Saturday, March 28, 2020

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 13 AKA Be a Historian

Scott D. Parker

Well, how's everyone doing?

So far, my family has heeded the local directive to stay home and stay safe. It seems like such a small thing, but it's really something giant.

Consider voting. It's our duty and honor to vote, but when we do it, the action itself is small. Here in Houston, we have voting machines that include a scroll wheel. Back in the day, I'd go with my parents into those voting booths with the curtains and the levers. No matter how we do it, casting a vote is a small, simple action on an individual level but can have sweeping power when counted all the other votes.

The same is true for our various stay-at-home orders. My family of three is safe here in the house. The virus--we hope--is outside and we are inside. I've only ventured out last weekend to go to the grocery store and the hardware store. That's it. As of last night, we've eaten take out only twice, both times on Fridays. That's now become the thing we look forward to doing.

We took some extra precautions last night with the food: we used our patio table as a staging area. We emptied the Italian food out of the to-go containers and into clean plates from inside. The plastic containers remained outside until I used a plastic grocery bag to take them to the outside trash can.

I'll admit: it was a little weird going into the restaurant. It was bustling and busy, but I just didn't want to touch anything. I didn't. I had my protocol in place: credit card already removed from my wallet, my own pen, plastic gloves, and a paper bag in the car on which to set the food (and throw away later). Overkill? Nope. Not in this environment.

The New Normal

Speaking of environment, this is still a writing blog and I do have a few writing things I read this week.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch published the second of two business-related post on what she is calling The Waiting Game. In these posts, she discusses how we writers can weather this black swan event and emerge on the other side ready to face the new normal. Because that's what is going to happen: there won't be the old normal. There will only be post-Coronavirus normal. It's best we prepare for it.

Speaking of the new normal, yesterday, writer Kevin Tumlinson published a fantastic series of tweets on his Twitter account (@KevinTumlinson) about the new normal. In his series, he posits that YouTube is well positioned to become the go-to location for on-demand entertainment. Most of us already know this, but not as many writers are there. Our own Beau Johnson does his posts via video on Fridays. Ironically it was something I had considered in 2019, but pushed aside for reasons I can't remember.

Anyway, back to Kevin's thread. Just read it. There is lots of good information in here, and it really makes you think differently about the future.

Be a Historian

The historian in me continues to be fascinated at some of the parallels that 2020 is reflecting. The obvious is the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. Another is The Battle of Britain, 1940, as the folks in England hunkered down every night for nearly three months and endured the constant bombing.

But another is the sacrifice folks made who survived the Great Depression. For most of my 51 years, I looked back at those times with awe and reverence at how everyday citizens survived the greatest economic disaster of the Twentieth Century.

One of the things that lets us know what life was like back in history are personal letters and journals. When I conducted research for my Masters thesis, I studied the 14th Texas Infantry in the Civil War. A key document was a journal of one of the captains. It gave me a first-hand account of camp life, and even provided me with a title.

I encourage everyone to keep records of this time. Write a daily journal, or jot down your thoughts and fears and expectations and the little things you are doing now to get through each day. Save emails in a special folder. I've already got my "Coronovirus" folder in gmail. Write it all down to help you remember.

I used to ask my grandparents what it was like in the Great Depression and World War II. Those questions started in the 1980s, forty years after the fact. Sure, their memories were fine, but imagine if they had kept a journal.

Decades from now, it'll be our grandkids who ask us what it was like to live through 2020 as the Coronavirus inexorably swept across the world. All the events we haven't experienced yet might color our memories. Now, those future memories are real life.

Write them down and remember.

Stay safe, my friends.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Beau Has Been Inside Too Long

This week, Beau takes a look at ORPHAN X from Gregg Hurwitz.

Evan Smoak is a man with skills, resources, and a personal mission to help those with nowhere else to turn. He’s also a man with a dangerous past. Taken from a group home at twelve, Evan was raised and trained as part of the Orphan Program, an off-the-books operation designed to create deniable intelligence assets—i.e. assassins. Evan was Orphan X. He broke with the Program, using everything he learned to disappear and reinvent himself as the Nowhere Man.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Zero Zero Zero

When I see the name Stefano Sollima attached to something now, a film or a television series, I know I'm going to watch it.  Though I actually have yet to see (though this will soon change) his 22 part Romanzo criminale (2006-2008), about criminal and political doings in 1970's Italy, the decade there of the "Years of Lead"  -- so named because of the violence that saturated the country then -- I loved his gangster film Suburra (2015) and his second epic gangster series Gomorrah, which has completed four seasons now. While Sicario: Day of the Soldado caught some flak for various aspects, I liked its excitement and downright nastiness, its depiction of internecine warfare, something Sollima really excels at.  So I was excited to find he has a new series just released, called Zero Zero Zero, and with time on my hands like most everyone else, I watched it over a few nights.  It's on Amazon Prime. 

Sollima's gangster stuff takes place in Italy and Sicario 2, which has to do with drug cartels, takes place mainly in Mexico.  Zero Zero Zero combines both Italian gangsters and Mexican cartels as well as a father, daughter and son from the US who run a shipping company and serve as the transporters of a huge shipment of cocaine supposed to go from Mexico to Calabria, Italy.

Adapted from the book by Italian writer Robert Saviano, co-created by Sollima, Zero Zero Zero doesn't cover territory we've never seen before.  But it covers what it does with a great level of detail and with commanding skill.  There are three ongoing plot threads: one in Mexico involving an elite group of Mexican soldiers who make a move in Monterrery to take over the drug trade, one in Calabria where there is conflict between and within Italian families for control of the drug trade, and the one involving the Lynwood family, the shippers.  We get a story that essentially follows one shipment of cocaine from its release in Mexico to its intended final location in Italy and all the jockeying for power, betrayals, maneuvering, and perilous detours that happen around this shipment.  The series had a huge budget, apparently, and has a very large cast, and looks absolutely great.  The first couple of episodes are directed by Sollima, the others by Janus Metz, who is Danish, and Pablo Trapero, an Argentinian filmmaker.  None of them shy away from violence and, what I especially love, none of them soften things. Zero Zero Zero is an example of a type of drama that, when well done, I love.  You follow a number of characters who have their loves and attachments -- they are human -- but who are not primarily what you might call likable.  They are interesting and compelling more than likable, and the story stays true to what they would do in their given situations, no matter what those actions are.  This has been true in every Stefano Sollima work I've seen so far.  He shows you behavior and emotions and people in serious conflict, doing tender things, horrible things, but he never ever moralizes.

Zero Zero Zero isn't perfect.  Every episode has a structuring device that is a little bit mannered; the episode begins a certain way and carries forward, then at a particular point, goes into slow motion and segues backward to show you what led up to what you've been watching.  It's a device that's arbitrary, to be honest, but it didn't take away from my overall pleasure.

Topnotch direction, excellent pacing, strong acting all around, with a cast that includes Andrea Riseborough, Dane DeHaan, Gabriel Byrne (in a small role) and a stone-cold and truly chilling Harold Torres, who plays the head of the Mexican soldiers that makes its move in the drug trade in Monterrey.  Riseborough and DeHaan play brother and sister, and she is the stronger of the two, the one running the shipping business responsible for the movement of the cocaine.  Did I say the Harold Torres character is cold; well, Riseborough's, without being evil, has ice water running through her veins as she does her work in a world dominated by some pretty nasty men.

One other thing: It's rare to see places like Dakar, Senegal or modern-day Casablanca in western productions, and Zero Zero Zero goes to these places with the same assurance and calm it depicts more familiar locales like Mexico and Italy.  In other words, it doesn't show us these places through "the exotic eye".  Beauty, corruption, violence, dealmaking -- they exist everywhere, behavior is consistent.  What differs from place to place is the motivation behind that behavior. 

I should say, too, that the whole production is enhanced very much by the musical score, kind of in the way Michael Mann films have such rich scores.  For Zero Zero Zero, it's by Mogwai, and it adds plenty, episode to episode, to the mood and tension.

Next up for Stefano Sollima, is an adaptation of a Tom Clancy book, Without Remorse, to star Michael B. Jordan.  The script is by Taylor Sheridan.  I've never read or had the slightest interest in reading Clancy's novels, nor have I even seen any of the other films made from his books (or the current Jack Ryan series on Amazon), but this one I expect I will watch. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Pandemic as Part of What You're Writing Now

Social distancing.
Stay at home.
Shelter in place.
Some are new phrases. Some are old ones applied to a new situation. What other words are we as a society going to invent or re-purpose as we live through this pandemic? I’ll be very interested to see.
I’ve been asked multiple times in the past week if my current work-in-progress will have a pandemic in it. The answer is: I don’t know. I’d say “it’s too soon,” but that I think might not end up applying this time. “Too soon” works for a finite moment-in-time type of disaster—an earthquake, a tornado, or even something that lasted longer like Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 and their aftermaths. Most good novels about those kinds of events come later, after a writer has had time to process something so overwhelming. Time to let it marinate, to seep into the subconscious and come out again, emerging in a written work that adds something new and unique to the conversation.
But this … this is a drip-drip-drip of a disaster. Will we really wait all that time after it’s over to start producing novels about it? I don’t know that a lot of us can wait. Writers gotta write. We’re hardwired to process things with the written word. And now that many of us are stuck at home with nothing else to think about all day, I’m going to wager that there will be books published a lot sooner after this horribleness ends than those after previous tragedies.
Will I be one of them? I don’t know yet. But I’m definitely thinking about it.