Saturday, July 28, 2018

Mission Impossible: Fallout - The Best Pulp Movie This Year

Scott D. Parker

First of all, Mission Impossible: Fallout is a phenomenal movie. I absolutely loved it. The action scenes are as you’d expect: awesome, over-the-top, and genuinely thrilling, especially when you know and see with your own eyes that Tom Cruise is doing practically all of them. Can you believe Cruise all but started doing these action movies around the age of forty, the age where many actors stop? The man knows how to craft a film.

I sat through most of the action scenes with a big goofy grin plastered on my face, loving practically every minute of film. I even jumped a few times, as did my wife who also thoroughly enjoyed the film. Heck, even my boy, seeing only his second Cruis movie and first MI film enjoyed it. Avengers: Infinity War was fantastic for what it did, The Incredibles 2 was gloriously fun, but MI: Fallout is hands down the best thrill ride of the summer.

One of my favorite hallmarks of these movies are the scenes where something appears to happen…only to learn later that another thing also happened that set everything into motion. It’s very much like a movie serial from the 1940s where you see Captain America appears to perish in a car explosion that caromed off a cliff…only to see that he jumped off at the last minute. Can’t get enough of that kind of thing.

Lester Dent’s plan for writing a pulp story also ran through my mind during certain scenes. Naturally, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt gets into trouble, and then more trouble, and yet more trouble. Then he must face choices that veer from bad to terrible. Just like Dent tells us writers. Oh, and that very end sequence, in Dent’s tales or MI films? Always there and always satisfying.

Speaking of satisfying, Henry Cavill is wonderful in this. He’s a big brute of a man, and those fighting scenes in the bathroom (they’re in the trailer) is brutal and vicious. Rebecca Ferguson returns and she is as bad ass as she was in the last movie. Simon Pegg is always a breath of levity in movies like this, especially this one which had much more humor than you’d expect.

Seriously, go now to a theater and buy your ticket to Mission Impossible: Fallout. It’s a living pulp story. You will enjoy it. Tom Cruise guarantees it and I wholeheartedly agree.

Friday, July 27, 2018


About a year ago the water heater busted and before we were aware, leaked a fair amount of water into our garage. When we discovered the water, we set to removing all the cardboard boxes from the wet area. Because the boxes were already destroyed, we did quickie “keep or toss” with their contents, hoping to avoid any mold or mildew. One of these boxes had come from my parents’ garage up North, all the way down to Southern California, only to land in my garage without much thought. 

This particular box was filled with binders and notebooks from my high school years. In one of these notebooks, I had written a list of things I intended to accomplish before thirty. I turned thirty-four yesterday and have only (kind of) accomplished one. I was certain I’d have a novel published by thirty. I didn’t make it. The novel I co-wrote with Andrez Bergen (Black Sails, Disco Inferno) didn’t come out until I was thirty-two, and even then, co-writing versus writing seems an important distinction. I also planned to “own property for profit” which implies I thought that first novel was going to be a best seller. And/or that I didn’t know anything about real estate when I made my list of goals. 

I didn’t know much about writing as a career, either. I wrote constantly, compulsivley, sometimes to the detriment of other school work. The box also contained two novels I’d written before I graduated high school, hundreds of lists, poems, lyrics, a play, and half assed journal entries. Writing was my entire life. But I had no idea how to write a short story. I’d never attempted one. I had no idea what length a novel was expected to be (the third one I wrote was as long as the first two together). I didn’t understand anything about the business and managed to go years - frustrating, painful years - without learning it. To complicate it all more (and eventually save my ass) the internet happened in the midst of all of this.

The joke is that now I know what a query letter is, I know how to submit short stories and what to look for in a contract, I know that one novel isn’t going to turn me into a real estate tycoon - but the time and energy to write like a compulsive teenager overflowing with a desire to create is hard won. Real life hasn’t come as easy as school work did, and the kid requires a lot more attention than the dog I had growing up. 

I’m not saying I’m disappointed - all the other shit I did before thirty (and it was a lot) gave me so much more to believe in, and in turn, write about. I actually did a lot of insane shit between writing that list and turning thirty. I joined the Marine Corps during war time, moved across country, got married, got divorced, and got married again. I had a kid, bought a house, travelled, made a life in the desert, and then left it behind again. Since thirty, I’ve learned how to write nonfiction, published short stories, did a script for a comic book, and saw my name on the cover of a novel I was proud of. I learned how to edit nonfiction and mentored writers, and a ton of other stuff. Stuff in the writing world teenage me didn’t even know existed. 

And I’m working on that novel that will have my name on the cover - alone. If I start feeling like I disappointed teenage me too much, I’ll just remind myself that, according to all available evidence, teenage me wrote some really shitty novels, because teenage me didn’t understand a whole hell of a lot about how the world works.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Interview with Chris Offutt

What follows is an interview with Chris Offutt, author of two novels, "The Good Brother" and his latest "Country Dark" which I review today over at Unlawful Acts. Offutt also has two short story collections "Kentucky Straight" and "Out of the Woods". He has written for TV and movies and has a couple of essay collections published as well.

Chris Offutt (Photo by Sandra Dyas)
By David Nemeth

David: Somewhere in the first few pages of “Country Dark”, your novel became a deliberate slow read for me as a way to increase my enjoyment of the book. There is a sense of sound in the words, each sentence as important as the last. I know this is kind of a broad question, but can you talk a little about the poetry in your writing and your process to get to the final draft?

Chris: As you say, each sentence is important.  The precision of language is important to me as a writer, and also a reader.  When I work, I hear rhythm and cadence, off-rhyme, slant-rhyme, assonance, and tone.  Mainly I work in a visual fashion.  I see with great clarity what I imagine, then try to record it with care.  Dialogue is similar—I watch the characters and listen to what they say.

Writing fiction is the best way I’ve found to quell the restlessness of my mind.  By fully engaging the process—paying attention to everything the characters do and say, observing the landscape they inhabit—all this provides a kind of euphoric escape for me.  I feel better for having written, despite the challenge of the task.  The more I seek precision of language, the better I feel later.

I have long believed that language is the foremost tool of humanity.  Like any workman, I try to maintain my tools and use them in the best way possible.  I strive for meaning, sense, and clarity with every line.  The kind of book I like to read communicates multitudes in every sentence—description, action, imagery, emotional insight.

As far as getting to the final draft, I just keep revising until I’m satisfied.

David: One of the takeaways I had of your Harper’s essay, “In The Hollow”, is that the people of the Appalachians are not going to become a homogenized version of an American. You have become a spokesperson for the people of Appalachia. I’m not asking you to get political, but what is that we on the coasts and in the big cities get wrong with the area as well as the people? What is that we don’t understand?

Chris: What most people everywhere don’t understand are the limits of their own mind.  It’s easier to be close-minded and believe stereotypes and myths instead of learning about others. This is particularly true for people from big cities.  Often they consider themselves urbane and sophisticated by virtue of where they live.  It rarely occurs to them that they are provincial in their thinking.

When people in the northeast and the west coast learn where I’m from, the jokes start, jokes that are never funny.  Shortly after that comes the under-estimation, the assumption of stupidity.  It rarely occurs to people that they are dealing with an individual who is just like them, but with a very different background. In my work I try to provide insight and understanding of the eastern Kentucky culture. 

David: It was over twenty years between your two novels “The Good Brother” and “Country Dark”. During that time, you spent several years writing screenplays and a memoir or two. First, what influence has writing screenplays and even teaching creative writing had on your approach to your own writing?

Chris: A good screenplay is a blueprint for production that must convey information to all the departments involved—props, wardrobe, director, actor, cinematography etc.  Then that group of strangers work together to make something that another group of strangers will watch on a screen.  Once I understood that, I was able to assemble a screenplay.  Movies and TV are a visual medium.  I suspect that working in that field helped hone the visual side of my imagination.  However, it’s too early to know for sure.

Teaching creative writing has the same influence on my writing as every other part-time job I’ve ever had—over 60 of them now.  Each job offers me the freedom to devote large chunks of time to my work.  Each job had its benefits and drawbacks.  Teaching puts me in a literate environment with access to libraries and bookstores.  Being a screenwriter paid more but took up more time, and was a very high-pressure environment.  I liked being a dishwasher best—simple task, free meals, and no anxiety.  Unfortunately it didn’t pay well.

The biggest influence on my writing has been observation, listening, talking with strangers, travel, solitude in the woods—and reading.

David: Second, are we going to have to wait another twenty years for your next novel? Or, maybe the politer question would be, what’s next for you?

Chris: I wrote two novels that I was not satisfied with.  They were set in Kentucky, one in Louisville and one in Lexington.  It turns out that in fiction, as with life, I’m more comfortable in the woods than cities.  I am currently at work on a novel set in the hills of Kentucky.   

David: Your two short story collections, “Kentucky Straight” and “Out of the Woods”, are highly regarded. Every year critics talk about the death of short stories and yet the form persists in its existence. What is it the attraction to the form as a writer and even as a reader?

Chris: Readers buy far more novels than collections of short stories.  Publishers are reluctant to publish them except as a first book from a young writer.  Since there are few collections every year, critics start their incessant talk about the dying of the form.   
As a writer, the attraction is very simple—I can experiment within a short story and learn the results quickly, good or bad.  If the experiment fails, it’s easier to discard fifteen or twenty pages than it is to shelve a 250 page novel. 

As a reader, I’m always interested in short stories.  The form is compressed by its nature, and I can learn from reading stories.  Most collections are first books which means the writer has absolutely nothing to lose and is willing to take enormous risks on the page.  That gets harder the more you write, the older you get, and especially with novels.

David: Give me five (or more) Appalachian books or writers to read. Genre does not matter.

River of Earth, by James Still
The Hawk’s Done Gone, by Mildred Haun
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, by Breece D’J Pancake
The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman
One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash
Hell and Ohio by Chris Holbrook

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

See Ya, Hope Ya Had a Real Good Time...

That was the goodbye song on a children's television show that I watched called "The Magic Garden" where two hippies had adventures with an inchworm and a squirrel. It played on local access in the New York area, and like all nostalgia, has a small cult following who probably have unwholesome thoughts about squirrels.

I've been having trouble coming up with what to talk about here, and I apologize for the generally insipid filler posts that I've foisted on you on occasion. When you start phoning it in or dreading the prospect, it is time to step down and give the space to someone else, and that time is now.

Thanks to Steve Weddle and Holly West for inviting me here, and to all the Damaged who keep this site bustling. Keep writing great crime fiction.


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Obvious Maybe, But I Never Thought of It

It's exciting when you're reading and come across an idea that gives you insights into how to approach something in your own writing. That idea may not even be a complicated one, or a particularly unusual one, but because you never thought of it quite so clearly as the writer you're reading expresses it, the notion it describes or the approach it suggests strikes you as a revelation.

I had this experience recently while reading the preface to Montalbano's First Case and Other Stories.  The book is a collection of twenty-one stories that Andrea Camilleri himself chose from the many more tales he has written about his Sicilian police inspector, Salvo Montalbano. He says that when he wrote his first book of short stories, A Month with Montalbano, in the late 1990's, there was "a precise but unstated intention guiding" the creation of the volume's stories.  "This intention was to compose a series of 'portraits' of Sicilian characters, and therefore the stories didn't necessarily have to revolve around murders but could also concern investigations into memory, false robberies, conjugal infidelities, petty vendettas, and so on.  I used the 'police procedural,' in short, only as a pretext.

I followed the same guidelines with the twenty stories in the second short-fiction collection...Here, too, the more or less 'procedural' circumstances served as a springboard to explore characters, settings, and situations."

Now Camilleri isn't writing anything terribly original here.  Crime fiction writers of all types - whether doing classic detective stories, hardboiled fiction or noir, or novel length procedurals - have used their chosen form within the genre to study characters and delve into settings and situations.  But no writer I've read has expressed so bluntly that he's using crime fiction, or, specifically, the procedural form, as a pretext for investigations into things not related to crime - like memory - or into crimes and transgressions so minor that it's clear the "crimes" are not the focus.  

I don't know.  Maybe his statement of intention struck a chord because the idea is one I've been toying with hazily for some time.  As I've gotten older, I've come to enjoy procedurals a good bit more than I did when younger. There's something about them (when well done, as goes for any type of writing) that reflects the rhythms of life, I find.  Yet I don't really want to write a procedural, and I'm not sure I could.  Telling a story through methodical and linear accretion of detail, which is how most procedurals work, is not a prospect I find enticing.  But to tell short story procedurals, following one character around as he investigates all manner of human behavior in various settings and circumstances - this is something I suspect I'd like writing immensely.  And somehow those couple of sentences Camilleri wrote about his own process doing this has given me a clue of how I might do it.

So we'll see.  I have stuff to finish that will occupy me for awhile. But in the meantime, I can start jotting down notes with the idea of maybe one day writing that collection, built around one investigator, where there are mysteries galore but the procedural aspect is really - and there's no shame in saying it - a pretext.

Monday, July 23, 2018

"The Accused"

"The Accused" is more gut-wrenching today.

Thirty years ago Hollywood, whether by choice or chance, did something right. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan ("Over the Edge") The Accused, starring Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis, was released in October of 1988 and would eventually become a highly regarded example of American cinema, winning Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTAs and more.

The film is brutal and hard to watch, but important. Necessary. The movie begins, a young woman, Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster), is seen beaten, terrified and running for help after being gang raped in the backroom of a bar. Despite the bar being crowded, no one comes to her rescue and some patrons even watch and cheer. After escaping she finds herself victimized again as she and her, at first reluctant, state appointed lawyer (Kelly McGillis) try to bring her attackers and the bystanders who did nothing to justice.

Details of the fictional, though inspired by real events, tale mirror current news and headlines. Within it’s clean, noir-inspired story telling "The Accused" highlights the public’s tendency towards victim-blaming and emotional separation.

We see Sarah viciously cross-examined during the trial. She is questioned about past relationships. What she was wearing the night of the rape. Whether she was drinking. What she was doing out alone in the first place. An insinuation that Sarah was complicit in her own attack. The questioning of a victim’s personal life, including sexual history and preferred dress, is a process that continues today. In 2016 a convicted rapist in London was granted a retrial after previous romantic partners of the victim gave testimony regarding their sexual relations with the woman. BBC

The nature of complicity is further examined in the movie when those who watched and cheered the rape are also put on trial. At a time when powerful men are finally being brought to task for their disturbing behavior, think Weinstein, Cosby and Nassar, we are beginning to underline the importance of taking down the environment that allows rape to happen. Imagine the amount of people who knew about Jerry Sandusky’s abuses and allowed those kids to be abused or helped in the planning and cover-up. CBS

The film echoes recent real-life examples of classicism, as well. One attacker is a young college student, aggressively supported by his wealthy and powerful father, pledged to a fraternity and looking forward to a bright future. His place in society is used against the victim and informs his lesser charge and lenient sentence. The disregard for the victim and compassion for the perpetrator is frighteningly similar to the Stanford rape case of 2015. USA Today

Recently, I watched "The Accused"again and it left me with the same feelings I had when originally viewing. Stomach turning sadness. Anger and rage, but my anger has doubled, as it seems our society has not changed so very much in these thirty years.

K.J. Howe stops by later

The K.J. Howe Blog Tour starts today and will stop by here a bit later this week.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

When It Hits Too Close to Home

My first novel starts out with a boat crash on Table Rock Lake, near Branson, Missouri. Passengers are stranded and need to be rescued. All of them make it to shore safely.
I wrote that book four years ago, but Thursday part of it became reality. In the worst way possible. An amphibious boat full of tourists sank in a sudden storm on that very lake. Seventeen people drowned, including nine from one family. 
Table Rock Lake in better weather. Table Rock Dam is in the background.
Hearing that was like a gut punch. I never imagined that the real world would take a set of circumstances I used in fiction and turn it into something unimaginably worse. So now I’m watching and reading the news of this tragedy with an even heavier heart than I normally would. It’s a lot more personal.
I know how quickly storms can strike in the Ozarks. The weather radar can track them coming, but if you’re not paying attention to that, all you see is blue sky until it’s suddenly black and the wind and rain hit in a torrent. Many locals said Thursday’s storm and the waves it generated were the worst they’d ever seen.
I know how Branson very much realizes that tourism is its bread-and-butter, and that people from all over the Midwest flock there for a family-friendly good time. Fishing, hiking, camping, country music shows, go-kart rides, a gigantic Ferris wheel, a water park, Silver Dollar City and its nationally known roller coasters, the Branson Belle showboat.
(In fact, the Belle itself crashed on Table Rock Lake in 2010, running aground and trapping more than 500 passengers on board until a rescue operation could be arranged. That incident – which had no fatalities – inspired my novel’s fictitious boat crash, which set the mystery in motion and resulted in the discovery of the murder that my sheriff character has to solve. To think there has now been another huge accident on the lake is almost unbelievable.)
And I know about the Ride the Ducks amphibious boats. They’re an ubiquitous sight on the streets of Branson as drivers tour past land-based points of interest before they head toward Table Rock Lake and a cruise on the water. Each craft is supposed to carry enough life jackets for every passenger.
On Thursday, none of the people who marina dock hand Todd Lawrence and his co-workers pulled from the water were wearing life jackets, he told the New York Times. A Missouri State Highway Patrol report released Saturday afternoon confirmed that none of the people on board the Duck boat were wearing “safety devices.”
There are many like Lawrence in Branson. People who rush to help, any way they can. Employees of the Belle, which was docked near where the Duck boat went down, jumped into the water and tried to save passengers, according to the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. Private boat owners also plowed through the dangerous waves and pulled unresponsive people out of the water. People converged on City Hall to help survivors and the families of those who died. Hundreds of them attended a vigil.
“We do what Branson does best; we love on everybody. When the families came to City Hall, that was our goal. To make them feel loved, feel comforted,” Branson Mayor Karen Best said on The whole community was grieving for the victims, she said. “Our hearts are broken.”
Mine is, too.