Saturday, September 9, 2017

Stories from Harvey, Part 4

Scott D. Parker

Ever since last week’s column discussing my experience during Hurricane Harvey, I created an impromptu series of posts focusing on my little stretch of west Houston. Here is Part 2 and Part 3.

What characterized this week was plain and simple normalcy.

My boy went back to school on Tuesday. His school is out in Katy so the commute was interesting considering the carpool dad (not me) would have to find a way to cross the flooded Buffalo Bayou. The answer was the same for most folks in west Houston: go out to Grand Parkway 99. I heard some insane stories of multi-hour commutes. Houston’s traffic is already legendary. The post-Harvey traffic will likely be the award winners for years to come. A friend on Facebook lives only 2 miles from her hair salon, but those two miles involve crossing the bayou. This week, it took her 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to work.

I have the luxury of living close enough to my office that I could walk or bike, but I’ve not even had to bother. My company has been closed since 28 August, so it’s been an unexpected two-week holiday. I was able to complete a western novel, install a new window A/C unit in my wife’s studio, and continue my bicycling around the area.

By Thursday, much of my stretch of west Houston was all but normal. The water was receding at a glacial pace, but by Thursday, you could see the line of debris along most streets and curbs. I rode to a shopping center on Eldridge, ground zero for the Cajun Navy’s efforts in west Houston, and was able to ride onto the sidewalks directly in front of the stores for the first time in over ten days. A car had emerged from the water since the day previous. Sure, it was a small one, but to think it had literally been underwater for ten days was amazing.

Around behind the center, an open trash dumpster showed the water line. And you don’t have to imagine the smell. It wasn’t pleasant.

Neither was the line of …stuff floating in this water. That plastic toolkit was floating this way and that. Behind that fence, down Enclave, an alarm bell clanged. I wasn’t sure how long it had been ringing but no one seemed bothered to answer its call.

I stuck my phone up to a beauty salon’s front door. The floor looks pretty gross, but the chairs and supplies up on the shelves appeared undamaged. At first I thought there would be salvageable items in there, but after talking to a man who owned a nail salon, he said all the chairs would have to be replaced. Too contaminated. Likely this beauty salon will have a similar fate.

A little way up the street is the St. Basil the Great Greek Orthodox Church. When I got there, they were closed up for the day, but I noted a few things. There was a forklift and platt full of water bottles. Children had taken the time to draw on the sidewalk with chalk. My mind wondered if they were victims of the storm or cheerleaders helping to boost the spirits of the first responders.

I suspect by Monday, when I join my fellow Houstonians and return to work, most of my daily activities will be all but back to normal. In driving out to Katy yesterday, nearly the entire commute went by without seeing any physical examples of the hurricane. Now, half the commute was along the Barker Reservoir so I knew the other side was still full, but little-to-no damage could be seen. It was a shocking revelation considering I hadn’t had the need to travel far from my neighborhood for over ten days. I expected to see more destruction. I know it’s there; all I’ll have to do is go north once I’m able to drive that way. Highway 6 opened its north/south lanes late yesterday so the commute times should be reduced. When it’s fully clear, I’ll make a trek and see some more of my city and offer assistance.


Speaking of assistance, if there’s one Lesson Learned from this entire experience, it is this:

Form a Social Media group with members of your neighborhood. The information we passed along to each other during the storm was invaluable. It pooled the brains of more than the people in my own house. But as the storm abated and the sun came out, we continued to share information about water conservation, which families were taking food up to the fire and constable and police stations, and any other storm-related news. So, if you don’t already have a social media group—we use Facebook—with your neighbors, make one.

When a storm like Harvey comes ashore, you discover your neighbors aren’t necessarily just the ones living next to your house. You don’t meet a stranger after an event like this. You have to expand your definition of “neighbor” to include your entire subdivision, city, state, and, of course, the nation. We have been blessed with so many people coming to Houston to offer help because the need is here.

And the need is about to be felt in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. As I’ve been following the news about Hurricane Irma, its wind speed, and its sheer size, I’m gobsmacked. That thing is larger than the state! Where the hell do you go? Houston got a mind boggling amount of water dumped on it, but we didn’t get the wind. That’s the one thing that always freaks me out when it comes to hurricanes. So as things get back to the New Normal here in Houston—and we’re not without our own challenges, of which I’ll still write—my thoughts and prayers go to Florida today.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Uriel E. Gribetz - Hunts Point - Q&A

By Jay Stringer

Hunts Point is the second book in the Sam Free series, following hardboiled on the heels of 2014's Taconic Murda. The first novel introduced Sam as a flawed detective, trying to hold on to some integrity in a police force, and criminal justice system, that pushes people to cheat and compromise. Gribetz showed a strong grasp of what makes hardboiled fiction work, with tense scenes, fast pacing, and dialogue that feels authentic. 

With Hunts Point, Gribetz made a decision I really appreciated as a reader. He didn't stand still. The book isn't a retread of the first, and Sam Free has been allowed to move and change. That's a good thing for the reader, but a bad thing for the character. Sam's life has fallen apart, and he carries the damage from the choices made in the first book. Sam is no longer a cop, which moves the series from semi-police procedural, to straight-up PI. 

Sam is hired to investigate a murder, but there's a key difference. The 'killer' has already been found, and Sam's job is to prove him innocent. From this start, Gribetz doesn't hold back in piling more misery onto his character, throwing in twists and surprises to constantly turn up the heat on our protagonist. 

To celebrate the release of Hunts Point, I kicked everybody out of the DSD clubhouse for an hour, to have a quick chat with Uriel E. Gribetz. 

JS: Sam Free fits very much into the hardboiled tradition of damaged heroes. Characters who try to do well, but they have something in themselves that’s just as broken as the world they see around them. 

UG: I think these characters resonate with us because all of our lives are such a struggle.  No matter how much we may have in each and every one of us there is strife.  I want my reader to identify with Sam’s struggles in a universal way. He is everyman/woman. I think of myself as a reader.  What do I like to read? Is there no better feeling in the world to pick up a book and become literally mesmerized.  I strive for this.  I want the reader to be entertained most of all, and I think readers are entertained by watching others struggle.  It’s sort of like looking into another person’s life-another’s fish bowl, but I don’t think struggle in one’s life is despair there is growth and beauty to the process.  Truth is beauty, beauty truth. That’s why I think we, who live in a broken world, can relate to Sam’s struggles.  That’s why crime fiction is universal in its appeal to everyone because it captures the human condition in a way that the reader can relate to.  

JS: Two books into a series, what lessons have you learned about building a lead character? 

UG: What I’ve learned is how important it is to develop the characters around the lead character.  I call them my players.  It’s my crew that appear and reappear throughout the Sam Free series.  There is Celeste Santiago the Assistant District Attorney. David Gold the defense attorney, who rents a store front from an old Bronx power broker named Feldman. Celeste Santiago and David Gold were romantically involved. There is McBride and Ryan the thug cops built like lineman.  In the next Sam Free novel, Frank Cortez, reappears.  Cortez was Sam’s old partner when he was on the job. The stories of these players and their interaction with each other fuels the development of the lead character and, of course the story. Sure you dig deeper and deeper into your lead character the more you write about him. It’s an evolving process. Sometimes I don’t know what Sam may do in a particular scene until I start writing it. The more I know a character the more freedom I have with the character.     

JS: The book, and character, is very firmly rooted in the Bronx. Hell’s Kitchen had Matt Scudder, Brooklyn had Moe Prager. Is there something specific to the Bronx that you hope to get across to readers?  

In the Bronx the bad guy doesn’t always get caught and go to jail.  They do sometimes get away with doing bad things. It’s a different type of morality.  Do people get what they got coming to them? Absolutely, but in a different kind of way and not always in the way that’s expected.  Hunts Point ends that way. I call it Bronx Justice. 

JS: That’s a book title, right there. The plot starts with a question of a wrongful conviction. A sense of corruption and injustice seems to inform the whole book. Do you think Crime fiction is the best vehicle for addressing these issues? 

UG: I think so.  Corruption and injustice are rampant, and the people who are corrupt get away with it.  It’s not always black and white. There is always a grey area.  There are certain people that run the show.  They are the power elite and they do pretty much as they please. We see it every day.  Isn’t it true that if you are accused of a crime  and you have unlimited resources to spend you can beat the crime not matter how guilty you are? If you’re rich enough you can get away with anything? Isn’t that injustice? 

JS: How much of the plot comes from your own background as a public defender?  

UG: I guess when you have worked in the criminal justice system for along as I have you realize that there are certain people of power that you really don’t want to mess with.  These are the people who really don’t want them to know your name.  I believe if someone in power was really out to get you they could. I have seen it happen.  That’s why I prefer to blend in and not stand out from the crowd so that I’m noticed. 

JS: Do you think that background makes you see a crime novel in a different way to writers who’ve never walked the walk?  

UG: I’ve seen the true darkness of the human spirit both in what one human being afflicts on another and the suffering that people experience.  It has changed me.  I think that this in my writing. 

JS: What was the biggest challenge for you writing this second book, and how do you overcome it?  

UG: It’s ironic but I wrote Hunts Point, the second Sam Free novel, first.  After I finished Hunts Point, I wrote Taconic Murda, my first novel.  After I finished Taconic I went back to Hunts and wrote it from the point of view of Sam Free.  My next Sam Free novel titled 1275 Webster I wrote quite some time ago as well.  Now I am going back to it.  I tend to write like that.  I’ll finish something and put it aside and then go back to it.  Sometimes getting distance from a piece gives me more objectivity in the revision process.  

JS: The book moves pretty fast. You have a good sense of when to throw twists at the reader, and you stack them up in a way that keeps us guessing. What are your influences in crime fiction? If books weren’t shelved alphabetically, which other authors would you want the Sam free books to sit next to?  

UG: Elmore Leonard comes to mind.  His noir style is a big influence. I’m always reading. The more I read the more in awe I am of how many talented crime writers there are.  I think the style of the crime novel continues to evolve to adapt to the fast paced world we live in.  We live in age of instant gratification.  With the internet everything is at our finger tips so the crime novel has to be quicker paced to keep up with it all to hold the reader’s attention. Recently I have been reading Max Allan Collins and Robert Crais and I marvel at their writing. 

In the end it’s Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct mysteries.  I think I have read most of them. The way McBain  intertwines his characters lives with the plot line of the story is what I aspire to. What a great story teller he is.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Climbing Human Trees

Scott's note: In the last few years, Matthew Revert has done so many great covers for books from indie presses, I almost take his artistry in this area for granted. The covers he's done for novels from Broken River Books, Lazy Fascist Press, Eraserhead Press, and Civil Coping Mechanisms, among many others, are things of beauty. He also happens to be a novelist himself, and his new book, Human Trees, has just come out. The thing is, it's been a bit of a struggle for this book to come to light, and that's what Matthew talks about here, in this piece.

And so, here he is.

Climbing Human Trees by Matthew Revert

The impossibility of exactitude when relying on memory gives me something of a thrill. When I was asked to write about why my latest book, Human Trees, took four years to arrive, there is little choice but to refer to my ever-contorting bank of imperfect memory. How accurate any of this information is cannot be determined – and if the proprietor of these memories cannot vouch for their validity, why should you lend them your faith? I would suggest you don’t. Consider this writing another story born of the same stasis Human Trees exists within – a companion piece.

My previous book, Basal Ganglia, was released at a difficult time in my life. As the release date approached, my father suddenly died in a manner too unpleasant to recount. Within weeks, Basal Ganglia was sent off into the world utterly divorced from my new sense of loss. The book, as it was, had no knowledge of my father’s death, containing words beyond my context. It felt like an act of betrayal toward my father and I knew whatever I did next had to exist within the context of my loss. It was while cleaning out my father’s house in preparation for whomever the government saw fit to replace him with that I started writing a book in harmony with my new context. I journeyed throughout the writing of this book with difficulty, using documentary-like descriptions of tragic moments. About 30,000 words in, I stopped. Not only was this book not Human Trees, this book was not supposed to be a book. Beyond my own self-serving needs, what was the point in such an exercise? I stepped away from the writing and simply learned how to exist in a world wherein my father did not.
It’s difficult to say how much time passed before I tried to write again. I felt my mind trying to form stories, but none of them were removed enough from the source, so I suppressed them. If I was truly going to write about the loss of my father, then I also had to write about the loss of my mother a decade earlier. If I was going to write a book about the loss of my parents it could not be about them, yet it could be about nothing else. The title Human Trees did not arrive until some time after I finished writing the contents the title was chosen to represent. It was lifted from a Cioran passage pertaining to sexual impulse, but I removed it from this context and viewed it in isolation as a terrifying image of stasis – the same stasis the book was trapped within. If there’s one thing my father’s death made me reflect upon, it was the nature of family and the ways a family unit can destroy itself without emotional maintenance. The vast majority of my extended family live in the UK, which distils my experience of family into two siblings and myself. With such a streamlined family unit, it was easier to maintain and I began to wonder how much I took this for granted. Circumstance had forced us to be there for one another and it was with a feeling of relief that we thrived. Human Trees exists in a world where we didn’t thrive – in a world where my parents were not the paragon of love and support they so effortlessly were. It was written in honour of what they were not, yet with the pain their unfair deaths instilled within me. These are words of love wearing unaddressed resentment.

In all truth, only about six months of my four-year absence consisted of writing Human Trees. I managed to submit the final manuscript to my publisher, Lazy Fascist Press a few days before I was scheduled to leave for New York. As I’m sure is common, after I submitted it, I did my best not to think about it, opting instead to wait for my publisher to come to me. Shortly after I returned to Australia, Cameron Pierce at Lazy Fascist contacted me in a manner I did not expect. It was his contention that Human Trees was my ‘break out’ book and he believed Lazy Fascist lacked the reach to give it the push it needed to be read by as many people as possible. With my permission, he acted as my agent and contacted some bigger presses with the hope one of them would add Human Trees to their roster. I had never been in a situation like this before. It was an honour to know my publisher believed in my work so strongly and although it meant I would have to wait, we both agreed the potential payoff was worth it.

The two years that followed this decision became a manifestation of the stasis Human Trees explores in such detail. It was poetic in a way and a part of me even started to enjoy the limbo my book was now trapped within. The first of my preferred presses kindly rejected the manuscript in a timely manner. We immediately galvanised and sent it elsewhere. This is the point I waved goodbye to my book and learned to no longer afford it thought. During this time, I sent Human Trees to a number of close friends hoping to get feedback, but very few of them read it. I harboured no resentment. It began to feel as though this was not a book that wanted to be read. It was projecting something that allowed it to evade the eyes of those it contacted.

I consider what it meant to wait for the second publisher’s response because the truth is I was no longer waiting. That year saw the arrival of a deep depression that stifled my momentum and having a book lost within the submission process was nothing compared to having a mind lost within the thought process. I no longer had a desire to explore writing. My musical activities were starting to find an audience, so I gave what little mental energy I had to that. It is safe to say I was no longer a writer. Human Trees was slowly unwritten, my mind erasing its creation as though it were a trauma event the mind could not process without damage.

It was a Wednesday afternoon nearly 18 months after we submitted Human Trees to the second press that we received our rejection. Cameron conveyed this rejection to me while I sat at my work desk. I read his words and managed to attach them to a process I had nearly forgotten. We had an answer, which meant the stasis was jolted. I experienced a moment of panic, terrified that I would have to engage with my book again. The following few weeks were spent slowly compiling a list of publishers for whom Human Trees might fit. Upon compiling this list, I realised all of them were currently closed to unsolicited submissions. I seem to remember finding this quite amusing, although this could be one of those distortions of memory I am so fond of.

David Osborne of Broken River Books and I were conversing as we often did. I was relaying the tale of Human Trees to him and he provided me with several ‘I told you so’s’ I could not remember the genesis of (although I am sure there was one). Eventually he simply said, “just release it on Broken River”. I was taken aback by this. I asked for 24 hours to consider his request. Something happened to me within the 15 minutes after David’s suggestion. Broken River began to feel like the right choice. It started to feel as though it had been the right choice all along and rather than listen, I sent Human Trees on a vacation to nowhere. We fast-tracked the release (an idea that strikes me as hilarious given how slow this track has ultimately been) and Human Trees was available within 6 weeks of his suggestion.

In the three weeks since Human Trees was released, I am amazed by how well it’s doing. Readers are finding it and responding with enthusiasm. I have had to relearn my relationship with the book and the process of writing in general. Over the course of this experience, it is as though my book has earned the right to its content. It has now lived what it conveys and I have been given the rare opportunity to watch it live, both within me and beyond me. Its words reside in other minds now and those other minds can attribute to it whatever meaning they like. It is liberating to feel this separation. I am no longer responsible for its care.

You can get Human Trees here.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Nom de Whom?

By Hector Duarte, Jr.
Guest Post



The above quote is from John Proctor. The main character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

I am a writer. Not one you’ve ever heard of, but it’s something I do. It’s my passion.

Writing doesn’t pay the bills for me yet (fingers crossed). Which is why I also teach.

After I recently applied to a new school, one of the first things administration did was run a Google search of my name. One of the first things to pop up was a little fictional number I wrote years back about a high school student fantasizing about his hot high-school English teacher. It doesn’t get too racy. In fact, the teacher smacks the narrator’s desk, knocking him out of his fantasy, before it can get anywhere torrid. That’s part of the rub.

Search up the story now and it’s gone. I was asked by administration if there was any way I could make the story harder to find because, “These kids will find you.” I keep in regular touch with the editor of the site, who gladly obliged and added, “That story has given you enough trouble.”

My new administrator is right. Kids find you. Over the years of teaching middle-high students, the story has come up, along with countless questions and comments ranging from: “Mister, I never expected you to write something like that,” to, “Did that really happen? Is the teacher someone in the school?”

Many students and adults have trouble differentiating between fact and fiction. Many thought that story was true, ignoring the fact it was a clear exercise in narrative voice and point-of-view. So, here I am years later being asked to hide something I spent a lot of time on. Taking that story down was, and continues to be, a tough moment for me. I felt I’d sold out, gone soft, given in to powers that be.

What could I do? I have to eat. And the truth is, as of this moment, the writing game does not pay the bills. It’s a hustle I don’t expect to make money off. That was one of the first things I told myself when I started taking it seriously: “Don’t do this shit for the money.” Would I love to write full-time? Of course. But, admittedly, the paranoiac in me feels once I get paid for it, writing will cease to be a labor of love and just become labor.

So, I have to teach. But, damnit, man, I can’t teach twenty-four hours a day. I need to go home and unwind by doing something I love. Baring my soul for people willing to hear me out. This is the only thing I have to keep me interested enough in the world to go out and teach its future leaders, etc.

This got me thinking about other writers with public-sector careers and steps they take to protect their creative identities. How does it make them feel? Where is the balance?

Alora Danning (an alias used to protect the writer’s identity) is a first-year school teacher, who was instantly instructed to hide their online persona when signing up for an accreditation program. “The college I am getting my teaching credential from is adamant about scrubbing clean my online persona because past co-teachers and interns in the program have been booted from high schools for inappropriate social media posts.”

I’ve come to know Alora Danning well enough to attest to their character as top-notch. The fear expressed in the above quote comes from the fact that a parent might read one of their crime stories and make an immediate assumption about his real-life character, vices, or moral compass based on a fictional account of his own imagining.

It’s tough enough to pursue an artistic passion with so much competition: anyone can “write” and the Internet affords a plethora of publishing opportunities. But, now, those of us lucky, and talented, enough to publish have to worry whether a story—which took God knows how long to write and even that many more submissions before publication—is going to be our downfall.

When I asked Danning how it made them feel to “hide” their online identity, they replied, “It worries me, but my co-teacher said it is a challenge getting these students to read. If they did find my stories online, and read them, it might not be a bad thing (although I don’t want to find out) because it might open their eyes to a style of writing they find interesting.”

Danning’s co-teacher makes an excellent point that hits at the heart of what this overly-long rant is trying to get at. Shouldn’t parents and schools show some pride in the fact that one of their own shows a different, more creative level of mastery in the very subject they are teaching? Isn’t it beneficial to have a writer teaching your kids the ins and outs of the English language? Might not a student’s interest further spark if they found out their teacher was doing something with books other than teaching? High school can be an awkward time for some and admitting you want to be a writer might get more than a couple laughs. An author-teacher at the front of the class, leading by example, could be just the right push that student needs to embrace their calling.

My point: give us a break, society. We’re out here writing our tales as a way to understand you better. It’s our crutch with which to navigate your weird and crooked paths. We’re not all doing this to make millions and kick it in a fat pad for the rest of our lives. Although many wouldn’t fight that kind of a fate, the solid writers I know are in it for the long haul. Good, bad, come what may, they keep writing. Writing itself is the act of baring your soul. Putting words out there that in that moment in life mean something personal and vivid. It’s a sliver of ourselves for you to take and dissect, to trivialize or over-analyze at your will.

So, please, have some compassion. Understand that most of it is fiction. Is some of the material rooted in reality? Of course. The person standing in front of your child, teaching them literary analysis, writes crime fiction. So what? Does this mean they’re going to knock off a bank on the way home? Highly unlikely.

Writers and artists put their emotions out there on a regular basis to keep ourselves moving forward and hopefully entertain you, perhaps give you a different perspective on this strange life we’re all navigating. Don’t be so quick to judge. You need artists to keep a fair barometer on all the unfairness happening out there.

In the words of John Proctor, I beseech you: we’ve given you our souls; leave us our names.

Hector Duarte, Jr. is a writer out of Miami, Florida and current co-editor at The Flash Fiction Offensive. His work has appeared in Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, Sliver of Stone, Foliate Oak, Shotgun Honey, Shadows and Light: An Anthology to Benefit Women’s Aid UK, The Whimsical Project, Spelk Fiction, HorrorSleazeTrash, Pulp Metal Magazine, and The Rumpus. He teaches English-Language Arts to high school students and listens to, (as some friends might argue), too much Phish. He has lectured at The Crime Fiction Here and There and Again Conference in Gdansk, Poland; the second and third Captivating Criminality Conferences in Corsham, England, and Theorizing the Popular at Liverpool’s Hope University. He has also moderated panels at Miami Book Fair and the AWP Conference in Los Angeles. He loves his cat, Felina, very much.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Read This Instead

If you're a regular DSD reader, you know Scott D. Parker is a proud Houston resident. So he's had one hell of a week. He's also one hell of a writer, and there's no better accounting of the personal impact of Hurricane Harvey than the one you'll read from him below.
So please scroll down to his post from yesterday (or click here). And if you're able, please consider donating to the relief effort. The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster keeps a list of reputable local Texas and national organizations that are helping in Houston.