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  1. Yesterday
  2. In November, with the first snowstorm of the year about to descend and despite considerable trepidation, the ToolMaster and I set off for a two-hour drive into the Canadian countryside. Our mission? After too many years of felt canine absence, we hoped to adopt a dog found on an internet sales ad. Before you chastise me about feeding into puppy mills and their attendant risks, trust me, I’m aware. All our cats and but one of our past dogs have been rescues. I wrestled with a metric tonne of pre-emptive guilt. But I’d already spent months watching local shelters for a pup that would be a good fit for our home and courtesy of the pandemic, the competition was fierce. Suitable candidates were adopted before we could wrangle an appointment. I’d also spent weeks learning to read subtext in online ads and felt I had a good handle on determining the conscientiousness of amateur breeders. I’d finally found one who said all the right things. Even better, they seemed poised to refuse adoption should we fail their screening process. And so, having successfully battled a malfunctioning GPS and just as the first snowflakes swirled, we turned down a farmyard lane. We’d agreed that if something didn’t feel right about the puppy or her owners, either one of us could exert a veto, no questions asked. Then the pup emerged from the garage. She gave my husband one look before trotting up with a “YaY! NeW peOples!” attitude. She also permitted us to pick her up and roll her on her back and scratch her belly. Despite her attractive mixture of confidence and pliability, we continued with our research. We met her parents, who lived onsite. Saw the tidy and well-kept garage workshop in which she’d been raised. The legit vet record. The good quality kibble she’d been fed. We observed her interactions with the farmyard cats—important since we have two feline overlords—and the family, including their three very active children. Everything on their end screamed of professionalism and caring, right down to the preprinted contract awaiting our signatures. As you no doubt have guessed, we had found our new companion. (If you’d like to meet her, scroll to the end of this post for a brief introduction.) The weeks since Betty’s arrival have passed in a blur. But when I’m not taking her out to the bathroom or working on training or snuggling with her before the TV, I’ve done some reflecting. This process has changed me, and it’s already altered how I approach my writing journey. Before I share exactly how and why, let me disclose my relative ignorance about dogs and dog training. Past successes as an owner were largely due to sweet natures of the animals we adopted rather than my skill set. Take anything you read here with a blood-pressure-threatening dose of sea salt. That said, what I’ve learned from Betty is to… 1. Begin by matching the raw materials to the job. My daughter and son-in-law own a Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd cross. There’s a reason they are often used as police dogs and known as land sharks or maligators in their puppyhood. Raya’s prey drive means my daughter has worked hard to train the nippiness out of her. She cohabits well with their cats, yet I’d never trust her around mine. I love her, admire her smarts and athleticism, and find her occasionally intimidating—exactly as befits her breed. I would not recommend you buy a stove with this design if your home shelters large dogs or small people. Nippiness isn’t Betty’s issue. Her grandfather was a champion bird dog. On the rare occasion she confuses your hand for a toy, she has a soft mouth. But her back legs are comprised of springs, meaning that her instinctive greeting manners are atrocious. We’re already dealing with counter-surfing. In fact, if we hadn’t grown wise to her proclivities and locked the burner dials on the front of stove—seriously, what were you thinking, oh foolish design engineer?—she’d have already burned down my house. This illustrates that to a certain extent you can shape nature, but it’s far easier to begin with a dog whose breeding matches your desires. I wouldn’t expect Raya to greet a mail carrier with a butt wiggle and leaps of joy. Nor would I expect Betty to function as a guard dog. That wouldn’t be fair to either of them, and we’d all be doomed to frustration and disappointment. Similarly, it’s unlikely I’ll ever write a work of towering literary fiction. My voice is too snarky, my sensibilities too pragmatic, my story interests too commercial. That doesn’t mean I can’t experiment and learn and grow and perhaps stumble into success in that lane of fiction, but seriously, what are the chances? And at what cost, especially when I can write in genres that reflect my natural strengths? While I’m at it, why not be picky about the writing projects I choose to develop? Better to begin with a higher-concept idea than attempt to turn a quiet book about quiet people doing quiet things into a commercial success. 2. Hire experts if you can afford it. Both the ToolMaster and I tend to have a DIY mentality. We enjoy the process of learning and like wrestling with novel problems. Given enough time and effort and the online resources available, I’d like to think we’d have found eventual success with Betty. But training a puppy is similar to raising a child in that it can expose hidden values conflicts. Soon, not only are you dealing with a puddle of piddle, but you’re navigating heated disagreements on how to prevent them. Happily, we weren’t too proud to seek a qualified arbiter. My daughter recommended a local trainer with impressive credentials and we were comfortable with her philosophy and methods. She was expensive, but worth every penny if only for one single nugget she imparted: in order to get Betty to sleep in past 6 a.m., we were to shift her feeding times to noon, 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. After three weeks of exhaustion, peeps—three solid weeks!—Kristen’s advice worked the first time. Similarly, if you’re not making progress with your writing, consider borrowing the smartest and most educated brain you can access. Depending upon the issue, this might mean hiring a book coach, a developmental editor, cover artist, etc. If you’re on a modest budget, perhaps you can bolster your skills with a book or course tailored to your specific problem. If you aren’t in a position to pay outright, perhaps you can make a material trade. A critique for a critique, or similar. Whatever the case, don’t let pride prevent you from accessing the resources to move forward. 3. Value incremental change, mindset, and persistence. In the writing life, how do you talk to yourself about fallow periods or times of relatively low productivity? Do you call yourself lazy or unmotivated? Compare yourself to others? I need look no further than my own psyche or the comment section in Therese Walsh’s recent impassioned post to know how cruel we writers can be to ourselves. But there’s nothing like working with a puppy to see how unnecessary and unproductive those impulses are. Kristen explained her training paradigm this way: When you combine ability + motivation + clear communication, you can expect to see the desired behavior. If the result is what you asked for, you immediately mark the behavior to let the pup know they are on the right track, using a clicker or word like “yes.” Then you administer a positive reward. (In behavior training, “positive” means an assertive action whereas “negative” means a lack of action.) For most dogs that will mean they get a treat reward, but it’s basically access to whatever they value. For ones not motivated by food, for instance, they might get to play with a desired toy. For another, it might be a trip to the neighborhood pee tree. If the result isn’t what you asked for, you don’t administer positive punishment, like a rebuke or scold or dragging the dog to their kennel. The response is negative punishment, which she describes as “no cookie/try again.” (“Negative”, in this case, isn’t as bad as it sounds! It’s essentially an absent response.) In short, the philosophy is that you’re either providing a positive reward (good job, here’s the cookie) or negative punishment (no cookie, try again.) Does that make sense? As an example, when Betty greets people with “four on the floor,” she gets a “yes” and is rewarded with pets and treats. When she jumps, the visitors ignore her or even leave repeatedly until she’s had a successful greeting. Then she gets smothered with pets. Time and again, by making small asks of Betty and following with consistent feedback, I’ve seen how remarkably effective these methods are. I mean, I should have trusted Kristen, who routinely trains dogs for TV commercials and shows. Still, to see its application to disparate tasks like nail clipping and harness wearing and the “touch” command is nothing less than inspiring. How does this apply to writing? Well, when I’m in a fallow period, I’ve already discovered the limits of self-shame and castigation in getting myself to return to the page. Of all the many riches Betty has brought to my life—among them, puppy kisses and dog park walks and winter air when I might have chosen to cocoon indoors, not to mention a warm, wiggling body whenever I need a hug—this lesson might be the biggest reward of all. I’m permanently ditching the scolds, peeps, as being unhelpful or counterproductive. Since pee trees hold no value for me, I’m going for the cookie. Care to join me? What have you learned from your furry companions and how might that apply to your writing journey? About Jan O'HaraA former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen; Cold and Hottie; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh. Web | Twitter | Facebook | More Posts http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?d=yIl2AUoC8zA http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?d=qj6IDK7rITs http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?i=S_AduGX6hyM:p7tF7jd9cz0:gIN9vFwOqvQ http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?i=S_AduGX6hyM:p7tF7jd9cz0:D7DqB2pKExk [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  3. In my personal and even professional life, I tend to be a little conflict-averse. You won't exactly find me running into the open arms of conflict with my heart wide open. I don't seek it, look for it, and find ways to generate it. However, when it comes to my own writing, I look for it constantly. As I have shared recently, I recently found a new way to revise my stories and I found a hitch in the giddy-up of the story I'm working on as a result. You see, there's not enough conflict. The problem I haven't figured out what my character really wants quite yet. I've explored areas that could reveal what her wants might possibly be, but none so far have felt right. This has left me wondering what could that want be and what could get in the way of her having it. In most books that talk about writing, they usually talk about a character needing a want or motivation or a goal of some kind, and then something gets in the way of that want or motivation to complicate it, thus generating some conflict. I know this, and yet, I haven't quite nailed down my character enough to find out what's her biggest want, goal, or motivation. I love examples, and to help myself resolve them, I've thought of some conflict that has come up in my favorite movies. Here are a couple of conflict examples: Take Office Space for example. Peter's want? Well, he doesn't like his job and he doesn't want to work there anymore. What complicates it? Well, he gets hypnotized into not caring whether he loses his job or not. That's all well and good until his friends who LIKE that job might end up losing theirs, and he ends up keeping his (and even being promoted) despite all his efforts otherwise. If you've seen the movie, you know it gets even more complicated after that. You wonder to yourself as the viewer, how will he get out of his job? How will he help his friends? And so on. Another movie that's one of my favorites is Beauty and the Beast (I'm thinking of the Disney version). Belle's want? To get out of her small French village and have romance and adventure with someone's that isn't a total jerk. What complicates this? Well, her father gets lost in the woods, and then ends up trapped in a castle. Then she goes to find him and then becomes trapped in the castle herself. So now she isn't even stuck in a small village, she's stuck in a castle with an angry beast. You wonder: How will she get out of the castle? What will happen to her? The thing is about conflict is that it isn't just about what happens to the character, I'm realizing that you need to believe that it matters to the character what is happening. It isn't enough that the character is passively experiencing this moment. Like in Office Space, you know that Peter wants to get out of his job but he also wants to help out his friends. The reader has to accept that what is happening to the character has just made it worse for them. Whatever is happening is making it harder for that character to get what they want.So, I'm not any further along than when I started this post, but maybe as I pursue different conflict scenarios for my character, I'll figure out just the right one to help fit my story. How do you figure out the right conflict and complications for your story? (C) Copyright wow-womenonwriting.com Visit WOW! Women On Writing for lively interviews and how-tos. Check out WOW!'s Classroom and learn something new. Enter the Quarterly Writing Contests. Open Now![url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  4. Another week, another batch of books for your TBR pile. Happy reading, folks. * Nick Petrie, The Runaway (Putnam) “Nail-biting …Shifting points of view serve to heighten the suspense. This adrenaline-fueled ride will keep readers turning the pages.” Publishers Weekly Lisa Gardner, One Step Too Far (Dutton) “It’s not often that a thriller so deeply casts us into the darkness of both nature and the human heart…Terrifying, primal, and very, very tense. Read it with your heart in your throat—but read it.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review Marie Rutkoski, Real Easy (Henry Holt) “This is a story about flawed people just doing the best they can to live their lives and find love. Vulnerable yet steely, this thriller rises above the rest.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review Lars Keplar, The Mirror Man (Knopf) “The ability of Kepler (the pen name of Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril) to ratchet up the tension en route to a stunning reveal and an eminently fair solution is remarkable. This merits comparisons with the best of Thomas Harris.” Publishers Weekly, starred review Jessica Fellowes, The Mitford Vanishing (Minotaur) “Fellowes’s cleverly plotted fifth mystery featuring the real life Mitford family deepens the personality of series lead Louise Cannon. Fellowes has plausibly transformed Louisa from amateur to professional sleuth. Maisie Dobbs fans will be pleased.” Publishers Weekly Kaira Rouda, Somebody’s Home (Thomas and Mercer) “Whatever the opposite of family values is, Rouda seems intent on perfecting a genre that enshrines it.” Kirkus Reviews Evan Hughes, The Hard Sell (Doubleday) “Anyone who picks up this title will be left reflecting on how the U.S. medical system and drug companies have recklessly destroyed countless lives. A book readers will not soon forget.” Library Journal, starred review Mitzi Szerato, The Best New True Crime Stories: Partners in Crime (Mango) “If you like true crime with something extra, The Best New True Crime Stories: Partners in Crime delivers. The crimes and criminals are compelling enough, but what sets these tales apart is the attention to setting and social milieu.” Stephanie Kane Jacqueline Mitchard, The Good Son (MIRA) “An engaging journey through redemption, forgiveness, and a mother’s devotion.” Library Journal Karen Hamilton, The Ex-Husband (Graydon House) “Amid the glitzy, wealthy, sun-kissed, at-sea lifestyle in this twisted thriller, we find con artists, threats and lies, and the cold certainty that no matter how far out you sail, you’ll never escape your past.” Tara Laskowski View the full article
  5. Last week
  6. Please welcome author and mentor Katey Schultz to WU today! Katey is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include North Carolina’s Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year award, gold and silver medals from the Military Writers Society of America, the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year award, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, National Indies Excellence recognition, and writing fellowships in eight states. Katie is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at KateySchultz.com. Getting off the Hamster Wheel When I was in grad school, I had the luxury of communicating with my advisors every month about craft concerns. When I hit the road for writing residencies and fellowships following graduation, the majority of my support came from mature authors, also in residence. If questions about deep revision or the creative process arose, I usually found an answer just one studio over, and often from someone with the word bestseller in their bio. Depending on others for advice about my next move on the page was good for me, at the time. I had so many other craft issues to deal with that I had to relinquish some of the biggies to the experts. But this dependency wasn’t sustainable and, furthermore, it wasn’t teaching me to be a better writer on my own. Sure, I could sign up for a workshop or attend a conference, but at the end of the day, I still had to face my own drafts and know what to do and how to do it. At a certain point, other people’s suggestions started to suffocate my sense of joy and turned writing into a checklist of feedback applied, and tools used. I’d “made changes” and “fixed stuff” but my writing also felt…well…dead. Where was the sense of discovery? That feeling that what I had to say, mattered? I needed a way to get off the hamster wheel of leaning on others for feedback and find confidence and discernment in my own process. And I needed to be able to do this not just for one story, one essay, or one manuscript…but for the rest of my writing life. Name it Learning how to coach myself is what finally got me off that hamster wheel, and it took almost a decade for me to leap. Where did I land? In a place of confidence and discernment as a writer, with a deep creative practice that could contain both generative bursts and literary restlessness, all while meeting my goals. How? By identifying the invisible, decision-making moments of my creative processes and applying a unique set of reflections and craft skills to help me determine my own, best, next move. You might be wondering: If it’s invisible, how did I fix it? The answer is something every writer can relate to. We can fix something only after we’ve named it. Naming things, after all, is what we do. But it’s not just for our stories and essays, it’s for our internal creative processes, too. When we start to apply thinking to language and apply reflection exercises to our own creativity, we can more expediently discern what to do next on the page, and why. We know how and why stories come to us, and we understand our blind spots. Rather than messing with the muse, we work with what it gives us (knowing our handicaps) and thrive on revising with real stakes and authenticity. All of this translates immediately into confidence, and when you put confidence and discernment together, what do you get? Momentum. Be your own best editor Now, when I sit down to write, it’s just me (imperfect), my motivation (inconsistent), and my foundation (unshakable). When I run into craft concerns, rather than shoot an email to a friend or give up, if I can coach myself by naming the challenge, then reflecting on the decisions I made that brought me to that point. If I can name the decisions, I can then question them, which allows a space for a different decision–perhaps a more effective one–to arise. From there, I can write my way forward and see how this slight pivot feels. If I still don’t feel clear, I know how to leave cues for myself on the page and write past the trouble spot, trusting that I have tools for returning to it later. I don’t have to solve the challenge or make every word perfect before moving on, because I’ve learned to trust that clarity comes in waves. But if we stop writing, or if we think we can’t solve problems without a workshop or a conference, we’ll never experience that deeply private, deeply impactful, sense of momentum. We’ll never coach ourselves. This kind of work is invisible to our readers and publishers, and that’s fine. They read for entertainment and discovery, which is what we want. They don’t need to be able to see the micro-decisions we make along the way. But we need to be able to see them. That’s why being coached in how to coach ourselves is an absolute must when it comes to successfully writing for the long haul. It empowers us to become better writers on our own…not just for one project, but for every project. In more concrete terms, that looks like this: How much backstory is too much? Problem: As a writer, I wonder, how much backstory is too much? Maybe I need to stop what I’m writing now and figure this out. But how do I figure it out? Solution: I have taught myself to pause and take a deep breath in these moments, leaning into the question by asking more questions. This is difficult–we’re not conditioned to get close to the unknown and very few writing workshops teach writers what they actually need to be asking of themselves during these critical, all-too-elusive moments. For instance, I ask myself, What does my character desire, in this moment? How do I know that? Does the reader know that? If not, what object, obstacle, action, or reaction can I add to the page that will make this known? Sometimes, privately reflecting on these questions or freewriting answers to them in a notebook constitutes the end of the writing session for that day and I move on (to do dishes, pick up kids, clock in at work, mow the lawn). Other times, it is the beginning of five new pages. Or, How do I keep my reader from getting disoriented? Problem: As a writer, I wonder, how far afield can I go from my present narrative before the reader gets disoriented? And how long can a flashback be, anyway? Maybe I’ve gone too far. Some of this page isn’t even in a specific bracket of time. Am I allowed to do that? Solution: I make a map of my own story, tracing the narrative and its undercurrents, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and eddies. Sometimes I simply stare at my structure map, consider how it looks and feels, contemplate the balance of scene and summary, then…go to bed. But the next time I open that document, I have the answer to my question about how far afield I can go. I’ll either adjust a structural component, or I’ll keep going forward through time. In either case, I’ve coached myself through this challenge and can skip the workshop hamster wheel and meet my own goals, with confidence. Show up and do the work I’ll always have and need my good writing friends. I’ll always study the work of others to see what I can learn. And at some point in every manuscript, I’ll want to hand it over to a trusted reader for their response. But I’ll also always have to be able to write alone and coach myself from one page to the next. Finally, after a good bit of training, I can really say that I am my own best coach and guide through this process. Above all else, I’m able to write. Simply. Without excuse or obstruction. The only requirement is that I show up and do the work. What do I wake up eager to do most mornings? Exactly that. How are you your own best coach and your own best editor? Where do you still need help? We’d love to hear from you in comments. http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?d=yIl2AUoC8zA http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?d=qj6IDK7rITs http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?i=vybr1oGq1_Y:5oyGnIQagNk:gIN9vFwOqvQ http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?i=vybr1oGq1_Y:5oyGnIQagNk:D7DqB2pKExk [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  7. My last post was about Setting Goals in 2022, and one of the things that I wrote about was the Storystorm idea generation challenge. I have since had a question about how Storystorm works. Are the ideas fairly complete? Or are they something I will have to flesh out later? In all reality, I try not to set too many rules. I look for challenges like Storystorm that are fairly open to interpretation. Some of my ideas are outlines with a character, setting, story problem, and multiple attempts to solve that problem. The science fiction novel for which I am currently writing Act 3 came to me that way. I knew how the story opened. I had my setting and my story problem. I just had to get to know my characters to know how they would attack that problem. Other times I come up with a title. This often happens when I misread something. Since I’m dyslexic, a preview scrolling by can throw me. So can fancy fonts which may be beautiful but can also be tricky to read. I’ll do a double take and realize that it says The Apostle Paul and not The Opossum Paul. That isn’t even close to a complete idea but I still think The Opossum Paul could be a hilarious story. In Melanie Faith’s Graphic Novel Creation class, we are working on characters. My notion has blossomed into an idea for single panel comics. The ideas for these tend to be one line long. Since I know who the primary character is, I only need this one line of text to bring to mind a panel. Other times my idea revolves around a place or person. I write a lot of nonfiction so a simple note to find out about Pickle Springs or Zerubbabel is enough to start my research. So what do you need? Complete ideas or fragments? I don’t know. You’re going to have to tell me. It is all going to depend on how you work and what you are comfortable with. One of my writing friends admitted to me that she works with one idea at a time. She finishes a novel and then goes after her next idea, weaving together bits of this and that before she has a functioning whole. For her to declare something an idea, it has to be fairly complete. I have so many ideas! Way too many to pursue them all. When I don’t write them down, I catch myself running through that day’s ideas. “I need to remember that awesome abandoned church photo, the idea about the Muse, and . . . and . . . what was the guy’s name who invented—" It is just a lot easier if I write them down. Then I can let go and move on to what I’m supposed to be working on that day. And, if this catch and release program doesn’t work and an idea keeps popping into my head, I know it is one that I need to work on as soon as possible. Writing down messy bits and pieces works for me. You may need to wait until you’ve fleshed something out before you feel honest about calling it an idea. As always, the important thing is to find a method that works for you. --SueBE Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 30 books for young readers. To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey. The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on February 6, 2022). Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course. Sue is also the instructor for Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins February 6, 2022) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins February 6, 2022). (C) Copyright wow-womenonwriting.com Visit WOW! Women On Writing for lively interviews and how-tos. Check out WOW!'s Classroom and learn something new. Enter the Quarterly Writing Contests. Open Now![url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  8. My last post was my take on revision, but what's the difference between revising and editing, exactly? "Self-editing" is a term used to describe the process of revising. When you sit down to review your first draft, you will make a list of the things you would like to modify. This is referred to as the revision process. Editing is the process of hiring someone to provide a professional viewpoint to a piece of writing and ensure that it is clear and accessible to others. You must understand the distinction in order to know what to do and in what sequence to do it. Initially, you revise (work on it yourself until you've made it as excellent as you possibly can), and then you edit your work (bring in a professional to make it better than you can). Realizing the distinction allows you to focus your attention on the most important parts of the paper and ensure that it contains all you meant to express. In this article, Barbara Linn Probst goes into the three aspects of revision. It’s a keeper! https://algonkianconferences.com/authorconnect/index.php?/topic/20322-three-aspects-of-“revision”-reworking-refining-and-revisioning/#comment-28594
  9. Photo of Sara Ahmed by Sarah Franklin. Who hasn’t had a boss, supervisor, or mentor worthy of complaint? The first person I worked for, who was white, was in the habit of calling me “weak.” Her boss’s boss, also white, one day gave a company-wide address during which he called someone, a childhood friend, by an ugly racial epithet. When I complained about his speech, I was told there was no recourse. That’s simply how my boss’s boss’s boss was. No one felt the need to specify exactly what this meant. They just invoked some vague idiosyncrasy to explain away his bad behavior, which might otherwise be confused for something sinister—heavy and historical and violent—something that could, if it were named, prove to be a liability. I repeated my complaint twice: first at a mandatory “diversity and inclusion workshop,” during which employees were encouraged to share grievances, and then again after I had decided to quit, during my exit interview with HR. Both times, my complaint, once spoken, seemed to disappear. But complaints, according to the feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, never really go away. If you are the complainer, they tend, as she puts it in her newest book, Complaint!, to “follow you home.” Sara Ahmed was born in Britain in 1969 to a Pakistani father and an English mother. Soon after, the family moved to Australia, where Ahmed grew up before returning to the UK to complete her doctorate. She is the author of eleven works of nonfiction, the earliest of which are totems of feminist postmodernism, affect theory, and queer phenomenology. Her most celebrated contribution has been the figure of the Feminist Killjoy, who shares a name with Ahmed’s popular blog, which she began writing alongside her 2017 work, Living a Feminist Life. “When you expose a problem,” she writes in that book, “you pose a problem.” Being a Feminist Killjoy is a matter of identification; it is also, as Ahmed describes on the blog, what she does and how she thinks, “my philosophy and my politics.” In Complaint!, Ahmed collects oral and written testimony from dozens of people who have experienced sexual abuse, racist harassment, or bullying within universities, and have chosen either to go through the institutions’ formal grievance procedures or to challenge those procedures altogether. Though all her interlocutors work in academia, I felt throughout that I could be reading about any other scene from institutional life. The stories Ahmed tells will be familiar to anyone who has attempted to seek redress (or merely recognition) from an institution trained against them. Over and over, complaints are either discouraged before they’re made, or welcomed in the abstract but deemed not credible in practice. Meanwhile, the ugly qualities of the incidents complained about often attach themselves to those complaining. They are both diminished and demonized. On the one hand, their concerns are deemed inconsequential—they’re trying to make something out of nothing—and on the other, they’re presented as malicious and threatening, as if they have the power to singlehandedly take the whole institution down. Complaint! is among Ahmed’s most personal works. In tandem with On Being Included, her 2012 study of diversity initiatives, it mounts a compelling case against the long-term viability of institutional life as it’s currently configured. For over twenty years, Ahmed was employed as an academic, first as professor of women’s studies at Lancaster University and then as professor of race and cultural studies and director of the Center for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, from which she resigned at the end of 2016. Her resignation was an act of protest against the institution’s culture of sexual harassment and thus, as Ahmed wrote on her blog, a “feminist issue.” She had begun the research that comprises Complaint! before resigning, but doing so allowed the work to find new life, traveling beyond the closed doors and brick walls of the university, into the wide-open field of public discourse. INTERVIEWER There was a lot of media coverage of your departure from academia, but I’m curious to know more about your early relationship to it. What promise did the university hold for you as a young person? AHMED Being brought up in a middle-class environment, I was always told the university was where I would go. I was, originally, very interested in fine arts. I painted a lot of macabre, expressionist paintings, and I got into art school, but my father said it wouldn’t lead to a proper career, so I wasn’t allowed to go. I was also a philosophical child, so it then seemed obvious to choose the humanities. I came to academia with a lot of hope, interest, and enjoyment. I still remember the sense of wonder—that it was possible to stay a student, to stay in a place of learning, to be surrounded by learning. I didn’t really know what an academic job was, but I loved writing essays, doing research, and going to the library. While I was doing my Ph.D., I realized that being a lecturer was something that was possible for me. It just so happened that there was a job opening in women’s studies at Lancaster. I didn’t have any publications, but they interviewed me, and they hired me, partly, I think, because I was so enthusiastic. I was very lucky. It was a permanent job in one of the largest women’s studies programs in Europe, and I was in an incredibly supportive feminist environment. I was so moved to be part of that. It wasn’t that I didn’t experience the other side of academia—the narrowing of what counts as knowledge, the ways in which what appears to be an open and inclusive environment can actually be a hostile and difficult one for people who don’t fit. I became aware really early on of the gap between what appears to be the case and what is the case. But it was still the promise and interest in learning that took me there, and that stayed with me. It was a lot to give up, when I did resign. INTERVIEWER So many people seem to go into academia with the idea that it will be a kind of refuge for their wonder. I’m curious how hopeful you feel that scholars can continue to find intellectual nourishment there. AHMED I don’t really use the language of refuge. I don’t know that universities can be places where you can go to have breathing space, given the kinds of pressures academics are under, and given the extent to which these institutions rely on precarious staff. All that makes it much, much harder to fight for alternatives. At the same time, the most inventive academic work comes from those who occupy precarious positions. A lot of the really important work—in Black studies, in gender studies, in women’s studies—comes out of a battle with institutions for something. When people become more secure and better resourced institutionally, they also tend to become more conservative and more willing to do, as I call it, the work of institutional polishing—play by the rules, make the institution look good—because there are benefits attached. INTERVIEWER In the early years of your academic career—when you focused on postmodernism, postcolonialism, queer phenomenology, affect theory—you were, essentially, producing theory. But with On Being Included and Living a Feminist Life, your research and methods shifted. They began to resemble something like sociology. And those books weren’t purely descriptive or analytical—they also formed part of the real-life work you were doing to try to change the institution you inhabited. What occasioned that shift? AHMED For a while, I had been doing work on race and strangers—who gets seen as a body out of place within neighborhoods—but eventually I turned my attention to the university itself. Lancaster was an incredibly white institution, and I’d already been aware of that, obviously, as one of the very few academics of color employed there. But I began to hear the justifications of that whiteness in faculty meetings. My ears were filling with the sounds of institutional machinery. I became director of women’s studies, and we were precarious—we were fighting to keep our autonomy, and I could begin to feel the withdrawal of the institution’s support. I could tell we weren’t going to have a future. So I was getting a little desperate. By chance, a colleague in the management school, Elaine Swann, had gotten funding to do research on diversity in further education. She asked if I wanted to work on the project with her, and I said yes, primarily because it was a way of bringing money into the Institute. It was pragmatic, really, but then once I began the research, it changed everything. I ended up being involved with this group that was writing a race equality policy. Writing that policy was my first hard institutional lesson. We brought what I thought of as a critical language into it, but the university was able to use the policy—which was about articulating racism in the institution—as evidence of how good it was at race equality. What I learned from that was how easily we can end up being interpellated. It’s not only that there’s a gap between statements about inclusivity and diversity and what actually happens. It’s also that we end up working to create the appearance of what isn’t the case. INTERVIEWER I was so compelled by your point, in On Being Included, that the term diversity “can be used as a description or affirmation of anything”—that it’s often seen “as a ‘good’ word precisely because it can be used in diverse ways.” AHMED I like to call diversity practitioners institutional plumbers. You have to work out where something gets stuck, and how to get it unstuck. And in working that out, you have to become quite inventive. There’s a way in which “diversity” can be emptied of its more antagonistic content—i.e., the entire point of it—but that emptying can also be used strategically. I was very conscious of how administrators in charge of diversity initiatives would try to maximize the distance between themselves and the complainers. They were not going to be using the language of racism, those so-called negative words that are about rendering the institution accountable for reproducing violence. Sometimes people use words like “diversity”—friendlier, happier words—because they’re just trying to get things unstuck. They think that word might enable certain people to be at the table with them. When I was researching Complaint!, I became more aware of the limits of that strategy. If we have to give up so much of our language—and ourselves—to get people to the table, then it might be that the table keeps its place. A lot of people talked to me about how when they tried to make complaints, it was often the diversity agenda that would be used against them—as if they weren’t doing this the right way, as if they weren’t being appealing enough, as if by even using certain words they were trying to make life difficult for other people, including other minoritized staff. Still, it’s not always clear, in the context of people’s actual lives, how to complain effectively. It might be, for instance, that you have a complaint to make about how racism enables your white peers to get more research time. But you’re already the only person of color in the department, and so in order to give yourself any chance of getting what you need, you might try not to appear like a troublemaker. That kind of institutional passing isn’t about identifying with whiteness or with power, and it’s certainly not about using happy language in order to get somewhere. It’s just about trying to be safe. So, we can move between the registers. We can sometimes refuse to be positive because it takes too much out of us, and we can decide not to be negative, because that takes too much out of us, as well. INTERVIEWER In Complaint!, you write, using Audre Lorde’s famous phrase, that “complaints procedures could … be understood as ‘the master’s tools.’ ” At the same time, as you point out, making a formal complaint can be politicizing, since it shows the complainant how the institution systematically devalues her grievances. Do you think that trying to change things at a university by complying with the procedures they’ve laid down is always likely to be a losing game? AHMED Formal complaints can sound just like the master’s tools—bureaucratic, dry, tedious—but they’re also where you actually come to hear and learn about institutional mechanics, how institutions reproduce themselves. To use the Lordeian formulation, the effort to rebuild the master’s house so that it can accommodate those for whom it was not intended cannot be understood purely as a reformist project. It is, potentially, revolutionary. Much of the work of revolution comes from what you learn by trying to build more just worlds alongside other people. It’s the sociability of complaint that leads it in a direction similar to a protest. You find your co-complainers, the people who get it, who have been there, your comrades. Some people cannot survive these institutions. Some people do not survive them. It is a fundamentally life-affirming task to build institutions that are not dependent on the diminishment of the life-capacities of others. At my former university, a group of students put together a collective complaint, anonymously, about sexual harassment and misconduct. The fact that people need to work collectively is often a measure of what we’re up against. I could hear how these students were being talked about by others in the institution, I could hear how complainers were pathologized, accused of moaning about minor matters, and of being unwilling to let the institution recover from—that is, cover over—the problems they were trying to address. When you make a complaint about harassment that’s endemic to a university, you’re pitting yourself against people who don’t want that problem to be recognized. People are put under so much pressure to stop their complaints. They’re told it will end their careers, that it will end the careers of the people they should be in allegiance with and depend upon, that it will end everything. There’s some truth in those dire predictions. When bullying and harassment are institutionalized, it’s really hard to challenge them without challenging everything. And so, everything can begin to fall apart. Through the collective, you can assemble and laugh and eat and drink, and remind yourself that the institution isn’t everything. The collective is what enables you to keep going. I am so grateful to Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble—with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia, and others—for writing one of conclusions of Complaint! about the work they began when they were students. I am grateful that their collective became ours. INTERVIEWER I was so compelled by that story of the students in the anonymous collective, how once they recognized that their formal complaints against a particular professor would go unaddressed, they decided to inscribe all the library copies of his books with an acknowledgement that the author had been accused of sexual abuse. It made me wonder when complaint needs to cross over into sabotage. Is it possible to actually change an institution without stealing from it, disfiguring it, or vandalizing it? AHMED There are a few different instances of what we might call sabotage in the book, which come from people’s often quite inventive approach to getting information out. When complaints pass through a formal inquiry, the information is usually contained. Universities will use the language of confidentiality—the need to protect the identities of those who make complaints—to justify that containment, and there is some truth to that. But confidentiality is also misused. It becomes a way of keeping secrets. In my research, a lot of people talked about ending up in a file. The file is put away in a cabinet, and the cabinet is in a room, and the door to the room is locked, and that’s that. It might be that you’re at an event surrounded by peers, and maybe you signed a confidentiality agreement, or the institution that’s hosting the event is the institution in which the thing happened—there’s a restriction on what you can say about what went on. So the file isn’t just the papers locked up somewhere in the institution—the file becomes you. You have to keep it closed. And that weighs you down, it holds you back. It can be incredibly painful to know what happened, to know what you went through, but still you can’t say it, you can’t get it out. And so, a lot of the instances of vandalism and sabotage are about what you have to do to get the story out. The institution has ways of handling these histories of violence to make them disappear, just like the family can contain the violence that’s happened inside it as a skeleton in the closet. A lot of the work of complaint is releasing the story of that violence into a wider world and seeing what happens to it. INTERVIEWER There’s often a kind of onomatopoeia at work in the language you use to describe the circuitous processes people have to go through to complain. In both Complaint! and On Being Included, you sometimes seem to mimic, stylistically, that sense of claustrophobia. Your sentences can feel like a closed loop, in which the same phrases keep iterating—but then they shift such that a new possibility is illuminated. In other words, they model a way out. I wonder if your prose style has shifted as your ideas have been taken up—through Feminist Killjoys and your recent books—by readers outside academia? AHMED I think my writing began to change before that. It kind of changed when I wrote Queer Phenomenology, which in a way is, of all my works, the most located in a philosophical tradition. I became interested in “the table” in Husserl’s philosophy, which was only a passing reference for him. I was supposed to pass over it, because the point of the table was to point elsewhere. But I became totally fascinated by it. I got a tape recorder, and I started reading out what I was thinking about the table. I picked up the table, I felt the table, and my thoughts weren’t words so much as sounds. My writing became more and more about sound, and then, as I was writing the blog and Living a Feminist Life, it just got looser. I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but once it happened, I became more interested in writing itself and in what I was doing with it. With the blog, you’re reaching people in a different way. You’re not dependent on the infrastructure of the university—the classroom or the seminar. We’re so used to it now, but back then it was still relatively new to me, the idea that I could write something and it would be out there, and I could get a response from someone straight away. There was some connection between the loosening of my writing style—trying to get at the affect and the sound of the thing I was describing—and feeling more directly connected to readers. INTERVIEWER Are there other people who have influenced you as you made that transition, loosening your attachment to the genre of academic writing? AHMED I’m working on The Feminist Killjoy Handbook right now, in which I have a chapter about the feminist killjoy as a poet. I use a very simple expression, “to let loose.” To let loose is to express yourself. It can even be about losing your temper. But it can also just mean to loosen one’s hold. Lauren Berlant taught me a lot about loosening a hold on things. They had an incredible way of creating room in the description of an attachment to something, which I think is really hard to do. And my aunt, Gulzar Bano, who is a feminist poet, taught me something, too. She wrote poems that were angry, on one level, but also very, very loving. When I think about both Gulzar and Lauren, I think about how the tightness or narrowness of words—of pronouns, say—can be experienced as giving you no room. You have to experiment with combination. There’s a connection between moving words around and opening lives up. There’s one line in Audre Lorde’s “Power,” a very difficult and painful poem, about power lying loose and limp as an unconnected wire. I’m interested in the idea of language as a connected wire. You keep it going so that something can pass through. It could be electricity. When I think of electricity, I think of snap, snap, snap, sizzle. You have to let the violence in to get it out, to express it. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde talked about writing that poem after stopping the car because she heard about the acquittal of a white police officer for the murder of a Black child. She had to stop the car, she said, otherwise she was going to have an accident. She had to stop the car, and a poem came out. She had to stop the car to get the poem out. That’s the connection, I think, between my auntie, and Lauren, and Audre—the absolute willingness to register the impact of violence, so that that registering is also the creation of a possibility for being otherwise. INTERVIEWER Practically everyone I know who earns their living within an institutional setting has considered leaving it. Most don’t. The idea of escape becomes difficult to separate from the hardships it might bring—reduced access to funds, community, and so on. But it seems as though your resignation acted as one of those possibilities for being otherwise. You’ve written that it enabled you to find a role that institutional life had inhibited, to act for others as a “feminist ear.” Could say more about that, the communities or modes of communicating that opened themselves up to you once you made your exit? AHMED [Laughs] INTERVIEWER Or maybe they haven’t! AHMED Maybe they haven’t. It’s a good question! I wouldn’t ever want to under-describe how difficult it is to leave. But for me, it didn’t feel like a decision. It was something I had to do. I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I had this idea that I could become a writer and work independently. It would be very difficult for me, now, to get a job in the UK. I don’t think I quite understood that when I left. But resigning changed how I could do the work. I didn’t realize at first how much it really mattered to people that I had resigned. It led people to me, and it led them to feel that speaking to me wasn’t speaking to the institution. I was somewhere else, in my little cottage in the middle of Cambridgeshire, and being out meant all the stories could come out with me. I don’t think I could have written Complaint! if I’d stayed in the institution. There’s a lot I miss about being part of the university. We created solidarity in the Center for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, and I really miss that. That space had a sense of urgency. We weren’t sitting around talking about, I don’t know, affect theory—which is not to say it’s not interesting to sit around and talk about affect theory! But it was a different set of conversations that together felt like an emergency. We were trying to change the conditions of our own material possibilities. I miss my course on race, which I’d taught every year since I became an academic in 1994. I miss the students. But wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you’re missing something. You just have to decide what you’re willing to miss. And missing all that has given me so many other opportunities to share, to communicate, and to think with people outside of those institutional spaces. So I’m willing to miss it. Maya Binyam is a contributing editor at The Paris Review. View the full article
  10. The three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and other missing buddy Tim. Yesterday, the five of them had headed into the woods for a bachelor party weekend. All friends since college, four of them wouldn’t have minded a golf weekend or quality time at a casino/resort. But for future groom Tim, the woods were his happy place, so into the mountains they’d gone. Fully equipped, packs, tents, sleeping bags, , cans of beans and franks, and yeah, as much beer and Maker’s Mark as five fit young men could carry. Which was to say, a lot. But they weren’t total idiots. As an experienced backcountry hiker, Tim knew his shit and oversaw their packing himself. Until the middle of the night. Noises. Screams. A disturbance. Realizing Scott was no longer in his tent. Tim setting off to get help. Except now he was gone, too. “Bear, bear, bear,” first guy moaned. “Mountain lion!” second guy insisted. Third guy vomitted. Maybe, maybe not, the locals thought. *** The first eight hours of the search turned up Scott, wandering blindly along the rocky banks of the river. Still clad in his long underwear, face covered in scratches, fingernails caked with dirt. Clearly disoriented and shell-shocked. And with no idea of what had happened to him, or his buddy Tim. Search efforts slowed, grew more methodical, no longer hoping for an easy victory, but now settling in to scour the wildnerness foot by foot, trail by trail, grid by grid. Choppers scanned with infrared. Air scenting dogs tracked areas of interest. Couple of psychics called in with hot tips, most involving flowing rivers or dark caves. Until twenty three long, arduous, exhausting days later, as the temperatures plummeted and snow blanketed the upper elevations… The searchers faded back to their real lives. The canine teams went home. The choppers were redirected to new missions. And only family and friends remained. Martin O’Day fought the good fight the longest. He searched for his son. Then he searched for signs of his son. And then, he searched for his son’s body. As seasons turned into years and Timothy O’Day became one more missing hiker, vanished without a trace. *** This is where I come in. My name is Frankie Elkin and finding missing people is what I do. When the police have given up, with the public no longer remembers, when the media has never bothered to care, I start looking. For no money, no recognition, and most of the time, no help. Why do I what I do? If only I knew. *** The town of Ramsey, Wyoming, looks like an Old West movie set transported to the dusty foothills of very real mountains. The picturesque Main Street is lined on both sides by wooden storefronts whose jutting rooflines appear like puzzle pieces against the deep-blue sky. I spot a yellow-painted general store nestled shoulder to shoulder with a deep-green five-and-dime and a faded red saloon. Coffee shop, feed store, touristy T-shirt depot, leather goods, and of course a storefront advertising all things cowboy. On a bright, sunny August afternoon, the sidewalks are jammed with people. Some clearly tourists, families in shorts and flip-flops. Some probably locals, given their denim and cowboy boots. Mostly all white, many strolling hand in hand, smiling and carefree. I feel as self-conscious here as I do in a Haitian community in Boston or a predominantly Black housing project in Memphis. These people with their shiny lives and fashion-forward clothes and FOMO vacations . . . I don’t know how to identify with them. I wonder sometimes if there’s anyplace that would feel like home to me. I started out playing the outsider. Now I simply am one. I’ve reached the far edge of town, where the pretty buildings end and the more commercial structures begin. A squat budget motel. A huge outdoor gear and apparel shop. And across from the motel, a diner. The diner, I realize. Where Tim O’Day’s groomsmen arrived that first morning five years ago, babbling about bears and mountain lions and things that go bump in the night. No time for hesitating. I head through the doors. *** The diner smells of coffee, bacon grease, and grilled hamburgers. Immediately my stomach growls. I had a stale Danish for breakfast, a chocolate bar for lunch. I could use food. As well as hiking gear, a night’s lodging, and a fountain of youth. It’s nearly three p.m. now. According to the sign, that’s fifteen minutes before closing, which would explain the nearly empty interior and the lone white-aproned fry cook scraping at the griddle. At the rear of the diner, however, I spy a group of eight people sprawled across two booths, deep in conversation over an open map, with a collection of dirty lunch plates pushed to the side. Martin O’Day and his assembled search party. Has to be. They’re all outfitted in serious outdoor wear, scuffed hiking boots, cargo pants, and flannel. On first glance they look rugged, healthy, and ready to go. I glance down at my decidedly non-mountaineering ensemble of tennis shoes, faded jeans, and a threadbare T-shirt. At least I’m covered in a film of travel dust and sweat. It gives me an air of authenticity as I roll my suitcase toward the group. The man sitting in the middle is doing most of the talking. He looks to be mid-fifties, with the whip- lean build of a person always on the move. Across from him sits an older gentleman with steelgray hair and equally weathered features. A bushy-bearded redheaded male and a dark-haired female are to their left, four younger men to the right. Up close, I spy a ninth member of the party: a yellow Lab mix wearing a bright orange scarf, sprawled under the table, head on paws. The dog looks up at my approach. Thumps its tail. I have a sense of déjà vu. Three years ago, different woods: a missing six-year-old boy who’d been playing tag with his eight-year-old brother around their campsite before he disappeared. Me, tramping through those woods with fellow volunteers day after day. Still searching, weeks later, long after all hope of recovering the child alive was gone. Because having started the hunt, we couldn’t give it up. We had to seek. We had to find. A family has to know. I remember the mom’s scream when news of the discovery reached her. I remember the father, a guy in his twenties, face ashen, voice thick as he shook the hands of all the volunteers and thanked us for bringing his little boy home. As if anyone could be grateful to have their child back for a proper burial. And yet, you can be. You absolutely can be. Why do I do what I do? Searching for the missing long after hope is lost. Town to town. Heartbreak to heartbreak. For me, the question isn’t why have I dedicated my life to this. The question is why hasn’t everyone. So many of our children, who deserve to come home. Loved ones who need to know what happened to their family member. Communities forever haunted by what might have happened paired with what could’ve been. I know who I am. I know why I do what I do. It’s the rest of the world that’s confusing to me. Now I approach. The man leading the discussion finally looks up. He has hazel eyes to go with his thinning dark hair. “Martin O’Day?” I ask, plopping down on the closest counter stool. This is it. I am both excited and nervous. Determined and fearful. It’s always like this. I stick out my hand. “My name is Frankie Elkin,” I state. “I specialize in working missing persons cold cases. And I’d like to help to bring your son home.” *** No one in the group speaks right away. Martin O’Day, the clear leader, glances at my travel garb, rolly luggage. He scowls. “I’m not taking questions at this time,” he says. “I’m not a reporter.” “I’m still not taking questions.” The older man with the cap of thick silver hair has twisted around to regard me. Gotta be Nemeth, the legendary local guide. He gives me an assessing glance. “We’re good,” he says. I notice the four younger men remain disconnected from the entire exchange—present but distant. They must be the bachelor party buddies, given the palpable weight of their collective guilt. That left the dog handler and the massive, redbearded male for me to sort out. I peg Bushy Beard as the North American Sasquatch hunter, though I’m cheating a little. Add body hair, and Bushy Beard could be the Sasquatch. An interesting example of owners matching their pets. So this is the dream team. An experienced local, a grieving father, four guilt-stricken friends, a search-dog handler, and a Bigfoot hunter. Interesting combination. “I have experience in woodland searches,” I volunteer now. “No, thank you.” Martin O’Day returns his focus to the map, tapping the tabletop pointedly. Just like that, I’ve been dismissed. Not the first time. I’m an unknown variable. People don’t care for unknown variables. *** Want to know a trick for dealing with unfriendly alphas such as Martin O’Day? Don’t deal with them. Ignore them completely. Ultimate power play. “You’re from the North American Bigfoot Society,” I address Bushy Beard. “Bob,” he provides cheerfully, ignoring Martin O’Day’s warning grumble. It clicks then, what I’d been trying to remember earlier: “Your organization has the most complete picture of missing persons on national public lands,” I burst out. “You guys know more about what’s going on in the woods than even the authorities do.” I’m not making this up. If your loved one goes missing in the wilderness, the best data on potentially related cases comes from Bigfoot hunters, not the federal government. The world works in mysterious ways. Then the second piece of the puzzle falls into place. “Hang on. You’re BFBob, aren’t you? In the missing persons forums. Bigfoot Bob. You’re working on the North American Project, mapping all the disappearances in this hemisphere. So nice to meet you!” I rise to standing as Bigfoot Bob’s eyes widen in recognition. “Wait. Frankie Elkin? As in FElkinFinds?” I nod vigorously, pleased to meet a fellow amateur searcher in person. “We need to get back to work,” Martin interjects sharply. “Just a sec, Marty.” Bob turns to the team leader. “Frankie here is the real deal. We know each other from online. She doesn’t just work cold cases; she solves them. Like dozens of them.” Closer to sixteen, but who am I to argue? Martin doesn’t seem to know what to make of that statement. He has his plan, probably months in the making. Viewing it as a series of steps and logistics, versus a mission to bring home his son’s body, is how he’s getting the job done. Now here I am, messing with his tenuous hold on sanity. I understand. All of my missions start with this moment—coming out of nowhere, ripping the Band-Aid off a family’s wound and hoping it doesn’t lead to arterial spray. At the other end of the table, Tim’s college friends continue to ignore the interaction, which I find fascinating. They are a group within the group. A separate pod of agitation and grief. One of them, a pale blond, is downing copious amounts of coffee, his hand trembling so hard he can barely bring the mug to his mouth. The friend closest to him whispers something in the guy’s ear. “Easy, now,” would be my guess. “You have search and rescue experience?” Nemeth speaks up for the first time. His tone is doubtful as he takes in my appearance. I don’t blame him. “I’ve assisted with line searches. And I’ve worked with dog teams.” Daisy has returned to her place under the table, leaning her square head against her handler’s knees and sighing blissfully as her human scratches her neck. “Got a pack? Camping gear?” Nemeth gestures to my luggage. “This is a backcountry expedition. You need to be experienced, know what you’re doing.” “I can rent equipment.” Assuming it doesn’t cost more than a hundred and twelve bucks. “Why?” Martin this time. He sounds less belligerent, more tired. “We don’t know you. You’re clearly not prepared. We don’t have time for this. We’re headed out first thing tomorrow.” “I’m here to help,” I repeat. “I have experience. I’m good at what I do.” “She’s good at what she does,” Bob repeats. “Sorry.” Nemeth this time, clearly not convinced of my bona fides. “Gotta have permission for these kinds of expeditions, and our permit only covers eight.” “You’ll still be a party of eight,” I say. Martin looks around. “There’s eight here, which makes you number nine.” “He’s not going to make it.” I jerk my head toward the shaky blond. “Josh,” one of the bachelor buddies exclaims sharply, as Josh’s hand jerks violently and dumps coffee on the table. “Shit. Josh.” Three men, leaping up as hot brew hits their laps. “What’s wrong? Man, you’re burning up!” Josh remains sitting, staring at the spilled coffee as if he can’t get it to compute. His face is flushed, covered in sweat. His whole body is trembling. “He’s sick,” one of his friends says. “I think he has the flu.” “He doesn’t have the flu.” I don’t have to be a recovering alcoholic to recognize the DTs. Martin sighs heavily, exchanges a look with Nemeth. So they both knew about Josh’s drinking. Which he must have recently sworn off in order to assist with the final attempt to bring his friend home. Except Josh hadn’t been drinking a little heavily before this. By the looks of things, he’d been a hard-core drunk, now entering the first stage of detox. “I can help,” I repeat to Marty. “I can use Josh’s gear. I won’t slow you down. I promise.” “Shit!” Fresh exclamation as Josh now slumps to the side, then slowly slides onto the floor. Martin doesn’t say a word. Just closes his eyes. Nemeth does the honors. He turns toward me, “Guess you’re in. Goddammit.” *** From ONE STEP TOO FAR by Lisa Gardner. Copyright ©2022 by Lisa Gardner. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Dutton Books. View the full article
  11. “What is interesting here, from a disinterested/objective perspective, is how the unimaginable improbable will become, within a surprisingly short period of time, the imagined probable. How the lurid-freakish becomes, within that period of time, particularly if experienced on a daily, hourly basis, in a familiar and delimited space like a family household, normal. What was accepted as the old normal is soon overcome by the new normal. Eventually then, simply the normal. For all things shift, as if tugged by gravity, to the normal.” Those who are familiar with the work of Joyce Carol Oates will know that she is as much a master of the Weird fiction short story as she is a multi-award-winning literary icon. The Ruins of Contracoeur (2021), her latest collection of short fiction, features longish short stories published between 1999 and 2020 in venues as diverse as Playboy and Red Shift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction (2001). It confirms her as a writer whose engagement with the Weird only grows stronger each year. The six stories in the collection show Oates’ mastery of the form, across grisly body horror, experimental reflection, deep character study and sharp revenge fantasy. Across widely varying tone, from black comedy to utterly chilling, Oates is a writer utterly in command of her voice. Published by the Swan River Press with lush cover art by Meggan Kehrli and a thoughtful and incisive introduction by fellow master of the Weird short story Lisa Tuttle, The Ruins of Contracoeur is essential reading for fans of Oates’ work and a great introduction for the curious. Collection opener ‘Mr. Stickum’ sets the dark and disturbing tone perfectly. The story is told from the point of view of a gang of schoolgirls who discover a child sex trafficking ring operating in their area, and decide to get revenge for all the exploited children by building a trap, the heart of which is the eponymous Mr. Stickum. The story immediately establishes Oates’ incredible command of voice, her ability to place the reader inside her characters’ perspectives. She captures the thrill of these intelligent young woman who, upon learning of the unpleasant reality, work together to solve their problem, a visceral response to the loss of innocence. The story unflinchingly explores the dark secrets hidden away by families and communities, as the girls recognise many of their victims from school or their own relatives. It also displays something that will become a recurring theme throughout the collection – the strength of Oates’ approach to the Weird is the way that she acknowledges the uncanny’s relationship to the mundane. These stories are disturbing because the transgressive and the strange cause a disruption in the characters’ lives, but their lives must continue around this traumatic event, creating a new normality that is unrecognisable compared to their lives before. Oates explores the fallout from trauma in intense, close first person in ‘The Cold’, which explores a woman suffering from the aftermath of a miscarriage who is losing her grip on reality. The story is a powerful exploration of suffocating grief, brave and unflinching. Oates uses the motif of being haunted by a coldness, which echoes H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘Cool Air’ (1928), but where Lovecraft’s story is about defying death, Oates repurposes it to explore the abjection of failed pregnancy. ‘Monstersister’ is a gruesome tale of body horror, in which a girl who absorbed her twin in the womb births her through a growth on the back of her head. Again abjection looms large, with the monstrous sister being literally ejected from the older sister’s body, but then twisted family dynamics lead to the monstrous sister being welcomed into the body of the family whilst the older sister is rejected. It is a visceral and disturbing exploration of the family unit and what it means to not belong, to be cast out. ‘Commencement’ is a slice of pure dark humour in which the self-important pompous rituals of academia hide rituals of a darker, bloodier nature. Oates takes satirical aim at the petty internal politics that shape academia and its obsession with initiations and graduations. The tedium of the graduation ceremony, the self-congratulatory attitude of the honoured guests and the in-fighting amongst the faculty make the whole thing instantly recognisable, and makes the horror interrupting from this familiar setting all the more striking. ‘Redwoods’ is the collection’s most daring and experimental narrative. It tells the tale of a man who, following his death, is left navigating the various possible outcomes of a seemingly trivial encounter with strangers in the redwood forests that winds up being the central hub of his entire life. Oates expertly weaves a tale of lives not lived, regrets and mistakes in an ambitious, non-linear narrative that hops across timelines and contingencies. The story demonstrates Oates’ ability to experiment with narrative form in order to provide a detailed and poignant character study. The longest story in the collection, and the oldest, ‘The Ruins of Contracoeur’ is Oates at her unparalleled best. Like the novels in her classic Gothic Quintet, the story focuses on a troubled family saga, which shades in and out of the fantastic and the horrific until classifying it becomes a futile endeavour. It is the story of a family forced to leave the city in disgrace to take up residence in the ruined country house Cross Hill. As the children slowly become aware of the historical disgrace of their ancestor who originally built the house and the truth about their father’s fall from grace, it becomes clear that Cross Hill is haunted by the family’s history and by more physical apparitions. A taught and beautifully written chronicle of the family’s collective decent into madness and worse, it’s exactly the kind of story that no one else can do as well as Oates. It is a fitting conclusion to the collection, which as a whole serves as a reminder of Oates’ talents and her key place in the worlds of literary and Weird fiction. The post THE RUINS OF CONTRACOEUR AND OTHER PRESENCES by Joyce Carol Oates (BOOK REVIEW) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  12. Last year, dear crime friends, I got super into horror—what other genre could be better at capturing our current doom-laden era, or our numerous discomforts and accommodations with modern life? It turns out that horror and crime fiction often enough aren’t so different after all, and like last year, 2022 brings with it a host of crossovers perfect for readers of either genre. As a service that perhaps will reveal my own ignorance of the wider genre, I bring to you 12 upcoming horror novels sure to please fans of thrillers, noir, and psychological suspense. (Notice something missing? I want your recommendations too! Please leave a comment with any other titles you want us to know about and cover from the horror genre that are coming out this year). Kristi Demeester, Such a Pretty Smile (St Martin’s, January 18) Such a Pretty Smile is getting rave reviews from all my fave horror authors, including the amazing emily m. danforth, and for the right reasons—it has a perfect setup to explore the ways that young women are broken into the ways of the world. Adolescent girls on the cusp of womanhood are being found slaughtered and mutilated by a presence that feels too malevolent to be human, and is drawn to those whose fierce independence makes them a target for enforcing the status quo. John Darnielle, Devil House (MCD/FSG, January 25) In Darnielle’s brooding, atmospheric new thriller, a successful true crime author in search of a new project decides to move to a Northern California town, into a house that was the site of a notorious murder decades before, connected to the so-called Satanic Panic. Darnielle’s storytelling is pitch perfect and the dread comes seeping through in measured portions until suddenly the weight of it overwhelms. –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Editor-in-Chief Simon Jacobs, String Follow (MCD/FSG, February 1) According to Lit Hub’s Deputy Editor Emily Firetog, this book is very creepy, and that’s all the recommendation I need to dive into Simon Jacob’s haunting suburban gothic. In String Follow, described by the publisher as a “darkly comic suburban Gothic” (which is a highly accurate description), a bunch of ne’er-do-wells, misfits, and lonely teenagers fall prey to dark impulses placed in their minds by a mysterious set of voices. This is both a really good horror novel and an absurdist commentary on radicalization via internet-induced paranoia. ​​Delilah S. Dawson, The Violence (Ballantine, February 1) The Violence continues a trend in dystopian thrillers concerned with gendered violence, including Vox and The Power. In The Violence, a new pandemic arrives—this one with the power to infect its hosts into committing unstoppable acts of savagery against all those nearby. It isn’t long, however, before some begin to see their infection as their savior, for finally those with the Violence can fight back against those who are bigger and stronger than they are. Throw in a bat-shit professional wrestling plot arc, and this one is not to be missed. Bethany C. Morrow, Cherish Farrah (Dutton, February 8) Cherish Farrah is a stunning one-two punch of social horror and psychological thriller. When Farrah’s family loses their home, they face a stark choice for their daughter: either bring her with them to a new job in a new state, or leave her to stay with her best friend Cherish in their wealthy country club community. Compared to Farrah’s hard-edged parents, Cherish has the kindest, most loving parents imaginable, but do they really love Farrah the way they love their own daughter? Or is Farrah just playing a bit part in the Story of Cherish? Gretchen Felker-Martin, Manhunt (Tor Nightfire, February 22) I dub this the great Terf-pocalypse novel. A found family must navigate complex dynamics between themselves, also while killing a whole lot of feral men and TERFs. In a dystopian scenario where a plague attacks testosterone levels, trans women are able to successfully keep the disease at bay by hunting the now feral men and eating their balls, as well as processing various plants for estrogen. Meanwhile, the TERFs are spreading hate against trans women by warning of the dangers of what happens when testosterone gets high enough to activate the plague, despite so many successfully fending it off. Oh, and a rich girl in a bunker does some really weird shit. I cannot underscore enough how much I love this novel. Catriona Ward, Sundial (Tor Nightfire, March 1) While I was blown away by Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street, I’m even more obsessed with the next Ward novel to travel across the pond. In Sundial, the story of a toxic marriage and a mother’s fears becomes so much more when Ward’s heroine begins to suspect her preteen daughter of otherworldly influences. The title refers to the family compound in the desert in which Ward’s anxious protagonist spent her childhood, and where she returns when her daughter begins to manifest strange, yet uncomfortably familiar, behavior. S.A. Barnes, Dead Silence (Tor Nightfire, February 8) S. A. Barnes has crafted a masterful horror thriller in space with Dead Silence. A small communications team at the edge of colonized space following a distress signal stumbles upon the wreck of the most luxurious space vessel in history, missing for decades. The team decides to claim their right to salvage the abandoned ship, but when they go on board, they’re not as alone as they think…An absolutely terrifying space horror. Ally Wilkes, All the White Spaces (Atria, March 29) In this historical thriller, set just after the end of the Great War, a young stowaway heads for Antarctica, determined to have the adventure of a lifetime while finally living as the man he’s always known himself to be. Tensions rise and dangers arrive as the voyagers find themselves wintering on a piece of land not marked on any map. Did they merely stumble there, or were they lured to their own dooms? Alma Katsu, The Fervor (Putnam, April 25) Alma Katsu’s latest historical horror thriller takes us into the internment camps of WWII, where Meiko Briggs and her daughter Aiko wait for news of her husband at war, and find themselves at the center of a strange new pestilence, and in confrontation with folkloric monsters. No one does historical gothic horror better than Katsu! Jason Rekulak, Hidden Pictures (Flatiron) I am always down to read a new take on the perennially-creepy “child freaks out nanny” story (I watched The Innocents a LOT as a child). In Hidden Pictures, Jason Rekulak has crafted a beautiful, terrifying, and surprisingly kind take on this classic setup. Mallory Quinn, newly sober and ready to get her life back together, takes a live-in job caring for a delightful five-year-old, who just so happens to draw increasingly disturbing pictures of a murder that may or may not have happened on the property long before. Can Mallory save her charge? And will this turn into the next “momo”? Only time (and my ability to read very very quickly) will tell. Paul Tremblay, The Pallbearers Club (William Morrow, July 5) An awkward teenage boy looking to add some extracurriculars to his college application decides to start a club. But not just any club: a club for pallbearers to attend the funerals of the indigent and forgotten. There are few members of the club to start with, and each has their own particular interpretation of the club’s short history. As a delightful way of presenting the warring narratives, The Pallbearers Club is written from the perspective of one member, and increasingly slashed through with red pen asides and corrections from another. Definitely one to read in a physical edition (the real horror is what happens to formatting in e-books). Grady Hendrix, How to Sell a Haunted House (Berkley, July 12) I am not exaggerating when I say that Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell newsletter saved me from losing my sense of humor during the pandemic. His hilarious, metatextual horror fiction is absurdly entertaining, and his new novel, How to Sell a Haunted House, promises to skewer the tropes of hauntings while paying homage to a long history of supernaturally possessed homes. And in a country beset by widely aging housing stock, this book is probably more practical than any of us would like to admit. Stephen Graham Jones, Don’t Fear the Reaper (Gallery/Saga Press, August 2) In the summer of 2015 a rough beast slouched out of the shadows and into the waking nightmares of an unsuspecting world. His name was Dark Mill South, but that wasn’t the only name he went by. That’s a taste of Stephen Graham Jones’ new and brilliantly crafted horror novel, Don’t Fear the Reaper (here’s a full excerpt). In this highly anticipated (by me and literally everyone else) follow-up to the immensely entertaining My Heart is a Chainsaw, Jade returns to her small town the same day that indigenous serial killer Dark Mill South sets off to seek vengeance for the Civil War-era killings of a number of innocent souls. Oh, and all the revenge must be completed by Friday the 13th. Because that is how horror works. Too bad we have to wait for August to read this one, but like last year’s late summer hit, Don’t Fear the Reaper is best enjoyed at the end of a long, hot summer. Gabino Iglesias, The Devil Takes You Home (Mulholland, August 2) 2022 is poised for a breakout from crime world favorite Gabino Iglesias, author of Coyote Songs and Zero Saints. His newest is an intoxicating story of a man in desperate financial straits who turns himself into a hitman and accepts a highly dangerous contract on a cartel transport operation. The job takes him and two others across Texas and further into an abyss of violence, existential dread, and paranormal happenings. –DM Katrina Monroe, They Drown Our Daughters (Poisoned Pen Press, August 12) There are few things in this world more terrifying than having our memories taken from us, and with them, the power to own our stories. At the once-popular vacation spot Cape Disappointment, rumors of hauntings and a number of disappearances have led to the decline of tourism. When one of the Cape’s daughters returns home after an acrimonious divorce to care for her aging mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, she refuses to believe in the legends (at first). But her mother’s dire warnings of danger don’t seem to vibe with her medical condition, and Monroe’s heroine begins to fear the call of the waves, both for herself and her young daughter. View the full article
  13. In the flawless, stainless neo-noir Blood Simple, the 1984 directorial debut of Joel and Ethan Coen and the acting debut of Joel’s soon-to-be wife Frances McDormand, a character clandestinely commits a murder in the back room of a Texas bar—an act which sets off a chain reaction of suspicion, guilt, and brutal cover-ups. In the background, on the bar wall, hangs a clever prop which will reappear numerous times throughout the film: a sign mandating that all employees wash their hands before returning to work—a bit of realistic décor as much as a harbinger of the ramifications to come, for its calling to mind the futile hand-washing hallucinations of Lady Macbeth after she and her husband kill the king of Scotland. In Blood Simple, as in Macbeth, murder is a permanently dirty act, and trying to wipe it away is not only impossible, but also leads to a much greater, much dirtier mess. Joel Coen’s gorgeous new film The Tragedy of Macbeth, completed in 2021 but released in January of this year, can be read as a kind of return to Blood Simple, all these years later—it is a co-production between him and McDormand, who plays Lady Macbeth, and for this, and many other reasons, it feels a little like an anniversary. But crucially, Macbeth is Joel Coen’s first feature film made without collaborating with his brother, and so it also is a kind of debut. As Blood Simple was for the brothers in 1984, Macbeth is a demonstration of a groundbreaking, brand-new filmmaking perspective. It is also, as with Blood Simple—which is a reworking of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which itself is kind of a reworking of Macbeth—a starkly fresh take on a story we’ve seen played before us over and over again. Watching The Tragedy of Macbeth is seeing old lovers in a new way for the first time. Watching The Tragedy of Macbeth is seeing old lovers in a new way for the first time; Lady Macbeth and her husband (a steely, bearded Denzel Washington) are in their 60s, longtime courtiers, longtime partners. Coen, who wrote the screenplay and co-edited the movie, has drawn attention to every single line in Macbeth that underscores how the central couple is childless; Coen moves one of Macbeth’s soliloquies, in which he acknowledges his childlessness as he is deciding to kill his friend Banquo, to a subsequent scene with Lady Macbeth. With this newfound dialogue, Macbeth reminds his wife of their childless life; when he reflects, “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown/ And put a barren sceptre in my gripe/ Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand/ No son of mine succeeding,” the camera instead catches a close-up shot of McDormand, whose heretofore-tough exterior melts for a moment. She nods slightly, sadly, even shamefully when she hears these words—sharing the pain that her husband admits to her, now. That Lady Macbeth is clearly past menopause seals the finality of their family’s fate, suggesting a very specific motivation for her coercing her husband to murder: in conspiring with Macbeth, pushing him to kill the king of Scotland, it seems that she sees her chance to beget him a legacy, giving him a kingdom since she could not give him a child. (In an earlier scene, in the middle of a firey speech, McDormand pauses to knowingly, sadly dwell on the line “I have given suck, and know/ How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me,” making it clear that this couple is in additional mourning, after having lost a child, their only child.) McDormand’s two recent Oscar victories—as a gritty, angry mother of a murdered daughter in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and a weary woman who lost everything during the Recession in Nomadland—only fuel her hardened performance. The Tragedy of Macbeth emphasizes just how ubiquitous and important “children” are in the original play—rather than tell a story about hubris and power-hunger, it locates a story of heartbroken parents and orphaned children. The irreparable murders in Macbeth are framed as deriving more from grief than simple corruption. The Tragedy of Macbeth’s cleverness in interweaving themes of young and old, old and new, extend to its tremendous, unforgettable design. The crisp black-and-white film and a squarish frame with an aspect ratio of 1.19:1 evokes the late days of silent film; within this window are elaborate sets that suggest infinite depths of field and play with vanishing points. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s symmetrical, clean-lined shadows and contrasting perspectives make the whole film look as if Edward Hopper painted Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ in monochrome. The Tragedy of Macbeth’s cleverness in interweaving themes of young and old, old and new, extend to its tremendous, unforgettable design. The structures, themselves, merge Medievalism with Brutalism—Macbeth’s castle is made of white concrete walls, with dark wooden beams and simple archways. Everything—from pillowcases to benches to parapets—is grainy, coarsely textured. The film is adorned, in nearly every scene, with ethereal curtains, filmy scrims, and wilting dark shadows, all calling to mind the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. But the film’s scenes are stitched seamlessly together not with dark shadows, but with clouds of fog. There is almost as much rolling fog in The Tragedy of Macbeth as in Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 take on the same play, Throne of Blood. And the soft, pajama-like Medieval armor and billowing black cloaks recall Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal. Coen’s rendition flecks the play’s innate Gothicism with Modernism, none more than with the aesthetic of the film’s most impressive character: the three witches, played as a single, replicating person by the great English stage actress Kathryn Hunter. Hooded and howling, slowly contorting her body as she prophesies, Hunter’s witch is a lamenting Martha Graham from the depths. The film is (from crown to toe) top-full of fantastic performances. It’s almost not worth saying, but few theatrical enterprises are more difficult than performing Shakespeare; these lines, written in an Early Modern form of the English language, have been repeated to the brink of meaninglessness for four hundred years; not only is Shakespeare everywhere, but Shakespeare is also, simultaneously, not automatically decipherable. It is no small feat for a performer to utter Shakespearean phrases as if they are thinking of them on the spot. Coen and the cast of The Tragedy of Macbeth pull off a remarkable accomplishment for the film’s complete clarity alone—none more than Washington, who speaks Macbeth’s lines ever-genuinely. He and McDormand, both grizzled and a bit tired, are a formidable, impressive pair, with believable chemistry, motives, and emotional journeys, all articulated to crystallization. But Hunter gives the greatest performance in the film—perhaps the greatest Shakespearean performance I have ever seen—as the avian, spidery, primate-like witch. Formal, even physical, conventions cannot contain her, and in the spookiest possible imagining of Myerhold’s theory of biomechanic performance, she dislodges her body parts from their joints and spools herself back and scuttles about, revealing her nature through movement as much as monologue. She speaks in a deep, husky, squeaky, cockney voice, in such an impossible register that it seems Shakespeare’s lines are being pulled, exorcised from a creature living inside her body rather than coming from her. Surely she must have a puppeteer or a ventriloquist—but in a neat metaphor for the rest of the film, these forces are internal rather than external. Macbeth is the story of how a solid shell can be filled up with a new substance. In the second act, Lady Macbeth asks for her own body to be “[filled] with direst cruelty” and for the peaceful night itself to be filled with “the dunnest smoke of hell”: for embodiment of new behavioral possibilities. Indeed, this Macbeth is very much about the physical takeover by “sightless substances”; of letting desires, and emotions, and feelings fully control one’s actions, instead. The significance of casting Washington and McDormand, and the five acting Oscars they have between them, is major: Macbeth and his wife are long-respected in their community, long esteemed and awarded. Within the narrative, their familiar, dependable exteriors make possible their giving way to new embodiments. The significance of Coen and McDormand’s helming of the project is also major, since the play is indeed about a husband and wife who spent a long time becoming known for doing things a certain way and are now doing things very differently. For all the visual and psychological hardness of The Tragedy of Macbeth, it is an airy, smoky, wispy interpretation: about the mysterious forces that move us suddenly, to change the behaviors we have long cultivated: to break partnerships or take existing partnerships to new levels of action, to do things we never thought we would—commemorating who we were by consummating who we never dared let ourselves become. View the full article
  14. Here’s a fun exercise that illuminates various generational and communicational chasms: go find someone under the age of twenty-nine and try explaining Michael Douglas to them. I mean, really explaining him. I’m not presuming you know the man personally. (Or that you have seen The Kominsky Method.) Who among us could claim to know what fires his soul? No, I’m saying try explaining to someone who wasn’t necessarily around to witness the phenomenon just what a massive, extravagant star Michael Douglas really was. It’s a little difficult, no? It had something to do with his charisma, I’m pretty sure, but that charisma was rather of-its-time: that moment from the late 80s into say the mid-to-late 90s when the men—or at least the ones people seemed to like seeing on screen—were wiry, jackets were boxy, money came in fast and loose, and sex was everything—mind you, a very niche vision of sex, built around the generally self-regarding and aggrieved worldviews of the aforementioned wiry men. Into that arena came a champion. Okay, champion might be too strong a word, but he really did grab your attention, didn’t he? In retrospect it all seems preordained, but it didn’t have to be that way. Yes, Michael Douglas was born into Hollywood royalty. And yes, his first big break came when Kirk Douglas acquired and gifted the film rights to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to his then twenty-something son, who really hadn’t done much with his life up to that point. The idea was that Michael, dutiful son and relative Hollywood greenhorn, would, as producer, make sure at the very least that his superstar father was cast in the leading role. Wait…you thought Michael Douglas was going to do that? Think again. He cut the old man loose. Told him he had aged out of the McMurphy role. Sorry, pops, we’re going with a twenty-seven year-old livewire named Jack Nicholson. Edging your own father out of his pet project— that’s just a glimpse into the serrated soul you’re getting when you come up to a Michael Douglas picture. But I’m digressing. I don’t want to give you a full Michael Douglas biography here. Let’s just say that after the success producing Cuckoo’s Nest, which earned him an Oscar, he spent a few years toiling in TV land, co-starring in a police procedural called The Streets of San Francisco. Eventually he quit the show to make his leap to the big screen and came out first with a supporting role in the medical thriller, Coma (adapted from the Robin Cook novel, another literary juggernaut), then really got into gear with his first big vehicle. (His production company was called Bigstick Productions—honestly, given what we know about Douglas, I really don’t want to interrogate that company name too closely.) That thriller, The China Syndrome, though seldom seen today, was one that neatly captured the spirit of conspiracy-laden 1970s cinema and brought in quite a few Academy Award nominations. It launched Douglas into the big time and within a few years he was a bona fide leading man. By the mid-80s, he was an A-lister, and the rest is history, although try explaining that history to someone weaned on the streaming services. What I’m trying to say is they don’t make them like Michael Douglas anymore. That might well be a good thing in the bigger cultural picture, but by God some of those movies were exhilarating, and who else could have played them except Michael Douglas? (Possibly Laurence Fishburne, now that I think of it. Right? You can kind of see it, can’t you? But that’s really a topic for another article: How come Laurence Fishburne wasn’t an even bigger star in the 1990s? Why did we have to wait for The Matrix to fully cement his reputation? Table that for a while and let’s get back to Douglas.) This is a modest little project. Here, in my opinion, are the five thrillers that explain who Michael Douglas was and why he ruled Hollywood for a brief heyday. Actually it wasn’t even that brief. The man had a two decade run at the top. And these are only the thrillers! Where possible, I will make mention of several other Michael Douglas films you could be watching to complement the thrillers, because really how are you going to capture the man’s spirit without also discussing Andrew Shepherd and Sydney Ellen Wade? The China Syndrome (1979) To close out the 1970s, Douglas got in just in time with his big political thriller, and it has all the eery prescience you could want. Douglas is in a supporting role, playing behind Jane Fonda’s TV reporter and Jack Lemmon’s shift supervisor at a Southern California nuclear facility. This one’s a disaster thriller, and it centers around the idea of shoddy construction and casual corruption in the nuclear energy sector. Needless to say, the nuclear lobby was not pleased and set up an advance campaign framing the movie as irresponsible and implausible, and then about a week after the premiere…the Three Mile Island nuclear accident went down in Pennsylvania. As for the movie, it brought in a slew of Oscar nominations and positioned Douglas—seen here in one of his bearded roles—as a Hollywood player on the rise. Romancing the Stone (1984) Does anyone watch Romancing the Stone anymore? I’m genuinely asking, because they might want to. (It’s currently streaming on HBO Max.) For those who need a refresher, this 1984 adventure thriller lands somewhere between an Indiana Jones movie, a screwball comedy, a Hitchcock travel flick, and a postmodern farce. It was written by Diane Thomas—who was killed in a car accident before she got another movie made, but was on her way to superstardom, working with Spielberg and getting drafted into the Indiana Jones franchise—and directed by Robert Zemeckis. But back to Douglas…wait, before we get to Douglas, how about Kathleen Turner? Was anyone more electric than she was for this stretch of the 80s? Between Body Heat (1981) and Romancing the Stone (1984), plus its sequel, Jewel of the Nile (1987), plus The War of the Roses (1989), who owned that decade more than Turner? Okay, now back to Michael…The plot for this movie is a mess beyond description. It’s zany, that’s the point. But basically Turner plays a successful romance novelist who treks to Colombia and into the jungle and is there rescued / tormented by an exotic bird smuggler—that’s right, an exotic bird smuggler—played by Douglas, who handles a machete with some real aplomb and along the way gets to hone his soon-to-be signature rapport with Turner. Between this one, the sequel, and The War of the Roses (which would have been on this list, but isn’t quite a thriller; it’s more of a domestic violence comedy, if you can believe that), the pair was setting screens on fire for quite a stretch, and this is when Douglas really cemented himself as that strange piece of sex symbolism that we can’t quite explain to today’s younger generations. Wall Street (1987) I have relatively little to say about Wall Street because I suspect it’s the best known of Douglas’s thriller performances, not necessarily because all that many people are watching the film these days (they might be, I really don’t know), but just because the movie—especially Douglas’s turn as Gordon Gekko— has entered the cultural lexicon and come to represent something far larger and more enduring than the simple story of bud Fox. It really is quite a performance by Douglas, though: all quiet menace and distasteful charisma. You just know that guy isn’t going to do right by the unions, don’t you? Assuming you’re pretty familiar with Wall Street, which really is a thriller when you boil it down, I’d suggest pairing this one with A Chorus Line (1985), the psychosexual musical in which Douglas plays a Broadway producer with more than a little in common with Gekko. In fact I would say the two performances together embody just about everything that made Douglas so effective at playing svengali roles. Plus you’re getting peak 80s culture all around when you watch these movies side-by-side. High finance, hostile takeovers, and show business! Fatal Attraction (1987) This movie really belongs to Glenn Close. So maybe, in retrospect, that was one of the appeals of Douglas—he played opposite great actors and helped them shine? No, that’s not it. Glenn Close didn’t need anybody’s help to overwhelm this movie with her magnificent, dramatically unhinged presence, but we’re going to put it into the Douglas column, anyway, because the movie was just an absolute phenomenon, earning more than any other picture in 1987 (over $300 million at the box office) and bringing in a slew of Oscar nominations, including one for Close (she lost the Best Actress award to Cher, for Moonstruck). In case you need a refresher, this is the story of a New York City attorney whose wife and kid go away for the weekend. He has an affair with a book editor. He tries to break it off with the book editor and…well, she’s not having it. She comes for him, his apartment, his family, his rabbit—everything. He goes so far as to move to Westchester to get away from her. Westchester! But there’s just no stopping her. The movie is obviously taking its cues from Cape Fear (and maybe the Halloween franchise), with its unstoppable, ineffable villain threatening the family sanctum, but it also sort of low-key invented a new kind of erotic thriller, one that’s crossed up with horror and exploitation tropes, proving incredibly popular with audiences throughout the 80s and 90s. In fact, Douglas made those movies something of a personal trademark for a time, going on to make Basic Instinct (1992), Disclosure (1994) A Perfect Murder (1998), all deeply troubling movies with really disturbing sexual and power politics that we’re not going to get into here because they require a full and frank examination in their own right, and honestly I just don’t know how much of it to pin on Douglas versus, say, Paul Verhoeven (director of Basic Instinct, which did some really terrible things to Sharon Stone) or Barry Levinson (director of Disclosure, which casts Demi Moore as the office sexual harasser and Douglas as the gaslit aggrieved… seriously). So all this is to say that if you want to check out an erotic thriller starring Michael Douglas, and I would say that is a potentially valid desire, you should probably watch Glenn Close’s Fatal Attraction and then maybe afterwards if you’re still in the mood you could try A Perfect Murder, which has some nice performances from Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen and is a loose remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954). The Game (1997) David Fincher has many talents as a filmmaker; one is his knack for making interesting casting decisions. In particular he tends to go for actors who bring to the movie some preexisting relationship with the audience—a reputation, let’s call it, or a persona—something that Fincher can spend the next two to three hours manipulating and subverting. Think about Ben Affleck turn in Gone Girl (2014), or Jodie Foster in Panic Room (2002). Or, more on topic here, let’s think about Michael Douglas in The Game. Fincher’s 1997 psychological thriller is all about upending expectations, and that starts from the jump when we see Michael Douglas in the leading role. He’s playing an old money industry titan in a moodily lit 1990s San Francisco, whose brother (played with a lunatic intensity by Sean Penn) shows up in town on his birthday with an invitation to a mysterious game that will soon turn out to be an elaborate and all-encompassing form of mental torture and possibly also robbery, with quite a few apparent deaths thrown in for good measure. Douglas begins as we expect—the unflappable star, then slowly descends into his own private hell. And more than anything, what Douglas manages to convey is this sense that he can’t quite believe this is happening to him—to him of all people! It’s that subtle sense of confidence and entitlement—a self-possession Douglas honed through decades of stardom—that Fincher is running through the ringer in this bizarre and memorable thriller. The movie, for the record, is just absolutely riddled with logical inconsistencies and misdirections that don’t quite hang together, but you know what, it really doesn’t matter. For all the bells and whistles, for the totally insane ending sequence, this is a movie about the unraveling of Michael Douglas. A pretty fitting capstone to his twenty year run as a superstar. *** So there you have it: the five Michael Douglas thrillers that capture the uncanny experience that was Michael Douglas. Maybe you want more? I’m not going to recommend Falling Down (1993) for a number of reasons, but if you really wanted you could go watch that one paired with Behind the Candelabra (2013) and have yourself an odd, provocative evening. Or you could do the right thing and just settle into an evening with The American President (1995). Just watch Michael trying to order some flowers—pretty good, right? View the full article
  15. It all started when a close friend who grew up near me in the forests of northern Wisconsin shared how she had received a phone call out of the blue that led to the discovery that her late father had led a secret life: fathering at least three illegitimate children with three different women. Her father had been very wealthy and my friend was one of his three heirs. She and her siblings had one question: Did this mean those illegitimate children were also his heirs? At her request, I called an estate lawyer who said that if they had not been specifically excluded by name in her father’s will that the answer was “yes.” My friend was upset with this news as were her siblings. All three felt their inheritance was at risk. And that got me thinking: What if someone knew that they were related by birth to a wealthy man who had never acknowledged their existence? What if that person had died but did not exclude them by name from his will? And more questions: How to prove that they were first degree relatives? Can you get DNA from a deceased person? How? Who can help prove the relationship? Puzzling over these questions led to my discovery of the explosion in genetic genealogy research: what it is and how it is being used. In May of 2021, The New York Times published a comprehensive story that detailed the remarkable advances in DNA research that have happened in the field – or “fields” as the story laid out how different efforts in genetic genealogy have dovetailed to provide valuable information for forensic investigators – and mystery writers! For example, in late 2019, one investigative team trying to solve local murders decided to tackle tracing genetic markers. This meant working with volunteer genealogists and getting access to a million-dollar DNA sequencing machine. The team’s efforts ranged from extracting DNA from decades-old skin cells to using the latest advances including expensive “whole genome sequencing.” In doing so, the team had stumbled into the dawn of a new industry. And this is in spite of some critics’ worry over the extraordinary access to personal information now available to law enforcement and others. (See The New York Times story “How Your DNA Test Could Send a Relative to Jail,” which ran on December 29, 2021.) How the Team Worked They turned first to the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit originally founded to help adoptees find their birth parents. This led them to discover a number of new companies working in DNA science. Other options they found included Parabon NanoLabs, which is a pioneer in the field. For more skeletal remains people could seek out HudsonAlpha Discovery; and today there is also Astrea Forensics. More scientists and companies are sure to surface as the demand for genetic genealogy grows. That information can then be teamed with two national databases, GEDMatch and FamilyTreeDNA, to provide detailed searches, many of which are helping to solve numerous cold cases today. It should be noted that the popular Ancestry.com and 23andMe differ in that they do not allow law enforcement access to their databases. Note, too, that as I write this science is also improving the use of human hair for DNA research. Other developments along this line are sure to follow. Where It Started But these advances in DNA science owe much to people like Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker, a forensic pathologist in Baltimore who started saving DNA samples from rape kits as far back as the sixties. A recent article in ProPublica titled “Cold Justice” does a wonderful job of showing how important Dr. Breitenecker’s work has been for today’s evolving DNA science. Many years after his initial efforts in the sixties, his slides – specially treated to preserve the DNA samples – are helping to solve numerous cold cases. This has proven critical as many rapists often commit other crimes, including murder. Even more important is the effect of discovering the identity of the person who assaulted them has had on victims: Many have found release after years of living in fear and depression. *** Back to my friend’s phone call, which precipitated my research. She and her siblings found that two of the three individuals whose DNA matched theirs were not interested in making any kind of a connection, not even relative to the inheritance involved. One person was gracious on hearing the news and the family has been happy to include her in their lives and as an heir. For me, that phone call led me down a fascinating path as I wondered what would happen to the characters in my story who discover their DNA connection. If you’re interested, too, you’ll have to read Wolf Hollow to find out. Meanwhile, if you choose to explore genetic genealogy on your own, you may want to check out the DNA research companies mentioned in this article. Also of note: National Databases GEDMatch FamilyTreeDNA Mysteries featuring DNA searches: The One by John Marrs The Lost King of France: How DNA Solved the Mystery of the Murdered Son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette by Deborah Cadbury The Milkman’s Son: A Memoir of Family History, A DNA Mystery, A Paternal Love by Randy Lindsay Two Non-Fiction Titles I’ve found to be very helpful: Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell Witness for the Crime: The Stories Bones Tell by Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover Happy Searching! View the full article
  16. by Lisa Mae DeMasi “Do what you love” may be the most overused advice in the career-improvement world. Countless superstar entrepreneurs’ TEDx talks and thought leaders’ bestselling books have quoted Maya Angelou: “pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.” But that’s not always possible in practice. I know this firsthand. Once upon a time I turned my back on a half-finished MBA and a corporate job’s maddening pace and rigid hierarchy, escaping to do what I loved: writing. The act of quitting made me subversive, and that alone fueled creative expression. I mapped out chapters, content. Figured I’d have the memoir written in six months, employ an editor, find an agent, become a bestseller, Oprah would call, the whole bit. Four years later I found myself gazing into my monitor, not knowing whether to put a period at the end of the sentence or keep going with a comma. I’d lost my home in foreclosure, gone bankrupt, written three hundred thousand words, revised the body of work four times. And while slurping away at my eighty-seventh cosmo, I understood what I was really missing. A mentor. Someone who’d gone before, knew how to shape art into something saleable and would come with a tribe of like-minded potential collaborators. I needed someone to touch what the poet Mary Oliver called the “wild silky” part of myself and, finally, make it palatable to the world. Hemingway had Stein, Beethoven had Neefe. We mere mortals need mentors, too—and we can hire them. But there are thousands of writing coaches out there: some are competent, some are lousy, some are soul crushers. How do you find your coach? 1. Go with the gut: does the coach’s work style and personality jibe with your own? Do her testimonials feel obligatory and ingenuine, or honest and objective? Does she “guarantee she’ll help you write a bestseller”—or provide thorough analysis and work with you to tighten up the manuscript? Listen to your intuition. There are many fantastic coaches with integrity and know-how—don’t get stuck with empty promises. 2. She’s part of your tribe: if you see a potential mentor’s work in a publication you love, or discover her in a group on social media with whom you share a vibe, chances are you have similar taste. I found my coach through my Reiki teacher. My coach had helped a fellow Reiki student get an agent and a book deal with Random House. 3. She has street cred and success: my coach had testimonials from people who had published, made writing careers, and gotten bylines with top media outlets. She was also successful in her own right—an internationally acclaimed author who’d made her living writing. I knew she could trailblaze a path. 4. She gets you, every single part of you: my coach works in the Gateless method, which fuses creative brain science, industry-savvy skills and tools, and radical nurturing to bring domain-changing work into the world In this methodology, a coach leans into your greatest strengths, the energy of the writing, and the power of your work in the world to manifest your singular genius in the form of a book. Through this method, my coach helps all of me rather than just the part of me working on my craft. This might not be your style at all! Some writers crave nurturing, others want firm deadlines. Make sure your coach isn’t just about deliverables, numbers, list-building, ideal clients and great gigs—unless that’s what you want. 5. It doesn’t happen overnight: Anyone who promises the world in thirty days isn’t helping you make lasting change. It took me an eleven-year journey through the trials and tribulations of a writer’s life—finding the time to write in between putting food on the table—to get to the key of mentorship. Something magical did happen with my coach, and while it felt like it happened overnight, it’s too deep and long-lasting for that. Since working with my coach I’ve been shortlisted for prizes, published in the top online media and literary journals, and polished my memoir to pitch literary agents. But more than that, I understand that often, those who fail at doing what they loved just didn’t have the guidance they needed to learn how to soar. What will you do today to obtain the guidance you need to succeed? * * *Lisa is pitching “Calamity Becomes Me” to literary agents, her memoir about survival, told with insight, reflection and laugh out loud moments. She also publishes essays on the writing life and women who inspire her. Her work has been featured in Brevity Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir Magazine, Horse Network, Writer Advice, and Shark Reef. She lives near Boston, where she writes technology content for VMware, bikes, and rides horses. You can reach her on Twitter and LinkedIn. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ (C) Copyright wow-womenonwriting.com Visit WOW! Women On Writing for lively interviews and how-tos. Check out WOW!'s Classroom and learn something new. Enter the Quarterly Writing Contests. Open Now![url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  17. Not one person in a hundred knows how to be silent and listen, no, nor even to conceive what such a thing means. Yet, only then can you detect, beyond the fatuous clamour, the silence of which the universe is made. —Samuel Beckett In her December post (“The Hidden—But Crucial—Mad Skill”) Kathryn Craft discussed holding fast to the creative spirit despite the overwhelming difficulties and constant, even essential disappointment one endures in its pursuit. In particular, she provided a quote from Martha Graham that has continued to slosh around inside my head ever since: There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. In my own November post (“Why I Am Not Writing”), I noted some of the difficulties I was having getting back into the daily habits required of a novelist. I won’t revisit those here, but in the interim I’ve managed to get back to my desk, only to discover an entirely different difficulty, one I can’t help but imagine I share with a great many of you. I’m speaking of distraction. After five years of daily dread and doomscrolling, scratching the FOMO itch (Fear Of Missing Out) by constantly checking the news, I’ve found that I’ve developed the very bad habit of letting my attention swing like a weather vane with every stray thought. This has only become more evident as I’ve tried to focus on writing. Joyce Carol Oates considers interruption a writer’s greatest nemesis. How unsettling, in my case, to realize the enemy lies within. Following the advice of the Israeli historian-philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, I’ve returned to meditation, hoping to get a grip on this. But as anyone who meditates knows, it ain’t as easy as it looks. There is quite possibly nothing more difficult for a flibbertigibbet like me than to sit still. Even when I do, it’s not as though tranquility magically descends. The Buddhists have a saying: the mind is a monkey. My mind is a whole forest full of them, chattering away in the trees. Once, when we were in the car together, my late wife remarked that she could literally hear me thinking. “You have a very noisy brain.” The constant flux of mental floaters we think of as consciousness—our thoughts, our worries, our plans, our fears—distracts from the deeper awareness Samuel Beckett talks about in the quote that opens this post, an awareness that requires silence. To be creative, ironically, being conscious isn’t enough. We need to sink into something deeper. And as the Martha Graham quote suggests, the perfectionist need to be good, to do the job well, only impedes our ability to find that deeper, quieter place. That realization has been particularly helpful in getting my focus back. For even when I manage to ignore the constant urges to check my email or Twitter or Facebook, or resist worrying about all I have to do before we move cross-country at the end of March—or succumb to any of the other digressive impulses that arise in my mind, like earworms—the doubts about the worth of what I’m doing, its quality, its merit, rise up as but one more level of distraction. I’m taking heart in the fact that, little by little, the words are coming. As for their worth—that’s why the gods invented revision. What has proven most distracting for you of late? What tactics do you use to “keep your butt in the chair”? What’s proven most helpful? What hasn’t? About David CorbettDavid Corbett (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019. Web | Twitter | Facebook | More Posts http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?d=yIl2AUoC8zA http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?d=qj6IDK7rITs http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?i=IZmX6fDgr-0:L7GtJceDa4g:gIN9vFwOqvQ http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?i=IZmX6fDgr-0:L7GtJceDa4g:D7DqB2pKExk [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  18. Publicity photo of the Ronettes—Nedra Talley, Veronica Bennett (Ronnie Spector) and Estelle Bennett—by James Kriegsmann. On Wednesday, in the hours after Ronnie Spector’s family announced her passing from cancer at seventy-eight, I played, on loop, her cover of the Johnny Thunders punk anthem “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” Recorded for The Last of the Rock Stars, her 2006 comeback album, the song is also a dirge for Thunders, who died in 1991; he had been one of Ronnie’s crucial supporters in the period after she left her abusive ex-husband, the megalomaniac, murderer, and iconoclastic music producer Phil Spector. On YouTube, you can watch her perform a live version of the song from 2018: after showing footage from an archival interview the Ronettes did with Dick Clark sometime in the sixties, she comes out, to applause, and says, “Sorry, I was backstage crying.” Dabbing her eyes, she mourns the breakup of her iconic girl group, which also featured her older sister, Estelle, and cousin Nedra. “I thought 1966 was the end, no more Ronettes, no more stage, no more singing. I was out here in California and out of show business for seven or eight years. Let me tell you, life was a bitch.” She then describes starting over back in New York City in the ‘70s (she was raised in Spanish Harlem), and meeting Thunders while singing at the legendary gay club and bathhouse Continental Baths, where he cried all through her set. Later, she also met Joey Ramone, who produced an EP of hers and whose contributions to The Last of the Rock Stars include backing vocals on “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” On the haunting track, Ronnie’s voice, its teen-dream girlishness scratched with nicotine, bears witness to the time that’s passed. Although The Last of the Rock Stars is more produced than Johnny Cash’s stripped-down American Recordings (1994), the blueprint for such back-to-basics music projects, it served a similar purpose, reintroducing her to the public while reimagining her past. Where Erma Franklin shot a new video for an old song, Joni Mitchell rerecorded earlier hits of hers, and Cash reinterpreted foundational country tunes, Ronnie chose to cover tracks from her own heyday (“Hey Sah-Lo-Ney,” “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”), putting her cool, inimitable stamp on them. In her 1990 autobiography Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, Or, My Life as a Fabulous Ronette, Ronnie recalls a bathroom in the famous recording studio Gold Star: “People talk about how great the echo chamber was at Gold Star, but they never heard the sound in that ladies’ room. And, between doing my makeup and teasing my hair, I practically lived in there anyway. So that’s where all the little ‘whoa-ohs’ and ‘oh-oh-oh-ohs’ you hear on my records were born, in the bathroom at Gold Star.” In my late teens, not long after the release of The Last of the Rock Stars, I spent a significant portion of 2007 primping in front of the cloudy mirrors in the girls’ bathroom of my public school, examining my relaxed, chin-length bob—one of the Black American girl’s evergreen coiffures—and combing the curled flip at the end just so. The ladies’ room: where teen girls gather to avoid class, and where iconic vocal stylings are born. I hadn’t yet figured out, then, how much my particular style of performing adolescence owed to Ronnie Spector. But it so happened that Ronnie’s aesthetic was on the rise again. Amy Winehouse had recently released Back to Black (at the time, I was an inveterate Amy-head), borrowing from Ronnie’s musical sensibilities and bringing back the piled-high beehive hairdo, that relic of teenhood the Ronettes had popularized five decades before. Around the same time, on television, The Sopranos began airing its final episodes, and the beehive showed up there, too, as an important narrative thread in “Soprano Home Movies,” which premiered in April 2007. At a summer cabin in upstate New York, Tony’s sister Janice tells a story she’s heard about their parents: one night in the sixties, while driving home to Jersey from an evening at the Copa in Manhattan, Johnny Boy Soprano grew so enraged at his wife Livia’s complaining that he pulled out a handgun and shot through her beehive. There’s a distressing undercurrent to the anecdote, but Janice and her husband, Bobby, one of Tony’s mob capos, laugh at it, as does Carmela, who asks if anyone could see the gunpowder burns in Livia’s hair; Janice says Livia cut her hair into a bob the next day. Tony, meanwhile, looks very shaken, and soon starts a fight with the other man. On the surface, he’s upset about how dysfunctional the story makes their family look, but you sense that he’s also feeling sympathy for his mother, from whom he seems to have inherited his tendency toward depression. A consistent theme of The Sopranos was the sense that all the good things in history had already happened and the chance to make a real impact was long past. As Tony put it, “I came in at the end. The best is over.” Winehouse’s vintage looks and music suggested she might have felt the same. But Ronnie, though she barely survived her torture at the hands of Phil Spector and her ensuing alcoholism, lived long enough to start over, making the kind of post-AA albums—Siren (1980), Unfinished Business (1987), and She Talks to Rainbows (1999)—Winehouse never got the chance to record. In her autobiography, Ronnie recalls listening on the other side of the bedroom door as Phil Spector and his songwriting partners sketched out “Be My Baby,” imagining how she’d bring the tune to life. Although she called her voice “the final brick” in Spector’s famed Wall of Sound, in truth, the recordings capture her voice competing with that Wall, scaling its heights. And in real life, barefoot, she escaped the actual walls of his mansion, with their barbed wire and booby traps. “It doesn’t pay to try / All the smart girls know why,” Ronnie sings on “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” but her efforts to rebuild her life belied those lyrics. It’s true that you can’t put your arms around a memory. But you can reinterpret tone, as Ronnie did with her cover songs, adorning those faded records with the smeared-lipstick kiss of her vibrato. Her signature vocal tic, the “oh-oh-oh-oh,” which is all over The Last of the Rock Stars, gave her mouth the shape of shock, or smoke rings, the after-image of a bullet hole through a beehive. And her sound captures that mingling of anticipation and forewarning, of things recalled in perfect detail and those blurred or corrupted in memory, of pain and wistfulness and long-ago glee. When I listen to Ronnie, I can hear it all. —Niela Orr I have a bad habit of buying gifts for people and forgetting to send them. Over the holidays, I found myself digging through my pile of books looking for something new to read—or old enough to feel that way—when I came across a small poetry book, A Horse with Holes in It, by Greg Alan Brownderville. As I flipped through the pages in an attempt to place it, I realized it was a thank-you gift I meant to send to a professor some years back. Selfishly, I’m glad this book never made it to the post office. Most of the poems take place somewhere deep in the Delta, where Brownderville experiments with themes of religion, love, death, and desire. It’s decidedly Southern Gothic, yet the poet manages to be soulful without being overly serious, “they wept, and said some mystery words / like shahn-die, seconding my gibberish with God’s / because they know. They know honest gospel singing when they hear it.” Like the poet, I spent much of my childhood in Arkansas (and in church) and found myself wide-eyed, wincing, and giggling the whole way through. The fifteenth poem, “A Message for the King,” was my favorite of the collection, and ends: “Tell the king / we cheer him, we love him for these nights. / But before you kiss his face and go, / urge him / not to be too proud not to be too proud not to be too proud.” —Lauren Williams This past week I had one of the most extraordinary TV viewing experiences of my life: my family sat down to watch an Apple TV+ adaptation of my daughter’s favorite graphic memoir, El Deafo, by Cece Bell. El Deafo tells the true story (true except that in the book and show, all the people are humanoid bunnies) of Bell’s grade school years, during which a brain infection causes her to lose most of her hearing. Little Cece is precocious and profoundly alive, and deeply sensitive to others’ perceptions of her newly acquired disability. It’s a story of how to find friendship, of learning whom to trust and how to trust them. What makes the show so extraordinary is that its producers made the decision to design all the sound in the show as Bell would have heard it through her hearing aids. Our ears need to reach for the sound, which is muffled, distant, and well worth pursuing. This is the first instance I can think of—though I’m sure there are others—in which the medium of television has been used to grant access to the charged space of another person’s disability, and in so doing takes us deeper than we could have imagined into Cece’s perspective, to know her, at least a little, as she knows herself. As a bonus, the soundtrack was written and recorded by indie singer/songwriter Waxahatchee. The show affords an unprecedented chance at empathy, making the world simultaneously bigger and much more intimate. —Craig Morgan Teicher View the full article
  19. I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love So come give me a hug if you’re into getting rubbed. 50 Cent, “In Da Club” (2003) Is there any couplet in the English language that so concisely spans the dizzying sweep of poetic possibility, the subtle gradations of sense illuminated in a few short words and the abyss of nonsense toward which we are ever drawn by carelessness and entropy? You don’t have to answer that. The answer is “yes, many.” I was making a point. You’ve probably heard the stately bounce of “In Da Club,” at least ambiently. It was 50 Cent’s mainstream breakout single, and he mostly spends it surveying the fixtures of his nightlife: drinks and drugs, cars and jewelry, prospective lovers and pissy haters. If we’re meant to take anything away from the song, though, it’s that 50 is twenty-five percent hedonist and seventy-five percent hustler. So he puts the song to work for him, makes it tell us what he’s about, what he’s been through, who his friends are, how he moves through the world. After fifteen years of career ups and downs, flops and feuds, fluctuating wealth and implausibly diverse investments, it remains an indelible sketch of 50 at his fiftiest. Now, generally speaking, 50 relies as much as any rapper does on similes, homophones, trick rhymes, and assorted other kinds of semantic misdirection. He once even described the name 50 Cent as “a metaphor for change.” Yet when you look closely, “In Da Club” contains almost no wordplay, no figuration, no trickery. When he says you can find him in the club, he’s not being evasive; if you’re looking for him, that’s probably where he’ll be. When he offers you ecstasy—“I got the X if you’re into taking drugs”—he’s barely even using slang. It is, and fittingly for the calling card of a no-nonsense street magnate, a bracingly direct song. Except there’s this one line, tucked memorably but unassumingly into the hook, a line you could in fact read as the very essence of 50’s no-nonsenseness: “I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love.” It’s perfectly clear what he means by this: he doesn’t have time for romance. He’s not a player, he’s a hustler. No nonsense, all grind. It’s slippery, though, this little pinprick of character definition, how what it says sits at odds with the way it’s expressed. The distinction between having sex and making love is negligible biologically but critical sentimentally, after all—and here’s 50 using it to tell us how uninterested he is in sentimentality. Quietly but repeatedly, twice in each chorus of the song that introduced him to the global pop market as a hard-nosed hood kingpin, he’s framing his identity through language and idiom and metaphor. And finally, beneath the mythologies of money and sex, the beef and bullet wounds, what defines a rapper more intimately than his or her relationship to those things? And then there’s this: “So come give me a hug if you’re into getting rubbed.” How do you follow such a pearl of rhetorical legerdemain as the sex/love line with that? This question haunts me. It’s not wholly displeasing to the ear: the internal vowel rhyme is a nice touch, as is that third into binding the lines together. But what does getting rubbed mean? Does it mean being sexually serviced in crude, utilitarian fashion? Does it mean being murdered? Will 50 Cent kill anyone who touches him, or accept a tender embrace on the condition that it lead straight to intercourse? In either case, is the best word really rubbed, which is too mealy to sound threatening and too workmanlike to be sexy? What’s that conjunctive so doing there? What does this thought say about the previous one? How come I’ve never heard rubbed—rubbed out and rubbed off and rubbed on, yes, but never just rubbed—anywhere else? What am I missing? How, a thousand times how, does the sly precision of the immediately preceding line wind us up at a ham-handed muddle like this? No, you’re reading too far into it. The point I’m making is that rap lyrics, even ones from such a poetically trivial source as “In Da Club,” contain multitudes of meaning, and also of nonsense, of possibility, of exquisite care and carelessness and carefreeness, sometimes all at once. If 50 Cent can be ingenious and metaphysical and clumsy and puerile in the space of twenty words, six seconds, just imagine what depths of inventiveness and complexity and contradiction abound within a lyrical tradition that will soon turn … fifty. Yes, many. Rap music serves, consistently, contagiously, sometimes in spite of its own claims to the contrary, as a delivery mechanism for the most exhilarating and crafty and inspiring use of language in contemporary American culture. This is true on a number of levels, from the political and the conceptual down to the phonological and the syntactic, but I’m particularly concerned with the semantic: with the creation and control of sense. It’s worth thinking about how rap means—how it can say both less and more than it appears to, depending on the way we listen; how it compels and challenges us to follow along; how it forges these vital, beguiling grooves of imagination and reality that lodge and blossom in our personal and historical memory. *** Let a nigga try me, try me I’ma get his whole motherfuckin’ family And I ain’t playin’ with nobody Fuck around and I’ma catch a body Dej Loaf, “Try Me” (2014) Try me, as Dej Loaf says it on the hook to the song of the same name, sounds to my ear like it rhymes with Charlie. So do family, which is accordingly something more like fahmly, and nobody, which I hear as pretty much standard. Once the verse starts, the first four rhymes are forty, macaroni, on it, and recording. There’s only one conventionally perfect rhyme in the song’s whole three and a half minutes—scoring with boring—unless you count nobody with catch a body, which is a remarkably flippant way to refer to murdering someone. There are slant rhymes and then there are sheer drops. It’s not that Dej Loaf can’t rhyme—anyone can rhyme—it’s that she gets more mileage here out of deciding not to. With apologies to Tolstoy, all perfect rhymes are alike, each imperfect rhyme imperfect in its own way. Perfect rhyme tells us about a relationship between words that never changes; that scoring with boring is a rhyme you can find in a dictionary is useful but also, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. But rhyming family with body—that’s interesting. How does she do it? Why does she do it? Imperfect rhyme—slant rhyme, off-rhyme, near-rhyme, half-rhyme, lazy rhyme, deferred rhyme, overzealous compound rhyme, corrugated rhyme, what have you—illuminates something about the person creating it, about their ear and their mind and what they’re willing to bend for the sake of sound. It tells us what they believe they can get away with through sheer force of will, like how Fabolous rhymes Beamer Benz or Bentley with team be spending centuries and penis evidently just because he knows he can. Or: I’m ridin’ through the metropolitan, everybody hollerin’ Me I’m just acknowledgin’ with this million-dollar grin Shine like a halogen, cool as the island wind I don’t judge myself but if I do I’d give my style a ten “From Nothin’ to Somethin’ Intro” (2007) That last line isn’t particularly memorable by itself, but as the culmination of a chain of rhymes that drift in and out of alignment with metropolitan, it’s riveting—all the more so because he ends it by awarding himself a perfect score for style rather than precision. Style is how he gets away with spending two bars repeating the same vowel sound—at least as I say those words—and then abandoning it altogether. Confidence is how he gets halogen to rhyme with island wind. In a similar way, imperfect rhyme tells us how much effort a rapper is willing to appear to put in, whether it’s a little— I’m in the bucket, paid two hundred for it My lil’ niggas thuggin’, even got me paranoid I’m gettin’ money, that’s in any nigga category Double M, I got Gs out in California Rick Ross, “Stay Schemin’ ” (2012) —or so much— What you doin’ in the club on a Thursday? She said she only here for her girl birthday They ordered champagne but still look thirstay Rock Forever 21 but just turned thirtay Kanye West, “Bound 2” (2013) The former is from the Miami rapper Rick Ross, whose manicured Southern drawl—he says his last name as Rauwss and rhymes it almost exclusively with boss—goes only part of the way toward explaining how any of those end words could be aurally comparable. The latter is Kanye West, for whom obstinacy is as much an aesthetic principle as it is a personal liability. Both rappers are unusually fond of rhyming words with themselves, but for what scan to me as opposite reasons: Ross out of a sort of plutocratic lethargy, West out of pure insistence. Literary critic Adam Bradley, who calls forced cases like birthday and thirstay “transformative rhymes,” describes Kanye’s willingness to distort pronunciation on stylistic grounds as “the poetic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix using his amp’s feedback in his solo.” One pictures him standing before a perfect rhyme, stroking his chin, considering how best to perfect it by fucking it up. Rhyme is the most powerful, least cerebral way I know to tap into that strange attraction words in close proximity exert on one another, what David Caplan, in Rhyme’s Challenge, calls “language’s need to couple.” By its form it sets up an expectation which, depending on how and when it’s met, can relieve you or surprise you, pull you forward in time or hold you in place: imagine if the last line of “Happy Birthday” had to rhyme with the birthday person’s name. Its internalized call-and-response dynamic gives it a sense of gravity, of purpose. It’s rhetorically means-justifying, so much so that researchers have documented a cognitive bias known as the rhyme-as-reason effect, according to which statements that rhyme are easier to pass off as true than ones that don’t. (See a 2000 Psychological Science report called “Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?).”) Which accounts, perhaps, for what I’ve come to think of as slant idioms: single-use figurations based on imperfect rhymes that are as oddly compelling semantically as slant rhymes are aurally. Take the Notorious B.I.G., for instance—who rhymed birthday with thirstay two decades before Kanye did—and who, while cautioning inexperienced drug dealers to avoid consignment arrangements, finds time to compact that old Postal Service credo (“neither snow nor rain or heat nor gloom of night”) into a crystalline synonym for no matter what: If you ain’t got the clientele, say hell no ’Cause they gon’ want their money rain sleet hail snow Biggie Smalls, “Ten Crack Commandments” (1997) Or take Jay Electronica capping off a happily-ever-after snapshot with a two-word distillation of a wedding send-off: Life is like a dice game One roll could land you in jail or cutting cake, blowing kisses in the rice rain “Exhibit A (Transformations)” (2009) and the Chicago rapper Vakill tap dancing around dead: Some niggas claimin’ that they can drop me, serve me Got it topsy-turvy, so fuck around and wind up autopsy-worthy “Keep the Fame (Remix ’01)” (2001) These coinages don’t just sound good, don’t just make plausible sense: I find them seductively self-evident, dazzling in their novelty and sublime in their perishability. In the seconds between call-and-response, they create and immediately fill a space in the language. You can’t explain the difference between thirsty and thirstay, I don’t think, but you can hear it. And who’s to say this isn’t proof of a deeper semantic magnetism that rhyme allows us to tap into? Not the rhyme-as-reason of “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” or “He who smelt it dealt it,” but the rhyme-as-redemption of 2Pac reassuring his mother: And even as a crack fiend, mama You always was a black queen, mama “Dear Mama” (1995) —which I hear as its own kind of transformative rhyme: one that acts, that performs, the way I confess and I now pronounce you man and wife are more than just statements. It’s not that perfect rhymes can’t accomplish the same thing, just that the imperfection is what makes it feel purposeful, personal, human when it happens. It’s in surmounting perfection, or ignoring it, that you show what you’re capable of and what you refuse to be told you can’t do, even if it’s just rhyming family with nobody and nobody with body. It shows what you hold to be equivalent and thus, in a sense, true. “People say that the word orange doesn’t rhyme with anything, and that kind of pisses me off, because I can think of a lot of things that rhyme with orange,” Eminem tells Anderson Cooper in a 2010 interview. “If you’re taking the word at face value, and you just say orange, nothing is going to rhyme with it exactly,” he says. “If you enunciate it and you make it, like, more than one syllable—aw-rindge—you could say, like, uh: I put my orange four-inch door hinge in storage and ate porridge with Georidge.” (A bemused chuckle from Cooper.) This is just it: taking words at face value is what good rappers almost militantly don’t do. They find the blind angles, the shortcuts, the secret overlaps, and use them, sometimes, to build stunning models of invention and entente, spaces where small discords combine into larger resolutions and we see, hear, how boring it would be to live in a perfect world where like belongs only with like. Daniel Levin Becker is a critic, editor, and translator from Chicago. He was an early contributing editor to Rap Genius. His first book, Many Subtle Channels, recounts his induction into the French literary collective Oulipo. “Rhetorical Questions” and “On Rhyme” from What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language. Copyright © 2022 by Daniel Levin Becker. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books. View the full article
  20. As some of you may know I am currently undertaking a creative writing PhD with the catchy title Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction. This involves reading and watching a lot of climate change fiction (cli-fi) and the Fantasy-Hive have kindly given me space for a (very) occasional series of articles where I can share my thoughts and observations. This time, I’ve turned my attention to the excellent recent Netflix release, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. Nearly two decades ago the iconic The Day After Tomorrow (TDAT) first brought a cinematic lens to bear on the developing field of climate change fiction (cli-fi). In Don’t Look Up (DLU), Hollywood has taken another paradigm shifting lurch forward in the representation of the impending climate catastrophe and humanity’s stumbling response to it. As with TDAT, DLU telescopes the decades long challenge of the climate crisis into a timescale that satiates audiences’ craving for narrative immediacy. While TDAT compressed its flipping of the world’s climate past an irreversible tipping point into a three-day white-out in the Northern Hemisphere, DLU uses an impending extinction level event of a comet impact in six months as an allegory for climate change. Both films share some features, not least the political resistance to accepting the reality of the threat. However, DLU has absorbed and portrays many of the additional issues that have faced those pressing for climate action in the 18 years since TDAT first got people talking. While critics have decried DLU for an alleged misfiring message that patronises and alienates its audience, those critics should perhaps remember, they are not the film’s target audience. Every protest movement attracts resistance from its contemporary establishment which feels protest is only acceptable if it comes in a form that offends no-one, changes nothing and so can be comfortably ignored. DLU’s greatest offence is perhaps that people are watching it and talking about it and about climate change from a new perspective. There is much that the film does right and to great comic effect even if – given the contemporary experience of a fact-denying, evidence-free, political and epidemiological dystopia – DLU tends to draw more smiles of grim recognition than outright belly laughs. In parts, it is just too real to be funny. However, despite its many brilliances there are constraints of form and plot which mean some key issues still evade DLU’s withering satire. I’d like to consider what the film does well and also where it still falls short of the admittedly impossible task of depicting the totality and complexity of the unfolding climate crisis. Through its scientific protagonists, Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiaski, the film accurately holds up the naïve inarticulacy of science in the media maelstrom and how this contributes to the scientific consensus being side-lined. The gawky awkwardness of the unsavvy pair extends even to their appearances with Dibiaski’s self-cut fringe and Mindy’s shaggy beard. Media platforms that crave pithy certainties from heroic individual celebrity scientists in simple two-sided presentations, struggle to deliver the reality of the dull rigour of scientific method and peer-reviewed findings. Danger also becomes hard to sell because our present lifestyle feels so comfortable and permanent that we can’t readily comprehend its vulnerability to climate change. The media, at the very heart of the “we’re OK” delusion, as depicted in DLU by default works on a “but it’ll all be all right in the end” setting. You would think that the tumult of the pandemic would have shattered that illusion and exposed us to the real risks of deep and unavoidable societal change. However, the pandemic has instead seen a rehearsal of exactly the same science resistance, misinformation and inept political response that the climate crisis has encountered. Covid is a mock exam for the climate crisis and we are failing it badly. Some anti-lockdown groupings are now looking to pivot to a similar “save the economy” based anti-climate change action agenda. The parallels between our faltering hamstrung responses both to Covid and to climate change are shocking but far from accidental. When the president’s son and chief of staff Jason Orlean makes a reference to “our scientists” – the film highlights how the natural caution of the majority of the scientific community is used against it. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway in Merchants of Doubt chronicled how superannuated or fringe scientists are invited and funded to deliver authoritative pronouncements that deviate from the consensus or are on areas way out of their area of expertise. Strident but un-peer reviewed pronouncements can travel twice around the world before the scientific consensus has got its boots on. In DLU the positional authority of the head of NASA gives weight to her pronouncements, but it turns out that her scientific area of expertise is not in Astronomy. In the climate and the covid crises superficially authoritative but experientially misplaced “experts” have been repeatedly deployed not to disprove the scientific consensus, but simply to sow doubt and confusion for the public. They present an illusion of a credible alternative science narrative that panders to and supports our powerful desire to “carry on as normal.” Paranoia, gullibility and a predilection for conspiracy theories feeds off that bait of “doubt and uncertainty” like a shoal of piranhas. That confusion is enough to prevent action. It is enough to help sustain the unsustainable status quo, and sustaining the status quo has been the commercial imperative since the tobacco industry first sought to bury the health risks of smoking. This play repeated in several environmental and health crises since, is seen also with covid. In the Great Barrington Declaration, the flawed concept of herd immunity was trumpeted under the sponsorship of a right wing libertarian think tank. The superannuated scientists involved espousing fringe views based on shoddy research were serving political agendas for political and commercial masters. Oreskes and Conway highlighted how the cadre of rent-an-expert scientists moved seamlessly from one issue they knew little about to another through the last decades of the twentieth century. DLU illustrates this recycling of cherry picked “experts” when the Head of NASA forced at one point to resign in disgrace as the scapegoat for the administration’s culpable inactivity, nonetheless reappears later in the film rehabilitated and readmitted to the corridors of power and influence. The film also skewers the political and media fuelled faith in technological solutions and the fantasy of the hero entrepreneur. Rebecca Willis in Too Hot to Handle; the Democratic challenge of climate change, pointed out how we are led to believe that technology will solve climate change. It’s like believing that we don’t need to press the brakes on a bus careering towards a cliff-edge because we trust the entrepreneur on the back seat to design and install some operational wings. In the character of Peter Isherwood, DLU combines aspects of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs into a persona physically resembling Andy Warhol. This composite entrepreneur with his incredibly complex plan of comet fragmentation, mining and exploitation is a cypher for all the greenwashing promises of the climate crisis sceptics – the contention that carbon-capture or atmospheric seeding can enable us to continue gorging our society on fossil fuels without consequence. The ultimate mechanism of failure of Isherwood’s “plan A” illustrates how the problem is not the invalidity of an individual concept, but the impossibility of upscaling it to the required level of scope and reliability. For those of us living in Northern Ireland, this almost religious invocation of technology by politicians with no relevant expertise or understanding sounds horribly familiar. For years we were told that technology would provide “alternative arrangements” that would avoid the Brexit inevitability of a customs border either in the Irish sea or on the island of Ireland. Again, the parallels between that fallacious Brexit faith in technology, and the equally dubious Climate crisis trust in technology are not a matter of simple coincidence. With its portrayal of a Trumpian brand of American politics, through President Janie Orlean, DLU highlights the twin difficulties Climate Change faces in gaining the necessary political traction to instigate action, those of political timescales and political funding. In a world driven by febrile social media activity, where the way to avoid the consequences of last week’s scandal is to bury it under next week’s even greater scandal, DLU highlights how the duration of political concentration has shrunk even shorter than the usual length of an electoral cycle. Instead, politics on both sides of the Atlantic, has shrivelled down to the micro-timescales of political media management which are the exact antithesis of the scale and length of vision needed to address the climate catastrophe. President Orlean switches between rejecting and then embracing the reality of the comet threat, but in both decisions is driven by purely domestic considerations of political survival. (One might wonder how far the UK covid strategy is driven by the current prime minister’s need to satisfy rebellious Tory back benchers and preserve his personal position rather than safeguard public health.) However, the next twist in DLU’s plot reflects the other invidious factor influencing contemporary political decision making. The entrepreneurial Isherwood, through his generous funding of Orlean’s party, is given a totally unjustified access to and influence over the political decision-making process. This leads to the abandonment of one plan to save the earth in favour of another riskier one of Isherwood’s design that promises untold wealth from the “mined” comet. Throughout the pandemic in the UK we have seen highly profitable contracts given, without due diligence, to risky ventures that happen to have links with and/or be donors to the Tory party. The way that DLU highlights how the wealthy seek to exploit a crisis to profit and become even more wealthy rings far too painfully true. We see too the impact of the way Joe Manchin has been funded and supported by the fossil fuel industry in how he has obstructed the relatively modest steps to address climate change proposed by his democratic party president. It is ironic that those who praise the efficiency of the private sector in allocating its funds to secure the best commercial outcomes, somehow think those same organisations’ investment in politicians and political activity is a purely philanthropic gesture with no expectation of enhancing their own position through political leverage and power. Through Isherwood’s intervention, DLU also highlights how the narrative of catastrophe can be manipulated by those who seek to personally profit from it. Imminent disaster is rebranded as economic opportunity. In The Green Market Revolution, foreworded by the deeply disingenuous Daniel Hannan, a battery of right-wing libertarian essayists try to suggest how the Free Market can not only solve the environmental challenges but bring profits to all. It is ironic that arch-Brexiteer Hannan in his foreword talks about the clean rivers we were (at the time) enjoying in the UK, as though these were a consequence of a benevolent free market, and yet through the “freedoms” his Brexit has won these rivers are now clogged with human sewage. DLU, with our protagonists meeting apathy and resistance from people deluded into believing the comet will bring them jobs, sharply pinpoints the current climate crisis pivot that the Green Market Revolution epitomises. The shift is now from denying climate change is happening to accepting it but insisting that raw unregulated capitalism is best placed to protect us by capitalising on it to the benefit of everybody. Thus, these first shoots of the “climate change could be a good thing” narrative are beginning to force their way into the public domain, testing the waters of public opinion and softening people up for unspeakable. What we have seen in public pronouncements by right-wing libertarians on many issues appear to be deliberate attempts to stress the Overton window with outrageous statements beyond the pale of acceptability. Such pronouncements may not move the window all the way, but they provide a jolt to it and the window settles in a new and slightly more extreme position. Through the pandemic we have been “jolted” from seeing 20,000 UK deaths as a worst-case scenario, to 150,000 deaths being normalised. We have gone from clapping (but not improving the pay) of NHS workers to demonising them as lazy idle buggers taking holidays in a pandemic, and accepting as valid opinion leader articles that argue “is it worth saving the NHS?” DLU’s portrayal of how people can be manipulated into believing they might benefit from a disastrous comet is not too far from the truth in the insidious twisting of opinion by those who really could (and do) profit from disaster. There is, of course, one last thing that the film does brilliantly and that is in the design of its title. Humanity seems to have a psychological preference for accepting simple lies over complex truths, for believing in salvation through individual heroes of an entrepreneurial elite rather than social and political collaboration in a global team effort, for trusting statements of immediate and unwavering certainty rather than the iterative processes by which science refines, corrects and improves its understanding of what is happening. As with many academic fields, scientific conclusions cannot be reduced to the pithy three word slogans so beloved of modern politics – the emotive but misleading power of “Get Brexit Done,” the simplicity of “Build Back Better,” or – more hopefully perhaps “Security, Prosperity, Respect.” In the tradition of simple lies Trumping complex truths, the absurdity of climate crisis denial is epitomised in the film’s catastrophe denying movement and its three-word slogan “Don’t Look Up” that encapsulates the wilful blindness of populism. However, there are things the film didn’t do so well – or couldn’t do so well. Within the comet allegory, an external natural event over which we have no control, there is no direct parallel to be drawn with the self-inflicted catastrophe of the climate crisis. The comet is not the fossil fuel industry and it has no lobbyists to argue on its behalf. The industries that created the climate crisis have at their disposal substantial reserves of wealth, influence and motivation to seek any means possible to enable them to continue doing the damage. It is incredible that reports suggest 2022 may see the highest ever coal consumption. The largest lobby group at Glasgow’s climate conference was the fossil industry, which still receives millions of dollars a day of subsidy and continues to have far greater access to and apparent sympathy from ministers than the renewable energy industry. There is no analogue in DLU for the way those who caused the crisis continue to have too loud a voice in how to resolve it. Also, the crisis of a comet that is an undeniable agent of change cannot easily convey the forces of conservatism controlling much of the media. The proponents of conservatism (small government and supply side reform aka deregulation and removal of social and workplace safety nets), delivering their messages through shady but well funded think tanks, have secured unjustified access to political influence and presentation in the media as “independent expert voices.” (My favourite is the Taxpayers’ alliance, a self-professed grass roots organisation which has been strangely silent on the squandering of billions of UK taxpayers’ money on arguably corrupt crony contracts). Conservatism, in its extreme libertarian form, seeks to preserve, profit from and indeed increase global inequality. Poverty is policy. Keeping people poor keeps them fearful and easily duped into scapegoating and demonising others even poorer and more desperate than themselves. Such libertarian voices present themselves as champions of the everyman and cynically frame measures of public or environmental health and safety as attacks on individual freedoms and prosperity, yet they are anything but everyman, and their astro-turfed grass roots organisations have anything but the public interest at heart. There is no simple allegory that DLU can harness to illustrate the invidious libertarian influence on the debate. The billionaire editorial control of the media is not depicted in the film. Instead, the TV presenters are seen as entirely their own agents delivering deliberately light entertainment, rather than promoting someone else’s agenda of duplicitous lies be it climate change denial, anti-vax messages, allegations of electoral fraud, or the patently absurd suggestion that Brexit was ever a good idea, and that Boris Johnson is anything other than a lying charlatan. It may seem extreme, but these ideas have a common foundation in an outright libertarian agenda where the commercial influence of a transnational elite is used to override the interests and independence of what were always fragile democracies. It’s an agenda set out in The Sovereign Individual by William Rees-Mogg (Jacob’s father) and building on the notion of heroic individualist capitalism depicted in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a deeply flawed vision of how government regulation fetters capitalism’s true potential for improving the lot of everyone, or at least those who deserve to have their lot improved. You don’t have to scratch too deeply into modern political discourse to find the libertarian ideal of a deregulated dystopia where the property accumulating ultra-wealthy profit from the indentured service of people sold a lie of freedom with a side serving of hate, while not realising that everything of real value has been taken from them. In short, a vision of global capitalism in its final tyrannical form. We can already see that Brexit libertarians, the covid deniers, the lockdown sceptics are poised to pivot to attacking climate change with exactly the same tried and tested fear-mongering messages of economic damage and loss of individual freedoms. The same people who pushed the lies that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, fossil fuels don’t cause acid rain, passive smoking isn’t a health risk, climate change isn’t real, masks/vaccines/lockdowns don’t work are now poised to tell us that climate change is real but only they can solve it. As James Doohan as Star Trek’s Scotty once (nearly) said, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me eight or more times, shame on me.” These visions profit from what seems to be a weakness of our species, that we are ill-suited to coping with the complexity of the world we have created and the dangers we have caused. We see this in our preference for individual led stories, we need an everyman to guide us through the narrative, we do not have a hive mind. The news media understand this and frame their stories around individual icons to stimulate our empathy and engagement. But the challenge for all of us in cli-fi, be it film or books, is to break out of the bonds of realist literature and effectively convey the epic scale of the global catastrophe we face. It is what I like to describe as the Tardis conundrum, to tell a story that – through its individual focus – appears small on the outside but – in the extent of the themes it covers – is much bigger on the inside. Don’t Look Up is a painfully sharp offering that aims to resolve this paradox. Yet it has also attracted the kind of criticism that every progressive voice faces. You are protesting too rudely, you are protesting too much, you are upsetting the people you need to enlist. The impact of cli-fi in film and literature remains uncertain. Schneider-Mayerson’s studies of readers’ responses to cli-fi suggests that they are unpredictable and that any shifts of attitude towards climate change are small and fragile. Portrayals of dystopian futures like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (is it even cli-fi?) are criticised for engendering feelings of hopelessness and depression rather than political and individual engagement in the issues. The question remains, how does cli-fi best stimulate action? In particular, how does it stimulate action that goes beyond the deliberate distractions of personal responsibility and on into demands for wider political action and corporate accountability? A classic climate denial tactic is to launch accusations of individual hypocrisy “Did you use a car to get to the studio today?” within a wider strategy of putting the scientists and the activists constantly on the defensive. This shouting “squirrel” type of deflection leads us away from the imperative that governments must take national action and global corporations must be held to account. The fossil fuels must stay in the ground. Subsidies to fossil fuel companies must end. Climate damaging companies must not be supported in managing their image through greenwashing activities, sponsoring public works, and buying politicians. Protest that does not make people uncomfortable is not doing its job, and it is shocking how there are people in power who have benefited from the protests of previous generations yet are still poised to stifle and supress the power to protest for the current generation. No film can encompass the totality of climate change and the problems of the compromised political, media and commercial responses to the threat, but Don’t Look Up is the best effort yet. While it may not directly stimulate the action we need, it has at least stimulated the precursor to action – People are talking about it. The post DON’T LOOK UP directed by Adam McKay – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  21. Fadeout, originally published in 1970, introduced Dave Brandstetter, an insurance investigator based in Los Angeles, in the first in a series of twelve crime novels the Los Angeles Times would hail as “groundbreaking” in the 2004 obituary of its author, Joseph Hansen. Why groundbreaking? They were beautifully written and dexterously plotted, but that wasn’t the reason. Brandstetter himself, rich, white and blessed with movie star good looks—a far cry from his hard luck noir predecessors like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer—doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be much of a groundbreaker. But the adjective is justified because Brandstetter is by nature what Marlowe and Archer were by temperament alone—an outsider and, in the context of the time, the ultimate outsider. Brandstetter, you see, is a homosexual (the word his creator used in preference to “gay,” a word he despised). A smart, masculine, competent, unapologetic homosexual and ace private investigator in an America where 49 of 50 states criminalized gay sex between consenting adults and the American Psychiatric Association deemed homosexuality a mental disorder. Simply by reason of his existence, Brandstetter was a potential felon and candidate for the looney bin. Can’t get much more outsider than that. And “groundbreaking”? In 1970, that may have been an understatement. Fadeout, however, was not a novelty act, nor was Hansen a crude gay propagandist. At the time of its publication, he was an accomplished literary artist who had been writing, unnoticed, for decades. As he said in his own introduction to the 2004 edition of Fadeout, he was forty-six when Harper & Row accepted the book for publication and “I’d been writing all my life. The New Yorker and other good magazines had printed a few of my poems, but that was it so far as big time publishing went.” The poems he mentions were published in the early 1940s, when Hansen (born in 1923) was still a kid. Between those early successes and the publication of Fadeout were years in the literary desert where he was reduced to writing pulp gay fiction for fly-by-night small presses under the name James Colton. His failure to achieve earlier the critical success the Brandstetter novels would bring him was due to his life-long insistence on writing openly and honestly about his experience as a gay (pace, Joe) man. The times were simply not ready for him. Those years were not, however, wasted. He honed his craft, bringing into his prose the precision and economy of a poet. An autodidact of the highest order, he consumed serious literature and learned from the masters how to write transparently, to practice, as the saying goes, the art that conceals art. It is his art, ultimately, and not simply his subject matter, that makes Joseph Hansen one of the great masters of California noir. His subtle mastery is on full display in Fadeout. Fadeout begins not with a murder, but with what might be an accidental death or an intentional disappearance. Fox Olson drives off a bridge in a storm, his car plunging into the river below. Olson has a big life insurance policy with Medallion Insurance. But Olson’s body has not been recovered and without proof of death, Medallion will not pay the claim. The company dispatches Dave Brandstetter, its best death claims investigator, to determine whether Olson is really dead. From the outset, Brandstetter is skeptical. His initial skepticism is based on the absence of physical evidence that Olson drowned. But Olson had no apparent reason to have staged the accident to disappear. Far from it. After decades of struggle as an unsuccessful writer, Olson has achieved enormous success as a Garrison Keillor-type radio personality. His wife, Thorne, who stood by him in the lean years, tells Brandstetter that Olson finally had everything he ever wanted and a man who has everything doesn’t decide one day to vanish. The novel is set in “a California ranch town” called Pima, about three hours northeast of Los Angeles, somewhere near Fresno. It’s a town in transition, as so many California towns were in the late ’60s, when the state experienced a population growth spurt that brought new people and businesses into the sleepy agricultural hamlets of the central valley. But it remains a tightly knit community run by a few interconnected wealthy families. The Olsons returned to Pima, Thorne’s hometown, to take care of her ailing father, a prosperous rancher who disowned her after she married Fox. Thorne’s one-time suitor, who owns the local radio station, invites Fox to host a show where he plays guitar, sings and tells funny stories; the show becomes a smash success and offers pour in that will make him rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams. And then he’s gone. Murder mystery writers are required to plant clues about both the identity of the murderer and their motive, but the masters also plant clues about the greater mysteries of all human motivation that, in the end, create morally complex and ambiguous stories in which the murder is only the tip of the iceberg. This is what Hansen does in Fadeout. Subtly but skillfully, often using the poet’s techniques of imagery and metaphor, he creates a sense of unease, of things not being what they seem, that begins with the novel’s opening paragraph. “It rained,” Hansen writes. “Not hard but steady and gray and dismal. Shaggy pines loomed through the mist like threats. Sycamores made white, twisted gestures above the arroyo. Down the arroyo water pounded, ugly, angry and deep.” A beautiful and powerful description of nature, of course, but there’s more to it than that. That handful of sentences is also a metaphor for the bleak moral atmosphere that pervades Fadeout, a novel where ugly secrets flow like the angry waters of the arroyo and characters are trapped in unhappy lives that are like the mute gestures of anguish made by the sycamores. Those mournful images also clue the reader into Brandstetter’s state of mind. In an interview, Hansen once said that, while he admired Ross McDonald’s private eye, Lew Archer, “it bothered me that his detective never had any personal life, and he never changed.” The Brandstetter novels, beginning with Fadeout, rejected that convention and gave Brandstetter a complicated backstory. In the opening scene of the novel, Brandstetter is carrying what seems to be a near-suicidal burden of grief. He drives across the bridge that Olson plunged off of “with sweating hands. Why so careful? Wasn’t death all he’d wanted for the past six weeks? His mouth tightened. That was finished. He’d made up his mind to live now. Hadn’t he?” A few pages later, he reveals the source of his grief: “Bright and fierce, he pictured again Rod’s face, clay-white, fear in the eyes, as he’d seen it when he found him in the glaring bathroom that first night of the horrible months that had ended in his death from intestinal cancer.” The reader pauses: Wait. Rod? Brandstetter is grieving the loss of his male lover of twenty years. In Chapter Six, we get the whole story in flashback. Brandstetter, recently discharged from the army at the end of World War II, enters a furniture shop on Western Avenue in Los Angeles to buy a bed. He sees, across the crowded room, as it were, a young salesman, short and dark, with a dazzling smile. “‘I want you,’ Dave thought and wondered if he’d said it aloud because the boy looked at him then, over the heads of a lot of other people. Straight at him. And there was recognition in the eyes, curious opaque eyes, like bright stones in a stream bed.” The young salesman, Rod Fleming, sells Brandstetter a ridiculous white wicker bed, which he ends up sharing with Brandstetter until his cruel, painful death six weeks before Fadeout begins. Hansen would later write that part of his mission as a mystery writer was to send a message to straight readers that “homosexuals were pretty much like everyone else in the world, living as best they could, with their share of joy and sorrow, success and failure, love and loss.” He might have calculated that introducing the subject of Brandstetter’s homosexuality in the context of his grief at the death of his long-time partner would tempered straight readers’ biases and allowed them to turn the page instead of throwing the book across the room in disgust. But as is often the case in Fadeout, Hansen is working on multiple narrative levels here. Yes, this is a dramatic and moving lead into Brandstetter’s homosexuality, but it also introduces themes of loss and of opportunities missed and taken that become crucial to understanding Fox Olson’s story. And Olson’s story, not his disappearance, is the true mystery in the novel. Hansen tells Fox Olson’s story through Brandstetter’s conversation with people who knew him, or thought they knew him, and what Brandstetter himself surmises about the man. It’s a brilliant technique that allows Hansen to reveal Olson’s secrets allusively, keeping the reader on the hook. For example, in the scene where Brandstetter is talking to Olson’s daughter, Gretchen, about his years as an unsuccessful writer, he asks her whether Olson was a good writer. Her hesitant reply: “He was a . . . good writer. But something was missing . . . It was always as though he was talking about the wrong thing.” Brandstetter asks, “How?” She replies: “Not what was really on his mind” She shook her head with a little puzzled smile. “As if there was something else he ought be talking about instead.” The reader is left to wonder, what was it, exactly, that he was avoiding in his writing? In the same allusive vein is Hansen’s description of Thorne, Olson’s long-suffering wife. “The woman who opened [the door] was small, not much above five feet. Thin, fine-boned, in her early forties, like himself. Her hair was brown with some gray in it. She had cropped it, like a boy’s, smart and simple. Her hips were narrow as a boy’s and looked right in the brown corduroy Levi’s. She wore a brown checked wool shirt. No jewelry, no makeup except lipstick. She couldn’t have looked more feminine.” This somewhat gender-bending portrait of Thorne Olson is more than an odd if vivid characterization. It serves the deeper narrative purpose of illuminating the central conflict in Fox Olson’s character. We later learn (spoiler alert here) that Olson’s boyhood lover, Doug Sawyer, was, physically, Thorne’s male equivalent. When Sawyer’s mother expresses surprise that Fox married, “Can’t imagine what kind of girl Fox would marry. Seems—well impossible,” Brandstetter tells her, “She’s small, dark and slender . . . Like your son.” That brief exchange illuminates the depth of Fox Olson’s loneliness and desperation. He has married, not out of love, but to hide his true nature even as his choice of a mate betrays the very longing he is trying to conceal. And at last we understand what it was that Fox Olson needed to, but could not, write about. Also running through the book an implicit comparison between Brandstetter’s life as an out gay man and Olson’s life as a closeted one. Brandstetter’s grief is gut-wrenching but he comes by it honestly, having been true to his nature and partnered with another man whom he deeply loved and whose death he can openly mourn. He will recover. Olson, by contrast, chooses a life based on a lie that brings him untold sorrow and betrays those closest to him. For him, there’s no going back. What reader could possibly miss the point of the comparison? Fadeout was a big risk for its publisher, Harper & Row, but it paid off. The book launched Hansen on his long career as a successful writer of crime fiction. Soon, he would be garnering the kind of reviews for which most writers would kill the family dog. The Los Angeles Times: “the most exciting and effective writer of the classic California private eye novel working today”; The New Yorker: “An excellent craftsman, a compelling writer”; The New York Times: “Hansen knows how to tell a tough, unsentimental, fast-moving story in an exceptionally urbane style”; The National Review (!): “After Ross McDonald, what? The smart money is now on Joseph Hansen.” In 1992, he would be given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Private Eye Writers of America. Yet he never achieved the commercial success of, say, his contemporary Tony Hillerman, though to my mind he was a better and braver writer, and his books never won any of the other big mystery awards, the Edgar or the Anthony, for instance, though certainly they would have been eligible. There’s no great mystery why. At the time of Hansen’s death in 2004, only a bare majority of Americans believed gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should be legal (52% to 46% according to Gallup), while 60% adamantly opposed same-sex marriage (according to a Pew Institute poll). This demonstrates the deep and abiding bias against gay men, often expressed as a crude and visceral disgust, that prevailed during Hansen’s active years as a writer. The fact is that many straight readers would simply have refused to consider reading a book by a homosexual no matter what the critics said. This same bias continues to affect Joseph Hansen’s critical reputation. Type into your browser “greatest noir mystery novels” and you’ll gets lots of lists, but not one of them includes a work by Joseph Hansen. That’s inexcusable. Joseph Hansen is not only one of America’s best mystery writers, he is a great American writer. Period. Full stop. In a better world, one liberated from its idiotic prejudices, he would be recognized as such. The republication of the Brandstetter novels by Syndicate Books is a hopeful sign that this marvelous writer will, at last, find the place he deserves in the pantheon of American literature. ______________________________________ From Michael Nava’s introduction to FADEOUT by Joseph Hansen, reprinted by permission of the publisher, Syndicate Press. Copyright ©2022 by Michael Nava. All Rights Reserved. View the full article
  22. photo adapted / Horia Varlan or…The Curious Case of the Constipated Elephant Have you ever been reading a book and out of the blue, some problem arises that you just don’t care about? I have, starting with my own first novel-length manuscript. A misleading tenet had guided my novel-writing journey: “Conflict is story.” Turns out that wasn’t quite specific enough. Story works best when it develops a certain kind of conflict, and mine included everything but a constipated elephant. (Or perhaps I should say, “A constipated elephant!!”, since we all know that exclamation marks can ramp up the tension when we doubt our storytelling abilities.) As if ripped from the pages of some other book, a problem that feels irrelevant will stand between your reader and the further progression of the tale you thought you were writing. So how do you know if you’re choosing conflict that’s relevant? Guard your story’s identity Aligning your novel’s key structures will help you stay on track. Decide on a premise. Writers use the word “premise” in varying ways, but for me, premise speaks to purpose. Premise defines the kind of story you are writing by evoking your protagonist’s arc of inner change. A premise is kind of like a moral, but not as didactic—it is your story’s raison d’etre. Its point. Writing out your premise with an action word that suggests story movement will be invaluable to you. For instance, your character’s belief about something at the outset will lead to believable change regarding that belief. The premise of the previous paragraph is, “Knowing what kind of story you are telling leads to your ability to state its premise.” The premise of this essay is, “Studying story structure leads to an understanding of relevant conflict.” [Kathryn, you should tell us a constipated elephant anecdote here, just for kicks! No, I should not.] Inciting incident. While you might hook readers on the opening page with a bridging conflict (Will Dot’s de-iced plane be able to take off safely from Logan International in this snow squall?), it is the inciting incident that changes everything in your protagonist’s life and tips her into the story. In the example I’ll build, that incident is the sudden death of Dot’s husband, just three weeks before the Kilimanjaro trip meant to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their first climb, when they met and fell in love. At first she thinks she should cancel. Why bother? The trip will only remind her of all she’s lost, and she’s probably too old to pull it off anyway. But when a nor’easter is forecasted to bring a foot of snow to Boston, Dot is reminded of when she almost declined the offer of a dream job which would require a winter move to Boston years ago, and she hears her husband’s ever-buoyant voice saying, “You’re not going to let a little snow stop us, are you?” So she keeps the reservation to Tanzania. This inciting incident raises a story goal for the protagonist (to survive the climb and restore her spirit), and a story question for the reader (in light of her husband’s loss, will Dot be able to finish the climb up Kilimanjaro at age 60, and revive her broken spirit?). The reader will keep this question in her mind, constantly assessing Dot’s progress. Note the specificity of this inciting incident: if the climb hadn’t already been scheduled at the time of the husband’s death, the reader wouldn’t have linked the two; this linkage will be crucial to sustaining reader interest in the climb. The quick look back is important too, as we realize how Dot benefitted from her husband’s influence. [But the constipated elephant story is really funny, and the story is set in Africa—can’t I throw it in? Not all stories set in Africa have elephants, especially considering their dwindling populations. This event must earn its way in.] Orchestrate your character set. Your story should focus on the attainment of your protagonist’s goal. The other characters are present to support or obstruct that goal in a way that will either directly or tangentially tie in to the premise. Let’s say our Kilimanjaro story has the premise, “Perseverance leads to success.” Perhaps Dot’s lifelong friend takes her husband’s seat on the plane, but she decides halfway up that the trip is too hard, too long, and too dangerous, and so she turns back. Dot has lost her emotional support. What will she do? This is a good, relevant complication. Surmounting it will no doubt result in a turning point on Dot’s emotional journey. Another well-orchestrated character might be a local teen who was shunned because of a birth defect. He finds out about this climb, and is so determined to go along that he surmounts a language barrier in order to convince Dot to let him come, because he must prove he’s as much a man as any other in his Tanzanian village, where until now he’s been made to cook with the women. His keen desire and personal stakes make him a great addition. [Ooh—how about our protagonist carries on, only to find that an elephant has also wandered up the mountain, and because it has altitude sickness, it is constipated!!! Sorry, the exclamation marks still don’t convince me. Our Dot has not persevered up this mountain so she can find an elephant.] Use this key to relevancy Scene by scene, you achieve true, relevant conflict when each member of your supporting cast has a personal goal that 1) intersects with the protagonist’s achievement of her goal, and 2) either directly or tangentially ties in with the premise. Such conflict will then arise organically, and result in emotional turning points for your protagonist that keep him or her moving toward a satisfying, relevant ending. To illustrate this, let’s throw in some bad guys—some poachers after an endangered snow leopard. Good conflict—but is it relevant? That depends. It’s relevant if our protagonist gets in their way and is wounded, and in addition to figuring out how to get these creeps out of her way (I’d involve the teen who wants to prove himself a man here), Dot must decide whether to keep going given all the new obstacles. It’s much less relevant if Dot is able to shoo the hunters away easily, because this has not supported your premise. These hunters must be highly motivated to want this leopard in order to tie in with the “Perseverance leads to success” premise, and they don’t care who is in their way (maybe one of them desperately needs the money from the leopard’s hide to pay for medical care for his newborn son—see the orchestration? Our teen has already foreshadowed that medical care is hard to get. And isn’t it more interesting when antagonists are fully rounded humans?). The result: Our protagonist, it would seem, has an even bigger fight on her hand than she realized. That’s always good. [But the elephant…] All right already! Over the years, the protagonist made friends with a man who keeps a small breeding center for endangered animals at the base of the mountain. Dot wants to get going up the mountain before the weather changes, but her friend, who was going to come along, can’t leave yet—he’s been caring for a pregnant but very constipated elephant, who now refuses to eat, and he doesn’t want to leave until her survival is ensured. He ramps up his efforts, trying every homeopathic trick in the book, while Dot watches the skies. And finally—perseverance leads to success. You can tell your funny anecdote without fear of an editor’s red pen, because through its tie to both premise and a complication arising naturally from the intersecting goals of your well-orchestrated characters, the elephant’s constipation has gained relevance as a bona fide plot event. Follow these steps and your manuscript will gain story integrity while pointing your protagonist—and your reader—through relevant plot conflict and toward a satisfying ending. *This lays the foundation of a discussion of premise that I’ll build on next month, so stop back! Let’s honor our mistakes through the lessons they taught us. Have you ever caught yourself attempting to ramp up conflict in your novels with plot that ends up feeling irrelevant? Could you solve the issue by deletion or reworking, or is that novel in a drawer just like my first one? About Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website. Web | Twitter | Facebook | More Posts http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?d=yIl2AUoC8zA http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?d=qj6IDK7rITs http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?i=qipKxJQtul8:oF7Tv45uLJg:gIN9vFwOqvQ http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/WriterUnboxed?i=qipKxJQtul8:oF7Tv45uLJg:D7DqB2pKExk [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  23. We know this story: A hard-bitten, oft-fired reporter, looking for a fast track back to a big-city newspaper job, hopes to milk a sensational story for everything it’s worth. In the process, he shakes things up in a tough desert town. Yep, that’s the plot of Ace in the Hole, the 1951 classic directed by Billy Wilder and starring Kirk Douglas as the unethical reporter. But of course, as you know from the headline, we’re here to talk about The Night Stalker, which has everything Ace in the Hole has, plus police corruption and vampires. The basic premise—a hard-luck loser, whether he’s a reporter or cowboy or private eye or drifter, runs up against the powers that be in a one-horse town—is a familiar one and really lends itself to noir films. I’ve previously declared in this space that The Night Stalker, the 1972 TV-movie that finally (FINALLY!) added a vampire to the genre, is a noir film. It was for years the highest-rated TV movie. It inspired not only a sequel TV movie but a spin-off series (itself remade decades later) and nods from The X-Files to True Blood and Near Dark, which adopted the vampire noir idea and ran wild with it. But the film itself, and its beginnings and its legacy, is fascinating. From the time it aired on Jan. 11, 1972—about a half a century ago—The Night Stalker made history. The movie might not have been intended to be a genre fusion film of noir and horror, but it was and it’s still the best of the rare sub-genre. ‘Third-rate murder’ The Night Stalker is simple and straightforward and its 74-minute running time is tight. To watch it now, without commercials, feels like watching a slightly-longer-than-usual episode of some streaming service drama, complete with end credits featuring clips of the cast. Darren McGavin plays Carl Kolchak, a Las Vegas Daily News reporter. For all its glitz, Las Vegas seems like a hick town to Kolchak, who has been fired from several “big city” newspapers—three times in Boston alone, he ruefully admits—and longs to get outta this town and get back to a real city. Kolchak’s classic noir voiceover, dryly reciting several murders in the city, has the right tone of world-weariness. His on-screen comments are as harsh and dismissive as those spouted by Douglas as the lead of “Ace in the Hole.” “A two-day-old, third-rate murder,” Kolchak says when he’s told by his editor, Tony Vincenzo (the priceless Simon Oakland) to cover the killing of one of Vegas’ apparently endless supply of young women. Is Kolchak a not-nice guy or just a newspaper reporter? Or both? Can we forgive him for being so dismissive of the murder until more bodies pile up and the whole thing turns into a bigger story? And pile up the bodies do. Second, third and fourth victims are found, drained of blood and cruelly discarded. A fifth woman is missing and considered likely dead. And human saliva was found around the bite marks on the victims’ necks. Now that’s a story. Kolchak shifts into high gear. Vampires and corrupt officials, two of a kind In one of the most realistic portrayals of reporting ever, The Night Stalker shows Kolchak working on stories about the murders by working his sources: a doctor, the telephone operator at the courthouse—he gives her a box of candy—and a wizened old card player played by Elisha Cook Jr., once the young gunsel from The Maltese Falcon. Kolchak bribes (the candy), wheedles, badgers and cajoles his sources, including beer-drinking buddy Bernie Jenks, an FBI agent played by Ralph Meeker. Before long, of course, Kolchak runs afoul of corrupt Sheriff Warren Butcher (the great Claude Akins), Police Chief Ed Masterson (Charles McGraw looking like a rumpled pile of laundry) and most sinisterly, Kent Smith as district attorney Tom Paine. Sure, Butcher threatens Kolchak, but the DA is the truly dangerous figure and Smith plays him with oily menace. The level of anxiety among the officials as Kolchak begins to report the killer might be “a nut who thinks he’s a vampire” rises along with the death toll. Smith’s district attorney character, phony smile affixed to his face, says something that could have influenced dialogue for the Amity mayor in Jaws three years later: “We don’t want to cause a panic. It’s bad for police operations. It’s bad for the people. And it’s bad for business.” Contrary to the wishes of this unofficial Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the killer keeps on killing and Kolchak keeps on reporting. A truly scary monster One of the greatest strokes of The Night Stalker is the character and casting of its vampire. Played by Barry Atwater, whose previous roles included a Vulcan elder on Star Trek, the killer is truly frightening. There are no shades of Bela Lugosi in evening wear or Christopher Lee all in black to this monster. Atwater is terrifying as the creature that never says a word on camera but does plenty of hissing and throat grabbing. Dracula might have been a somewhat sympathetic vampire in some respects, but this was not the case with Janos Skorzeny, either as played by Atwater or as written by Richard Matheson. Skorzeny is a straight-up monster, killing victims—and a dog—and terrorizing Las Vegas. The revelation of who the vampire is and how thoroughly it confounds the authorities is one of the best moments in “The Night Stalker.” We know it’s a modern-day story—or modern for 1972—as opposed to a gothic piece because the killer does things like buy a used car and rent an old house for his lair—and as a place to keep his own private blood bank, as Kolchak observes: the missing victim. And we know it’s a modern-day story because in the end, the hero kills the vampire but loses his job and his girlfriend. He gets to keep only his sense of satisfaction that he was right. He was right all along. Sadly, that’s about as much as some newspaper reporters ever achieve. Talent behind and in front of the camera That The Night Stalker is untypical is thanks to Jeff Rice, who wrote The Kolchak Papers, the then-unpublished novel that the aforementioned Richard Matheson, master of horror fiction, turned into a screenplay. Matheson needs no introduction to this audience, but he was a grand master of horror and science fiction who wrote books and screenplays that included I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, Hell House and the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Rice, who died in 2015, had been quoted as saying he wanted to write a Las Vegas story and a vampire story. And did he. The Kolchak Papers, which he wrote in 1970, offered a truly unique blueprint for the movie. There’s almost no moment in The Night Stalker that isn’t thrilling and doesn’t ring true. The characters are human—well, except for Skorzeny—and flawed, even Kolchak. The Las Vegas settings were unlike the standard Los Angeles or New York of many noirs. The neon- and strobe-lit setting was also far from the gothic world of most vampire stories and was truly unique. Director John Llewellyn Moxey directed more than a hundred TV shows and movies, according to his IMDB listing, including crime classics like Murder, She Wrote – 18 episodes! – and Magnum, P.I. It’s likely no contemporary director’s work was seen by so many viewers who had no idea who he was. But while Moxey was a craftsman, there’s art to his direction of The Night Stalker. Besides the cast and the director, no one brought as much to The Night Stalker as composer Robert Cobert. Cobert was best known for his scores for Dark Shadows producer Dan Curtis, who produced The Night Stalker. Cobert’s score for The Night Stalker is full of moody cues and brassy, dynamic blasts. For so many of these reasons, Carl Kolchak’s legacy lives on. The legacy, one item at a time At the end of the movie, McGavin sums up the facts of the whole bloody affair in a verbal bullet-point style, introducing each as an “item.” In that spirit, I’ll do the same here. Item: A sequel TV movie, The Night Strangler, aired in 1973 and got good ratings. This one was directed by Dan Curtis and written by Richard Matheson and it’s fun but feels a little like what it was: an amiable attempt to cash in. Bonus points for the return of Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo, the appearances of Wally Cox, John Carradine, Margaret Hamilton and Grandpa Munster himself, Al Lewis, as well as the wonderful Jo Ann Pflug. Item: Carl Kolchak returned in the fall of 1974 in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a 20-episode ABC series sequel that lasted only one season and produced some effective hourlong thrills but ultimately was not renewed due to its ratings. Best episodes include an early one, “Vampire,” that was a sequel to The Night Stalker movie in which one of Janos Skorzeny’s victims returns from the grave as a vampire. “The Zombie” was an especially scary outing. “The Sentry,” about a lizard creature killing workers in a huge underground complex, was ambitious but sabotaged by a truly awful creature costume, which the director wisely kept in the shadows as much as possible. Item: Kolchak returned—recast and played by Stuart Townsend—in 2005 in a short-lived series by Frank Spotnitz of “X-Files” fame. I need to overcome my distaste for the concept of an updated Night Stalker and try it sometime. After all, it’s got the divine Gabrielle Union in the cast. Item: The name Janos Skorzeny would return a few years later, but not in a sequel to The Night Stalker. Skorzeny was the frightening antagonist of Werewolf, a short-lived 1987 series on Fox. Veteran actor Chuck Conners played Skorzeny and in this case the monster was a werewolf and not a vampire, but I insist on believing the two Skorzenys are one and the same.) Item: When “The Night Stalker” aired on Jan. 11, 1972 on the ABC Movie of the Week, it drew a 33 rating and 48 share, meaning that nearly half the TVs in the country were tuned in. The movie’s ratings record stood for years. Item: Composer Robert Cobert wrote the themes for game shows that included Password, The 25,000 Pyramid, and To Tell the Truth. Go ahead, go ask your parents or grandparents to hum a few notes of one of those. I bet they can. Item: McGavin returned to the world of the weird in “Travelers,” an episode of The X-Files from March 1998. McGavin played a retired FBI agent and X-Files creator Chris Carter, who acknowledged the debt that his series owed to “The Night Stalker,” had reportedly hoped to cast the actor in other parts, including protagonist Fox Mulder’s father or even as Kolchak himself, but this role was the one that came to pass. Item: There’ve been rumblings that Kolchak might return in movie or TV form, but The Night Stalker has mostly lived in the world of comics in the past couple of decades. A 50th anniversary graphic novel with an introduction by writer Richard Christian Matheson, son of Richard Matheson, is planned. Item: I have no more items, so I’ll leave you with Carl Kolchak’s own words, from the final moments of The Night Stalker, as a word of caution for those dismissing his fantastic tale of horror in an unlikely place. “I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since all this happened, and now, you might find it difficult too. … Try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, in the quiet of your home, in the safety of your bed, try to tell yourself … it couldn’t happen here.” __________________________________ Keith Roysdon was a hard-bitten newspaper reporter for 40 years but he never had the pleasure of writing about a vampire. He’s written plenty of investigative pieces about the kind of political corruption that Carl Kolchak runs up against, though, as well as CrimeReads pieces about juvenile mysteries, noir films and classic TV movies. His first novel, “Seven Angels,” won the 2021 Hugh Holton Award for best unpublished novel from the Mystery Writers of America Midwest. He’s holding out hope for the chance to write about vampires in fiction and non-fiction. View the full article
  24. London, September 11, 1888. The noise of hammers and steam engines filled the air in Whitehall, the construction site of the New Scotland Yard headquarters. Little did the architect of the red-and-white brick Gothic castle on the bank of the river Thames know that its site would become a crime scene investigated by the police force’s detectives. Frederick Moore, a laborer at the site, spotted an object lying on the mud. When he picked it up, he made a horrifying discovery. It was a woman’s arm, neatly amputated from the body. In the following days, the victim’s torso and leg turned up at the site. This was most certainly murder. It wasn’t the first such case in that period of British history; nor would it be the last. The previous year, on May 11, upstream in the village of Rainham, a lighterman named Edward Hughes reeled in a bundle he’d spied floating in the water by his barge. The canvas sack contained a female torso, its head, limbs, and breasts amputated. In June 1889, another torso was found, this time at St. George’s Stairs in Bermondsey. More parts surfaced eventually. The last case in what appeared to be a series of murders came to light that September, when Constable William Pennett found a torso hidden under a railway arch in the East End. The Torso Murderer was never caught. His are among the goriest, most remarkable serial murder cases in history, but he’s not exactly a household name. I only learned of the case when I was researching Victorian-era crime for my Sarah Bain mystery series. Why isn’t it the notorious subject of a zillion novels, non-fiction books, TV shows, and movies? *** Whitechapel, August 31, 1888. At about three o’clock in the morning, a carman named Charles Cross strolled along Buck’s Row on his way to work. A large object lying at the entrance of a stable yard caught his eye. It was the body of a woman, her frock raised above her knees. A terrible gash across her throat had nearly severed her head. Blood from the wound drenched her clothes and stained the cobblestones. The police surgeon’s examination later revealed deep cuts on her abdomen. Her name was Polly Nichols, and she was the first of what many sources deem Jack the Ripper’s “canonical” victims. On that August morning, the Ripper began a reign of terror that took the lives of five women and lasted into November. The Torso Murderer was upstaged. One obvious reason: “Torso Murderer” doesn’t pack the same punch as “Jack the Ripper.” But I think names don’t entirely account for who became the historical celebrity, the subject of all those books and movies, and who didn’t. Neither does the fact that the Ripper crimes are still unsolved. The Torso Murderer got away with it, too. Other factors have to do with what audiences think constitutes a good story. The stories of Jack the Ripper and the Torso Murderer both have grisly murders, police detectives on the hunt, and reporters fanning the public’s outrage and fear, all against the sumptuous, gritty backdrop of Victorian London. What’s not for a mystery fan/true crime buff to love? The Torso Murderer’s story is missing some crucial pieces. Only one victim—the Bermondsey woman—was ever identified. Elizabeth Jackson was pregnant when she disappeared, and she had a distinctive scar on her wrist. The causes of the deaths were never determined. Forensic science was rudimentary; DNA testing belonged to the distant future. And since the police couldn’t determine where the women were killed, there were no crime scenes to furnish evidence. Now let’s analyze the Jack the Ripper story. Names were put to his victims. Thanks to abundant newspaper reportage and decades of research by “Ripperologists,” Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Kate Eddowes, Liz Stride, and Mary Jane Kelly are celebrities among the murdered. Details of their lives fill in the historical record. Liz Stride claimed that she and her family were on board the Princess Alice pleasure steamboat when it sank in the Thames, and her husband and children drowned. That might not be true, but personal stories like it convey the humanity of women who would otherwise be mere crime statistics. And we know exactly where and how the victims died. In dark, foggy Whitechapel, they had the misfortune to cross paths with Jack the Ripper. He inflicted multiple, vicious stab wounds and left them dead and mutilated. We can picture his sinister figure lurking outside the pubs they frequented and trailing them through the squalid alleys. This picture certainly fired up the imagination of the public at the time. Sightings abounded. Streetwalkers pointed the finger at Joseph Pizer, a.k.a. “Leather Apron,” a dark-haired shoemaker dressed in black, who had a reputation for pulling a knife on prostitutes, demanding money from them, and beating those who resisted. He was arrested, but later released because he had alibis for two of the crimes. Other suspects cropped up, some long after the last murder. They include George Chapman, real name Severin Klosowski. In 1903, he was hanged for the murder of his mistress, whom he poisoned with tartar emetic. His two previous mistresses had also died under suspicious circumstances, and when the bodies were exhumed, they showed traces of the same poison. Once a surgeon’s apprentice in his native Poland, George Chapman was handy with knives. He had a history of violence against women, he lived in London at the time of the Ripper murders, and when he moved to America, they stopped. Furthermore, he was a dark, scary fellow with a big black mustache, the perfect manifestation of Jack the Ripper. *** For the Torso Murders, suspects—and witnesses—are more big missing pieces of the story. Unable to identify the victims, the police couldn’t search for suspects among their acquaintances. With the location(s) of the crimes undetermined, nobody even knew where to begin looking for witnesses. (Perhaps the police would have tried harder if not for all the time and energy they devoted to catching the Ripper.) The Torso Murders didn’t supply enough drama to push Jack the Ripper off the front pages of the newspapers. For a story to sustain interest for 100+ years, it needs a strong plot and strong characters. The Ripper and the Torso Murders have the same plot, but the latter has a big black hole where the characters should be. That black hole was a source of frustration for the 19th-century London police, but it’s fertile ground for the mystery novelist. One can fill it in with suspects, witnesses, and drama of one’s own invention, unhindered by too many historical facts. Someday I may write my own version of the Torso Murder case. ___________________________________ View the full article
  25. If you came to espionage fiction knowing nothing about spying, you would assume from reading the great spy novels of the last 100-odd years that the secret world was populated almost exclusively by white, middle-aged men. There have been innumerable female spies throughout history yet very few stories written about them – and even fewer female spy novelists. Similarly, while many notable real-life spies have been young men and women in their twenties, youthful protagonists rarely make an appearance in the classic spy novels of yesteryear. Of course there are any number of young adult novels about teenage secret agents – Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider sequence springs to mind – but for some reason spy heroes have tended to be Eric Ambler’s ‘ordinary’ men caught up in extraordinary circumstances or the slightly jaundiced, world-weary protagonists found in the novels of Len Deighton and John le Carré. James Bond, of course, was well into his thirties by the time he first appeared in ‘Casino Royale’. Richard Hannay, the hero of The 39 Steps, was a stately 37. In my new novel, Box 88, I wanted to make amends for this, telling the story of Lachlan Kite, an 18-year-old Scot who is inducted into an elite Anglo-American spy agency at the tender age of 18. In order to do so, I drew inspiration from half a dozen books – both fiction and non-fiction – which feature what might be described as “fledgling spies”. The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson First published in 1960, Lionel Davidson’s debut novel introduces us to Nicolas Whistler, a dissolute young man of 24 who finds himself thrust into the world of Cold War espionage. Worn down by a pushy girlfriend and tired of his dead-end job, Nicolas is delighted to discover that he has inherited a large sum of money from a rich Canadian uncle. The catch? The uncle is still very much alive and well and young Nicolas has been duped. Now finding himself in debt to a money lender, our inexperienced hero is forced to travel to Czechoslovakia with orders to bring back a secret formula. Things obviously go badly wrong. Back in 2001, a reviewer declared that my first novel A Spy by Nature – another story of a dissolute young man thrust into the world of industrial espionage – was a “clear homage” to Davidson’s debut. Not so. I only read The Night of Wenceslas for the first time a few years ago having been asked to supply a blurb for his final novel, Kolymsky Heights. Both of these espionage classics come strongly recommended. Kim by Rudyard Kipling The same can be said for Kim, which many people consider to be the first serious spy novel in the English language. In these enlightened, statue-toppling times, recommending a work by Rudyard Kipling might be enough to get me cancelled. In truth the poet laureate of the British Empire has been out of fashion for a very long time. “It is no use pretending that Rudyard Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person,” wrote George Orwell almost a century ago. “Kipling is a jingo imperialist… morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Published in 1900, Kim is another all-too-rare example of a spy novel about a young, untested agent. It tells the story of one Kimball O’Hara, the orphaned son of Irish migrants living on the streets of British-controlled Lahore during the last years of the 19th century. Passing for a local child, he is recruited and trained as a British spy, criss-crossing the Indian subcontinent in the ‘Great Game’ with Russia. Given the novel’s huge commercial success and lasting literary reputation – it regularly appears on Top 10 lists of the greatest works in the genre – it is notable that Kim failed to spawn many imitators. Young Philby by Robert Littell What Kim did spawn, oddly enough, was a traitor. Harold Adrian Russell Philby was given the nickname ‘Kim’ by his father, a member of the Indian civil service and an admirer of Kipling’s novel. Philby, of course, went on to become a key member of the Cambridge spy ring, eventually defecting to Soviet Russia in 1963. I would urge you to avoid his self-serving memoir, ‘My Silent War’ – a KGB ‘influence operation’ designed to humiliate MI6 and simultaneously to burnish Philby’s credentials – and instead to track down a copy of Robert Littell’s ingenious novel ‘Young Philby’. Narrated from a number of different points of view, this fictional biography cleverly reimagines key incidents in Philby’s life, including youthful escapades in Cambridge, Vienna and Civil War-torn Spain. Elegantly written and exceptionally well researched, it’s an ingenious ‘alternative history’ of the 20th century’s most notorious double agent. A Perfect Spy by John le Carré Speaking of double agents, they don’t come much more conflicted than poor old Magnus Pym in John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. The troubled son of a conman father who is recruited into British intelligence in his teens, Pym is a simulacrum of le Carré himself. This is the Master’s most autobiographical novel, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell where the author’s personal experience ends and Pym’s begins. Le Carré was always fascinated by betrayal; his famous mole, Bill Hayden in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, was partly modelled on Kim Philby. Yet when offered the chance to talk to Philby himself on a visit to Moscow, le Carré turned the opportunity down. “I refused to meet [him],” he told an interviewer. “To me, Philby was a thoroughly bad lot, just a naturally bent man. I wouldn’t have trusted him with my cat for the weekend.” The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry Trust is at the heart of Charles McCarry’s terrific late novel, set in modern China. Can our unnamed protagonist – a 29-year-old deep cover American spy – trust the beautiful woman who one day crashes her bicycle into him on the streets of Shanghai? Though he suspects that the delectable Mei is an agent of Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service, our hero nevertheless embarks on a steamy love affair. No less a judge than Lee Child thinks that McCarry was a better writer of spy novels than John le Carré. I wouldn’t go that far, but he could certainly turn a sentence and his books benefit from the authenticity one would expect of a man who was himself a CIA officer before turning to the pen. Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean McCarry, of course, was a real-life spy making up stories for our entertainment. But what of the young men and women who served as intelligence officers in their youth and later recorded those true experiences for posterity? Fitzroy Maclean is a mythic figure for a certain type of British male: clever, brave, resourceful and adventurous. In his youth he undertook perilous commando raids for the SAS in North Africa, parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia in support of Tito’s partisans and kidnapped the German Consul in Iraq. Small wonder Maclean was one of the models for James Bond. Life Undercover by Amaryllis Fox Former CIA officer Amaryllis Fox might one day find herself portrayed on the big screen by Brie Larson, who has snapped up the rights to her superb memoir, ‘Life Undercover’. Recruited into the CIA at just 21, Fox was a frontline player in the War on Terror, taking on the Islamist fanatics who threatened our way of life in the wake of 9/11. Full of jaw-dropping incidents and fascinating glimpses of contemporary tradecraft, this is a must-read for anyone interested in the difference between Carrie Mathieson in ‘Homeland’ and the real thing. *** View the full article
  26. The usual killers are easy to spot. They can be uninhabitable, dystopian futurescapes of planet Earth: deserts with salt flats, unbreathable air, or submerged ruins of cities. These settings could become a reality in our lifetimes, but tomorrow’s threats are not always today’s concern. Killers of the present can take the shape of extreme weather: superstorms, tornadoes, and tsunamis. They act like deadly assassins sent by vengeful mother nature—but was she miscast in this role? What if the killers in a climate change/disaster thriller were also the architects of their unsustainable circumstance—us? The Effort begins when a large comet is spotted on the edge of our blind spot behind the sun. Initial reaction from the public is apathy. Early trajectories calculate a high probability of impact with Earth, but the U.S. government is skeptical and precious reaction time is lost. Scientists struggle to unify nations and pool resources toward a global response named The Defense Effort for Comet UD3, or just The Effort. The comet itself, out in Jupiter’s orbit at the time of discovery, is not directly harmful. However, the existential crisis it inflicts causes a breakdown of modern society. Many people stop functioning normally as they consider The End and all its implications. Supply chains between industrial farming in rural regions and densely populated cities break. Food scarcity is exaggerated by looting, hoarding, and violent raids. From this chaos, heroes and killers emerge. Heroes in The Effort are plural and diverse. A global disaster requires the very best of us—and the best come in all nationalities, cultures, genders, races, skillsets, creeds, sexualities, etc. At the lead are scientists that have always reached across borders to collaborate for the greater good, and history has shown remarkable results of their collective action. Under the auspices of the United Nations and the European Union, the Effort builds headquarters at a spaceport in French Guiana and begins to assemble an intercept vehicle with a narrow launch window that counts down like a ticking doomsday clock. As the comet becomes visible to amateur telescopes, and then the naked eye, staff at The Effort look to the sky while keeping watch on the much more immediate threat right outside their compound perimeter…people. The bounty of the natural world has been so greatly diminished in the Anthropocene age, and the survival skills of our ancestors have been forgotten. Hunter/gatherer societies still subsisting by their traditional ways have mostly been wiped out in all but the most unreachable places on the globe: the Arctic and the Amazon. When comet refugees fleeing violence and starvation in the cities ravage rural farmland and pick fields and pastures clean, each of the 7.5 billion humans must decide who they really are after laws and civilization have been stripped away. There is atrocity, but also the beauty of friendship and altruism that are uniquely human. Killers also pop off the pages of some of my favorite recent climate/disaster fiction. In Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, they serve as a haunting backstory. Most of the world’s population has perished in catastrophic flooding and the Energy Wars that followed. The Indigenous Navajos, or Diné, build the Wall to stay safe from the outside world, but there is too much starvation within. A band of killers surround Maggie Hoskie on the night of her sixteenth birthday. They butcher her grandmother but when they turn on Maggie, her supernatural clan powers awaken as a defensive mechanism. She saves her own life by becoming a killer of killers. Maggie changes, like the rest of the world, into something new entirely. Now an adult, she looks up at the Wall and remembers that her people “had already suffered their apocalypse over a century before. This wasn’t our end. This was our rebirth.” The killers of The Resistors by Gish Jen are an unseen enemy that run AutoAmerica. Only half of the country is still above the rising sea level. Dry land, jobs, and freedom are given to the upper-class, called the Netted. The lower-class, called the Surplus, are unemployed and must live on Auto-Houseboats gathered in Flotsam Towns. Grant Chastanet, our narrator with copper-toned skin, remarks, “It was, one had to say, quite a coincidence that the underclass looked as it did; groups like AutoAmericans Against Apartheid called it the New Segregation.” The government tries to control and reduce the Surplus population with laws, and permits only one pregnancy per Surplus couple. Other methods are more insidious: free NettieFood is drugged with an unknown barbiturate, playgrounds for Surplus children emanate a chemical that makes them spastic and wobbly. Peeling back the surface of AutoAmerica gives this heart-warming story about resistors forming an underground baseball league greater stakes and more relevance. A killer and a hero in climate/disaster fiction can even be one in the same. Appleseed by Matt Bell, one of the most original and daring novels of 2021, raises the stakes to humanity’s potential self-destruction. Bell artfully weaves three timelines and multiple incarnations of protagonist John into a complex, epic tale. The middle timeline begins fifty years into our future, after coastal flooding in the East and a massive California earthquake have weakened the American government enough for a takeover by Earthtrust corporation. In a climate where all plants and animals are dead or dying, Earthtrust’s genetically engineered crops and livestock are the only way to feed the global population. Earthtrust is all-powerful and continues to execute plans for its end goal unchecked—but for John. In this timeline, John is John Worth, one of the original founders of Earthtrust. John and four other ex-Earthtrust employees are returning to headquarters in Ohio to destroy what they helped build. John doesn’t want to be a killer or a hero. “Maybe all he can do is keep trying to give the world back to itself, to continue to free whatever he can from the long damage of human want.” The path to redemption exceeds John’s imagination when faced with the choice to kill the whole human race in order to stop our destruction of the planet; death so that there can be life. View the full article
  27. 2022 started with a bang. Or maybe it was more of a thud. It was around three in the morning, pitch black outside, winds howling. And I know us writer types love to use that expression for colorful imagery but in this case, the winds were actually howling. Broken branches were knocking against my house and roof and now wide awake, I began to read (and pray), waiting for the worst of the storm to pass through. An hour or so later, I heard a thud and LOUD cracking. There is nothing quite as terrifying as that cracking sound when you live with ginormous trees all around you. But Libs was quiet, the house was intact, and I figured that a tree had fallen in the woods. I figured wrong. I woke up to another tree down in my yard (the thud and cracking), smashed into my fence (which I’d just repaired six months ago from the last downed tree). And I’m not going to sugar coat it, y’all. Poor Libs heard some pretty discouraging words, along with some words that decent folk shouldn’t use. The tirade ended with me yelling something to the effect of, “Enough! We’re moving!” But as I drank my tea and gazed out my kitchen window into my yard, I began to calm down and first, realize how grateful I was that the tree had fallen into the woods and not on my house. And I looked into those woods, thinking how much I love that view every morning, in every breath-taking season. I love the trees, the river behind them, the deer that wander through them. The woods, and the wildness of my own backyard, bring joy to my life. Which, at least for today, make it worth sticking around. My writing life came to mind, gazing out that window the next morning. Because there are times—and honestly, A LOT of times—when I hear some pretty discouraging words rumbling around in my head. When I get yet another rejection for a submission that I thought was a sure acceptance, I think maybe I’m not such a good writer after all and I should quit wasting my time and energy. When I stand by, watching other writer friends’ accomplishments and I’m going through a terribly long dry spell, I admit that words not suitable for children tumble out of my mouth. And when I spend years coming close to selling a manuscript, only to hear, “Not for me,” again, I want to yell, “Enough! I quit!” But then, I hear from someone—a friend or a reader here at the Muffin—telling me how much they love my writing. Or I sit down with a document in front of me, and the words sing across the page, like a glorious symphony. And I think of the words from Neil Gaiman, the quote my daughter included when she framed the covers of my first two books: “Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.” Tomorrow, there may be a downed tree and busted fence in my yard, but there will also be those beautiful woods, refreshing my heart and soul. There may be another rejection in my inbox, but there may also be a note from a friend, sending encouraging words. And my novel-length manuscripts may continue to languish in a dusty cyber file, but when I sit down at my keyboard tonight, it might be a good writing day. And I will laugh out loud, wondering how I could ever quit something that brings me so much joy. So, friends, may your 2022 be filled with good writing days. And may all our trees stay upright! ~Cathy C. Hall(C) Copyright wow-womenonwriting.com Visit WOW! Women On Writing for lively interviews and how-tos. Check out WOW!'s Classroom and learn something new. Enter the Quarterly Writing Contests. Open Now![url={url}]View the full article[/url]
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