Sunday, February 16, 2020

At the Starting Line


I’m beginning a new novel, which means that in addition to brainstorming plot ideas, I’m pulling out my starting-line resources.
These are a few things that I’ve found over the years that help me get fired up about the long writing road ahead. One is On Writing, by Stephen King. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, but now I limit myself to opening it only when I’m about to start a new project. It’s useful for many reasons. You hear from a master how he does it. And you hear that a writing career is hard and long. Which is a big boost psychologically as I confront a blank page. And then there are the little jewels throughout. One I came to as I was preparing to write this blog post:
King stopped for gas at a station with an attendant. While the guy was filling up his car, he wandered around the building and found a fast-moving stream. There were still patches of snow on the ground and he slipped, barely catching himself before sliding into the water and getting swept away. He thought about how long it would’ve taken anybody to notice he was missing and then how long before rescue personnel would find him. That morphed into an idea about a mysterious man who parks an old Buick in front of a rural gas station. That eventually became From a Buick 8. And that tells me that falling on your ass isn’t necessary a bad thing.
My other favorite reference is a list of points from a former Pixar storyboard artist. Emma Coats wrote a column about it for The Wall Street Journal a long time ago, and I cut it out immediately. A few of my favorites:
- “Give your characters opinions. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third and fourth—get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
- “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”
- And the one I always strive for and never manage to accomplish: “Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.”
Maybe I’ll be able to do it for this book—but don’t hold me to it.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 7 AKA Bond and Batman

by
Scott D. Parker

Well, if it wasn’t for Matt Reeves and Billie Eilish, I’d have darn near nothing to discuss today.

You see, this has been a bit of a nothing week. After Gregg Hurwitz week last week, not much happened. I’m reading The Nowhere Man, Hurwitz’s second Orphan X novel. Really digging it and the character.

I’m also reading some Star Wars comics from the late 70s, specifically the months leading up to the release of The Empire Strikes Back in May 1980.

TV wise, I’m catching up on Magnum PI via my CBS All Access subscription. The move from Monday nights to Fridays pretty much screwed my airtime viewing of the show. When I went and reviewed the list, I realized I had only seen two episode. Now, I’ve watched six episodes in three days. Love being able to watch on my Chromebook at lunch at work.

Thus I didn’t have much to write about. Until Thursday.

No Time To Die by Billie Eilish


I’ll be the first to admit that I disliked the news Eilish had been given the opportunity to write and sing the new James Bond theme song. I’ve seen her on SNL and random other live events and I’ve been less than impressed. Even her rendition of “Yesterday” last week at the Oscars left me wanting.

Still, she’s on a terrific run. She’s following up her four Grammy wins—the four biggest of the night—with a Bond song. Bueno to her for having a moment. And, clearly, she’s popular.

But what kind of Bond song would she create? The Daniel Craig films, if I’m being honest, have batter .500. I really enjoy Skyfall and You Know My Name. I ended up only tolerating Writing’s on the Wall while watching Spectre. And I don’t like Another Way to Die, the theme from Quantum of Solace.

Fear not: the record for the worst Bond song is firmly set: Madonna’s Did Another Day. Too bad. Pierce Brosnan had some great theme songs and a bonus: kd lang’s Surrender, the best non-main-theme song of the entire Bond oeuvre.

So it was with great trepidation I dialed up Eilish’s song on Thursday night. I sighed at my son as I started the video. He left. I sat and listened.


By the time it ended, I had a verdict:

I didn’t hate it.

It was quiet, somber. Her voice actually seemed to fit. It had an elegiac vibe, pretty nifty considering this is Craig’s last bow as Bond. I actually liked the “Food me once, fool me twice” part, segueing directly into a short orchestral part.

There were some good Bond-music elements in the piece, especially the last chord.

So it looks like my opinion of Billie Eilish singing a Bond song was wrong. I do find it fascinating, however, that three of the five Craig theme songs were slow. Wonder what that means, if anything.

The New Batman Revealed


Also on Thursday night came the first images of Robert Patinson in his own Batman suit. Yeah, I only know him from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and the Twilight movies. His casting didn’t bother me. He was new. He was different. I’m looking forward to the new Batman movie. I’ll wait to see the movie before I pass judgement.

But how did the suit look? I’ll freely admit I liked Ben Affleck’s suit in his two appearances on screen. It was very comic book accurate, the best we’ve had to date.

Here it is.

But in a real-world environment—the vibe Matt Reeves seems to be going for—the body armor suit seems appropriate.

We didn’t get to see a lot of Pattinson’s suit. We saw the symbol, which looked like it that bat-symbol could be popped out and used as a weapon. Interesting. Makes me also think of the Kevin Smith-penned story from Detective Comics issue 1,000 in which Bruce took the gun used to kill his parents, melted it down, and inserted it into his suit as a breast plate. Wonder if that’s part of it.

Pattinson’s cowl looks really fascinating. There are what appear to be stitching along the front, leading me to wonder if this Bruce Wayne doesn’t have the tech gadgetry of the Nolan films. I would actually like that. I like also how the eyes are either hidden in the shadow of the red-hued film or actually behind some sort of lenses.

Oh, and that Michael Giacchino music? CanNOT wait for that. Giacchino is great at everything he does. You heard his music for 2012’s John Carter? Great.

Assumptions Busted


All in all, it’s a week of assumptions being busted. Well, only one with Eilish. I’m an open book when it comes to Pattinson.

Either way, I’m looking forward to the last Craig-as-Bond film in a few weeks and am eager for Pattinson’s Batman.

What are y’all’s thoughts on both things?

Friday, February 14, 2020

Beau and Angel


This week, Beau Johnson takes on Blacky Jaguar.

Blacky Jaguar ex-IRA hard man, devoted greaser, and overall hooligan, is furious. Someone's made off with Polly, his 1959 Plymouth Fury, and there's not much that can stop him from getting her back. It doesn't take him to long to get a name, Osito, the Little Bear. This career bastard has Polly in his clutches, and Blacky doesn't have long until she's a memory.

The sudden burst of righteous violence gets the attention of Special Agent Linda Chen, FBI pariah and Blacky's former flame. Linda's out to get her man before he burns down half the Bronx and her superiors get the collar.

All roads will lead our heroes to an unassuming house in one of the worst parts of the South Bronx, where fists and bullets will surely fly, but maybe, just maybe, Blacky will find a better reason to fight than a car. The Fury of Blacky Jaguar is the story of friends, enemies, and one sweet ass ride.
 



Thursday, February 13, 2020

Regret



When I was – well, let’s say younger, because ‘young’ would suggest I’m now old, and I don’t feel old (though I am old enough to remember New Order when they were called Joy Division. I prefer The Order. More fun.)

Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah, not being old. Well, when I was younger I used to travel a lot with my day job, and one of my favourite things to do when I was travelling for work was to use my spare time to explore and engage with the countries cities cultures I ended up in. I figured the company dollar had sent me to Hong Kong. So okay: many of the other expats experience of HK was a triangle of their gated community, their office and various drinking dens in Lang Kwai Fong (a maze of narrow alleys full of bars and clubs catering to the expat community. The only locals in “The Fong” were usually serving the Gwai Lo), with occasional trips to the Hong Kong Sports club (again, mostly expats.)

One of those expats proudly advised me, on meeting for the first time “To be sure and visit The Great Wall. It’s a Chinese restaurant, but like what we have at home.” (Home was, if I recall correctly, Swansea) “None of that dodgy foreign stuff.”

Apart from goggling at the insensitivity and lack of adventurousness in the statement I was filled with admiration for the local Chinese Entrepreneur who retro-fitted a restaurant space and menu to resemble the sort of place and sticky-sweet, MSG-doused menu you’d experience after sixteen pints at the Rugby on a Saturday.

Unless, of course, the entrepreneur was actually a bloke called Barry from Pontypridd.

But I digress. More frequently, these days, it seems.

Anyways, I swerved The Great Wall, taking, instead, trips to the very edge of Hong Kong Territory and at one stage acquiring the paperwork to venture across the border into China properly. 




Let’s be clear: I’m not claiming to be The Gay Marco Polo. I think you’ll find that Marco Polo was The Gay Marco Polo. But I travelled. On buses filled with locals, who (in some cases) had very little English, but still more English than I had Cantonese or Mandarin. I journeyed to Istanbul and walked around the city, visiting the tourist highlights, and finding a bookshop off the beaten path that I had a taxi take me to so I could talk to a Turkish Booklover (I never claimed not to be a book nerd). My first business trip to New York inspired a life-long love affair with the city, and even a day in Athens was scheduled so I could squeeze a trip to the Acropolis in.



Then, three years ago, I was asked to spend a month in Johannesburg South Africa. I came. I sat in a hotel. I went to work. I had one of the most genuinely depressing months of my life. Brexit had just happened. My mother’s death the year before was still raw, and all that time alone in a hotel room made it almost physically manifest. The Fascist Orangutang – some months earlier- had acquired The White House. Things were generally shit.

I barely survived and swore never again.

Until, in December, my day job asked me to spend another month in the same city. I tried everything to escape it but in the end it was my husband who pointed out how a trip to Africa at the height of their summer had to be better than spending January in London with sleet snow darkness and all the psychological impacts that brings.

So I went, determined to use the time to write a book and to work out every single night, and that plan went well enough.

Then one of my colleagues asked what I was going to do at the weekend and I admitted I had no plans. “Oh you have to go to Cape Town. You ever been to Cape Town?” I admitted that no, I had never been to Cape Town.

“Well you need to go,” he said, opening his phone and – as I stood there wondering why on earth I would want to take a two hour flight away from a place I didn’t know to another place I didn’t know – he’d found my flights, suggested some accommodation and started proposing things I needed to see and do in my two day stay.

I found myself handing over my credit card while a bit of my brain said “What the fuck are you doing?”

The rest of the week passed and as I got closer to the day I realised I was anxious. I was getting a train to the station (“The easiest way,” my friend insisted). What if I missed the train? What if I got one going the wrong way? What if I got to the airport and couldn’t find the domestic flights area? Christ, I hadn’t checked in; what if that was a problem? What if I got there and my Uber driver was a violent mugger? What if the place I’ve booked is a roach infested dump in the middle of nowhere?

To make a long story short (“TOO LATE!” They all cried) I made the train, the flight, the pickup at the other end, the apartment I’d booked, and when I woke on Saturday morning I got my first view of my home for the weekend.


I spent the day on a hop-on-hop off bus getting a tourist view of the city, watching and listening to local buskers and bands play the most amazing music I’ve heard in a long time; I shopped for books; I shopped for a pair of swim shorts to wear when I tried out that fabulous pool at my apartment. I visited the amazing Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and a sense of peace – of genuine stop-dead- in-your-tracks tranquility – hit me.

And I realised I’d been afraid. And I realised that the fear wasn’t there before my mother got sick and died, and that the previous South Africa had been the first and pretty much only solo trip since then. And I’d been afraid of everything that could go wrong; had been catastrophising shit that – even if it were to go wrong – would be little more than an inconvenience.

And it was a waste of time. Because the worst thing had already happened. And I remembered who I used to be.



I sat down in the dappled shade of an ancient gnarled tree on grass as bright as emeralds and as warm as a fireside rug  and I opened one of the books I’d just bought – the biography of a South African comedian called Trevor Noah (on whom I’ve had a crush for ages, but of whom I knew very little) and I randomly flicked through it, and my eye fell on this:


And – although it’s hardly the most profound thing I’ve ever read – it struck a chord with me. I’ve been asked to do some things in my capacity as a writer this year. Talks, workshops, a prison and a school visit, and in every case I have said “Yes,” (Because Of course) and then become instantly aware of the low-level anxiety hum and of the voices telling me that I don’t know how to do that (without my even, in some cases, having ironed out what ‘that’ is) and it’s all from the same place that was telling me to just stay in my hotel in Johannesburg, maybe sit out on the deserted sun terrace. Order room service. Waste the weekend on existing instead of Living.

The fear.

The fear that will stop me doing stuff. That will do the one thing my mother would have been heartbroken by: stop me living my life to the full.

So: No more fear. No more regrets.

I'm back.






***



Derek Farrell was raised in Dublin and lives, now, in London where he writes The Danny Bird Mysteries, “Death of a Diva,” “Death of a Nobody,” “Death of a Devil,”and  “Death of an Angel” can all be purchased from the usual e-stores or directly from the publisher hereThe fifth, “Come to Dust,” is available exclusively as a free download from his website derekfarrell.co.uk . The sixth – Death of a Sinner – is a Fahrenheit69 Tete Beche Novella and is published in a joint edition with Jo Perry’s “Everything Happens.” It can be purchased here.



Wednesday, February 12, 2020

THE NOIR JOURNEY OF EDWARD HOPPER

Malaise. Ennui. Melancholy. These are some of the emotions and feelings inspired by the work of one of the greatest modern artists in  American history, the great Edward Hopper. These are also emotions that can be inspired by a great piece of noir fiction. Hopper's work shares many parallels with the American Noir movement and in many cases may have served to inspire writers and filmmakers as the sub-genre was in it's infancy. 
  Recently I attended a showing of Hoppers work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. Like many I have been a fan of Hopper's work since I first saw his arguably most famous work "Nighthawks" at the age of fourteen. Even though I was just a kid there was something wistful and solemn about that painting but also a sense of danger and excitement. The man and woman sitting at the counter while the soda jerk goes about the drudgery of his job. Are they waiting for someone? Do the man and woman know each other ?  Or are they just two singular lost souls in a city with eight million stories? 
    For many years after that my knowledge of Hopper began and ended with Nighthawks. Then in college I saw an exhibit of his work at the Washington D.C. portrait gallery.  The recent exhibit in Virginia was even more expansive with many never before seen sketches and diary entries from Hopper's wife. The actual name of the exhibit is entitled Edward Hopper and the American hotel. A large part of Hopper's output is centered around hotels and traveling. There are comparisons that can be drawn from this segment of his work and some of the great noir films produced shortly after his most active period. The Blue Dahlia , the classic Alan Ladd film, traces the isolation and otherness returning WW2 vets felt as they returned home. Ladd's character returns to find his wife has taken up with another man and so he retires to a boarding house. His loneliness and despair expressed by the stark confines of his room. When his wife is killed he goes on the hunt for her killer but we never truly feel he is a part of the world he left behind even as he solves the crime. Much like Hopper's subject in his painting "Room in New York" Ladd's character is in the world but not of the world. The female subject in the painting is only a few feet away from him but there might as well be miles between them. 
         In the classic film Key Largo  Humphrey Bogart's Frank MCcloud finds himself in danger on the sun ripened shores of Key Largo at an old resort. Like an orange gone rotten on the inside the resort is full of corruption and despair that is just bubbling below the surface. In Hopper's "People In the Sun" his subjects are disinterested sun bathers their faces turned toward the light but their connections to each other secretive and suspicious. There is darkness slithering through all that light on that motel sun deck.
        The transient nature of motels and hotels is a perfect setting for both the art of Hopper and the fetid denizens of a classic noir film. Anonymity and privacy, the seeds of both inhibition and regret are planted in fertile soil among the shadowy hallways and dark country roads that carry Hopper's subjects and the characters in classic films to their appointed destinies. 
       Another place where Hopper and classic noir films intersect is there lack black and brown people among their lonely citizenry. This is not to insinuate that Hopper is a racist or that all filmmakers of the golden age were. Hopper, in his writings and from all accounts in the many biographies about him was a fairly progressive individual. Yet the lack of faces similar to my own is a stark reminder that for many black and brown folks ruminations of existensial dread along the wind swept arteries of the American road was not a luxury they were afforded.  
             That being said the work of Edward Hopper continues to be an evocative inspiration that pushes us to examine our inner selves and contemplate our isolation even as we may be surrounded by the maddening crowd
And really what is more Noir than that?

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles


Most of my Mediterranean crime fiction reading has involved the island of Sicily.  I've read a lot of Leonardo Sciascia and several of Andrea Camilleri's novels.  But until recently I hadn't read any of the writers considered to be exponents of the current now known as "Mediterranean noir". 

That changed a couple weeks ago when I read the most recent Massimo Carlotto novel, Blues for Outlaw Hearts and Old Whores, a book featuring his ex-convict private detective Marco Buratti, aka The Alligator, and followed that up by reading Jean-Claude Izzo's Garlic, Mint & Sweet Basil.  Izzo, I suppose, with his Marseille trilogy, is the one who really put Mediterranean noir on the map.  But before diving into those three books, I figured I'd get to know Izzo by trying this collection of essays he wrote, and it did not disappoint.



To begin with, if a writer ever loved a city, his home city, it's Izzo.  In one way or another, every essay in the book discusses Marseilles and what it means to the writer.  He himself is the child of an Italian immigrant father and a woman of Spanish descent.  As a child in Marseilles, though born there, he was classified as an immigrant.  Izzo writes beautifully about the melange of people that make up the city and how (he was writing when the right-wing and immigrant phobic National Front was on the rise in France, particularly southern France) he believes in Marseilles as a place of openness and possibility: 

"That is why I love this city, my city.  She is beautiful because of that familiarity, which is like bread to be shared by all.  She is beautiful only because of her humanity.  The rest is just chauvinism.  There are plenty of beautiful cities with beautiful monuments in Europe.  The world is full of beautiful harbors, beautiful bays, magnificent ports.  I am not a chauvinist.  I am a Marseillais.  That means I am here, passionately so, and from everywhere at the same time. Marseilles is my world culture.  My initial world education."

He also lays out what drives him to write crime novels and how that drive ties into what he sees going on in the world around him:

"Writing crime novels is not another form of activism.  It's just a way of conveying my doubts, my anxieties, my joys, my pleasures.  It's a way of sharing.  Apart from my opposition to the National Front, I'm not trying to say we must do this or we must do that.  I just tell stories.  If it spurs some people to join a group, so much the better.  Montale [one of his main characters] doesn't belong to any party.  He has values.  He doubts.  He's a lone wolf.  But he does believe in a certain number of things."

In Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil, you get to read about the things Izzo believes in, and he shares his wide range of interests with you.  He talks about the light in Marseilles, the city's history, how the sea looks at certain times of day or night depending on the weather.  He discusses
neighborhoods he loves and how crime fiction on the Mediterranean links back to ancient Greece and the play Oedipus Rex. He describes bars he enjoys frequenting and quotes his favorite poets writing about the city he loves.  He talks about food in Marseilles, as opposed to food in Provence as a whole, and how it reflects the city's unpretentiousness.  He has brief, individual essays on garlic, mint, and basil -- as his title states.  Izzo's mind is curious and his intellect expansive, and for a short book, Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil packs in a lot.  It's a lovely read and definitely has whet my appetite for his trilogy.  




Saturday, February 8, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 6 AKA Gregg Hurwitz Week

by
Scott D. Parker

Who knew this week would turn out to be Gregg Hurwitz Week for me?

The week started with Hurwitz's author event here in Houston. He showed up at Murder by the Book to promote his latest novel--and latest Orphan X thriller--INTO THE FIRE. Much of the author talk was typical--here's my full post--but I really appreciated the answer to one of my questions.

Since Hurwitz is new to me, I asked him how he scored his gig writing Batman comics early in the 2010s. His answer proved instructive to any creative, myself included.

After a brief stint at Marvel, DC Comics wooed Hurwitz with a tantalizing offer: you can write anything you want. Thinking of how THE KILLING JOKE is often referred to as the definitive Joker story, he wanted to write the definitive Penguin story. He got his chance, and, in 2011, PAIN AND PREJUDICE was released. The mini-series got such good press and fan reaction that DC offered Hurwitz a writing gig for one of the monthly Batman books. By opting for a true passion project, new opportunities opened up.

I told this story to my book club group on Tuesday, and one of my friends made an excellent point: you never know when a break might arrive, so you'd better have something in the hopper you can trot out when that break happens.

A day after my post, I put up my full review of ORPHAN X, the debut of Evan Smoak. I enjoyed it for being a different of thriller. Some of the best scenes in the book are the ones not to include action sequences. They are the ones in which Evan merely talks to people who live in his building, his daily life in his apartment, and fixing a drink. Weird, I know, but that's what makes ORPHAN X different, and makes me look forward to diving into the second book, THE NOWHERE MAN.

I closed out the week by reading the Penguin mini-series, PAIN AND PREJUDICE. I wanted to see what a definitive Penguin story looked like and did Hurwitz achieve what he set out to do. In short: yeah. The long version: my review.

A Positive Message About Being a Writer


I've mentioned how every Thursday, Kristine Kathryn Rusch publishes a post on the business aspects of the book business. This week was something different. Entitled "Business Musings: Optimism And The Writer," Rusch extols the virtues of having a positive attitude in this business, both behind the keyboard as you write, and in public as you talk about your stuff. Read the whole thing, but here's a portion of it.

The most optimistic among us do play and make things up for the rest of our lives.
The realistic optimists, that is. The ones who know that being the best at our job requires us to keep learning, keep trying, and keep striving. Who know that the best is just around the corner.
We believe this even when our luck is bad. When events have gone poorly for us. When life conspires against us. When we get that awful diagnosis that reminds us that our time on this earth is finite.
When we can see the end.
We still keep moving forward, and trying to be the best we can be.
Because writers—professional writers—are optimists. Realistic optimists, fighting against the odds, knowing that someone gets to succeed—and if someone does, it might as well be me. At least I’m trying.
And to tie it back to Hurwitz (you know Gregg Hurwitz Week) is this quote from Wayne Gretzky via Rusch:  “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Rusch continues:

The core of any unusual profession—from writer to hockey player—is embodied in that quote. The math is pretty simple: You can’t succeed if you don’t try.
But what gets you to try? Optimism. That tiny thread of hope that this time, it’ll work. This time, the stars will align, the final bit of craft will come together, the last bit of effort will pay off.
And if it doesn’t—we’ll try again.
And again.
Until the end of (our) time.
Easily written. Sometimes difficult to believe and internalize.

Late in the week, I ran across an interview with Scott Snyder about writing comics. He said this:

"You can only write the story today that you’d like to pick up and read the most. It doesn’t have to be the smartest, it doesn’t have to be the most action-packed, but whatever it is that would change your life today that you would pick up and be like, “I love this story,” that’s the one you have to go write."

See how it all ties together? Write the best thing you can possibly write at any given time--the one thing you'd like to read--and have fun with it. Repeat.

Music of the Week: Texas Sun by Leon Bridges and Khruangbin 


Yesterday, a four-song EP dropped featuring this new soul singer out of Ft. Worth, Texas, and this three-piece band from Houston. They toured together last year and ended up making some music. Lots and lots of influences you can hear, from early 1070s Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye to dreamy psychedelic pop. Been hearing the title track for a month now. Five dollars at Amazon gets you the digital tunes, $4 if you like what you hear and want to purchase direct from Khruangbin. https://khruangbin.bandcamp.com/album/texas-sun

Here's the title track.