Monday, February 27, 2006

Octavia E. Butler (1947 - 2006)

It was my great pleasure to meet Octavia Butler a few years ago, shortly after I became serious about writing. She was part of a book signing at Vertigo Books in College Park, Maryland (along with authors Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes and Nalo Hopkinson). I had read Kindred years earlier and loved it so much I made my wife read it. (She loved it too.) I remember how captivated I was by the wonderful characters, the marvelous situations they were placed in, and the problems they faced. After I finished it I realized that the ideas and implications presented in the book are huge, covering relationships between men and women, racism past and present, and the human condition. I felt like I was reading about real people portrayed with brutal honesty in situations with no easy answers. Before Kindred, I really had no idea what science fiction could do. Needless to say, Butler rocked my world by showing me hers.

I'll never forget meeting her that evening. She was one of the first science fiction writers I'd ever met, maybe the very first. She spoke to the audience that night about how she traveled to Baltimore to do research for Kindred at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. She told of her struggles to get Kindred published and how she overcame not only reluctant publishers, but also her own doubts as a young writer. I admired her honesty and the courage it took to get the book published, realizing it was a book that probably made a lot of editors nervous.

Maybe it was because this was the first time I'd actually met the author of a book I'd really enjoyed, but I felt drawn to her. But not knowing what to expect from one-on-one contact with a published writer, I approached the signing table with fear and trembling, nervously grasping my copy of Kindred until it looked like a blue and white streak. And to make things worse, Butler had an imposing presence, even seated at a table. She had a very deep voice and looked like she could easily slap you silly if you got out of line with her.

When my turn came, she smiled pleasantly and said hello. She asked me about myself and somewhere in the conversation I told her that I wanted to be a writer and that attending Clarion was one of my goals.

Then her smile stopped.

A look of sadness spread across her face, like I'd just told her I wanted to throw myself into the tiger cage at the zoo. "Oh," she said, "are you sure you want to go to Clarion?" She told me some of what I already knew about the workshop, how intense it can be, how some writers come away from the experience in a state of utter despair, never to write again. She asked me several questions about the writing goals I wanted to accomplish. I don't really remember exactly what she said; I was too busy standing there in front of her, in front of Octavia Butler, flabbergasted that she was taking an interest in wanna-be writer in his writing infancy. But she was genuinely interested.

People stood behind me, waiting for her to sign their books, but she kept asking me questions, asking me why writing was important to me. I guess I told her; again, I don't really remember.

She signed my copy of Kindred (and the copy of Wild Seed I'd just purchased) and wished me good luck with my writing. I thanked her.

When I got in my car, I turned on the dome light and read what she'd written on the title page of Kindred:

"To Andy – Keep Reading! Octavia E. Butler"

Those few words spoke volumes to me. From our brief conversation, I knew she understood that I hadn't read that much in the genre and that the best thing I could do for my writing was to read a lot. She already knew I'd write a lot, but her encouragement to keep reading was more valuable than any shelf full of books on writing.

I'll never forget Octavia Butler's kindness, her gracious spirit, and her willingness to lead someone along the journey, even during a very brief encounter. I'll miss her very, very much.

Moving Right Along...

With thirty-three days to go, I'm now writing Chapter Nine of my YA novel, about 65 pages to this point. There's a gap of maybe two additional chapters that need to connect with the rest of the novel's first draft, so that's material that I'll have to create during the next few days. Of course I'll have to revise that first draft. (And I have to write an ending.) I'm guessing somewhere in the neighborhood of 70K words -- fairly short, even for YA.

I would certainly not recommend trying to put together a novel in so short a time (We're talking around three months start to finish.), but I wanted to (1) enter a contest and (2) see if I could push myself to meet a deadline. I think I'll make it, but will certainly wish I had a little more time to revise.


I'm certainly enjoying Megan Whalen Turner's YA novel The Thief. I'm about halfway though it and know I'll also want to read the sequels. The novel makes allusions to myth and folklore, but in a very general (yet engaging) way. Which brings me to my next point...

There's nothing I love more than a great story I can get wrapped up in, but when I finish a work of fiction that makes me want to discover more about the elements of the book (the settings, worlds, characters, concepts, philosophies, etc. behind the story), that's a huge bonus. The Thief does that. So does Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground and a whole multitude of other stories and novels in and out of the genre. I remember enjoying several of my friend Trent Hergenrader's stories at Clarion that were based on folk tales or myth. These are worlds you want to spend more time in, structures you want to better understand.

But, there's nothing I hate more than having an author haul out a whole litany of names/places/ships/swords/etc. from Greek (or any other) mythology, parading them in front of the reader's face in a heavy-handed, didactic way. I'll admit that I haven't read much mythology, and that's something I need to correct, but I also want to be able to read and enjoy a story without having to consult Edith Hamilton every paragraph. Maybe everyone else in the genre shares a common knowledge of this stuff, sort of a cultural literacy if you will, and my lack of Greek fundamentals is holding me back. Okay, if so, then I'll work on it. But in the meantime, while I'm reading current stories and novels, make me want to discover the foundations of those stories for myself; don't make me feel like a moron for not knowing who Autonoe's son was.

To paraphrase Jeff Ford, just tell me a story.

Now Playing = Led Zeppelin IV
Listening to = Saturday – Ian McEwan

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Clarion Article

A short article I wrote about the Clarion experience has been published in the current issue of Pen In Hand, a publication of the Maryland Writers' Association. You can read it here (pdf file). (It's on page 3.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Michael Connelly

I really like pretty much everything I've read by Michael Connelly. (I give full blame to my niece Erin, so I hope she's reading this.) Today I finished listening to The Lincoln Lawyer on CD in the car (not a Lincoln). Connelly really knows how to write a good detective story (or a lawyer story, in this case), keep the pages turning, and not throw a lot of dumb stuff in the mix. Of the big-name, bestseller writers out there, he's consistently good. His next book (released in May) will be a non-fiction work called Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers. Can't wait for it to come out.

On the home front, the YA novel has six completed chapters (about forty pages) with 38 days to go.

Now Playing - Breezin' - George Benson
Now Reading - Al Capone Does My Shirts (YA) - Gennifer Choldenko
It's In the Eyes - Chip Armstrong
Almost finished listening to - Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston

Monday, February 20, 2006

Swing Time

It's funny. Music was my profession for fifteen years and during that time I learned to appreciate several different forms of musical expression. But for some reason, I never really got into musicals. Maybe that's because I got drafted into playing in the pit orchestra for an endless parade of Little Theatre productions in college.

So don't ask me why in the world I rented Swing Time (1936) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It's a romantic comedy with lots of music and dancing. As romantic comedies go, it's okay: One silly escapade after another, but acted well and with pretty good timing. (Have romantic comedies really changed at all in 70 years? I don't think so. Or maybe they have. They're worse now. Remember, they didn't have Ben Affleck 70 years ago.)

But when Astaire and Rogers began their dance to Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up," my mouth dropped to the floor. Not only is the dancing superb, Astaire and Rogers make it look effortless. Forget about Dancing with the Stars, these are the stars. Astaire is so graceful, playful, so completely in command of his body as an instrument. He is a musician, after all, and he understands every nuance of what he's doing. (So, by the way, does Rogers. When the media seemed to frequently diminish her skills in light of Astaire's, she would say, "Look, I did everything Fred did backwards and in heels.")

But more important than all of that is the obvious joy of dancing displayed by the couple. It happens so seldom these days – watching or listening to a performer who joyfully performs. I hear it when I listen to Ella Fitzgerald. And I see it in Astaire and Rogers.

All of the dance numbers are amazing. Audiences today cringe (and rightfully so) at Astaire's blackface number, but you can't deny the brilliance of his moves. And the final number "Never Gonna Dance" is simply astounding. Astaire and Rogers were doing more than dancing; they were telling a story. Look closely and you can see every emotion expressed (some of them passionate), emotions that could never be expressed through dialogue (especially in 1936). It's a joy to watch.

Astaire was a meticulous craftsman, insisting on perfection in each take. Most of the dance scenes are filmed in one long unbroken shot. It's rumored that the "Never Gonna Dance" sequence took 47 takes, the last of which was used, even though Rogers' feet were bleeding through her shoes.

Several years ago I watched an award being given posthumously to Astaire, presented by one of his many dance partners. I don't remember her name, but she related the story of how they would practice for hours on end, film take after take until she was beyond exhausted. After each effort, Astaire would smile and say, "That was better. Let's run it one more time." And that would continue for hours until this woman was ready to scream. As she watched with the audience the dance clips from Astaire's amazing career, she looked up and seemed to be speaking directly to Astaire. "Oh, Mr. Astaire," she said, "what I wouldn't give to be able to run it one more time."

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Up to My Eyeballs in Books

When you're a book dealer, you run the very serious risk of picking up way too many books for yourself. Happened today in a big way - I picked up eleven for my personal collection. Let's see...I think the house next door is for sale...

Chapter Three of the novel is almost finished, which feels pretty good. But with 44 days to go, it would feel a lot better if I had several more chapters under my belt.

Listening to Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer in the car. It's a non-Harry Bosch novel, but so far it's not bad. Best line so far:

"A cell phone began to play a classical number by Bach or Beethoven or some other dead guy with no copyright."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

My workspace on a fairly organized day. (Don't laugh, all right? Hey, I can hear you!)  Posted by Picasa

Plugging Right Along

Just finished the second draft of my novel's second chapter. Things are going surprisingly well at this stage, but the dreaded R word is vastly approaching: Research.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy research. And the research I've got to do is readily available, very easy to get to. But that may compound the situation. My problem with research is I often do too much of it, getting way more than I need. It's always good to have extra, but sometimes I don't know when to stop. That's where a deadline comes in.

Saw two movies over the weekend, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), which I do not recommend, and an old Western called Seven Men from Now (1956) which I enthusiastically recommend.

Now Playing = Miles Ahead – Miles Davis
Reading = Orphan of Chaos – John C. Wright
Listening to = Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

Sunday, February 12, 2006

No afternoon on the deck today... Posted by Picasa

A walk in the woods, maybe? Posted by Picasa

A Good Day for Writing

And not much else. By my estimation, we got about eight inches of snow late last night/early this morning. Although I haven't been able to go anywhere, at least I've had plenty of time to write.

It's been a few weeks since I've sent out any new stories, but I finally have one ready to go and another that's close. I've also made a decision to bite the bullet and finish the YA novel I've been (silently) working on. I hope to have it ready for entry in a contest about six weeks from now. I have a rough first draft done, but I'm still uncertain about the ending. (Something I might want to figure out fairly soon.) Six weeks isn't much time, but I'm going to go for it and see if I can push myself to meet the deadline.

So far I think the novel is miles better than the first novel I wrote (which, BTW, no one will ever read) back in 2002. I've improved a lot since then. I'm hoping it will show in the final product.

Now Playing = Ziggy Stardust – David Bowie
Reading = Orphan of Chaos – John C. Wright
Listening to = Life of Pi – Yann Martel

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Yesterday I decided to hit the treadmill at Gold's Gym (after too many days off). There were plenty of openings, so I decided to workout in the Cardio Theatre (which sometimes feels more like Cardiac Theatre). Mystic River had just started on the big screen. I'd seen it before, but I stayed anyway. I'd thought the movie was okay when I saw it a couple of years ago. Watching the first 30 minutes of it again didn't change my opinion of it one way or another, but it did get me thinking about trusting and forgiving an author.

I've never read Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. The only Lehane book I've ever read was Shutter Island, which I threw across the room as soon as I finished it. Some books deserve to be thrown; this is one of them.

I threw it across the room because I felt Lehane's ending betrayed my trust. If you've read the book, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, Lehane violates one of the first rules speculative fiction writers...heck, ALL writers...learn early on and are expected to obey. Lehane gave me characters I cared about for 300 pages, then in the last chapter basically said "Enjoying it so far? Well, let me dump this on your parade and thank you very much for investing your time and money on this completely unsatisfying and untenable ending." I've never read another Lehane book.

A few months ago I talked with a big Lehane fan who asked me if I'd ever read his work. I unloaded on the poor guy. He threw up his hands in defense. "I know, I know," he said. "That was a lousy ending. But you've gotta read his first book, A Drink Before the War." Yeah, well don't hold your breath, I told him.

So a few weeks ago I find A Drink Before the War on one of my book excursions and buy it. I figure 33 cents at the Goodwill isn't going to break me. But I haven't opened it.

I also noticed that Lehane has a story in The Best American Short Stories 2005, which I own. I've read several of the stories in the collection. Not his.

I know I'm probably holding this grudge for too long. I remember at WFC a few months ago Jay Lake said that the writer owes something to the story, not the reader. I agree with him. But in my mind, Lehane not only treated his readers badly in Shutter Island, but treated his own story badly, and that's what really hurts.

Who knows – I may be accused of the same thing one day. I hope not, but it could happen. Maybe Lehane deserves a second chance. Maybe everyone does.

Now Playing = Baroque Duet – Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis
Reading = Orphan of Chaos – John C. Wright
Listening to = Life of Pi – Yann Martel

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

An amazing read. Don't miss it! Posted by Picasa

Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves

After reading Jeff VanderMeer's essay on House of Leaves in Horror: Another 100 Best Books, I was on a mission to find Danielewski's debut novel. I found it, all 700 pages of it, and dived in.

When I finally came out, I was stunned. I can't really add much to VanderMeer's excellent essay on the book. All I can tell you is that House of Leaves is an unconventional tour-de-force that will reward patient readers immensely.

I'm grossly oversimplifying here, but House of Leaves is a story within a story within a story. Twenty-something Johnny Truant discovers a collection of writings by an old blind man named Zampano. The writings are largely a study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, which in itself is a chronicle of the strange goings-on inside the house of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Will Navidson. Navidson, his partner Karen and their two children move into a house in Virginia, a house that holds the promise to bring Will and Karen's fractured relationship closer to healing. But the house holds much more.

Navidson discovers that the inside of the house is larger than the outside. Immensely larger. Colossally larger. Navidson even hires explorers to find out just what's going on in the house while he sets about documenting the entire expedition on film. Meanwhile his relationship with his family deteriorates.

But that's just part of the story. Exactly who was this Zampano and why did he compile all this information about The Navidson Record? Does the film even exist? Johnny has to find out. To say that all things Navidson become an obsession for Johnny is a huge understatement.

House of Leaves works as a study of what drives us to do the things we do, regardless of the consequences. It's also a heartbreaking look at relationships. It's often humorous. And it contains several moments of pure and absolute terror. Of the thirteen books I've read so far in 2006, House of Leaves tops the list. Highly recommended.

Now Playing = Baroque Duet – Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis
Reading = Orphan of Chaos – John C. Wright
Listening to = Life of Pi – Yann Martel

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Oscar Fever

The announcement of this year's Oscar nominees only underscores the fact that I haven't seen very many movies lately. Of the five films nominated for Best Picture, the only one I've seen is Crash. I had a little time on my hands yesterday and almost went to see Munich, but decided I'd better get home and walk the hound around the block a few times. (Bullet prefers the home theatre experience anyway.)

I'm just delighted to see that Memoirs of a Geisha isn't anywhere close to the Best Picture category.

I'll make an early (and reasonably safe) guess that Brokeback Mountain will win Best Picture, Philip Seymour Hoffman will take home the Best Actor trophy, and Ang Lee will be named Best Director. I really know very little about the Best Actress category, but I'd bet a nickel that neither Judi Dench nor Charlize Theron will get within a sniff of a golden statue. It'll probably go to Reese Witherspoon in recognition of Walk the Line, especially since it didn't get a nomination for Best Picture. And, fair or not, regardless of Joaquin Phoenix's performance, this is obviously Hoffman's year. (Or is it?)

You can see the list of nominations here.

I get way too caught up in this stuff.

Now Playing = Brain Salad Surgery – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Listening to = Orchard – Larry Watson

Thursday, February 02, 2006

January F&SF...okay, so they're on the March issue now...I'm a little behind, ok? Posted by Picasa

Only Two Issues Behind Now...

Once again, I'm behind (Does one ever get ahead?) on my reading, just finishing the January issue of F&SF. Favorite stories:

"Planet of Mystery" – Terry Bisson (concluded in the February issue)

"Less Than Nothing" – Robert Reed

"The Boy in Zaquitos" – Bruce McAllister

The story I'm writing right now is finally starting to gel. It looks like it's going to come in at a little more than 5,000 words, which is quite a long story for me.

Plus I've got another couple of stories to tinker with. Lady Churchill's thought "Results May Vary" was interesting, but the ending didn't work. They're right. But I think it can be fixed without turning the world upside down.

Now Playing = As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls – Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays
Just Finished Listening to = Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A Great Resource for Fiction Writers Posted by Picasa

Eight Stories by Robert Aickman Posted by Picasa

Two Recent Finds

The great thing about dealing in used books is the constant potential for delightful surprises. A couple of nice recent finds:

Bernard Grun's The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events. I'm sure there are other books out there that do the same thing – give you a horizontal view of historical events from 5000 A.D. to the (then) present year (1978 in this edition). Each two-page spread gives you that year's important events in the following categories:

History and Politics
Literature and Theater
Religion, Philosophy and Learning
Visual Arts
Science, Technology and Growth
Daily Life

A great resource for writers. However, if you're like me can can't remember what happened last year, you might want an updated version. But hey, for $0.01 on Amazon, you can't go wrong. (I paid the outrageous price of $0.33 for my copy.)

I also ran across a collection of stories by Robert Aickman, Cold Hand in Mine: Strange Stories. I read the first two stories last night and thoroughly enjoyed them. Rich, wonderfully crafted, creepy, slightly elusive, very thought-provoking. Aickman could easily become one of my favorite writers.

Now Playing = Chet Baker – The Pacific Jazz Years