria.  Clearly I share Shaw’s lowbrow humor, but the opening chapter, in which hapless Harry Schmittburger ruminates on how different his life might have been if his name wasn’t so easily bastardized into Harry ‘Shitburger,’ had me crying with laughter.
In the horror field, there’s Jeff Strand.  Another very funny man.  And judging by his social media presence – never met him personally – Strand seems to be as funny in real life as he is on the page.
Who else?  In comics, there’s Garth Ennis; in screenwriting, there’s Shane Black (whose ‘buddy’ repartee remains the gold standard for smartass banter) and early Tarantino.  I watched From Dusk Till Dawn again recently for first time in years, and the opening liquor store dialogue between Michael Parks and John Hawkes still cracks me up.  “That kid belongs under a circus tent, not flipping burgers.”
My sense of humour is pretty dark – no shit, right – so often the blackest of material elicits a good chuckle from me.  The kind of so-wrong stuff that Dave Keaton writes, like What’s Worst?  And the sting in the tale at the end of your own Graveyard Love.  Sometimes it’s hard to separate a writer’s work from their online presence, so I’ll read something bleak as hell like Ed Kurtz’s brilliant The Rib From Which I Remake the World, and, imagining Ed’s little sadsack mug, I’ll be cackling away.

I can’t help but ask this to wrap up, because I am curious: What’s next on the horizon writing wise for you?

I’m hoping it’s gonna be One Tough Bastard.  That one’s my white whale.  The length of time I’ve spent on that project, should it ever see the light of day, I’m sure people will say, “THIS is what took you so long?”  But I’m determined to write the fucking thing.  The lead character – washed-up 80s action star Shane Moxie – is just too much fun not to share with people.
I’m about to begin a collaboration with James Newman, an occult thriller (for want of a better categorization) called Scapegoat.  The idea began as a riff on the Warren Oates / Peter Fonda versus Satanists flick, Race With The Devil; Newman and I have since added a bunch of other influences including John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, Kevin Smith’s Red State, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (not the Cage version!), Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, Wrestlemania III.  It’s a hell of an idea, and Newman’s enthusiasm for the project has really lit a fire under me.
Beyond that, on my writing slate is a Depression-era bare-knuckle boxing pulp piece that’s a mix of Walter Hill’s Hard Times (my favourite Chuck Bronson performance) and a gritty Joe Lansdale story called The Pit… A mobsters versus pirates yarn called Badabing! and a Bottle of Rum… A crime/horror hybrid I’m collaborating on with Adam Cesare… And as I’ve threatened, maybe even a third (and final?) Reggie Levine misadventure; depends on how Tijuana Donkey Showdown is received.  The fuck am I gonna find time for it all? 
But as I’ve said, I’m at the mercy of my muse, so there’s no telling which one of these stories wants to be written first.  I’m interested to find out myself.

Reggie Levine, ex-boxer turned bouncer, and hapless hero, has barely recovered from his ordeal in Damn Dirty Apes, when he is called back to action. Recruited to a retrieve a Chinese crested terrier from a fleapit roadside zoo, where the ugly effing showdog has been mistaken for the chupacabra, Reggie finds himself embroiled in a deadly criminal conspiracy involving neo-Nazi drug smugglers, a seedy used-car salesman, a wannabe serial killer, an ornery Vietnam veteran, a badass veterinarian, a freakishly endowed adult entertainment donkey named Enrique, and in an explosive cameo, an Academy Award winning Hollywood icon.

Tijuana Donkey Showdown is scheduled for release December 9th.  You can preorder the digital or paperback version here.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Psychological Horror In Time For Halloween

An emerging Canadian author's short story collection left me writhing as I read, consumed with the mental horrors at play in an eclectic collection titled Suicide Stitch. My interview with Sarah L. Johnson is up on Spinetingler. How does an ex-Mormon Canadian runner from Calgary manage to have a short story collection published by a small US press and get a contract on her speculative fiction novel with an Australian press? Head on over to Spinetingler to find out and then check out her short story collection. It's as dark as they come.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Times They Are a-Changin'

The world of words was rocked this week by the announcement that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yes, that Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan in 1980 (photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin)

He’s the first songwriter to win what is arguably the most prestigious literary award in the world. Lots of people are grumbling about it, and lots of people are happy about it. (Which is pretty typical of the Nobels.) But one reaction was almost universal. Everyone was surprised.
I was delighted. And not just because I’m a Dylan fan. I think it signals a refreshing willingness on the part of the Swedish Academy to change with the times.
The ways we communicate are evolving at breakneck pace. Texts, tweets, Instagram photos – the list goes on and is constantly growing. Even in the narrow world of novels and poetry, there are more accepted ways to do it than ever before. There are books on paper, books in digital format, books on audio, books as graphic novels.
It really isn’t that big a jump to songwriting. Obviously, putting words to music is not a new concept. But in the rarified air of international awards, the acknowledgement that song lyrics can also be literature – that’s revolutionary.
And it bodes well for things to come. There are a lot of people out there who have a way with words. Who knows what form they will use in the future to communicate their work? They – and those who judge them – shouldn’t have to be limited to only what has been accepted in the past.