Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Now, May We Talk About Quentin?

Some of us told y'all to watch ya boy.

So many folks are through with Quentin Tarantino over his vile behavior toward Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill. There is no more separating the art from the artist. That's the line, and you crossed it, dawg. If that's you, well then, get over here! Come sit with those of us who were done after we heard the dialogue in Reservoir Dogs about Madonna fucking niggers and therefore soiling herself too much to be of any use to a real man, read WHITE MAN. My own personal being-done-with-his-assness was reinforced when I was sitting in a darkened theater, giving him another chance, just to hear "Do I look like dead nigger storage?" Almost as if Tarantino could anticipate those of us in the theater looking at one-another, silently mouthing "da hell??," he delivers the line again, insisting the powerful Jules answer him, and likely informing those of us in the audience we heard him right. Samuel L. is directed to have his blackness on ten—all the way up—until Tarantino's no-acting ass deflates Jules, rendering him into a slew-footed, shuffling, deferent living nigger to the offending dead-niggers with which he continually inconveniences Tarantino's Jimmie.

The manner in which Pulp Fiction builds up Jules into a supernaturally frightening force for retribution, just to be humiliated and emasculated by a character played by the director himself is some serious hand-tipping on the part of its creator. This is before the other supernaturally vengeful Negro Marcellus is literally emasculated a few frames later. Why does Ving Rhames's Marcellus end his pursuit of Bruce Willis' Butch? On the unspoken trade that he'll keep silent about Marcellus's anal rape. His dogged determination to destroy Butch for double-crossing him is completely dissipated by the threat of everyone finding out he took it up the rear-end from another man and had to be saved by a white man he just so happens to own. Tarantino lives for putting black men in their place in the most viscerally-humiliating ways. His black women are layered, nuanced, complicated, beautiful, and deadly if pushed too far. Generally, deadly for black men. Perhaps he doesn't appear in the cast of Jackie Brown and Kill Bill because they're his proxies. I dunno. That's too hefty an analysis for writing no one asked me for.

When a director casts himself in a small but significant role, it's a statement about the consciousness the filmmaker intends to impart. M. Night Shyamalan casts himself in moments where he wants to hand us the twist before we arrive at it on our own, obviously to reinforce he's smarter than his audience, therefore we should trust him and relax. Tarantino casts himself when his black characters need to be deflated and revealed as weaker than white men. Me, I knew when Phil LaMarr's Marvin appeared what to expect. The guy's speech and mannerisms were far too white socially normative for it not to be some statement by the guy who wrote a debate about interracial relationships and white purity into the first ten minutes of his debut feature film. A debate that was a complete and total non-sequitur to the overall proceedings. Once the well-spoken, chill, affable, harmless Marvin is flat-blasted by Jules, that caricature of black virility complete with outdated Jheri curl, it's up to Quentin Tarantino himself to bring Jules to heel. I don't want to hear shit about Orson Welles casting himself instead of Joseph Cotton in "Touch of Evil," if you abide that nonsense.

Plenty of journalists made a living unpacking and assessing Tarantino's apparent anti-blackness, equally lambasting and defending his bigoted bullshit. Some of these defenders are black, in the case of Desiree Bowie, who, in a 2015 Salon piece titled (in part) "It’s not easy being a black Tarantino fan," wrote:
But I appreciated his films as much as I disagreed with his opinions. I never viewed Tarantino’s movies as anti-Black or grossly exploitative. To be honest, I don’t cringe when n-bombs get dropped in his movies because I feel as though I do understand his intentions.
Bowie musters the ability to compartmentalize Tarantino's anti-blackness because it's chiefly directed at black men and, when contrasted against his mature and admiring portrayals of black women onscreen, it's obvious his issue isn't with black folk, per say. I haven't been able to find an update from her about Tarantino's off-screen personal and professional misogyny, bullying and abuse. I looked.

That same year, Nicole Silverberg's piece in GQ titled "Maybe Skip What Quentin Tarantino Said to The New York Times" parsed all the ways QT plays himself out in bold-headed paragraphs such as 'TV is shit,' 'Tarantino is a Culture Savior,' and 'Backlash from black critics is annoying and doesn't matter.' Under that last tidbit, she writes:
"Though I'm sure Ellis would despair at my use of that word as part of the "language policing" he so detests, the truth is that Tarantino is coming just one step short of crying "reverse racism." He's doing the equivalent of "but why can't I say the n-word?" except that, oh wait, Tarantino has his characters say it 110 times in Django Unchained. Tarantino is saying, "Well, if I end up making movies that only white people enjoy, oh well!" and that sucks."
Sucks to be sure, and thanks for bringing that up, but why skip what he said? Why do we skip evidence he's that dude? Why do we forgive his anti-blackness to uphold his genius? Why doesn't the quality that compels his fans and admirers to shrug off the ways he uses his films and platform to arrest and antagonize black folk and excoriate his limited view of blackness not help him achieve exoneration over his abuse of Uma Thurman? I haven't been able to find anything from Silverberg covering this new flap against Tarantino. The indictment should most certainly stick. Physical harm, intimidation, and abuse of the trust she gave him is nothing short of dehumanization. I just wasn't the least bit surprised. I'm also not surprised many of his defenders and apologizers aren't writing follow-ups.

Tarantino's resentful bigotry and anti-blackness played out for all to see. Doubled and tripled down upon in all his interviews. Its pathologies played out on screen and in print to much acclaim.  Once Uma Thurman finally told the truth about his vile behavior, folks are shocked. Betrayed, even. But why? He kicked your neighbor, right in front of you. Time and again, he tipped his hand to his urge to dehumanize and marginalize others. There wasn't a black man in Pulp Fiction that wasn't broken by him. Why would he spare Uma? Sorry, but oh yes it is the very same thing. It is not a different problem. It's the underbelly to the overall problem, akin to the extreme metaphor of serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, who trapped and mutilated small animals as he worked his way up to trapping and mutilating small humans. In this case, Dahmer's small animals are the fictional black men Tarantino created just to torture and humiliate. Seems like he was working his way up to torturing and humiliating an actual human, who is blonde and beautiful and powerful and kick-ass. Just like Madonna, who had absolutely nothing to do with the plot of Reservoir Dogs, but an ad-libbed debate about her making love with Big Daddy Kane somehow made its way into that modern classic.

Perhaps now I don't have to walk out of the bar when peers bring up Tarantino's brilliance at the next writing conference. Perhaps we finally understand the folly of deferring exemplified bigotry as a problem that doesn't affect everyone. I mean, sure one can, but when we learn about the Uma Thurmans, we wonder why and how.

Then someone like me, for whom his blackness is a mounting inconvenience to his peers, points out the Madonna debate in Reservoir Dogs gave us every indication what QT holds in his psyche for blonde white women of personal power and self-determination.

Those of us who refuse to resolve and excuse his bigotry in order to enjoy the zeitgeist-influencing pop culture moments of his films weren't surprised at his misogyny and abuse. Bigotry isn't a personality quirk. It's an indicator of the risk of deeper depravity. Perhaps we're all finding a way to come to terms with the truth that separating the art from the artist sets us up for these letdowns. We ignored, excused, and justified his abject racism, eventually praising him for his uncompromising insistence upon doing what he wanted. We watched his depictions of black Americans and listened as he told us to go to hell if we don't like it. If you weren't black, it wasn't your problem. If you were black, but you loved being in with the in-crowd, you subordinated your problem and went to see those films anyhow. Maybe even wrote about them. As a result, he became more popular, and more powerful, eventually leading to his injustice against Uma Thurman. In fact, I find it completely upends the image of women's empowerment she worked so hard to give us. I can't think of The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo without thinking of what happened behind the scenes. It undercuts the value of the portrayal when the performance was wrenched from someone rendered so powerless.

I wonder if now I won't have to find a way to slink off to other environs when conversations turn to Quentin Tarantino at this year's crime fiction conferences. I'll save that energy for when I have to dart away as James Ellroy's shit is laughed off and explained away as lunacy and LA Confidential is upheld as a hallmark of modern film noir. Where I'm from, bring it up and you'll get "Oh, you mean that flick where they put the gun in the young black man's mouth like he's sucking on something big and black in order to get him to confess to a crime? That one where the brothas are in a cell crying and begging for mercy so the white LA cops can get a jones? Dood from Gladiator was in it back when he wasn't fat? Naw, I ain't watchin' that shit."

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Three is a Magic Number

Scott's Note: S.W. Lauden seems to guest post a lot here at Do Some Damage.  In fact, I'm sure he does, and it wasn't so long ago that he wrote a guest piece in our friend Holly West's slot.  So why did I let him pop up here in my space so soon after?  I'm not sure, except that I did want to hear his thoughts about recently completing a trilogy, his Greg Salem series, and figured he'd have some interesting things to say about it.  

He does, and here he is.

Three Is A Magic Number
by S.W. Lauden

Rare Bird Books published Hang Time, the final book in my Greg Salem trilogy, in January. Marketing and promotion aside, this brings an end to a project that I’ve been working on for many years. Scott Adlerberg graciously asked me to stop by and share some thoughts on writing a trilogy and what I’ve learned. So here goes...

For starters, it feels strange to not be writing another punk rock P.I. novel. I’d probably be freaking out if that hadn’t been the plan all along. Why only write three books for this story arc? I guess the intellectual answer would touch on the mystical nature of the triad, Borromean Rings, and Pythagoras. But those are just things I Googled a few minutes ago, so I’ll focus on the gospel of Schoolhouse Rock instead.

Here’s a sample of the wisdom from "Three Is A Magic Number":

"The past and the present and the future
Faith and hope and charity
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three as a magic number"

Boom. Case closed.

For what it’s worth, I consider the three Greg Salem books to be a single continuous story that was too big for one volume. If anybody ever asks me where to start with this series, I always suggest they check out page one of the first book, Bad Citizen Corporation.

My hope is that readers will keep flipping pages from there, continuing on to Grizzly Season and Hang Time. Some do. Some don't. None of that is in my control.


It is in my control to tell the most honest and compelling story I can. When I sat down to write about Greg Salem and his crew, I didn’t want “punk rock P.I.” to be a clever marketing hook slapped on a crime novel. So I put my energy into creating an authentic universe inspired by bands like Black Flack, Circle Jerks, Descendents and Pennywise.

Punk singers can be some of the most flawed narrators around—angry, self destructive and cartoonishly earnest. That helped shape the characters, but I also focused on tempo and tone. Like the songs on a hardcore album, I tried to keep the chapters short and the pace cranked up to eleven. And like the tracks on a hardcore album, the subject matter shifts quickly from chapter to chapter, and scene to scene.
Did I achieve my goals? Some readers think I did. Some don't. None of that is in my control.


“Om” itself is a sacred sound that represents the three stages of cosmic creation. I like the idea that “Om” is deeply spiritual, but also open for anybody to use. But I promised not to fill this post with my recent Googlings. In keeping with the theme, I’ll finish by talking about some of my favorite three-piece bands instead.

I’ve played in power trios and can tell you from experience that it’s an interesting challenge. Armed with only one guitar, bass and drums, a classic three-piece band has to develop big hooks, a unique sound and/or a lot of energy to keep their audience engaged.

Various acts have done this successfully over the decades—ranging from The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The James Gang and Rush, to The Violent Femmes, The Muffs, and Nirvana—but for my money there are five magical acts that define the genre. Here they are, in no particular order:

·         The Jam—Favorite songs include “In The City,” “The Modern World,” “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” and “That’s Entertainment.”
·         The Minutemen—You can’t go wrong with “Cut,” “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing,” “Corona,” and “Stories.”
·         Supergrass—Start with “Caught By The Fuzz,” “Alright,” “Tonight,” “Pumping On Your Stereo” and “Moving.”
·         Husker Du—Dig in with “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” “Celebrated Summer,” “Books About UFOs,” “Whatever” and “Makes No Sense At All.”
·         Jawbreaker—Check out “Want,” “Boxcar,” “Chesterfield King,” “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault,” and “Lurker II: Dark Son of Night.”

Anyway, I wrote three books about a punk rock P.I. named Greg Salem. I’m proud of them. I hope some of you will read them. I know that some of you won’t. Thanks a ton if you already have.


S.W. Lauden is the Anthony Award-nominated author of the novella, CROSSWISEand the sequel, CROSSED BONES (Down & Out Books). His Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series includes BAD CITIZEN CORPORATIONGRIZZLY SEASON and HANG TIME (Rare Bird Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in Los Angeles.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Problem With Backstory

Backstory has been on my mind a lot lately.

One reason is because I was working on a short story and I realized I needed to establish motivation for something. And when that came into focus I had to put the story on hold.

There was far more of a story in that backstory than a generic motivation. It wasn't a my-Spanish-teacher-was-a-pervert-so-I-dropped-Spanish cause and effect scenario. It was involved. Complex. There were catalysts, actions and reactions and consequences all within this particular motivation.

It was its own story. That's how I felt. Not telling it would be a disservice and it couldn't be glossed over in a few lines within the scope of a short story.

This is how short stories turn into novellas and novellas turn into novels. We discover there's more to the story than what we started off thinking.

Another reason I've been thinking about backstory is because of watching Altered Carbon. We have one episode left and I'm going to stand by what I unloaded on Brian a few nights ago.

I think they missed the core story. The backstory was compelling. Entertainment Weekly introduced their review of the show by saying:

Altered Carbon is an expensive sci-fi epic wrapped in a dull mystery

Dull mystery indeed. And that's all I need to say about it. In my opinion, they should have started the story 250 years before they did and they missed the full effect of that backstory because it was underdeveloped, in my opinion.

The other reason I've been thinking about backstory is because of The Spying Moon. When I was writing What Burns Within I asked a friend who is an avid mystery reader what they thought about withholding information about a character's past. She told me that was okay, as long as it wasn't teased out indefinitely and the reader eventually got answers.

Now, I'm a firm believer in the limits of our scope of knowledge when we meet someone. We never meet someone and know their entire history unless you're talking about the moment someone gives birth. When you go to a new school or a new club or a conference and shake hands with someone for the first time your scope of knowledge about them is limited. If they're famous or someone you know online you may know some things about them but you do not completely know them.

Heck, my husband just told me something the other night that I didn't know and we've been together for more than ten years.

Getting to know a character is a process of discovery. Nobody wants to open a book and start reading a character bio that sums up their entire life history.

Having said that, there are times it is appropriate to provide backstory. Backstory is foundational information and it can have a significant impact on a story. I realized when I'd written The Spying Moon that I wanted Moreau's state of mind to be clear at the start of the book. There are certain factors that affect her conduct. Knowing those things can make the difference between seeing her as a dedicated officer trying to do the right thing, even when it costs her personally, or seeing her as a bitchy person who isn't trying to fit in.

Finding the right balance of backstory and determining when to share that information is one of the toughest aspects of good storytelling. My general rule of thumb has been to avoid the info dump at the start of a novel and spread the information out as needed.

Since I sent out a few copies of my manuscript for peer review I've still smoothed out the backstory execution a bit. Trimmed it a little and spread it out. As a writer, it's important to ask yourself what that information clarifies for the audience. Make sure you put in what's needed to avoid confusion and establish the character's mindset or motivation.

Watching Altered Carbon reminded me that sometimes it's possible to stretch that information out too far and by withholding that info you risk losing your audience. A show that could have been an A+ must watch for me (great cast, great concepts, some truly unique characters) isn't, and a big part of that boiled down to how they handled the backstory. There are worse things than sharing some backstory near the start of a book, movie or TV show, and one of them is withholding key information that leaves the audience unnecessarily confused and frustrated.

** Please note my comments on Altered Carbon only apply to the Netflix series. I haven't read the books.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Underdog Glory

I love the Olympics. One of my favorite things to do is root for the underdog. After all, what’s better than an underdog story? Each Olympic Games always has some, and this one – in PyeongChang, South Korea – has been awesome.
First, Ester Ledecka. Wow (and screw you, NBC, but we’ll get to that down below*). The Czech athlete won gold in the women’s Super-G alpine skiing race. Astonishing? Yeah, considering she’s primarily a snowboarder. She’s the first athlete (male or female) to ever compete in both disciplines in the Olympics. That was going to be enough of an accomplishment – until she made it down the mountain faster than the entire field, including American superstar Lindsey Vonn and 2014 gold medalist Austrian Anna Veith. I still grin when I think about it.
How about a bobsledding team from Africa? Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga are the Nigerian team. They’re Americans with Nigerian parents, who – like many other athletes throughout the world – have chosen to represent their parents’ countries. They finished last, but acquitted themselves well considering they built their first bobsled out of wood 15 months ago, according to ESPN.
This year there was even the chance for me to have the best of both worlds. Rooting for the underdog and my country at the same time.
The USA women’s hockey team hadn’t won gold since the first time the sport was in the Olympics, in 1998. And this week, we did, beating four-time winner Canada in an overtime shoot-out.
On the men’s side, the German national team defeated powerhouse Canada to reach the gold-medal game. Germany men last medaled in hockey in 1976, and that was a bronze. Now they’re guaranteed at least a silver. As of this writing, the game against the Olympic Athletes from Russia hadn’t yet been played. Either way it turns out, it’s a stellar underdog victory for Germany.
The Hungarian men’s short track held off China and Canada in the 5,000 meter relay to take gold. It was Hungary’s first Winter Olympic gold medal ever. How cool is that?
USA's Red Gerard, only 17 years old, unexpectedly won gold in men’s slopestyle, a snowboarding event.
American Chris Mazdzer won a surprise silver in men’s singles luge, which was the USA’s first medal in that sport.
And finally, well, holy buckets. Just yesterday, the USA men’s curling team won gold. Yes, curling. To get to the gold medal game, the team bested Canada, which has won multiple golds in the sport. As you probably know, curling’s not the exactly the hottest sport in America. To get together a team that good is underdog-inspiring. Just as every Olympics should be.
* NBC, the Nincompoop Broadcasting Company. They declared a winner in the women’s Super-G when one-third of the field hadn’t even raced. They didn’t even qualify it with a simple “as things stand, Anna Veith of Austria looks likely to win.” How hard would that have been to do? Instead, they flat-out announced Veith the winner and switched over to another event elsewhere at the Games. They then were forced to come back and show their audience Ledecka’s winning ski on tape delay (after showing the top-ranked women live). Good for you, Ester, for making them look like the asses they are for covering the race like that.