Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Nick Kolakowski Interview

"This book clicked in perfectly at 35,000 words, which is right in my happy zone of full oxygen saturation. It was the perfect length for a tale of heists, Nazi gold, murderous little people, dead clowns, and New York City at arguably one of its most interesting historical moments."

By Steve Weddle

If you've seen the cover of Nick Kolakowski's Payback Is Forever, then you've seen what I thought of it. I dug it.

Classic and fresh.

That's tough to pull off. I know. I've tried.

Nick and I worked together editing the award-losing anthology Lockdown during the first year of the pandemic, and I was privileged to see his skills at work, his eye for detail, for momentum, for all the little parts of a story the reader should never think about, should just enjoy.

Nick brings that same talent to his writing, and we're all the better for being able to watch him work, to read his new book.

Brian Asman said this new is one is like "a demented fun-house mirror version of a Richard Stark novel," which pretty much nails the vibe and the clear influence here.

Nick Kolakowski
I recently sat down with Nick (I assume he was sitting when he answered my emails, but who knows?) to ask him some questions about the book, about music, about movies.

Steve Weddle: Your new book, PAYBACK IS FOREVER, hits the ground running and doesn’t let up. How do you manage to create a character that readers care about as the story is racing down the road? Aren’t you supposed to stop and add in some backstory, have the main character take time to clothe some orphans at the soup kitchen?

Nick Kolakowski: Nah. With Payback Is Forever, I wanted to craft a throwback to the Richard Stark/Donald Westlake novels I devoured as a kid. The main character of Payback Is Forever is very much in the mold of Parker, the master thief who starred in 24 of Stark/Westlake’s books and yet has precious little backstory to explain why he’s an ice-cold badass. I let that homage dominate the character for most of my book’s length, and then I do my best to subvert it in the last few pages, because it’s become a cliché, and it’s a writer’s duty to seek and destroy clichés whenever encountered. Sorry, Donald.

SW: You’ve been writing stories for *checks watch* many years now. How would this novella be different if you’d written it a decade ago?

NK: I would have played the whole thing straight. It would have been a total homage/throwback to those pulp novels of the 1960s without an ounce of irony or invention. But plenty of folks have done just that in the past few decades, and many of them better than I could ever do. So in the last part of the book, I took a chance and tried to implode everything—the all-American myth of the criminal badass, the noir protagonist’s descent into inevitable doom, all that stuff that’s propped up the genre since its inception.

I have no idea if I succeeded, but I think the result is interesting. Hopefully in a good way. I mean, car wrecks are interesting, too, but you don’t want to be anywhere near them.

SW: This novella doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it. Were there subplots you trimmed away or was it always this sleek?

NK: It was always this sleek. I have trouble writing books longer than 40,000 words. Once I get above 50,000 words or so, it’s thin oxygen for me. Plots begin to warp and spin out of control. Characters stand around tapping their toes. But this book clicked in perfectly at 35,000 words, which is right in my happy zone of full oxygen saturation. It was the perfect length for a tale of heists, Nazi gold, murderous little people, dead clowns, and New York City at arguably one of its most interesting historical moments.

SW: Besides this interview, what's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?

NK: Not starting earlier. I’ve been writing all my life—mostly short stories—but I didn’t put grinding effort into longer fiction until 2017. Some days, I feel like I’m rushing against the clock. I don’t know whose clock, but it’s ticking away, and there’s so much to do.

SWBob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile" and Tom Petty's "American Girl" are a couple songs that have openings that immediately soften my mood and make me optimistic about the next few minutes of my life. Do you have any songs that immediately put you in a good mood?

NK: Anything by Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen. That might seem counterintuitive, but I have such a nostalgic attachment to those two gentlemen that I can’t help but feel perky whenever I hear the first notes of “Downtown Train” or “Everybody Knows.”

SW: What's your least favorite movie?

NK: Who loves Batman & Robin

SW: On the off chance that there's someone out there who hasn't read any of your work, would this be a good place to start?

NKLove & Bullets would be the best place to start, simply because it's a collection of three novellas ('A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps,' 'Slaughterhouse Blues,' and 'Main Bad Guy') with a whole bunch of added material, and altogether it represents about four years of writing. It's got an epic sprawl, it's funny, and there are some cool kills.

SW: What's the most surprising book you've read in the last year or so?

NKThe Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow really blew my mind. It's a nonfiction exploration of "deep time," that period between the emergence of modern human cognition and recorded history. It discusses how people 100,000 years ago might have lived, and how they might have structured their societies, and how it all still impacts us today. Graeber and Wengrow are biased toward this vision of "beautiful anarchy," where everyone sort of operates in harmony without bureaucracy or leaders or laws, and I'm not sure I entirely believe it, but they make some good points. It was mostly surprising for its revelations about how much Native American philosophy and thought might have influenced Enlightenment thinkers and the various Revolutions of the 18th century, actually.


Thanks to Nick for the chat. If you're looking for a book to blow your mind, you can snag his new one here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Secret Identity by Alex Segura

by Scott Adlerberg

Secret Identity is Alex Segura’s seventh novel.  It follows his Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery series and Poe Dameron: Free Fall, a young adult Star Wars book.  He also has written several comic books and worked for years in comics.  I’ve read all five of the Miami private investigator books, and I’ve enjoyed watching Segura develop as a novelist, growing more and more assured in how he plots and paces a story.  In the Miami series, he took familiar detective fiction tropes and brought something fresh to them, as anyone working in this well-trod area should.  With Secret Identity, he goes a step further – or several steps actually – writing a mystery set in a world not often explored in fiction.  It’s the world he loves, that of comic books, an obsession, it is clear, since Segura’s childhood, and one gets the sense turning its pages that Secret Identity had a long gestation period.  Was the author working up to this over time, trying to think of a way to craft a mystery using his love of comics and his encyclopedic knowledge of the form?  Whatever the genesis, the result is a story with a voice and heart entirely Segura’s own.

We’re in New York City, 1975.  Carmen Valdez, in her late twenties, has come from where she grew up in Miami and landed a job working for Triumph Comics.  She’s the Triumph boss’ secretary and all-purpose fixer.  As a company, Triumph is not nearly as large or influential as DC or Marvel, but for Carmen, “Working in comics was the dream”.  It’s a dream that has brought her to a place with “moldy studio apartments, skyrocketing murder rates, and smoky streets”, a city “fraught, menacing, and hopped up on paranoia – where muggings were commonplace and home break-ins a rite of passage”.  

This is grimy seventies New York in all its famous anti-glory, and Segura evokes it well, if a tad conventionally, as it’s often depicted in the era’s crime films. Still, he doesn’t overlook the city’s attractions.  Despite its dangers, the place is vibrant and exhilarating.  To someone like Carmen, who is leaving behind a troubled childhood and a love affair that became toxic, New York represents a place to grow and explore and pursue her artistic ambitions.  Those ambitions are clear.  In an industry run by men, dominated by men at every level, Carmen wants to write comic books just like the male writers who pen the adventures of Spiderman, the Flash, or any of the various superheroes readers follow.  She has been an avid reader of comics since she was little, and Segura does a beautiful job describing how much they’ve meant to her:

She could feel her father’s leathery hand slide into hers, the hot, humid Miami summer enveloping her like a warm towel.  Could feel her sandaled feet scraping down Galloway Road as they made their way toward the newsstand – where her father would pick up the Miami Times and scan the comic book rack.  The titles always changed – the market was volatile then, even more than today.  But the barrage of colors and letters always had the same effect.  The titles screamed out to her – as if begging to be picked up…She wasn’t picky.  She’d ask her father to grab one for her, and he always would – no matter how they were doing, if he was working, or what struggles they might be facing.  Pepe knew his only daughter took great joy in flipping through the pages of a comic book, any comic book. 

Though nobody else knows it, Carmen has begun work on creating her own character and stories.  Her hero is a woman, her powers not yet entirely defined.  As events transpire, a male co-worker gets an opportunity to pitch a new comic book series to the Triumph chief, but since her colleague is short of ideas, he comes to Carmen, whose knowledge of comics he apparently respects, to help him write it.  Can Carmen trust him?  What she does contribute, as she full well knows, she may not get credit for.  That’s the way of things in the business they’re in, the male-centered world they inhabit.  Her ambition wins out over her suspicion of his motives, and Carmen pulls together six complete comic book scripts she has been working on for some time.  Her colleague is astounded, and they brainstorm to flesh it out.  It seems as though Carmen will eventually be recognized as at least co-creator of a new character called The Legendary Lynx, but in a way all too plausible, her colleague gets the six scripts to their boss under his name only.  That Carmen was the main creative force behind the Legendary Lynx no one but her colleague and herself know.  Then her colleague is murdered, and a mystery blossoms, which Carmen needs to solve.  At stake: not only the truth behind the murder (which leads to other attacks), but also Carmen’s sense of herself as an artist, a woman, and just a plain human being.  Having a secret identity, being responsible from behind a mask or public face for something others admire, may be exciting and romantic in comic book characters like Batman or Superman, but when you’re a real live person who’s been denied credit for your work, it’s a different story.  

Secret Identity tackles a lot of things.  It’s a look at a particular place and era and an immersion into the state of the comic book industry of that era.  Without overdoing it, Segura gets into the taken-for-granted sexism of the time, the daily come-ons, indignities, and condescending verbal jabs Carmen has to deal with.  How she parries these affronts, some malicious, some not consciously meant as such but offensive nonetheless, is entertaining in itself, and the reader likes and roots for her throughout.  Besides this, Segura doesn’t make the mistake of giving Carmen a contemporary view of sexual relations in a 1975 world.  Carmen reads as a strong enlightened person of her time, and his decision to present a late scene in the book set in 2018, with Carmen talking to a younger woman who is the graphic novels reviewer for the New York Times, is both clever and emotionally apt.  We see how what Carmen did and what she endured, how she persisted, was entirely worth it.  The passage of time means that stories never told can now be told in the voice of the person who should have gotten credit in the first place.

I have always thought that Segura’s strengths lie more with character and emotional nuance than with action, and in this book, he embraces what he does best.  This is a character-driven mystery novel through and through.  Every single person here, down to the most minor characters, is well-drawn and understandable.  Motives are clear or become clear in time.  The narrative never dawdles but moves at an unhurried pace that shows the author’s confidence in his storytelling abilities.  And I loved the actual comic interludes, the black and white snippets we get from the first eleven Legendary Lynx issues.  They are exciting and sometimes humorous and connect in ways direct and oblique to the book’s plot and thematic concerns.  In a genre where so many books imitate other books, hitting overly familiar beats, Secret Identity goes its own way for the most part and takes you on a trip you likely haven’t taken before.  Like the best comics themselves, it is fun and full of passion and a thoroughly engaging ride.


Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Lightning Rod by Brad Meltzer

Scott D. Parker

If it’s spring, then it’s time for another Brad Meltzer book.

For the past few years, a new Meltzer book—either fiction or non-fiction—is published. After a two-book non-fiction detour—The First Conspiracy (about George Washington) and The Lincoln Conspiracy—Meltzer returns to the heroes from The Escape Artist.

In the intervening years, Meltzer allowed both Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, a mortician who left his job at Dover Air Force Base, and Nola Brown, the US Army’s painter-in-residence, to age and move froward after the events from that previous book. Zig is now in a private mortuary, mostly happy to have left his old life behind. That is, until he receives word that “one of our own,” Archie Mint, has been murdered in his car, parked in his own driveway.

Now, we readers know what happened because Meltzer showed us in the opening scene. But there is more than meets the eye. In fact, by the time you reach the end of the book, you might be compelled to re-read chapter 1. I’m just saying.

Nola, meanwhile, has gone off the grid. She, too, is pulled into the case of the death of Mint, but for different reasons. Because everything is not like it appears (natch: it’s a thriller). Mint has been hiding things, things that his family discovered after his death.

To make matters even more interesting, Nola’s long lost brother is now looking for her. Graduates of the foster program, they were separated in their early teen years and now Roddy wants to reconnect. But for good, or for ill?

All of these elements—and an interesting sub-plot for Zig—are thrown together on a roller coaster and Meltzer sends the reader careening.

Now, as with all Meltzer books I’ve consumed, I listened to the audiobook by Narrator Supreme, Scott Brick. And, as always, I love his narration style, the way he can make the most basic of descriptions sound even more interesting than Meltzer’s actual words. He always puts just the right amount of sarcasm, shock, boredom, or whatever kind of emotion the character is feeling or saying. Scott Brick could read the phone book and I’d probably buy a copy and listen.

The construction of this book is Thriller 101. I don’t mean than in a bad way at all. Seltzer is an accomplished commercial writer and he knows how to craft and pace a modern thriller. Just because I could see all the architecture of the story detracted not at all from its enjoyment.

And that sub-plot Meltzer throws at Zig? I think it’s a great example of how the smallest, most human of feelings can rise up whenever and wreck havoc on a person’s life, even when that person is in the middle of an exciting investigation.

I could use some sort of hyperbolic imperative to compel you to read this book, but I don’t really have to. It’s a Brad Meltzer thriller, narrated by Scott Brick. It’s a win-win. That’s all you need to know.  

Friday, March 25, 2022

My Last Crime Novel?

 By Jay Stringer

Holy crap everybody. I have a book coming out in TWO WEEKS. You believe that? As in...the week that comes when next week ends. As in...once this seven-day block ends and rolls over into another one, and then into the one after that. I mean...that's pretty soon, right? Another thing I wrote will be out in the world in just a few days. And people seem to like it. 


Imagine who Karen Sisco might have become if she'd quit the US Marshal Service after her run-in with Jack Foley. If she'd become a 'recovery agent' (let's say bounty hunter, it's more fun.) If she lived in Arizona and drove a cool car and then, one day, took on a case that reopened the past. Both 'the past' as in an unsolved case that haunts her, and 'the past' as in a girl she kissed in high school and has had a few 'what if' thoughts running around the back of her heart ever since. 


Ah yes. You got me. All of that is what happens, but not what the book is about. I'll be honest, I don't really like talking about that stuff. I think that's the secret sauce of a book. Something the writer should shut the hell up about, and let the reader find or not find the subtext as they choose fit. But I've said a few things publicly about this one that requires some follow-up. 

I would suggest one of the things this book could be about is...when is it too late to change your lane? If you find yourself in your thirties or forties and feel a bit stale, is it too late to try something new? I started writing this one as a fun road story/heist novel mashup. And soon Chloe Medina started to tell me that maybe she was unhappy with this cool, laid-back, fun bounty hunter role and was actually knee-deep in an identity crisis. And she wanted to know if the person she'd become was the person she had to be. 

And that was funny because...


My first novel was published in 2012. I've been either a full-time or part-time crime writer for a decade now. And there is a lot of water under that bridge. I've written the best damn book I could every time. But...I don't know. I think maybe I've written the book here that accidentally was about me. Not wanting to be angry or bitter, still wanting to have fun and be a positive influence, but realizing that maybe it's time to do that in a different lane. I started writing crime novels in my twenties, I'm now in my forties and I've changed a lot. I have two Marah Chase adventures to reissue in paperback this summer, and two more planned after that. I'm writing a horror/SF/speculative novel that's proving crazy difficult to finish. And then after that...we'll see. Life comes at you fast. Sometimes you need to roll with it. Sometimes you need to pause and take stock. 

But don't worry. I'm also still a shameless plug artist, so I'll be talking more about the book next week. On April first. What could possibly go wrong? 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

A conversation with Nikki Dolson

 I fucking love Nikki Dolson. 

In my time writing, she has become not only one of the best writers I know (If you've not read her stuff, I recommend her absolutely amazing story, The Mistress), but a friend, too. The kind of friend you can call at 1 AM because some real dark shit has gone down and you're sitting in your car outside the hospital. When I refer to this woman as The Queen, I'm not fucking around. I mean it, wholly and truly. She is amazing. 

The Queen

It occurred to me a few weeks ago, that maybe some of you know of her (I mean, everyone has heard of Nikki Dolson at this point, right?!?) but you might not know her. So Nikki and I, we had a conversation, and I'm going to share it with you all now. 

Paul J. Garth 

Nikki, you're known as one of the best short story writers in the community. Literally, every writer I talk to says how much they love your work. So, the first thing I want to ask is this: If I were putting an Avengers style group together of the best crime writers out there, who would you pick to be on the team with you?

Nikki Dolson


Paul J. Garth

It's totally true though.

Nikki Dolson

I would throw up the Cosby signal (picture a giant SAC like the bat signal lol). I would call on Dennis Tafoya and Scott Phillips. I would beg Megan Abbott and Faye Snowden and Laura Lippman. And put out one Hail Mary call out to the one and only Walter Mosley.

Tbh there is be such a long list of writers I would want. I am a mere student and these are the ones I look to when I’m stuck and frustrated with my own work.

Paul J. Garth 

One of the things I I love about talking about writing with you is you have such depth in terms of the things you read and the writers you admire. That list above feels both unlike one anyone else could give, but also right. Like you read it, and you're like, what the fuck else could you want?

Okay, so, you brought up Mosley, who I also adore. Let's get into this. If you had to recommend a Mosley novel to someone who had never read him before, what would you recommend?

Nikki Dolson

I read to learn new things and understand my own work better too. Faye Snowden writing is relatively new to me but her story in BAMS was so great. Somebody said read widely and I try to find a new writer every year.

Go to classic Mosley is Devil in a Blue Dress. You can’t go wrong with Easy Rawlins. My favorite series of his are the Leonid McGill books. Maybe it’s just the modern setting that I like more. I’m just starting the Last of Ptolomey Gray after seeing the first episode of the new television series. He is a beautiful writer. His characters rise up off the page and whisper in your ear. So that’s three lol 

Paul J. Garth 

One of the best things about Mosley is who all of your recommendations are right and excellent, but I still think I'd go with something different. Down the River Unto the Sea, specifically, because the main character, Joe, rides such a perfect line between being a guy who used to be a cop and a guy who is still feeling out what he thinks is possible or acceptable.

Nikki Dolson


Paul J. Garth 

Okay, lets talk about your writing for a second. There are a couple of topics I want to touch on, Vegas, Hitters, death, and relationships. But lets stay at the beginning. How do you start? Plot, character, an image? Something you're thinking about?

Nikki Dolson

Often it’s a scene or just a line of dialogue that pops into my head. Sometimes I’ll think on it for awhile to see what comes of it. Lately I’ve been getting ideas about plot: A meets B then makes a terrible decision. Then it’s weeks (months or years) of turning it over and trying to fit pieces of things I come across or that interest me into the slots. You should see the post-it notes stuck to my monitor. Or my notes app! Endless fragments of ideas jotted down over the course of my work day.

Paul J. Garth 

I imagine it might look pretty similar to mine! Im intrigued by what you said about time. Sometimes, and I've had this happen to me a lot lately, I'll get an idea for a story, and I'll know it's a great idea, but when I sit down to write it, it just... it doesn't come.  And, lately, I've been thinking that that just means I'm not ready to write it. Not yet. But eventually, when my subconconscious has turned over some small part of it that Im not even aware of yet, it will come. So, can you tell us, do you have any stories that you have published that started like that, and walk us through the process?

Nikki Dolson

Most recently is my story Neighbors which started off as an idea about two married couples at odds. My notes app says I started thinking about it in Sept of 2018 that I came back to again in January 2019 with more detail:

“Two married couples. 

One husband, A1, invests their savings into the other husband’s, X1, business/scheme. X1’s wife discovers that the money they had is completely gone and she goes to the A1’s house to cry about the deceit to A1’s wife. 

That evening A1’s wife tells A1 about their friend’s broken marriage. A1 reveals that he invested their money and it’s now gone too. “

I kicked around the idea one night with Shawn (Cosby) and one day these characters finally had names and lives. Then it still took me all of 2019 to write it. I am officially a slow writer now. 

There was a time where I churned out pages constantly. Now it seems I write a chunk then let it sit and then I revise it that not until I understand what story I’m really trying to write. It’s rarely just about the crime anymore. 

Paul J. Garth 

As a fellow member of the slow writers club, I understand exactly what you mean. The crime is there, but it's always secondary to something else. And a lot of the time, the crime is born of that other thing, so it needs to be deeply understood by the writer.

Here is where I point out to everyone reading that NEIGHBORS was in BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE, and encourage everyone to read it.

I wasn't planning on asking this, but I'm really curious: Tell me about finding out about that. Was it an email? A phone call? Did you celebrate?

Nikki Dolson

It was an email from Steph Cha. I absolutely thought someone was fucking with me! I could not believe it was true. I told Shawn about it (dear reader, I tell Shawn Cosby everything).  Then I ran to Twitter to see if anyone else had received notification and there was nothing! So I sat on it for a few hours. Once I really believed it was true I tweeted about it. Then it seemed like everyone else started posting about their acceptances and to have all of these amazing writers were in the antho too—I mean fucking Laura Lippman and Alex Segura!!! It was genuinely an amazing moment for me. It was a fabulous few days of love and joy on my Twitter TL.

I cried when I heard the audiobook of my story.

BAMS was definitely on my bucket list. Now my story is included in an audiobook too. I just need someone to buy the film rights lol 

Paul J. Garth 

They’d be dumb not to.

Okay, we’ve both covered more ground than I thought we would and also talked more in depth than I expected. I guess that can happen when two people like talking to one another 🙂 so let’s do one more question: I always want to talk to you about relationships and Vegas, but I’ve noticed another theme in your work: hit men and hit women. What is it that draws you to contract killers? Is it the wild card element they bring, or that they’re entirely based on stepping over lines other characters would flinch at?

Nikki Dolson

I think it’s just that I love a good hit man story. Whether they are guys doing bad things but are not otherwise terrible people (Lawrence Block’s Keller is easily my favorite hit man) or guys just following orders who later find a line they refuse to cross and decide to do the right thing (Mark Strong’s character Sorter in Guy Ritchie’s Revolver) or guys who like what they do because they want to hurt people (Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, book and movie) I just love diving into stories with these kind of characters. But they are just characters to me. They aren’t real so I’m more amused by them than I am afraid. 

And as for hit women, all of this applies but women are never the ones doing this work in fiction unless it’s the punch line (James bond) or the twist (old woman kills guy then walks away because who would suspect her?) or it’s the amnesia victim who had time to find her true calling as a gentle wife until she remembers her murderous job (long kiss goodnight—which I fucking LOVE). It’s a little thrilling for me when it’s a hitwoman because it’s never supposed to be us. 

Which brings me to a ciswoman’s ultimate goal in life—the wife: I am always more interested in the wife who killed her husband because I could never do that! I have been a wife. I have been angry with my husband. I would sooner disappear than physically hurt him. But, the woman who would who could plot the demise of the person they love, had kids with, planned a life with, now she is someone who terrifies me more than a hit man. I can imagine her standing next to me in line. Waving hello to me at school drop-off. She is a real person and I will always want to know her story. Give me the unhappy suburban wife with an axe to grind and three dozen cupcakes to make for her kids third grade class before she goes to bed. That is high drama. Maybe she just leaves him or maybe she poisons him, butchers his body and stores him in the freezer in the garage. 😃 

Paul J. Garth 

Well now I’m going to be sideeying all the garages in my neighborhood, asking myself, “have I seen that dude lately?” But for real, the marriages in your work are always so wonderfully present; the women are empathetic and understandable but, you have a way of adding that extra sliver of grit to them that makes it totally believable they’d be willing to kill or maim. I’m still remember the first time I read The Mistress and how the ending just absolutely slapped me in the face. That it was all done in second person speaks to your skill. 

Okay, I had a lot more questions for you, but we’re probably getting low on space, so, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to ask one more question, and then maybe we can keep talking and do a part two. 

With that, Nikki, I know you’re a night owl like me. So, late night writing session. What’s your stimulant of choice? Are you drinking coffee after midnight, wine, or just diving through the wee hours with determination and willpower?

Nikki Dolson

Determination, willpower and a little fear. I want to write stories that move people but mostly I don’t want to disappoint. So I’m always afraid I’ve written a stinker. I want to be as good as my favorites. I’m not there yet. I’ll never be that good but it’s what keeps me up late revising a story.

Paul J. Garth 

Of course you take a throwaway question and give the best damn answer possible.

You're the damn best, Nikki. Thanks for taking the time to talk, and I hope we can do it again soon!

Nikki Dolson

You’re such an excellent writer. I am honored you asked me. This was so fun!

Tuesday, March 22, 2022


On Hulu, I've been watching The Dropout, about the unlikely rise and predictable fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos.  It's a story I followed somewhat on the news as it broke, though I never listened to the podcast the series is based on or saw the Alex Gibney documentary on the same story, called The Inventor.  

The series is five of eight episodes in, so I suppose it won't be too long now before the biotech fraud perpetrated by Holmes and her partner Sonny Balwani will be exposed.  It's been an absorbing and at times darkly funny series so far, with a good cast down the line, led by Amanda Seyfried as Holmes and Naveen Andrews as Balwani.  William H. Macy, Stephen Frye, and Laurie Metcalf have parts as well, and anything any of these actors are in benefits from their presence.

It's a thing now, it seems, these series about deception and venture capital and start-ups that go from boom to bust swiftly.  Besides The Dropout, on now also are WeCrashed, with Jared Ledo and Anne Hathaway, about the WeWork fiasco, and Super Pumped, which in its first season is about Uber and the ascent and ouster of its co-founder and onetime CEO Travis Kalanick. I'm still working on just The Dropout, but as I've been watching, I've been realizing that I enjoy these shows taken from very recent news that I've read about already.  But I've only read about these stories in articles or pieces. I haven't yet felt inclined to read a book about these stories, as there has been with Super Pumped or Billion Dollar Loser, which is the WeWork tale.  I don't feel inclined to spend hours reading about these people and their worlds but will spend hours watching a dramatization about them.  And I wonder if that's because, in a series, there's the fun of spending time with these con artist assholes when they're played by actors who make the people they're playing just a touch more interesting and engaging than the real-life people are.  Of course, that's part of it.  I know something about the story going in, from news accounts I've read, watch the series, and then myself sort of fact check the series against what's known to have actually happened.  I would imagine, too, that the characters making up these accounts, themselves semi-actors on stages of their own devising, with idiosyncrasies galore, like Holmes with her deep voice and unblinking gaze, are wonderful as human subjects to portray.  It's also true that these type of stories are served well by episodic television.  In a two-hour movie, inevitably, there is much condensing and ellipses, but these shows can take their time and lay everything out about the numerous players in greater detail.

I notice that I watch these shows with a pleasurable emotional detachment.  With The Dropout, I watch it not feeling much sympathy for the people bilked by Holmes.  I do feel sympathy for the scientists and lab people, like Stephen Frye's character, who worked for Theranos.  But how much can you feel for the venture capitalists who fell for her scam and funded her?  Or for those like George Schultz who fell for her scam and served on her board?  Or for the two old guys from Walgreens who despite doubts about her invention's viability get sucked in because they fear she may partner up with their competitor, CVS?  I remember when The Wolf of Wall Street came out and there was some criticism of how little sympathy Scorsese's film shows for the people taken in by Jordan Belfort.  The film coldly appraises the men and women, some elderly, who lost money because of him. But I thought, "And so?" I felt detached from those victims also.  If you enter that game, that particular world, whether as a first-time investor or after years of experience investing, and you do so voluntarily, it seems to me that you're on thin ice crying foul later when you were the one conned.  It's not that you deserved to be taken, but what happened to you was part of the risk.  You were the one with the dreams of wealth who couldn't read the fraudster correctly.  Instead of the hoped-for rewards, you got fooled.  I always watch these stories marveling at human gullibility and how unlikely, at bottom, the events recounted in these stories are. Or perhaps I shouldn't say they're unlikely because they happen, in one form or another, over and over and over again.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Necessary and valuable

By Marietta Miles

President Joe Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. If confirmed, Judge Jackson will be the first Black woman to sit on the highest court in the land. Long overdue, this day of confirmation hearings has been years in the making. 

Judge Jackson has faced Senate confirmation hearings before, and she's been approved to her previous positions on a bipartisan basis. Still, there are those who strive to diminish Judge Jackson’s nomination as affirmative action or discrimination against white people. Those who dismiss her experience, reputation and education as political posturing are losing sight of her iron-clad credentials.

She graduated from Harvard University Law school with honors and worked as the supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review. Judge Jackson served as a law clerk for a U.S. district judge, for a U.S. circuit court of appeals judge, and for outgoing Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, whose retirement affords her this opportunity.

Judge Jackson served as an assistant special counsel and later vice-chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Jackson has served on the D.C. Circuit appeals court, the nation’s highest-profile appeals court and she won Senate confirmation with support from every Democrat and three Republicans. And unlike all other Supreme Court justices, she also worked as a federal public defender. Judge Jackson has received support from the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, The National Council of Jewish Women and more.

Ketanji Jackson is obviously qualified, and she would be a necessary and valuable addition to the Supreme Court. However, once she is confirmed we must recognize that the fight for equality is not over and act accordingly. There is a dramatic absence of women of color in legislative roles in our country. Wherever there are issues of health care, job opportunities, voting rights, education and more, women of color need to be at the table and making decisions.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Bloom County Returns


Look! Dandelions! And underpants!

By Claire Booth

One of my favorite casts of characters is coming to TV. Opus, Bill the Cat, Oliver Wendell Jones, Lola Granola and hopefully Rosebud the Basselope will be coming to Fox in an animated series. I can’t wait.

I grew up with the comic strip—which explains a lot about my adult mindset, actually. I recognize there are dandelions (peace, tranquility, happiness) to be had in life, but that you’ve got to get through a lot of Steve Dallas types to find them.

Part of my collection. Opus says hi.
Here’s the official series description, which is officially "in development," according to The Hollywood Reporter: “Bloom County centers on a collapsed lawyer, a lobotomized cat and a penguin in briefs and fruit headwear living in the world’s last boarding house in the world’s most forgotten place deep in the dandelion wilds of FlyWayWayOver country. To wit, today’s America at a glance.”

I’m optimistic that this series will continue Fox’s fine tradition of prime-time animation. The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, King of the Hill—all shows that, to varying degrees, push boundaries. For Bloom County TV to succeed, it needs to do that in a big way. I have confidence that Berkeley Breathed will do that. I just have to hope that Fox will let him.


Saturday, March 19, 2022

Do Not Waste Time

Scott D. Parker

Four simple words. That’s all they are, but they carry so much.

If you’ve been following my post over the past few weeks, you’ll know that I’ve been struggling a bit. Most of us creatives struggle from time to time, and this was my latest. The good news is that, as of last week, I was out of the funk, with a new plan to write, publish, and, most of all, have fun. What I didn’t do is dwell on on the lost years in which I could have been publishing my stories. That’s water under the bridge, and dwelling on that only leads to more depression, something no one needs.

Then the other news struck. Twice. And the perspective grew sharper.

A week ago today, a friend of mine sent a text to a group chat. He was blunt: he has cancer. Shocked, I was five words into a text response when I figuratively slapped myself and picked up the phone. We had a nice conversation. His type of cancer is treatable, but he’d never be free from it. A Christian, my friend is actually calm about the entire situation. I admire his fortitude and his faith. Needless to say, for me, the news was a shocker.

Then, not three days later, my mom called. My dad’s longest friend passed away. The friend was in his car, about to go to work, and just died. My dad’s friend had moved away from Texas nearly fifty years ago so it wasn’t like there would be a number of events and gatherings that would suddenly have an empty chair, but my dad and his friend talked frequently and kept up with each other.

Those two things are much more significant that my creative output and happiness, but it got me to thinking. Sure, I had piddled away numerous opportunities to write and publish my stories, but for whatever reason, I haven’t.

While I had already determined a nice, reasonable publication schedule, the twin doses of bad news sharpened my focus. No one person knows how many days he or she has in this life, and it’s best to make the most of each day. I make that a habit, thanking God every day for the gift of life.

But on the creative side of things, it got me thinking about the stories I’ve already written and the ones yet to come. I want to share them, preferably on this side of life. And, to date, the only thing holding me back…is me.

I have, undeniably, wasted months and years of my creative life when I could have be sharing my stories these past number of years. I missed those opportunities, but I will strive not to miss the future ones. I will not waste time.

So, today, like Marietta wrote earlier this month, hug every member of your family, tell them you love them, and pick up the phone and make a call to that person you haven’t spoken to in a while. You will be so glad you did.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Thoughts and Inspiration from Dave Grohl’s The Storyteller


Scott D. Parker

The urge came out of nowhere. Somehow, last year, I had the overwhelming desire to buy the new Foo Fighters album, Medicine at Midnight. That was odd considering I’d never purchased any of their albums up to that time. Heck, I knew only a handful of their songs and one main video, but buy the record I did and it became my favorite album of the year.

So when Dave Grohl, the founder and front man of the band, published his memoirs, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, in the fall of 2021, I was primed and ready for it.

But I wasn’t ready for what it did to me.

A Parallel Life

With my newfound interest in all things Foo and Grohl, I learned Dave was only five weeks younger than I was. Back in 1991, when Nirvana released their seminal album “Nevermind” and set a dividing line in the history of rock music—there was a Before Nevermind and an After Nevermind—I probably knew that the trio were my age, but it didn’t register. Bands who made records I could buy were always older than me, right? Turns out, Dave was the youngest. He was like the younger brother of one of the two other guys in the band, brought along on account of his ferocious drumming style. I think we all know that Dave was at the right place at the right time, just before Nirvana blew away the general public with their sound.

But Dave was already a veteran of that scene. He had been intoxicated with the punk rock sound of Washington DC even though he was a suburban kid from Virginia. Even without a proper drum kit (he used pillows), the music flowed through him and he practiced and practiced the drums and well as strumming and picking out songs on his guitar.

Good fortune, luck, whatever you want to call it arrived one day when Dave, the seventeen-year-old struggling high school student, was given the chance to audition for the punk rock band Scream. He nailed the audition and, when invited to join the band, lead singer Peter Stahl finally thought to ask the young man his age. Naturally, Dave lied. “Twenty-one.” Peter and the other members of Virginia-based Scream accepted Dave’s word and Scream had a new drummer.

But Dave had one crucial thing to do, and even as I listened to Dave recount the story via the audiobook, fully knowing how it would turn out, it was a tense moment. Dave had to talk with his mother, a public school teacher, and convince her to let him drop out of school and tour with the band. Her words were surprising: “You’d better be good.”

As a listener to Dave’s journey, I found myself joining in his long days of traveling the country in a van, stretching out pennies per day on food, sleeping like sardines in said van, only to explode for an hour a day on stage. As a parent myself, however, I found Virginia Grohl’s faith in her son heart-warming yet also inspirational. The main job of a parent is to raise our children to be good, functioning, adults capable of holding down a job and making it on their own. She must have recognized that Dave was not going to be a typical nine-to-five kind of person and let him go. Even though my son is now twenty, I think back to when he was seventeen and ask myself if I could have let him go.

Turning it back on myself, however, I thought back to when I was seventeen. I was a junior in high school, just like Dave was. Could I have left the comfort of my suburban Houston home to tour with a rock band? Would my parents have let me? The answer to both is no.

That Guy From Nirvana

The four-year stretch when Dave toured America and Europe with Scream on less than a shoe-string budget helped forge his character into what he would become. His frugality he learned from his single mother, who raised Dave and his sister via her public school job and other jobs she took to make ends meet. He learned to make do with less and be happy about it. I found it telling that when he received his first check after joining Nirvana—an astounding-for-him $400—he blew it on a Nintendo and other assorted things he didn’t really need. Soon, he was back to scraping by, barely choking down the three-for-a-dollar corn dogs from a gas station. Still, he learned his lesson.

It’s common knowledge that Dave auditioned for Nirvana at a time when Scream was a slowly sinking ship. He joined the band with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic and set to work on Nirvana’s sophomore album, Nevermind. It was great to hear Dave’s thoughts and memories about Kurt, especially how unprepared the trio was for the instant international fame they garnered with that fall 1991 album and, most importantly, the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video. Soon, the very people who poked fun of Dave in high school were now attending Nirvana shows. The alternative, punk rock mentality in which Dave and Kurt and Krist thrived was being co-opted by the mainstream. Dave struggled with it, but he managed to get through the deluge while Kurt did not.

I made the choice to listen to this book because Dave narrates his own story, and it is exactly the way to consume this book. You get Dave’s snide tonal shifts depending on if he’s talking about a funny memory, but you can also hear his somber voice as he talks about how Kurt’s death affected him. In interviews about this book, Dave mentioned he wrote the passages about Kurt last. I wonder if he recorded them last as well.

The Indie Spirit of Foo Fighters

In the immediate aftermath of Kurt’s death, Dave left music. He didn’t even listen to the radio. The very thing that pumped in his veins, that compelled him to become a high-school dropout was now the same thing he couldn’t endure. He wanted to distance himself from Nirvana, from Kurt, and, as he came to realize, from himself. After nearly picking up a hitchhiker in Ireland—the young man was wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, the sight of which caused Dave to duck his head and pass by—Dave knew he must return to music.

As an indie author, I enjoy performing all aspects of writing and publishing myself. True, some tasks are more mundane than others, but that is the price I’m willing to pay. I knew about Foo Fighters back in 1995 but never bought the debut record. What I truly never understood, however, was that, save for a single guitar part in one song, Dave wrote and performed every bit of that twelve-song debut. And he did it all in six days in the studio. That astounded me, but what I really latched onto was how that creativity in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide was Dave’s road out of his depression.

You see, I’ve been struggling with my own career as a writer, wondering if it is all worth it or if I should just hang it up. Why bother, I’d tell myself. No one cares if I write or don’t. In fact, those thoughts have so permeated my thinking that I actually have stopped. It’s been a month since I last wrote new words on anything other than blog posts.

But I have spent countless words on examining myself, and in this time of re-examining what kind of fiction writing career I want, I listened to Dave’s book. I hear him talk about his own struggles, his own doubts and fears, how he, even to this day, still struggles and wonders if he’s good enough.

Dave is a wonderful storyteller, weaving in and out of various tales from the road. All are remarkable and all had me questioning myself and my creative life choices. Late in the book, he described the feeling of being invited to perform—solo—at the Oscars. And it was the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” So, no pressure, right? He was scared, so scared that he nearly declined. But he and his daughter, Violet, had recently performed the song at her school talent show and she encouraged him to do the song. You see, she was scared to perform but she overcame her fears and knocked it out of the park. The child served as inspiration for the father.

In concluding this story, Dave wrote the following:

"Courage is the defining factor in the life of any artist. The courage to bare your innermost feelings, to reveal your true voice, or to stand in front of an audience and lay it all out there for the world to see. The emotional vulnerability that is often necessary to summon a great song can also work against you when you’re sharing your song for the world to hear. This is the paralyzing conflict of any sensitive artist, a feeling I’ve experienced with every lyric I’ve sung to someone other than myself. Will they like it? Am I good enough? It is the courage to be yourself that bridges those opposing emotions, and when it does, magic can happen."

Dave’s book arrived at the perfect time in my life and the inspirational journey he went on and continues to undertake hit me in the exact place I needed it: my creative spirit. It needed a jolt to get me out of the doldrums. My spirit needed to come around and be reminded that every single creative person—whether an indie writer, a rock star, or anyone in between—has moments of doubt. But if we just keep going and keep making our art, magic can happen.

It is remarkable to get an inside look at an established and famous rock star who is my age. The bass player, Nate Mendel, is four days older than me so I should have been a Foo Fighters fans from the jump. But I wasn’t. Instead, it took me twenty-seven years to come around.

Now, I’m there and not only am I on YouTube watching tons of videos but I’m rummaging through my wife’s CD collection and pulling every Foo Fighters album she has. The music is fantastic, but Dave Grohl’s message is even better.