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  1. Introduction to Pre-event Assignments The below seven assignments are vital to reaching an understanding of specific and critical core elements that go into the creation of a commercially viable genre novel or narrative non-fiction. Of course, there is more to it than this, as you will see, but here we have a good primer that assures we're literally all on the same page before the event begins. You may return here as many times as you need to edit your topic post (login and click "edit"). Pay special attention to antagonists, setting, conflict and core wound hooks. And btw, quiet novels do not sell. Keep that in mind. Be aggressive with your work. Michael Neff Algonkian Conference Director ____________ After you've registered and logged in, create your reply to this topic (button top right). Please utilize only one reply for all of your responses so the forum topic will not become cluttered. Also, strongly suggest typing up your "reply" in a separate file then copying it over to your post before submitting. Not a good idea to lose what you've done! __________________________________________________________ THE ACT OF STORY STATEMENT Before you begin to consider or rewrite your story premise, you must develop a simple "story statement." In other words, what's the mission of your protagonist? The goal? What must be done? What must this person create? Save? Restore? Accomplish? Defeat?... Defy the dictator of the city and her bury brother’s body (ANTIGONE)? Struggle for control over the asylum (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST)? Do whatever it takes to recover lost love (THE GREAT GATSBY)? Save the farm and live to tell the story (COLD MOUNTAIN)? Find the wizard and a way home to Kansas (WIZARD OF OZ)? Note that all of these are books with strong antagonists who drive the plot line (see also "Core Wounds and Conflict Lines" below). FIRST ASSIGNMENT: write your story statement. ___________________________________________________ THE ANTAGONIST PLOTS THE POINT (Photo : Javert from "Les Misérables") What are the odds of you having your manuscript published if the overall story and narrative fail to meet publisher demands for sufficient suspense, character concern, and conflict? Answer: none. You might therefore ask, what major factor makes for a quiet and dull manuscript brimming with insipid characters and a story that cascades from chapter to chapter with tens of thousands of words, all of them combining irresistibly to produce an audible thudding sound in the mind like a mallet hitting a side of cold beef? Answer: the unwillingness or inability of the writer to create a suitable antagonist who stirs and spices the plot hash. Let's make it clear what we're talking about. By "antagonist" we specifically refer to an actual fictional character, an embodiment of certain traits and motivations who plays a significant role in catalyzing and energizing plot line(s), or at bare minimum, in assisting to evolve the protagonist's character arc (and by default the story itself) by igniting complication(s) the protagonist, and possibly other characters, must face and solve (or fail to solve). CONTINUE READING ENTIRE ARTICLE AT NWOE THEN RETURN HERE. SECOND ASSIGNMENT: in 200 words or less, sketch the antagonist or antagonistic force in your story. Keep in mind their goals, their background, and the ways they react to the world about them. ___________________________________________________ CONJURING YOUR BREAKOUT TITLE What is your breakout title? How important is a great title before you even become published? Very important! Quite often, agents and editors will get a feel for a work and even sense the marketing potential just from a title. A title has the ability to attract and condition the reader's attention. It can be magical or thud like a bag of wet chalk, so choose carefully. A poor title sends the clear message that what comes after will also be of poor quality. Go to Amazon.Com and research a good share of titles in your genre, come up with options, write them down and let them simmer for at least 24 hours. Consider character or place names, settings, or a "label" that describes a major character, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT or THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST. Consider also images, objects, or metaphors in the novel that might help create a title, or perhaps a quotation from another source (poetry, the Bible, etc.) that thematically represents your story. Or how about a title that summarizes the whole story: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, etc. Keep in mind that the difference between a mediocre title and a great title is the difference between THE DEAD GIRL'S SKELETON and THE LOVELY BONES, between TIME TO LOVE THAT CHOLERA and LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA between STRANGERS FROM WITHIN (Golding's original title) and LORD OF THE FLIES, between BEING LIGHT AND UNBEARABLE and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING. THIRD ASSIGNMENT: create a breakout title (list several options, not more than three, and revisit to edit as needed). ___________________________________________________ DECIDING YOUR GENRE AND APPROACHING COMPARABLES Did you know that a high percentage of new novel writers don't fully understand their genre, much less comprehend comparables? When informing professionals about the nuances of your novel, whether by query letter or oral pitch, you must know your genre first, and provide smart comparables second. In other words, you need to transcend just a simple statement of genre (literary, mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction, etc.) by identifying and relating your novel more specifically to each publisher's or agent's area of expertise, and you accomplish this by wisely comparing your novel to contemporary published novels they will most likely recognize and appreciate--and it usually doesn't take more than two good comps to make your point. Agents and publishing house editors always want to know the comps. There is more than one reason for this. First, it helps them understand your readership, and thus how to position your work for the market. Secondly, it demonstrates up front that you are a professional who understands your contemporary market, not just the classics. Very important! And finally, it serves as a tool to enable them to pitch your novel to the decision-makers in the business. Most likely you will need to research your comps. If you're not sure how to begin, go to Amazon.Com, type in the title of a novel you believe very similar to yours, choose it, then scroll down the page to see Amazon's list of "Readers Also Bought This" and begin your search that way. Keep in mind that before you begin, you should know enough about your own novel to make the comparison in the first place! By the way, beware of using comparables by overly popular and classic authors. If you compare your work to classic authors like H.G. Wells and Gabriel Marquez in the same breath you will risk being declared insane. If you compare your work to huge contemporary authors like Nick Hornby or Jodi Picoult or Nora Ephron or Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, and so forth, you will not be laughed at, but you will also not be taken seriously since thousands of others compare their work to the same writers. Best to use two rising stars in your genre. If you can't do this, use only one classic or popular author and combine with a rising star. Choose carefully! FOURTH ASSIGNMENT: - Read this NWOE article on comparables then return here. - Develop two smart comparables for your novel. This is a good opportunity to immerse yourself in your chosen genre. Who compares to you? And why? ____________________________________________________ CORE WOUND AND THE PRIMARY CONFLICT Conflict, tension, complication, drama--all basically related, and all going a long way to keeping the reader's eyes fixated on your story. These days, serving up a big manuscript of quiet is a sure path to damnation. You need tension on the page at all times, and the best way to accomplish this is to create conflict and complications in the plot and narrative. Consider "conflict" divided into three parts, all of which you MUST have present in the novel. First part, the primary dramatic conflict which drives through the work from beginning to end, from first major plot point to final reversal, and finally resolving with an important climax. Next, secondary conflicts or complications that take various social forms - anything from a vigorous love subplot to family issues to turmoil with fellow characters. Finally, those various inner conflicts and core wounds all important characters must endure and resolve as the story moves forward. But now, back to the PRIMARY DRAMATIC CONFLICT. If you've taken care to consider your story description and your hook line, you should be able to identify your main conflict(s). Let's look at some basic information regarding the history of conflict in storytelling. Conflict was first described in ancient Greek literature as the agon, or central contest in tragedy. According to Aristotle, in order to hold the interest, the hero must have a single conflict. The agon, or act of conflict, involves the protagonist (the "first fighter" or "hero") and the antagonist corresponding to the villain (whatever form that takes). The outcome of the contest cannot be known in advance, and, according to later drama critics such as Plutarch, the hero's struggle should be ennobling. Is that always true these days? Not always, but let's move on. Even in contemporary, non-dramatic literature, critics have observed that the agon is the central unit of the plot. The easier it is for the protagonist to triumph, the less value there is in the drama. In internal and external conflict alike, the antagonist must act upon the protagonist and must seem at first to overmatch him or her. The above defines classic drama that creates conflict with real stakes. You see it everywhere, to one degree or another, from classic contemporary westerns like THE SAVAGE BREED to a time-tested novel as literary as THE GREAT GATSBY. And of course, you need to have conflict or complications in nonfiction also, in some form, or you have a story that is too quiet. For examples let's return to the story descriptions and create some HOOK LINES. Let's don't forget to consider the "core wound" of the protagonist. Please read this article at NWOE then return here. The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones A young Moor torn between Islam and Christianity, scorned and tormented by both, struggles to bridge the two faiths by seeking common ground in the very nature of God. Summer's Sisters by Judy Blume After sharing a magical summer with a friend, a young woman must confront her friend's betrayal of her with the man she loved. The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud As an apprentice mage seeks revenge on an elder magician who humiliated him, he unleashes a powerful Djinn who joins the mage to confront a danger that threatens their entire world. Note that it is fairly easy to ascertain the stakes in each case above: a young woman's love and friendship, the entire world, and harmony between opposed religions. If you cannot make the stakes clear, the odds are you don't have any. Also, is the core wound obvious or implied? FIFTH ASSIGNMENT: write your own hook line (logline) with conflict and core wound following the format above. Though you may not have one now, keep in mind this is a great developmental tool. In other words, you best begin focusing on this if you're serious about commercial publication. ______________________________________________________ OTHER MATTERS OF CONFLICT: TWO MORE LEVELS As noted above, consider "conflict" divided into three parts, all of which you should ideally have present. First, the primary conflict which drives through the core of the work from beginning to end and which zeniths with an important climax (falling action and denouement to follow). Next, secondary conflicts or complications which can take various social forms (anything from a vigorous love subplot to family issues to turmoil with fellow characters). Finally, those inner conflicts the major characters must endure and resolve. You must note the inner personal conflicts elsewhere in this profile, but make certain to note any important interpersonal conflicts within this particular category." SIXTH ASSIGNMENT: sketch out the conditions for the inner conflict your protagonist will have. Why will they feel in turmoil? Conflicted? Anxious? Sketch out one hypothetical scenario in the story wherein this would be the case--consider the trigger and the reaction. Next, likewise sketch a hypothetical scenario for the "secondary conflict" involving the social environment. Will this involve family? Friends? Associates? What is the nature of it? ______________________________________________________ THE INCREDIBLE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING When considering your novel, whether taking place in a contemporary urban world or on a distant magical planet in Andromeda, you must first sketch the best overall setting and sub-settings for your story. Consider: the more unique and intriguing (or quirky) your setting, the more easily you're able to create energetic scenes, narrative, and overall story. A great setting maximizes opportunities for interesting characters, circumstances, and complications, and therefore makes your writing life so much easier. Imagination is truly your best friend when it comes to writing competitive fiction, and nothing provides a stronger foundation than a great setting. One of the best selling contemporary novels, THE HUNGER GAMES, is driven by the circumstances of the setting, and the characters are a product of that unique environment, the plot also. But even if you're not writing SF/F, the choice of setting is just as important, perhaps even more so. If you must place your upmarket story in a sleepy little town in Maine winter, then choose a setting within that town that maximizes opportunities for verve and conflict, for example, a bed and breakfast stocked to the ceiling with odd characters who combine to create comical, suspenseful, dangerous or difficult complications or subplot reversals that the bewildered and sympathetic protagonist must endure and resolve while he or she is perhaps engaged in a bigger plot line: restarting an old love affair, reuniting with a family member, starting a new business, etc. And don't forget that non-gratuitous sex goes a long way, especially for American readers. CONTINUE TO READ THIS ARTICLE THEN RETURN. FINAL ASSIGNMENT: sketch out your setting in detail. What makes it interesting enough, scene by scene, to allow for uniqueness and cinema in your narrative and story? Please don't simply repeat what you already have which may well be too quiet. You can change it. That's why you're here! Start now. Imagination is your best friend, and be aggressive with it. ________________________ Below are several links to part of an article or whole articles that we feel are the most valuable for memoir writers. We have reviewed these and agree 110%. MEMOIR WRITING - CHOOSE A SPECIFIC EVENT (good general primer) How to Write a Memoir That People Care About | NY Book Editors NYBOOKEDITORS.COM Are you thinking of writing a memoir but you're stuck? We've got the remedy. Check out our beginner's guide on writing an epic and engaging memoir. MEMOIR MUST INCLUDE TRANSCENDENCE Writing Memoir? Include Transcendence - Memoir coach and author Marion Roach MARIONROACH.COM MEMOIR REQUIRES TRANSCENDENCE. Something has to happen. Or shift. Someone has to change a little. Or grow. It’s the bare hack minimum of memoir. WRITE IT LIKE A NOVEL How to Write a Powerful Memoir in 5 Simple Steps JERRYJENKINS.COM When it comes to writing a memoir, there are 5 things you need to focus on. If you do, your powerful story will have the best chance of impacting others. MEMOIR ANECDOTES - HOW TO MAKE THEM SHINE How to Write an Anecdote That Makes Your Nonfiction Come Alive JERRYJENKINS.COM Knowing how to write an anecdote lets you utilize the power of story with your nonfiction and engage your reader from the first page. ________________________
  2. Last year, when my mother moved apartments, I came into possession of a largeish Prada box full of my childhood diaries. They go from 1981—I was four, and dictated the diary to my aunt—up to the nineties. I still haven’t read most of them. (I think it was a handbag, and not a small one, that originally came in that Prada box.) It is hard work to feel love for one’s childhood and adolescent self. Reading this entry, for example, I feel ashamed at my eleven-year-old self’s American imperialistic attitude towards my grandparents, who hadn’t heard of a planetarium before but “liked it very much.” It’s interesting that I then apparently felt I had to explain the concept of a planetarium for the benefit of people “a million years from now.” The whole entry gives me a “dutiful” feeling, when I read it now. I think I used to feel like I had to be writing all this stuff down, maintaining a chatty, “delightful” style, explaining every last thing down to the speech patterns of my fifth-grade science teacher, and appealing to some kind of “universal” reader who would understand it all and give each detail its proper value (although apparently this person also wouldn’t know what a planetarium was). What even is a childhood diary—for whom do we keep it? Elif Batuman’s first novel, The Idiot, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Its sequel, Either/Or, will be published on May 24. View the full article
  3. Haven't the online forums pretty much superceded the old study manual? I believe that's the case.
  4. Another week, another batch of books for your TBR pile. Happy reading, folks. * James Lee Burke, Every Cloak Rolled in Blood (Simon and Schuster) “Burke rolls together the driving themes that have dominated his work—the inescapable presence of evil, the restorative power of love, the desecration of the planet, humanity’s long slouch toward Armageddon—into an intensely, heartrendingly personal exploration of grief.” –Booklist, starred review Kiersten White, Hide (Del Rey) “The suspenseful plot combines elements of Thomas Tryon’s classic Harvest Home, Netflix’s Squid Game, and the social commentary of Jordan Peele’s film oeuvre and mixes these with a revelatory pacing reminiscent of Spielberg’s Jaws.” –Booklist Chris Pavone, Two Nights in Lisbon (MCD) “Two Nights in Lisbon is sensationally good—timely, important, layered with ticking suspense, driven by an ominous drumbeat that accelerates like a panicked heart. My thriller of the year so far.” –Lee Child David Yoon, City of Orange (GP Putnam’s Sons) “Much more compelling and heartfelt than the end of the world could ever be.” –Kirkus Reviews Hannah Mary McKinnon, Never Coming Home (MIRA) “Deliciously dark and deviously funny, Never Coming Home by Hannah Mary McKinnon is one hell of a ride. Lucas Forester might just be the most enjoyable, deceptive character I’ve ever met. Absolutely brilliant. McKinnon’s best book yet.” –Jennifer Hillier Tori Eldridge, Dance Among the Flames (Running Free) “Tautly written, mystical, and action-packed Dance Among the Flames will take you on a wild, thrilling ride through centuries and continents. Eldridge is at the top of her game, delivering an irresistibly sweeping adventure that will linger long after the gripping story ends. Don’t miss it!” –Lisa Unger Ulla Lenze (transl. Marshall Yarbrough), The Radio Operator (HarperVia) “Based on a true story, The Radio Operator is a marvelous period piece from a unique perspective.” –New York Journal of Books Nancy Dougherty, The Hangman and His Wife (Knopf) “The hollowed-out soul of one of Nazi Germany’s worst criminals is explored through his wife’s recollections in this searching biography . . . Dougherty vividly dissects the murderous intrigues roiling Nazi bureaucracies . . . A chilling, revelatory case study of the moral corruption of the Third Reich.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review Glenn Cooper, The Fourth Prophecy (Grand Central) “Smart and entertaining, every page is pitch perfect. A terrific story, terrifically told.” –Steve Berry Laura Griffin, Midnight Dunes (Berkley) “Griffin’s characters leap off the page, and she throws myriad twists, turns, and red herrings into her taut plot as it rockets to a heart-pounding finale. The result is a high-stakes romantic thriller that’s sure to please.” –Publishers Weekly View the full article
  5. In the early twenty-tens, I read Albert Camus’ The Plague. Due to its allegorical treatment of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation during WWII, it reminded me of the current gentrification resistance movements popping up all over Los Angeles. At the time, I lived in South Central, although urban planners and city leaders attempted to rebrand it as South Los Angeles in order to liberate it from the negative stigma it developed in the 80s and 90s in relation to: the crack epidemic, gangster rap, street gangs, graffiti, and social-realist urban films. But of course, a simple name change cannot delete a region’s past. Yet, in a city like Los Angeles, where culture is driven by constant reinvention, it is not unusual. Chinatown was once Sonoratown because of all the Mexicans who lived there, and Little Tokyo was once Bronzeville, to accommodate the Blacks, Native Americans and Mexicans that lived there during Japanese internment. It went back to being Little Tokyo when the Japanese community returned. I did not want to live in South Central, but I couldn’t afford a house in the LAX coastal region of Westchester, Playa Del Rey, or Culver City, places I considered home. I kept thinking of Camus’ coastal city of Oran, a Mediterranean location in Algeria, as the place for his plague battleground, and I assumed that the newly rebranded “Silicon Beach” ―the Westside of Los Angeles―along with its perennial Mediterranean comparisons, was the appropriate location for an end-of-the-century conflict. The media didn’t talk as much about the street gangs that plagued the region back in the 80s and 90s, which was the reality I lived through and participated in. These social ills were already considered “old school.” The new conversation was centered on urban renewal, open-space design, the tech industry, development, and displacement, and it was this phenomenon that directly led me to write The Displaced. Similar to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, I focused on place as a form of characterization. The Independent called Conrad’s ignored London location “a great city novel,” and I too attempted to give voice to an overlooked area―the Del Rey neighborhood and the Mar Vista Gardens Housing Projects. I wanted the community to resonate, before it becomes erased and white-washed by renovation. Moreover, I wanted to position the reader at the end of the millennium where fear of change, Y2K and lack of education contributed to a bleak point-of-view. A time when collective, doomsday apocalyptic stress took over rationality. All over America, people started militias, packed garages and basements with water and canned foods, armed themselves, and looked to God for answers. It is in this absurdist thinking―in the face of powerlessness―that the novel exists. Residents in disenfranchised neighborhoods could never have imagined the concept of gentrification. Even though our people have experienced drastic forms of social disorganization in this city; from redlining or being excluded from buying homes via housing covenants, to our streets being gutted for infrastructure projects, a return of the gentry was out of focus. White flight created a form of abandonment all over Los Angeles, as a result of suburbanization and freeway expansion of the 1950s, and my attempt was to draw out the marginalized Del Rey neighborhood and the projects, as a statistically significant sample, which can be used for gentrification comparisons. Today, homes near the Mar Vista Gardens Housing Projects sell for millions of dollars, which is clear that working-class people from the area can no longer afford a house where they grew up. Once considered one of the most poverty-stricken communities of the Westside, Del Rey is now a cool and hip zip code located in thriving Silicon Beach. Similar to Camus’ The Plague, I chose a reporter―someone who attempts objectivity to such a marvel―as a main character. It is a coming-of-age story, and his arc goes from student, to writer, to distinguished journalist. Mikey Bustamante is deeply rooted in the community of Del Rey, but he lives just outside the projects, home to the notorious Culver City 13 gang. While examining this character’s undertaking, I looked toward Black writers to help in my understanding of America’s larger race conversation. Chester Himes’ If He Hollers Let Him Go and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man were a source of inspiration. The bigger question was how to present Americanness, while also stressing Otherness. Is Mikey American enough? Can America see themselves in him? Will people of Mexican descent identify with his struggle? In the opening chapter, Mikey is called out on his dress style, appearance, and interests, and he is accused of being White-washed. Thus, Mikey Bustamante must learn to navigate the resistance while doing his job. He does not entirely fit into the larger Latinx community he is surrounded by, yet he is not at home with his White counterparts. This theme is presented throughout the novel as a way to abandon identity politics, yet still make it about identity. In Himes’ book, his main character is a fractured existentialist who is staunchly anti-White, while Ellison’s underground, or invisible man, exercises power through his opaqueness. In The Displaced, Mikey is neither opaque, nor invisible, nor anti-White. Unlike Ellison’s invisible narrator, or Himes’ overtly Black and angry protagonist, Mikey reflects the status-quo back to those who make up the new gentry. Mikey’s characterization is deliberate, in order to present a more nuanced approach to race, class, and conflict, which examines what Robert Wuthnow maintained: “A single work of art or literature that affects the social order must relate closely enough to its social environment to be recognizable, yet maintain relative autonomy from it.” The goal is for Mikey to be close enough to be affected by the problem, while also disengaging from it as a journalist. The Displaced is also an examination of the human condition. The characters in the novel must reconcile with universal themes like religion, myth, murder, betrayal, goodness, suffering, groupthink, and others. The struggle against urban renewal in the book mirrors today’s dialogue about whitewashing and cultural appropriation. More than ever, people of color are fighting back to reclaim what has been stolen from us. Museums, publishers, galleries, music studios, television series, and films, are under attack for their lack of diversity and authenticity. Historically in American literature, White writers often introduced lowly-developed, moronic, buffoon-like, exotic and folkish “other” characters. Sometimes they didn’t give the characters a name, and simply wrote things like the Jap, the Negro, or the Mexican. When writers of color, starting with the Harlem Renaissance, introduced characters that were complex and multi-dimensional, they began to give life, meaning, and understanding to the marginalized other. These writers claimed that American nationalism, identity, and culture cannot be examined without taking into consideration the contributions of “other.” Simply put, readers do not want to read about themselves through an outsider’s perspective. They do not want to read assumed voices for the sake of messaging, human understanding, solidarity, or whatever other justification they might claim. In The Displaced, a White novelist who is interested in writing about Mexican American gangs (because he thinks it’s cool and interesting) is murdered by the resistance for his audacity. On the streets, situations are handled differently. The goal is for readers to be aware of the serious repercussions caused by gentrification. For powerless people, community is all they have. In wealthy neighborhoods, housing associations and neighborhood council groups thwart development and radical zoning, but in working-class areas, this is often out of their control. I want to place the reader in their situation, as if they too were cornered and they had nothing else to lose. For people like my characters, home and the hood are everything, and if that is taken from them, people will respond in unexpected ways. The people in the novel are people you see and who surround you daily. They cook your food, wash your car, clean your house, and take care of your children. Simultaneously, they are your council members, police officers, assemblymen and women, professors, gang members, artists, lawyers, and architects. They are Los Angeles. I turned this novel in as my final thesis for my MFA program at Mount Saint Mary’s University. Two years later, I was still getting rejection letters from publishers and literary agents. However, at the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic, with the lockdowns, quarantines and riots, themes I had written about in The Displaced, it occurred to me that the novel might have more significance. Not surprisingly, Penguin Classics reported that Albert Camus’ The Plague became a bestseller in 2020. I decided to send my work out to the world again, and publishers and literary agents that had ignored me in the past, suddenly seemed interested. I signed on with the University of Houston’s Arte Publico Press because they showed more care and understanding of my work, formerly titled, The Plague @ Silicon Beach, as a nod to Camus. The whole world has changed now and we are still in the midst of the pandemic, and somehow these worldly plague themes are as relevant as ever. Yet, we are still powerless, and our absurdist thinking is the same, whether fact or fiction. On a final note, I no longer live in South Central Los Angeles. I moved to the affluent suburbs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and according to some elderly White neighbors, we are the new gentrifiers in the neighborhood―young, different and other. It occurred to me, for the first time, that the face of gentrification is not the same everywhere. *** View the full article
  6. The age old conundrum of which came first, the chicken or the egg, can definitely be applied to author branding and the genres across which an author writes. While many authors establish a brand based on the books they write, others write books (especially non-fiction) inspired by an existing brand. Since what we want to write and who we are as people can evolve over time, it becomes hard to tell which came first or which is leading our literary evolution. We might ask ourselves… Do we write in a specific genre because it aligns with our interests, personality, and expertise? Do we limit ourselves to a specific genre because we have already established it as our brand? Do we adapt our brand to fit the stories we want to write? The farther an author strays out of a specific category, the more challenging we become to brand. Some authors address this challenge by creating pen names for different genres of work. I’m more interested in how we can unify works in multiple genres under one overarching brand. In order to accomplish this, we need a clear understanding about what this means. I define brand as a public identity used in marketing to help shape the perception and expectation of potential readers for an author’s literary work. Brands are intangible concepts that help to define and unify products from a singular source. Since a brand is a tool for marketing, an aspiring author does not need a brand in order to write. That said, if an aspiring author already has a brand, it can inspire what they write. It’s easy to comprehend branding when looking at a company like Nike. They have a clear—Just do it! —energy and a contemporary, urban athletic culture. It makes perfect sense for them to make and sell products in a variety of categories—clothes, shoes, gear—for different sports aimed at a broad target audience. No one would expect Nike to limit their categories or sports. No one would expect them to target their audience to only men, women, kids, hardcore athletes, sports enthusiasts, or couch potatoes who just like wearing great-looking comfortable clothes. Why can’t authors do this? Answer: We can! If we brand the author instead of the work. As authors we frequently create brands for ourselves according to a particular book, book series, or the category which covers our book or series. But if we write in multiple genres—and don’t use multiple names—we’ll need an overarching brand that covers us as an author and everything we write. In order to create a cohesive brand, we need to find the common themes between who we are as people and the literary works we create. Although a brand can be created before, during, or after publication, I’ve found it was most needed when I was marketing a new book or creating (and updating) my website. Although this frequently happens after an author lands their first book deal and has that all-important marketing conversation with their publisher, it could happen earlier or repeatedly throughout a career. No matter how different our literary works might seem, since they all come from us, commonalities will appear. The trick is to bypass the specifics and examine the core. The same can be said about empathy. We don’t need to be widowed to understand loss. We don’t need to have murdered to have experienced rage. We don’t need to share the same beliefs to feel passionate about our cause. In order to connect with a person or character who is very different from ourselves, we can relate to them on a universal level. Since our literary works comes from our own imagination, the chances are pretty good that we’ll find universal commonalities between what we write and who we are as people. The genres may vary, but certain core themes, emotions, or interests will find their way into our writing. Once we find the common elements between us and our work, we can have a lot more fun with social media—a source of stress for many authors. We all know we’re not supposed to promote our books 24/7, but what do we do in between? How do we reinforce our author brand without posting about our books? Since we tend to write about themes, issues, communities, hobbies, etc. that appeal to us as people, we’ll probably discover that most of what we want to post about can be framed, authentically, to reinforce our brand. For example: I write suspenseful and often action-packed novels and short stories that expand awareness and empower the spirit. Regardless of the genre I’m writing, most of my work involves diverse cultures, complex family dynamics, women of agency, and the struggle for empowerment and justice. These themes pop up in my Lily Wong mystery thriller series about a Chinese-Norwegian modern-day ninja from Los Angeles, most of my horror, fantasy, mystery, and thriller short stories, and my newly released Brazilian horror epic, Dance Among the Flames, about a desperate mother who rises from the slums of Brazil to become a fearsome wielder of Quimbanda magic. Since these themes also relate to me as a person, it feels natural to reinforce them through my social media presence. If you visit my website, Instagram, Facebook, and (to a lesser degree) Twitter, you’ll see an abundance of positive, empowering, family-oriented, culturally-diverse posts. From yoga handstands and multicultural recipes to ninja training videos and shots of my adorable Hapa-Hawaiian grandbaby in Shanghai, everything I post speaks to who I am as a person and how it fits into my multicultural and empowering author brand. That said, art—like life—can change. When pivoting or breaking out of a genre, it helps to control the narrative and lay a foundation for a shift in author brand. Expanding social media posts to introduce the new interest, speaking about the new genre and project while promoting a book, and updating profiles and website to make sure the branding reflects what is to come all guide public perception and facilitate a seamless transition. Most importantly for me, I allow room to evolve. I’ve explored many careers on my journey to writing novels: acting, singing, dancing, screenwriting, and martial arts. Even when I reached high levels in my craft, I always gave myself permission to pivot and grow. It’s led to interesting life twists. Some of them challenging. Some of them fun. Every new endeavor and career has led me to where I am and who I have become, not only as a person but as a writer with a point of view and a voice. *** View the full article
  7. Cassie Pérez: “You still think this is the best place in the world to live?” Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez: “Yep. Of course I do. I mean to say, on a clear day, you can see Norway over that way.” Cassie Pérez: “There is that.” Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez: “And . . . you can see Iceland over that way.” Cassie Pérez: “What about shops?” Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez: “I forgot. We don’t have any of them. . . . We’ve got the sky and the sea, and razorbills and kittiwakes. What more do you want?” —From Shetland, Season 1, Episode 2 “Shetland has always been a place of sanctuary for me. I visited when I dropped out of university, and I just loved it from the minute I got there. It’s a bleak but very beautiful place.” —Ann Cleeves, author of the Shetland novels ______________________ Tim Maskell is the Director of Scottish Location Services. He began working in the film industry in 2006, and has worked as a location manager on many feature films and TV dramas, including Shetland (Series Four to Seven), The Nest, Guilt, Clique, and Agatha Christie: Ordeal by Innocence, The Estruscan Smile, and Only You. The Shetland Islands are an archipelago in the North Sea, 130 miles north of Scotland, with a population of 23,000. The Scottish crime drama Shetland, adapted from the novels of Ann Cleeves, is filmed on the islands and the Scottish mainland. The show, which has now completed seven seasons, follows the investigations of Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez, played by Douglas Henshall, and his team of detectives. The stories of Shetland are impossible to imagine apart from their setting, steeped as they are in the islands’ brooding skies, barren landscape, and ever-present sea. I wanted to talk to Tim about the challenges and rewards of filming a crime series on a remote island. The following interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity. ______________________ Frederick: Shetland is very popular in the states. I think one reason is the unusual beauty of the location. My wife said I should tell you this story. We also watch another British mystery series called Vera. And when we watch reruns of that show, I often don’t remember the plot or who the killer is. But I do remember the locations. I remember specific houses or fields. So for me, locations are really important to stories. Tim: I agree. But you know location managers don’t get the recognition, actually. There are awards out there for all these other people, but locations get overlooked. Frederick: Are there any awards for location managers? Tim: Not really. I know the locations team for Game of Thrones got a couple of awards and recognition. But the usual big award ceremonies in the U.K., like the BAFTAs [British Academy of Film and Television Arts], don’t even have a location category. You’ve got designers, composers, and actors, but they don’t seem to recognize locations that much. Frederick: When did you work as location manager for Shetland? Which seasons? Tim: I’ve been location managing Shetland since Series Four. I started as a unit manager on Series Two. Series Six, which we shot earlier this year, was just shown here in the U.K. Due to COVID delays, it was shot back-to-back this year with Series Seven, which we just wrapped on the 17th of December. Frederick: Are there plans to do more? Tim: At the moment, I don’t believe so. It will probably come down to the ratings of these last couple of seasons. Obviously it’s doing very well. And I guess we’ll just see how it goes. But at the moment, there’re no further plans for any more seasons. Frederick: So how did you originally become a location manager? Tim: There’s a kind of ladder process. I started off as a location assistant, which is the lowest rung. You’re managing the set, the guy on the ground, who relays everything back to the location manager or the unit manager. How it happened for me was my mum ran an estate on the west coast of Scotland, just off Loch Fyne, called Ardkinglas Estate. In 2006, a film called The Water Horse was filming there. I was at university at the time, and it was my summer holidays. My mum called me and said they were looking for somebody to come and help out. I didn’t have a clue what that would entail. But I went down and spoke to them. The location team was looking for somebody young, local, and energetic who could be on the team. That was that. I basically just fell into the industry. I worked as a Locations Assistant for approximately four years, and the first job I did as a unit manager was a musical film called Sunshine on Leith, which starred a Scottish band called The Proclaimers. I started the film as an assistant, and then stepped up to be unit manager. I did unit managing for four years. Then one day I got a call from the film crew on a BBC thriller called Clique. They were looking for a location manager, and I jumped at it. The very next job was Shetland Four. Frederick: When you started Shetland, did you know the islands? Tim: No. I’d never been to the islands until I started unit managing the show. But you get to know places pretty quickly, especially as a unit manager. You’re responsible for making sure everybody gets to where they’re going. So you’re drawing up maps and doing things called “movement orders,” which tell people where they’re going. And then obviously you’re heavily involved with the location side of things as well in terms of setting things up and making sure you can get all your trucks there. I got to learn the place pretty quickly, to be honest. So when it came to location management, I had a fairly good idea of where to go for various things. But also, from day one, we’ve had a local fixer in Shetland named David Gardner. His knowledge is obviously invaluable to us. He actually does a lot of the scouting for us. Then I go up to look at what he’s found and do some additional scouting if necessary and whittle down the locations to what we need. Frederick: How do you choose locations for the show? Do you work with the director and the producer to figure out the kinds of places you want? Tim: Yeah, exactly. It’s basically the director, producer, and the designer. The first thing I do is go through the script and do a location breakdown based on what’s written in the script. The scripts have quite good descriptions of what they want. So that starts the process. Then it’s liaising with the director, producer, and designer to make sure you’re all thinking the same thing. It’s just a case of giving them options. Frederick: Were there times when you couldn’t use a location on Shetland? Were some locations off limits? Tim: Occasionally. But on Shetland, they’re actually much more open to filming almost anywhere, even sensitive locations, than on the mainland. The only place in Shetland that we haven’t ever been able to get anywhere near is the Sullum Voe Oil Terminal, which is a very large oil terminal and understandably under heavy guard. We’ve filmed on the road to it, but we’ve never been allowed anywhere near it with cameras. Generally they’re very open to everything up there. Frederick: Is that partly because they appreciate the show being filmed there? Is it because they know that it’s going to attract people to Shetland? Tim: Definitely. There’s been a shift as well from when we first started going up there to now. There was some apprehension in the first couple of series, just because the Shetlanders didn’t really know how they were going to be portrayed. They just didn’t know how film crews really work. You’ve got 60, 80, 100 people coming up from the mainland to take over the island for a few weeks, so there was apprehension. But after they realized what the show was about and how good the show was and how it portrayed the islands, it was fine. You’re rare to find someone up there now who doesn’t welcome you with open arms. There have been one or two places where people quite clearly don’t have televisions or watch the show. You’d knock on their door and they’d say, “No. This isn’t for me.” But that happened very rarely. The locals are all very welcoming. Frederick: What building is used for the police station? It’s a very distinctive-looking building. Tim: The exterior of the police station is the actual Lerwick Sheriff Court itself. And the police station is on the side of it. The main entrance and the doorway that we use is the Sheriff Court. Everything that you see inside the police station is a set built in a studio. Frederick: And is that set on the mainland somewhere? Tim: Yes. We’re based in Glasgow. Whenever we shoot, our production office and everything is based in Glasgow. Frederick: What’s the building that you use for Jimmy Pérez’s house? It’s right on the harbor. It looks like a really beautiful setting. Tim: Again, it’s exterior only. The interior is a set built. The exterior is in Lerwick, the main town of Shetland, just off Commercial Street, a little house called the Lodberrie. It’s a place that the crew found in Series One that they happened to like. And obviously, once you’ve filmed there, you’re not going to move it. It’s a lovely little house. The inside isn’t great in terms of filming capacity. It’s quite small in size, so it would never have worked to film the interior there, but obviously the exterior setting of it is fantastic, and that’s why it was chosen. Frederick: Are you using the same studio in Glasgow for the interiors of Pérez’s house and the police station? Tim: Yes. The only official set-builds are the interior police station, including the Fiscal’s office, and Pérez’s house. The interiors of those two things are in the studio. Pretty much everything else you see is on location. But we do split a lot of locations, which means filming exteriors up in Shetland and then we’ll find interiors back down on the mainland. Those split locations are real locations rather than set-builds. Frederick: In Series Four, there’s a character named Thomas Malone, who’s accused of killing a young woman named Lizzie Kilmuir. He lives in a very rural, rundown farmhouse. How did you find that? Tim: That’s not in Shetland. It’s in a place not far out of Glasgow called Loch Thom, and that area is the best “cheat” we’ve managed to find on the mainland that looks like Shetland. A lot of exterior stuff that we shoot on the mainland is done at Loch Thom. For that farmhouse, we actually shot both the exterior and interior at that house. There was a small bit of set-building inside the house to make the living room feel smaller. A neighboring location was used for the scene where Malone gets buried alive and he pulls himself out. Frederick: So Loch Thom looks enough like Shetland that you can pretend it’s Shetland? Tim: The thing is, there’re basically no trees. That’s what helps make it look like Shetland. And there’s a bit of water, so water always helps. You know, whenever we’re cheating stuff down on the mainland, we generally look for no trees and a bit of water, and that allows people to think it’s in Shetland. Frederick: And there’s also a scene in Season Four at a picturesque cemetery. Is that on Shetland? Tim: That’s the actual Lerwick Cemetery on Shetland. The cemetery sits on a little bit of headland looking out to sea. That’s where that shot was. Because it’s up on a hill, the camera can pan through the gravestones and show the sea and beyond. Frederick: Are there other locations that aren’t on Shetland itself? Tim: Yes. There will be in the upcoming Series Six and Seven. In Series Four, there were locations up in Norway for a couple of weeks. But in terms of the Shetland stuff. Detective Constable Sandy Wilson’s flat is a cheat in Glasgow. The exterior of Donna Killick’s house is actually in Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary in Shetland. But the interior of her house is on the mainland. For the most part, when we go up to Shetland, we use the time to shoot as much of Shetland exteriors as we can. In Series Four, Kate Kilmuir is the sister of the murdered girl. Her house—interior and exterior—was on Shetland. Interior coffee shops and pubs and the interior of Lerwick Hospital are always shot on the mainland. Duncan and Mary’s house is on the mainland. The farmhouse of Jo Halley, the artist, was up on Shetland, and was quite a nice one. Frederick: Are there challenges that are unique to Shetland as a location manager? How is it different from shooting other shows? Tim: The main thing is that obviously you’re on an island, for starters. And you’re on an island that’s not close to the mainland, so you might as well be filming in a different country. To get there, you’re either taking a 12-hour overnight ferry, or you’re flying up and down. So I’m flying up and down every couple of weeks for tactical scouting, to look at places, to meet with the council and the police, or do whatever I need to do. The other challenge is the weather. Shetland is quite a barren landscape. There are not even very many hills. The tallest hill is only about 300 meters [1,000 feet]. It’s a flat landscape, and the wind just whips right in off the North Sea. Because we’re predominantly shooting exteriors, you don’t have anywhere to hide. You just have to go out and get it done—get your waterproofs on and make sure you’ve got a change of clothes. That is definitely the biggest challenge, because they’re so receptive up there to us filming now, that there aren’t really many challenges in terms of finding locations. The weather is probably the biggest thing. Frederick: Do you try to shoot during a certain season? Is it the summer? Tim: Yeah, we’ve always tried to, but it doesn’t always work out like that. Series Four was shot May through June, which are generally the best months up there. The driest months tend to be May and September, but obviously by September, you’re starting to lose the light again. It doesn’t always work to film in the summer because the crew isn’t available. Or this year, we had to do two series back to back. We were shooting up there up until October. By which point, you really start getting battered by the winds and rain. When we were shooting Series Two, it was just foggy. The whole time it was like shooting in a Tupperware box. You couldn’t see two feet in front of you. So you’ve gone up to Shetland to shoot all these amazing landscapes and you couldn’t see anything. Frederick: I saw a news story that said for this latest series you even had snow. Tim: We did, actually. Our first block of filming for Season Six was in March, and the day we arrived, we had snow. What can you do? Obviously continuity is a big thing. It doesn’t really matter so much with the rain, because unless it’s absolutely pouring down, you can get away with it. But the snow definitely produced a few more problems. Again, we just have to get on with it. You really don’t have a choice. When you’re shooting on the mainland, generally you try to have some weather cover. So if the weather’s bad, you’ll think: where can we go? But up there, you don’t have room to maneuver. Some scenes were moved—scenes that were meant to be played outside on a beach were put into a house. When you watch Series Six, you’ll see all of a sudden there’s snow on the ground, and then the next thing, there’s not snow on the ground. But again, these things just happen. You have to get on with it. Frederick: It also seems like daylight can be an issue, too. Is that right? If you’re up there in the early spring or the late fall, you’re going to start hitting darkness. Tim: Absolutely. In the summer solstice, you get about an hour of darkness. And even then, it’s not real darkness. Shetland actually has a golf tournament that tees off at midnight on June 21st because players can pretty much see to play on the course. Then, in the winter solstice, you’ll be lucky if it’s light between half nine [9:30 a.m.] and half three [3:30 p.m.]. You’re really only talking about six hours of daylight. And even then, it can be very dull. If it’s overcast, sometimes the streetlights don’t turn off during the day. We filmed there right up until October this year, and you have to schedule around that basically. You start at half seven in the morning, knowing it’ll be daylight by the time you start shooting. And then by four o’clock, you have to be in a location where you can light it night-for-day to pretend that it’s still daylight. You have to split your day up to make sure you’re getting the best out of the day. Frederick: Are there any challenges in working with the local people? Tim: In all honesty, there aren’t. We take on a lot of local labor—for traffic management or extra labor for the day. The local council is always very open to us and has allowed us to do stuff that we wouldn’t have got away with on the mainland. They’re so open, and they like to be involved. Frederick: And eventually, once they saw what the show was like and how it was, they seemed to welcome you? Tim: Yeah, absolutely. The funny thing was, in the first couple of seasons, the Shetlanders couldn’t get their head around the TV magic of it. For example, we’d shoot an exterior house in Lerwick. Then Jimmy walks around the corner, and all of a sudden he’s in a different part of the island. Then we’d get Shetlanders messaging on Facebook that what we showed is impossible because that bit of the island is a 40-minute drive away. Or they’d know we were shooting something in Glasgow that was supposed to be on Shetland. It took them a while to get their heads around that. But I think once they got that, they were all right with it. Frederick: What effect have the locations had on the show’s popularity? Tim: I think it’s massive. The show is a kind of Scandinavian noir genre. The landscape and the locations really lend themselves to that. If you’d written the same show, and it was just filmed in Glasgow, it wouldn’t have nearly the same appeal. Obviously a lot of people watch it to see those landscapes and those locations, and that’s why they love the show because it’s showcasing an amazing place. So I think it’s got a lot to do with it. Frederick: When I was doing a similar interview about the show Lewis that’s filmed in Oxford, the location manager told me that, after that show became popular, companies started doing tours of Oxford just to show the locations featured in the series. Do people come to Shetland just because the show is filmed there? Tim: Absolutely. The show has done so much for the tourist industry up there. Shetland is basically run on oil, and over the last few years, that industry has taken quite a hit. But the tourism industry was boosted from the show. It happened at the right time for them and brought in a lot of revenue. The number of cruise ships stopping in Lerwick every year has probably doubled in the last four or five years. And a lot of that is to do with the show. David Gardner, our local fixer, also works for Radio Shetland. The station tasked him one day with meeting people coming off a cruise ship and asking them why they came to Shetland. Something like 60 to 70 percent said, I’m here to see Pérez’s house. The bus operators had to organize tours to see locations from the show. These are people from all over the world. They love the show in Australia. A couple years ago, we had people who flew to Shetland from Australia just so they could be extras on the show. Frederick: What do you enjoy about working on the show? Tim: I’m a bit of a country bumpkin at heart. I grew up on the west coast of Scotland and in the countryside. I just love Shetland. I love the people. I love the landscape. To the point where, before my wife and I moved to the house where we live now, I was actually looking at buying a house on Shetland. I don’t think I’d ever have convinced my wife to do it. I like the show as well. I like the premise, the genre. It’s the show that I’ve location-managed more than any other in my career. It’s got a big place in my heart. Frederick: Did you have interactions with the actors? Tim: More so when I was unit managing because I was on set. With location management, I’m more in the background. But obviously, since I’ve been on the show so long, we know each other very well. For example, the other day when we were filming in Loch Thom, Alison O’Donnell, who plays Tosh, came by and said hello. Dougie Henshaw, who plays Jimmy Pérez, had a daughter who’s a similar age to my youngest. So there was a bit of a bond with that. There’s obviously a lot of socializing after hours. But most of the time you’re just filming the show. You’re up there with a group of people you know and get on with and enjoy doing the job. Frederick: Does the author ever come on set? Tim: Yes, she has occasionally. She’s always consulted on the storyline because the script is obviously not written by her. But she’s consulted to make sure that she’s happy with what we’re portraying. Frederick: All right. Thanks, Tim, for taking the time to talk to me. Tim: Okay. No worries. It was a pleasure. Nice to speak to you. Cheers. * This interview is a companion piece to Frederick’s earlier CrimeReads interview with Ian Pearce, location manager for the British crime drama Lewis, which you can read here. View the full article
  8. Penumbra (2022), by Hannah Black and Juliana Huxtable. Press image courtesy of the artists and Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève. I frequently feel saddened and angry that animals—whom I love, sometimes feed, and never eat—mostly ignore or even run away from me. For this reason, I enjoyed Hannah Black and Juliana Huxtable’s animated film Penumbra, which stages a court case against a nonhuman defendant—“representing all animals or the animal as such”—that is on trial for crimes against human beings in contempt of human reason. The judge is an animal, the members of the jury are animals, too; from the beginning, power and numbers are on their side. There are two humans, but they’re dressed as creatures: “Juliana Huxtable,” the defense, is costumed in furry-esque bunny ears, which mirror the headdress worn by the prosecution, and “Hannah Black, genus homo, species sapiens” recalls the animal-headed Egyptian god Ra (in Derrida’s reading of Plato, the father of reason or logos). The CGI places human and nonhuman characters on a fair—and very low poly count—playing field of unreality. And so the debate begins. But it’s really a monologue: Huxtable speaks only rarely; her nonhuman “kin,” never. Animals, here, are outside the realm of representation, in both the legal and the semiotic senses. It’s a canny dramatization of the absurd, unhappy impasse posed by the discourse of anthropocentrism, which, in its attempt to “decenter” people in favor of a more inclusive worldview, must also mute the capacity that enables discourse (and community, identity, thought) itself. This capacity is both subject and object, content and container, of Black’s breathless address. “Through the use of language,” she begins, “I will show you, and you will understand, and through doing so you will have to admit that you do not fundamentally sympathize with the principle of the animal, you respond to abstract concepts, you know how to come when your name is called.” Yet the dazzling avalanche of words that follows is less an airtight argument and more a poem with the rhetorical texture of a rant. Penumbra isn’t just an intervention in theory masquerading as video art; it brilliantly reveals, aesthetically, what analysis cannot: the illogic, the nonhuman, within language and hence within us. Black’s rapid-fire circumlocutions and cascading repetitions are actually impossible to follow; instead, they are reduced to an ebb and flow of breath and rhythm that wash, anxiously, over us. The animals, of course, refuse to respond to her questions, her attempts at taxonomy: “Do you deny that you practice cannibalism?” Legally, the word penumbra refers to constitutional rights inferred using interpolative reasoning; in science, it connotes the gray area between a light and a shadow. This trial is an arbitration of gradients via an indictment of law: a tragedy of reason that makes a mockery not just of justice, but at all of our attempts at living in harmony. It’s a sign of our species’ self-hatred that most people in Sunday’s audience at Metrograph—where the film screened along with two others from the 2021 Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement—seemed to interpret Penumbra as a celebration of the inevitable triumph of the inhuman. Maybe they’re right. And no one wants to sympathize with the prosecution! But I felt so bad for us, the tiny minority in a universe that, though sensate, is senseless. As Black’s character says, “We have tried to hold on to the collective being, but the animal refuses to speak to us. All that we know about brutality we learned from animals. We learned how to treat each other as food, we learned how to die indifferently.” Aprés nous, le dèluge, I thought, despondently, leaving the theater. All three short films from the series, which was curated by DIS, are now available to stream online at Metrograph. —Olivia Kan-Sperling, assistant editor Reading the queer Brazilian writer Caio Fernando Abreu’s Moldy Strawberries this week, I was reminded of a scene in Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue in which Delany meets a stranger who ceremoniously pisses himself before sex. It’s one of many scenes of abjection featuring bodily fluids in Delany’s work—a predilection I encountered, too, in Abreu’s rapturous collection of linked stories, out from Archipelago Books next month in a new English translation by Bruna Dantas Lobato. Originally published in Portuguese as Morangos mofados in 1982—under Brazil’s anti-communist military dictatorship and at the onset of the global AIDS pandemic—Moldy Strawberries is a portrait of queer life in which it’s impossible to divorce pleasure from politics. Abreu attests to the fraught ties between friends and lovers in Brazil’s cities of the time, and his tendencies toward formal excess—jagged, labyrinthine sentences that vault across different registers; innumerable and unabashed appearances of liquid waste (piss, semen, sweat, glitter, cognac, mud, rainwater, blood); a story consisting solely of dialogue between two friends, accompanied by instructions that it be read ad infinitum—also reflect his defiance of the political autocracy that censored his work and eventually sent him into exile. “I’m not desperate, not more than I’ve always been, nothing special, baby,” says one of his narrators. “I’m not drunk or crazy, I’m lucid as fuck and I confidently know I don’t have a way out.” Abreu’s project is entirely different in scope from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which chronicles the eighties redevelopment of Times Square and its consequences for the cruising scene. But the two writers share an interest in how queer social relations are formed in shifting urban environments, and there can be a nearly psychedelic quality to both of their prose styles. Abreu’s turn to psychedelia, though, was the result of the dissident Tropicália movement of sixties Brazil, founded by a countercultural group of avant-garde musicians and artists that included Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, and Hélio Oiticica. Music especially may have been one way Abreu attempted to escape the conditions of dictatorship. The stories in Moldy Strawberries reference a varied and intoxicating collection of songs, including ones by Veloso, Angela Ro Ro, Donna Summer, Frédéric Chopin, the Beatles, Elis Regina, and Billie Holiday. Abreu even instructs us to listen to particular songs as we read some of the stories. (As I read the collection I was also often listening to the self-titled album of the late-sixties Brazilian rock band Os Mutantes, who aren’t named in the book but who were important figures in the Tropicália movement.) The musical dissonance here leaks beautifully into the prose, and Dantas Lobato’s translation moves with lightning speed as Abreu’s characters go out in the rain, drink with abandon, reach across the dance floor, and gaze at the planets and at one another. Abreu hammers away at the core of life until it’s chiseled and brilliant, until it splinters, suddenly, into language. “I was always relearning and inventing, always toward him,” says one of his narrators, consumed by an obsession with a lover, “to arrive whole, the pieces of me all mixed up, he would lay them out unhurriedly, as if playing with a puzzle to form what castle, what forest, what worm, or god, I didn’t know, but I was going in the rain because that was my only reason, my only destination—pounding on that dark door I was pounding on now.” Abreu died of AIDS in Porto Alegre in 1996, at the age of forty-seven. —Oriana Ullman, intern “But why do we no longer write poetry?” asks the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou towards the end of his essay “An Open Letter to Those Who Are Killing Poetry.” “Wrong question! Is what is presented to us really poetry? That’s the question!” What is and is not poetry—and who gets to decide—are just two of the many questions Mabanckou has taken up over the course of his decades-long career, which includes the Booker-nominated novel Black Moses as well as my personal favorite, the queasy, alcohol-soaked, and at times scatological satire of contemporary Congolese politics Broken Glass. The essay in question appears at the end of As Long as Trees Take Root in the Earth, a collection of the first-ever translations of his poetry to appear in English (by Nancy Naomi Carlson), and is a fitting companion to the poems that precede it. In spare, untitled stanzas, Mabanckou writes poignantly of the natural world, a mother’s love, and the hypocrisy of borders, observing that “nation after nation / despair endures.” —Rhian Sasseen, engagement editor View the full article
  9. That evening, Professor Wang’s flavour—but not his likeness, which was gone—remained with Sam, a lingering aftertaste as he, Tianliang, and Auntie sat around a chaffing dish full of skewered fish balls, thinly sliced meats, and vegetables, simmering in a spicy sour broth. ‘I ate the other day at Yu Chun, the Northeastern restaurant in the West of the campus,’ Auntie said. ‘I’m surprised I didn’t run into you there.’ From the time she opened the door, Auntie intermittently offered Sam words of welcome and entreatments to guilty for having returned to Beijing without visiting her. Sam felt embarrassed but kept silent in the absence of anything redeeming to say. He had breached the bond they had established in the summer of bliss—forgotten scores of intimate lunches and delightful, little secrets about Wei Da University, where he had returned for study abroad. ‘This broth is delicious,’ Tianliang said, punctuating the moment’s thick silence, ladling some of the soup and dregs of vegetable into a bowl. Tianliang beheld Auntie, as if to see whether this flattery would make a dent in Auntie’s armour. It would not. Auntie continued to look into her bowl. ‘Eat with appetite,’ Auntie told Tianliang, cutting their direct conversation short. Tianliang looked away. Auntie had to that point never once looked Tianliang in the eye. Not even as Tianliang entered her apartment. Sam’s phone buzzed. He held it under the kitchen table and gave it a quick glance as he shovelled fish balls into his mouth with his chopsticks. It was a text from Alim, the Uyghur Wei Da student—a poem of just a few lines for the Mid-Autumn Festival that described two people who were not physically together but both united by the act of watching the same moon. A moment later, Sam received another text. You’re in my thoughts, it said. I hope you’re well. Sam didn’t respond. He felt he didn’t have the energy to make more fast friends, only to find such relationships at once heavy and hollow like he did in that moment. ‘How are you liking Wei Da campus life?’ Auntie asked. ‘Good — everything is good,’ he said. He wanted to cry to her about his interlude with Professor Wang earlier that afternoon and be mothered, but he felt he couldn’t with Tianliang there. Sam got the sense that Auntie also would have preferred that Tianliang disappear. Sam had already inquired after Jiaxin and Jiaxin’s ever-absent father. The uneasy gaps in conversation felt to Sam like an affirmation that despite his feelings of shame, he had done well to avoid a reunion with Auntie and Tianliang. Their month together was what it was, he thought; it is best to be unsentimental about things, to fold before you remember that other people always end up dealing you a losing hand, that hell is others. ‘You’re staying in the dorms?’ Auntie asked. ‘Yes,’ Sam responded. ‘In Building 46?’ Auntie asked. ‘Close, in Building 45,’ Sam said. I have classes in Building 46.’ ‘That’s good.’ ‘Why?’ ‘It’s said that Building 46 has a—complex history. Very complex,’ she said, savouring her own mystery, as though it had been a blonde wig, a trench coat, and sunglasses. This was how Auntie passed the time alone in this apartment, Sam imagined—spooking herself. ‘Let’s just say, it’s better for you to let sleeping ghosts lie,’ she continued. ‘Sleeping ghosts?’ Sam asked. ‘No one has told you, then,’ Auntie said. ‘Building 46 has entered itself into the annals of Wei Da legend. People say there’s a ghost in the basement of Building 46. And that you can hear it sobbing late at night.’ ‘In the ping pong room?’ Sam asked, mouth agape like a child. He recalled the humming he had heard from his ordeal in the Grand Hall. It had a certain warm musicality to it. Had the humming been sobbing? Sam’s memory of the humming morphed as he processed it through his mind. The sound waves shifted in his imperfect recollection until they did produce a kind of lyrical sobbing. Yes, Sam thought, The sound had been sobbing, muffled by distance and whatever structures—walls, stairs—came between Sam and the ping pong room. Or had the faint sobbing been right up in Sam’s ear? Had it been a ghost, whispering tears into Sam’s ear? And what then of the hand, detached—it seemed, that night—from the cries? ‘Yes, in the ping pong room—the one behind the staircase, down the stairs. So you’ve heard of it?’ she said. Sam realised that of course Auntie knew the layout of the building. She must have been there herself. Like Sam, Auntie was a constitutionally curious person. ‘A friend asked me to go down there and take pictures with my phone,’ Sam said. Auntie laughed a performative cackle. And then she collected herself. ‘A friend! Heavens! Your friend must take you for an idiot. I wouldn’t go down there if you paid me,’ she said. ‘And I would advise you not to go down there either. And maybe stop talking to this friend. That’s not much of a friend.’ ‘Why wouldn’t you go there, Auntie?’ Sam asked, chopsticks frozen in the airspace over his bowl. Auntie laughed again, another exaggerated Beijing radio theatre laugh. ‘I’m sure whatever’s down there, you don’t want to see it. But more than that, there’s no good that can come of poking around that sort of thing.’ ‘What would happen?’ Sam asked, and then in English, he uttered a phrase he didn’t know in Chinese: ‘Spiritual possession?’ He waited to see if Auntie or Tianliang would understand, and then he explained himself in Chinese as best he could—‘That the spirit enters my body, like a demon?’ ‘No, no, no,’ Auntie said. ‘I’m not talking about superstitions or magic, I’m talking about another kind of occult activity. You remember when I told you about the Suicide Department? You remember when I told you the university has everything more or less cleaned up by sunrise?’ ‘Of course. How could I forget?’ Sam said. ‘Well you came back to Beijing for a whole year and forgot to phone me, so maybe that’s how’, she said, with a grimace like a dagger. ‘The point is, the university doesn’t take kindly to people poking around its hidden business, even among Wei Da students and staff. I’ve asked around about the kids dying in and around the Suicide Department, and it’s not worth it. You just stay above ground while you’re in Building 46, Sam, and you’ll be fine. If your friend wants to see what’s in the ping pong room, he can go down there himself, understand?’ Sam nodded. Tianliang had been silently eating and listening the whole time. She had nothing to say about Wei Da; she’d never been. To Tianliang, Auntie and Sam were worth the sacrifice of her Friday evening only because they were important to Jiaxin, who was very far away, showering at that very moment with her white Canadian boyfriend. Tianliang had understood full well that she was not welcome at that table, and yet she was there, in order to feel close to Jiaxin. Sam’s phone buzzed—another text. This time from Sandra. Come out and play, booboo? Followed by another: I’ll pay for the cab downtown. Sam could not answer; he was transfixed by his conversation with Auntie. ‘How do you know so much about the ping pong room and Building 46?’ Sam asked Auntie. ‘I’m a nosey old woman. There’s no helping it,’ Auntie said with a smile. They had suddenly recalled some of the energy of the month of bliss. Tianliang beheld it, silently. For dessert, Auntie served a sweet red bean and haw soup, which she told the table she typically made herself when she donated blood to restore her blood sugar level. ‘Anyway’, she said echoing herself from the month of bliss, ‘sweets are good for women. They make us feel loved. Isn’t that so, Tianliang?’ Auntie said, looking directly at Tianliang for the first time that evening. Sam was uncomfortable but also appreciated that something unspoken had transpired between Auntie and Tianliang. Something capable of electrifying inconspicuous words. Before Sam left, Auntie told Sam that it would soon be winter jujube season in Beijing and that there were several winter jujube patches near Wei Da. ‘I’ll take you for sushi, and we’ll make a day of it,’ she said. The invitation had not been extended to Tianliang. Sam was embarrassed by the transparency of Auntie’s omission. ‘You can even bring your foreign friends from school, if you like,’ she added, for sport. On the drive home, Tianliang revealed to Sam that she had a girlfriend and that she wanted to introduce her to Sam. The three would go to a bar together, she said. The road into the Wei Da campus was blocked, so she dropped Sam at the Eastern gate. Sam walked across campus, back to Building 45. The asphalt glistened—It must have been hosed down by the janitorial staff earlier in the evening. Sam saw his shadow stretch out before him, dancing across the asphalt, shimmering under the dim lampposts guiding the way back to the Western end of campus, where the foreign things were. He passed the Suicide Department, Building 44, which he avoided, out of superstition. During the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s, China had endeavoured to stamp out the so-called 四旧 – Si Jiu – Four Olds, among which were superstitions like Sam’s fear of ghosts and spiritual possession. In Mao Zedong Thought, superstition was believed to run counter to the free-thinking adroitness of a communist future. This was, to Sam’s mind, an attractive part of what he understood to be Socialism with Chinese Characteristics—the exhortation against maddening Magical Thinking. And yet the Cultural Revolution that had shattered so much else had failed to smash the superstition that was still prevalent in much of Chinese society, even with all the innocents killed at the time and the historical treasures burned to cinders. Sam thought on how buildings in China still omitted a fourth floor in the way the so-called Western countries’ buildings sometimes omit the 13th floor. As Mr. Fan told Sam, in China, the word for four—四 – si—is homonymous with the word for death—死 – si. Sam longed to be free of this and his own superstitions, but he also admired the way that these senseless anxieties seemed to endure policy, bloodshed, and better judgment. The other buildings Sam knew were closed. The Department for the Study of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics was closed. So too was the Muslim canteen. He inspected the bushes for lovers, and, at least at that moment, he could not find any. Sam felt there was something sinister about Wei Da in its perfect stillness that night. Perhaps the majority of the campus’s usual inhabitants had gone to the bars or the waterfront at Houhai to enjoy the last of the pleasant weather before harsh autumn winds arrived in Beijing and forced people indoors. But something about the near-emptiness of a place the size of some small Chinese and US cities showed Sam his vision of apocalypse. His heart rate increased then as it had earlier in the day, first in the shower room in Building 46 and then as Professor Wang verbally obliterated his fragile sense of security. Sam passed Building 46. One of the front doors was slightly ajar and beyond it was darkness. It seemed that Wei Da was forever saving money on light in Building 46. Sam thought again on the mass of colliding flesh he had seen earlier. He thought on the open door to the Forbidden Record Room. He could not stop thinking about the two. Those thoughts raised his pulse. Perhaps late at night, both in the public baths and Forbidden Record Rooms, Building 46 became something else altogether. He imagined pits of iniquity in the showers—something like a Berlin sex club, but without any of the sofas and other niceties that might exist in those spaces. He entered the front doors. The foyer had no independent light of its own. It was in near-darkness, lit only by the lampposts on the lawn outside. A light on the second floor illuminated the steps, but nothing else also helped Sam to see. Suddenly, a door swung open and a night guard in a uniform poked his head out and pointed a flashlight at Sam’s face, making Sam wince. In the night guard’s office, Sam caught a glimpse of some security cameras, a desktop computer, and a cot. The guard had been watching a film on the computer to pass the time. He had plugged a pair of large headphones into the computer tower on the desk, so as not to wake the guests on the upper floors. ‘I left my textbook on the sixth floor,’ Sam said. But the attendant had already been satisfied to see a lone foreign face—however obscured—in a building meant for foreign people. The attendant knew very few of Building 46’s residents’ faces, so just Sam’s conspicuous foreignness was his ticket into Building 46. The guard turned his flashlight away and lifted a hand in silent approval. The guard returned to his office, leaving the door slightly ajar. As Sam ascended the staircase, guided only by a flickering light from the floor above, a sudden, sharp scraping sound stopped him in his tracks. He stood atop the first flight of stairs, waiting for the sound to reproduce itself. The sound had been ever-so-light. Sam was worried to miss it over the sound of his incessant breathing, so he held his breath and listened closely. The front door to Building 46 creaked a bit at the fore of the foyer, where it had been flapping in the breeze. Just as Sam was prepared to continue making his way up to the sixth floor, to the bathroom where he had seen sex for the first time, he heard the scraping noise again. It was like a scraping against the concrete walls or floors of the ground level of Building 46. It was followed again by another scraping sound and then several at the same time. Sam felt his pulse elevate. He had never to that point bothered to fully inspect the curious, hidden space between those stairs and the Grand Hall. He had only seen it once in passing, when he registered for class. Sam imagined now that behind those stairs was another set of stairs that led downward to a lower level. And on that lower level would have been the ping pong room, he realised. Auntie’s words at dinner echoed in his thoughts: ‘Let sleeping ghosts lie’. The scraping noise produced itself again. It was now almost certainly feet shuffling against the floor below the stairs. In that moment, Sam’s thoughts turned suddenly to the strange words etched on his desk by an earlier class of foreigners at Building 46: If you want to die, go die. He wondered not just what but where the little note on his desk was referring to? Was death up above or down below? His pulse felt as it had on the sixth floor when he saw the shower sex. He remarked that terror and whatever sexual feelings he may have had in the shower room were ultimately so similar. Just a moment’s elevated heart rate. Sam felt he knew ghosts existed. The West had destroyed the Four Olds in its own way; it was unacceptable for an adult, educated man in the US to believe in ghosts. But Sam had always felt there to be something more, always felt attuned to that strange frequency and that he was born to grow into that strange sense of hearing someday. The ghost of the ping pong room could continue to haunt him, as it had in the Grand Hall, or Sam could turn to it and grab it back, as he had the alleyway man of his childhood nightmares. By grabbing the alleyway man of the ping pong room, Sam could commute his horror into a sort of pleasure. Sam gingerly climbed back down the stairs to the ground level. There was a distinct point where the little light that there had been on the stairs and the foyer stopped, as Sam entered the corridor behind the stairwell. That was the precise point where Sam stopped caring for his own safety. Nothing in his life was especially beautiful in that moment. Nothing was indispensable—none of the people he had met. How much longer would his grandma Nora live? Nothing is constant. Sam had become unrecognisable to himself in his short time there. He had become undependable, a lush, and a slacker. For some, this line of nihilism bursts into technicolor when they go parachuting; for Sam, it was in this pursuit of the ghost of the ping pong room of Building 46. Sam began to feel not dread but a luxurious weightlessness in the dark beyond the furthest extent of the light, in the corridor behind the stairwell of Building 46. Sam traveled along the corridor much as he had the tables in the Grand Hall. He dragged one of his hands against a wall and continued to walk. This time, as he moved forward, there was no humming. There was another sort of ambient noise—gentle, airy breaths, at times like whistling and then the scraping of feet shuffling that he had heard before. A chorus. Sam continued to drag his hand along the wall until he happened upon an unsteady surface, and just as he was about to tumble down what he envisioned in his mind’s eye to be a rabbit hole, a wide hand reached out and grabbed him, holding him back. There was a giggle, like a human giggle. It was not coming from whatever was holding him. Sam felt the borders of his eyes widen with ecstasy and terror. He began to collect his mind and was fixing to scream, when the wide hand that had saved him from Alice’s Wonderland pressed itself over Sam’s lips. Sam struggled. And then he felt a pair of lips on his neck, gentle and consoling, traveling from his jaw to his shoulder in a perfect line. Luxurious, silken embraces. Not gentle kisses, but not terribly aggressive—a peace offering that had produced more than just feelings of calm. The hands that belonged to the lips were delicate and small. They held his face on either side. Sam worried that they would suddenly become violent, but they did not. Finally, the large hand over his mouth took Sam’s hand and placed it on the small of a back that seemed to belong to the lips and the hands that were busying themselves with Sam’s neck. This was what human affection felt like. Sam’s rapture was punctuated by a sense of sorrow—He was losing The Virgin. He was becoming no more or less than a human. And just before that could become true, just as Sam’s heartbeat and pulse began to syncopate with these lovers, a familiar burst of light shone upon him like a halo. It was the night guard’s flashlight. ‘Out of here, now!’ shouted the guard who had been torn away from his film by the sounds of fornication in the corridor. The flashlight revealed the others to have been two of the three Italian classmates who had mocked the sea turtle song on Sam’s first day with Ms. Yi. ‘Oh! Hello!’ the female of the group told Sam, surprised that she actually knew the third in their little adventure. She had been Sam’s first kiss. ‘Out!’ repeated the guard, a bit too young to be taken very seriously and worried now that these were hoodlums who would not listen to him alone. The attendant stepped into the corridor and shone his light toward the foyer to reinforce his directive. As the three left the scene, the attendant guided them by passing his flashlight against the wall. ‘Watch your step,’ he said. As the flashlight passed along the wall, the path was punctuated by two swinging doors, held together by a piece of wire. Sam would have liked to stay awhile and inspect them further. He realised in that moment that this was the doorway to the ping pong room. Beyond the doors and wire were some stairs, and beyond those stairs, as far as Sam could see, there was a darkness, black and fecund like the earth. __________________________________ From BUILDING 46 by Massoud Hayoun. Used with the permission of the publisher, Darf. Copyright © 2022 by Massoud Hayoun. View the full article
  10. Whether it’s movies like The Game and Ready or Not, dystopian science fiction like Ready Player One, or thrillers like the ones listed below, there’s something fascinating about stories where a game turns deadly. Bit of advice for any character in a book like this: If someone asks if you want to play a game, your go-to answer should be “definitely not.” In my sophomore thriller Blood Will Tell, the six friends gathered near a Northern California ghost town don’t heed that advice. When the alpha in the group suggests they play a drinking game, the others go along with it, despite their misgivings. As often happens, it goes badly. Only five of the friends return home, and they can’t remember much about what happened during the game that night—or can they? Here are seven novels that are a lot of fun for readers, if not for their game-playing characters. Never Have I Ever, Joshilyn Jackson An enigmatic new neighbor shows up at Amy Whey’s house for book club. No RSVP or bottle of wine to share? Amy should’ve known right away Roux is trouble. The opening chapter is a masterclass in how to hook a reader, as, after dominating the evening, Roux suggests the women play a game—her twist on Never Have I Ever. She pushes the women to spill their secrets— what’s the worst thing they did that day? That month? Ever? As the game progresses, only Amy recognizes the threat. The game appears aimed at her, and this stranger seems to know a terrible secret from Amy’s past. When Roux threatens Amy with what she knows, the true game begins. The Escape Room, Megan Goldin Escape rooms are fun, right? Break out of prison. Complete a secret mission. Escape an elevator or possibly die. Actually, that last one doesn’t sound all that fun, though it does make an intriguing premise for a novel. In Goldin’s thriller, four high-powered Wall Street colleagues are lured to a vacant high-rise under the pretense of a team-building exercise. When they board an elevator, the lights go out, the doors won’t budge, and a message appears on a monitor: Welcome to the escape room. Your goal is simple. Get out alive. The tense elevator scenes are interspersed with the story of a young woman on their team who disappeared. The Never Game, Jeffery Deaver Deaver is the master of the well-plotted and twisty thriller. The Never Game introduces “rewardseeker” and expert tracker Colter Shaw, who comes to the Silicon Valley to search for a missing 19-year-old. He finds her cell phone, and other evidence that leads him to realize the teen isn’t the only victim. He also learns that the abductions might be linked to a video game. The prologue is intense—a pregnant woman is trapped inside a sinking ship—and the backdrop of internet gaming is riveting. Plus The Whispering Man is downright creepy. The Last One, Alexandra Oliva Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to participate in a reality TV contest. The host shares a secret with the audience back home: The game will continue until only one of them remains. At first, the contestants compete as a group, and prizes are awarded. Typical reality TV stuff. But when they split up, the line between what is a game and what is reality blurs. When one of them—a young woman the producers call Zoo—stumbles across a ransacked grocery store and what might be a dead body, she thinks it’s another challenge. But is it? The opening line is a stunner: “The first one on the production team to die will be the editor.” But can the reader trust even that? The Lying Game, Ruth Ware While at boarding school, Isa and her three friends create a game for themselves: The Lying Game. The rules are simple enough: tell a convincing lie, score points. But they don’t lie to each other—do they? Now adults, three of the women nevertheless drop everything when they receive a text from the fourth: I need you. Turns out a long-buried body has been discovered, and now they are the ones being toyed with. All These Beautiful Strangers, Elizabeth Klehforth Apparently, (fictional) boarding school students have truly twisted ideas of what counts as entertainment, because Klehforth’s thriller also takes place at one. In order to join a secret society, seventeen-year-old Charlie Calloway is tapped to play The Game, a semester-long, highstakes scavenger hunt. Meanwhile, she’s also dealing with family drama—her mom went missing years earlier. As Charlie unravel s the truth about what happened to her, she starts to wonder if her mom’s disappearance might be connected to The Game. These Deadly Games, Diana Urban This one is young adult, a category rich with stories like this, such as Truth or Dare or Two Truths and a Lie. In These Deadly Games, gamer Crystal Donovan gets a message on her phone: Let’s play a game. As we’ve already established, the answer to that question should always be a hard no. But Crystal doesn’t have a choice—attached to the message is a photo of her little sister. If Crystal doesn’t play, her sister dies. As the stakes rise, Crystal must find a way to beat the kidnapper at this potentially deadly game. *** View the full article
  11. Ever since travelers first bought their place by the fire with accounts of distant lands, stories have served to transport us into worlds beyond our own experience. One may live a thousand lives through fiction, gathering the wisdom of experience with only the flick of a page. And it doesn’t matter if perspectives shift: wry observations of the world as it is become, for future generations, records of what once had been, and the familiarity of the here and now becomes an exotic fantasy. As a child in sultry, tropical Singapore, Agatha Christie was my escape to the cooler climate of the United Kingdom. We had no expansive country houses—or if we did, I certainly wasn’t privy to any—and my high-rise apartment building would never be found among the cottages and country lanes of St. Mary Mead. Along with a host of other British authors ranging from Enid Blyton to Anthony Trollope, Christie was compelling for the insight she gave of another world and time. And that is the point, isn’t it? Even if the written world is familiar, we are still drawn in by experiences unlike our own—the pressures of a murder investigation, the joys of an unlikely romance, or even simply a unique viewpoint. A book is an invitation, as both Agatha Christie and Lewis Carroll put it, to “come, tell me how you live.” A book is an invitation, as both Agatha Christie and Lewis Carroll put it, to “come, tell me how you live.” I think it was Christie and her Detection Club contemporaries who first drew me to the 1920s and 1930s. Or perhaps it was the imagery—the fashions, the music, the social mores—that I found elsewhere, in movies and pictures. Or perhaps it was because those interbellum years were a liminal age between the electric present and the candle-lit past: the perfect balance, for me, between the familiar and the strange. Perhaps it was simply the joie-de-vivre that I sensed in all these things, somehow—the joy of a world that had just escaped the horrors of the First World War. I could go on for pages about the relationship between the Great War and the Jazz Age. Whatever it was, the charm of historical fiction in general—be it written in the past or about the past—is that even if the events are made up, you know the setting is real. This is how the world once looked, and this part is all true. The experience is that much more compelling for being authentic. But while it is the truth, it is not the whole truth—nor can it ever be. Our view of any age is limited by what the writers of that age can see of it, and no writer ever has access to all of it at once. What I saw of the 1920s and 1930s was only the white European view of it, since the writers to whom I was exposed were almost universally white Europeans—and if they were not, then they were white Americans. And the world is bigger than that. History tells us it is bigger than that. The Singapore I knew was a British colony then, and where was that in Christie? Where were the Asians of London and Liverpool, or those citizens from the further reaches of the British Empire? Obviously, Christie didn’t write about them because she didn’t know them, and it would be unreasonable to demand that of her. But they were there. The usual argument for diversity in media is the desire for representation. It would be lovely, the argument goes, for people of color to see their own faces once in a while among the heroes of western literature. But I would suggest instead that diversity is desirable because it represents a larger experience of the world and a fresh take on what we think we know. Especially in the context of historical fiction, an alternate viewpoint gives us a clearer understanding of what the world looked like. And why do we read fiction at all, if not for fresh experiences outside of what we know? Let’s look again at the 1920s and imagery we attach to the period. For a musical backdrop, we invariably turn to jazz, a musical genre whose roots go deep into African-American culture. Should we not, therefore, see that culture reflected on the page? Just as we cannot embrace the period’s joie-de-vivre without acknowledging the war trauma from which it sprang, we cannot divorce the sound of the era from the people who made it. Thankfully, that gap is now being filled: just last year, Nekesa Afia gave us Dead Dead Girls, a mystery novel of the period with all the flash and glamour of a prohibition speakeasy, and the grit behind the scenes as well. Its detective hero, Louise Lloyd, is a young black woman who enjoys her nights on the dance floor, but is tasked by the police to help investigate a spate of serial killings. As Afia puts it, echoing our own desire to see the world through Louise’s eyes: “She could get into places that a tall, well-dressed white man could not … This was her home; he was simply visiting.” But lest we imagine that the black experience was centred entirely around jazz music and speakeasies, Patricia Raybon offers us a counterpoint in All That Is Secret, with a theologian navigating a city ruled by the KKK. Professor Annalee Spain is not Louise Lloyd, but she lives just as much in that world of the 1920s, facing doubt and discrimination as a young black professional, and a woman at that … to say nothing of her ongoing crisis of faith. My own anglophilia keeps me primarily across the pond, where the British Empire in this period was still very much a going concern. In A Rising Man and its sequels, Abir Mukherjee takes us to British India and the Raj, with a layer of war trauma and resulting addiction thrown in for good measure. Mukherjee’s Sam Wyndham is an ordinary Englishman, but the milieu into which he has been thrown is not; and neither is Sergeant Banerjee, the subordinate who is our first link to the Indian population and who might, in a different world, have been the hero of these stories instead. Meanwhile, Sujata Massey steps away from the growing Anglo-Indian tension — or, at least, from Wyndham’s experience of it — and deeper into the cultures of India itself, with Perveen Mistry and The Widows of Malabar Hill. Perveen is the only female lawyer in 1920s Bombay, a fact that comes in useful when dealing with women who observe purdah, a strict abstinence from all contact with men. In this, she becomes our guide into a secret world still encompassed within both the British Empire and a society growing towards our modern day. Finally, it would be remiss of me not to speak of Singapore, as much a part of the British Empire at the time as India, yet different in both history and flavour. Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony series, beginning with The Frangipani Tree Mystery, are set a little later than the other books I’ve mentioned, spanning a period from the 1930s to the end of the Second World War — and taking us out of the historical period I hold so dear. Chen Su Lin is a Chinese girl with a Mission School education, and her story opens with a culture clash that, though familiar to me from the stories of my parents and grandparents, might strike other readers as having come from a different world. And that’s not wrong. British Singapore was still the British Empire, but it was a different world — once seen through different eyes. For the reader who loves interbellum mysteries, these voices are like a twist of the kaleidoscope, the familiar pattern reflected and refracted back in new and exciting ways. It is a fuller truth and a broader understanding of the world as it was then. And as I said before, why do we read at all, if not for that? *** View the full article
  12. For writers of fiction and non-fiction, serial killers are the gift that keeps giving. Recently, the New Yorker profiled a French “researcher” and “expert” on serial killers who turned out not to be, and that lovable psychopath Dexter is back on TV for another round of sick mayhem. As a subgenre of both crime fiction and the true crime narratives, serial killer stories provide a vicarious pleasure for readers with the confidence that “it won’t happen to me.” But what if it did? What if the unsolved murder from 1978 of your beloved, vibrant sister may well have been committed by one? In the new book (published in Canada in 2020), Wish You Were Here, John Allore and Patricia Pearson unwind the terrifying tale of how Allore’s sister, Theresa, went missing from the village of Lennoxville, Quebec, where she was attending Champlain College. Described by Allore as “bucolic,” it’s situated in the same area a Louise Penny sets her Three Pines mysteries. Theresa disappeared on November 3, 1978 and her body was found – by chance – in a pond a fairly short distance from her college, on April 13th of the following year. There may be nothing more terrifying than the specter of serial killer haunting a town full of young women, but the police response—and “response” may be an overstatement here—is also chilling. From the outset they failed to exhibit any genuine interest in investigating, much less solving the case. And thus begins a nearly unimaginable frustration for Theresa’s close-knit family. Once the family learned that Theresa had gone missing from college, they clung to the hope that the free-spirited student made a spontaneous trip to Calgary to see her boyfriend. She hadn’t. An initial meeting with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) went like this: “The officer there was sort of ignoring me,” [Theresa’s mother] Marilyn said, “until I lost my temper, at which point he took notice and began writing down what I had to say about my daughter being a good student, of good character, who wouldn’t just ‘go missing.’ He said, ‘I’m afraid you’re heading for a lot of trouble in Quebec. You will get no help there.’” The authors’ dry aside: “From anyone, really, he might have said.” But what about the Champlain College administration? Surely it would be in their interest to do everything possible to ensure the safety of the student body. No, the unbelievably insensitive Director had a theory, and that was as far as he was going to go. Bob, Theresa’s father, “…kept a diary of the encounters [he had with college officials, local police, etc.] to track any salient details that would help with the search. ‘Dr. Matson gave me a theory that Theresa may have had lesbian tendencies. (No boyfriends on campus, friends with a 30-year-old woman with two children, etc.” This thick-headed imbecile spewed out several more bizarre ideas, none of which were remotely plausible or useful, except as a window into his own biases. On to the local police force. They “wrapped up” Theresa’s case “in a week” says John, “by virtue of the fact they had (in their judgement) a more important matter going on that week…” That matter was a high-profile murder trial – of a man. But, gosh, wasn’t Theresa’s death a murder also? Another highly publicized case at the time involved a local banker who claimed to have been kidnapped. The case turned into an embarrassment for the police after the banker acknowledged he could have left his “captors” many times, but did not. The investigation included 450 police officers and cost over a million dollars. Meanwhile, bodies of young women were turning up, but few police resources were deployed to finding out why. In fact, many of the deaths were simply assumed by police to be drug-related, so what’s there to do? In his sizzling 1929 debut, Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett described a police action in the exceedingly corrupt mining town of Personville aka “Poisonville.” His Continental Op joins a chase of a suspect (and this story is filled with them!) that is right out of a Keystone Cops movie. “The chief’s car got away first, off with a jump that hammered our teeth together. We missed the garage door by half an inch, chased a couple pedestrians diagonally across the sidewalk, bounced off the curb into the roadway, missed a truck as narrowly as we had missed the door and dashed out King Street with our siren wide open. Panicky automobiles darted right and left, regardless of traffic rules, to let us through. It was a lot of fun.” At least they were making an effort. Little had changed by the late seventies in Quebec. Here’s what The Gazette newspaper reported on the Montreal Urban Community Force: “MUC officers (during a work slowdown over benefits) during this time were convicted of selling confiscated goods like firearms, running their own marijuana grow-ops, accepting bribes and providing kickbacks to politicians.” Sounds just like Poisonville. The horrifying body count of young women murdered in the area continued to multiply. Case after case went unsolved by police, whose misogynistic impulses stymied any ability to effectively probe the crime spree unfolding before them. The “authorities” rationalized that the victims were drug users or suicides, or …anything that didn’t make them have do the nuts and bolts of genuine detective work. Much of the middle section of Wish You Were Here is an examination of a suspected multiple murderer named Luc Gregoire, and an in-depth look at several of the other murdered women at the time. These cases show that the police bungling and disinterest wasn’t limited to Theresa’s case. John and his family are repeatedly denied access to certain parts of police files on Theresa’s case, and John speculates that the reason could be a cover-up concerning someone known to the force, perhaps an informant. Wish You Were Here is a combination of true crime, family anguish, a deep dive into the misogyny of the era, and a remarkable portrayal of utter police corruption and cruel indifference to certain victims. A sense of disbelief resonates long after finishing it. View the full article
  13. Whether you are a timid twelve-year-old, a sixteen-year-old trying to fit in, or a parent, teenagers are terrifying. They love and hate with intensity and often at the same time. Surging hormones, irrational logic, and desire for connection leads to overwrought secrets, volatile relationships, and bad decisions. When I started working on my novel, Sinkhole, I thought a lot about the dangerous emotional lives of teenagers. Ironically, as I worked on the final edits of my book, my son would get involved with someone who was even more dangerous than my antagonist, which is saying something. Sometimes evil appears wearing pink Crocs. In many cases, truth is often more shocking than fiction. For example, in 1954, Honora Parker was murdered by her 16-year-old daughter Pauline and Pauline’s 15-year-old best friend. The reason? Pauline’s mother wanted to keep them apart. The story was the basis for Peter Jackson’s 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures. There is also the famous case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy Chicago teenagers who murdered a 14-year-old boy for fun. But those were isolated incidents, right? Hardly. In 2019, two 14-year-olds devised a plot to murder and kidnap nine people. In 2021, three Florida teenagers were arrested for murdering a classmate with a knife and sword. Then there was the teenage love triangle turned murder plot in Washington state. As well as five teens in Tucson who plotted to kill a classmate. Sixteen-year-old Skylar Neese was murdered by her two “best friends.” And let’s not forget Michelle Carter, the 17-year-old who convinced her boyfriend to kill himself. As I said, teenagers are terrifying. Fictionally, you have Carrie White who was bullied by everyone, even her mother, and that ends badly for all concerned. Heathers also features bullying and the murderous consequences of high school popularity and there are few innocents. Yellowjackets is nothing but the treacherous intensity of teenage interpersonal dynamics. How did any of us survive our teen years? Here are a few examples of teens behaving badly: A Secret Place by Tana French Set at St. Kilda’s School, a girls’ boarding school in Dublin, Tana French brings readers inside the clandestine underworld of teenage girls. A Secret Place refers to a physical message board where students leave anonymous posts that range from the mundane to the cruel to cries for help. French has said she was inspired by the site PostSecret. A message is left with a photo of a boy who was found murdered on school grounds a year ago with the caption, “I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.” The murdered boy, Chris Harper, was handsome and popular and the investigation into his death has been at a standstill. The Dublin Murder squad, in this installment Detective Stephen Moran and Detective Antoinette Conway, are called in to investigate. They are faced with the daunting task of penetrating tight cliques of teenage girls to discover the truth. The Lying Game by Ruth Ware The Lying Game opens with the narrator, Isa, being called back to the coastal village of Salten, where she attended boarding school with her best friends, Fatima, Thea, and Kate. They were the kind of inseparable clique that excluded everyone else, going so far as to create a “lying game” where they earned points by getting others to believe preposterous lies. There were rules to the game and one of the rules was that they couldn’t lie to one another. This one also moves back and forth between the main characters as teenagers and as adults. They’ve been called back to Salten by Kate because a bone has been found along the coastline. They know who the bone likely belongs to. Friendship has never been more claustrophobic. The Rumor Game by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra What is it with prep schools and boarding schools bringing out the worst in people? Did Bryn mean to cause a car accident that hurt several of her classmates? Did Cora’s boyfriend cheat on her? Does it even matter what really happened when everyone is convinced the rumors are all true? In The Rumor Game the weapons are words and murder might be less brutal than teens with access to a keyboard and social media. Friend Request by Laura Marshall I find just about any friend request that relates to high school scary, but in Louise Williams’ case, she should be terrified. The request is from her old friend Maria Weston—only Maria has been missing and presumed dead for twenty-five years. While in high school, Louise’s desire to be accepted by a more popular girl caused her to reject Maria. Maria’s subsequent disappearance is a life-long source of guilt. “Maria” begins sending Louise messages and predictably, there is a class reunion looming. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite My Sister, the Serial Killer opens with blood, bleach, and a body. Big sister Korede has once again received a call that her little sister, Ayoola, needs help. While it isn’t explicit how old Ayoola is, we can assume that with three dead bodies under her belt, she got started fairly young. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, the atmosphere is as different as the two sisters, showing both the richness of culture and the corrupt undercurrent. The chapters are short, bloody, and satirically funny. Family can be murder. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn Ten-year-old Natalie Keene and nine-year-old Ann Kash are murdered and journalist Camille Preaker returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover their deaths. Camille brings a lot of baggage with her, including the death of her own sister and a history of self-harm. Camille’s half-sister, Anna, is thirteen and presents as an ideal child to adults while terrorizing her peers. Camille’s mother is a wealthy businesswoman who shows little interest in her children. We watch as Camille pieces together her teenage years with the present-day case of the two dead girls. The complexity of the family dynamic and dysfunction take center stage in this riveting novel. She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge Seven teenagers go into the woods, but only six come out. For thirty years, the fate of fourteen-year-old Aurora Jackson is unknown. Aurora’s skeleton is finally found…in a hiding place known to the other teens. DCI Jonah Sheens was a junior office when Aurora first went missing while camping with her older sister and her sister’s friends. For thirty years, events of that night have been kept secret. DCI Sheens is determined to find out what happened. The mystery unfolds, moving between 1983 and present day. The Survivors by Jane Harper Teenagers and their secrets! Kieran Elliott returns to his hometown of Evelyn Bay, Tasmania with his partner and young baby to help with his ailing father. Kieran is plagued by the guilt of causing his older brother’s death in a boating accident during a storm. Kieran also carries the guilt of another seemingly accidental death on his conscious, so it is no wonder he goes to the mainland and stays there until his ill-fated trip home. We learn more about the storm and duplicitous teenagers of Evelyn Bay after Bronte, a young waitress and art student from Canberra is found drowned on the beach. This Is How I Lied by Heather Gudenkauf Again, we have adults reckoning with their deadly lies as teenagers. Twenty-five years ago, sixteen-year-old Eve Knox was found murdered in her hometown of Grotto, Iowa. Discovered by her best friend, Maggie, and Eve’s peculiar sister Eve, there were multiple suspects, but the case was never closed. Maggie father was Chief of Police, so it’s no surprise that Maggie also goes into law enforcement. Now, twenty-five years later, Maggie is faced with a new piece of evidence and begins unearthing secrets, including her own. *** View the full article
  14. When I decided to write a cozy mystery, I purposely set out to read a whole bunch of them in a row in order to figure out what type of cozy I wanted to focus on. There are so many, after all—cozies set in cupcake shops and centered around crafts like knitting or quilting, even cozies featuring witches (which would seem like a natural fit, since I’ve written both fiction and nonfiction books about witchcraft). It turned out that there were two different subgenres of cozy mystery that I liked the best. Anything to do with books, like those set in bookstores or libraries, immediately goes to the top of my to-be-checked-out list. But most of all, I loved cozies with animals in them. I have cats, after all, and they clearly influence my reading choices. In the end, they influenced my writing choices as well. Which is how the Catskills Pet Rescue series came to be, inspired by a local independent shelter where I did a little volunteer work and found three of my five cats. My protagonist, Kari Stuart, gets a fluke lottery win and uses the money to buy a rundown shelter that’s on the verge of closing, added and abetted by the tiny black kitten she finds and names Queenie (because she’s the queen of everything). Kari has two other cats and a dog, but it is little Queenie who pokes her nose into things, and seems to figure out the clues before anyone else. In Claws for Suspicion, the third book in the series, Kari and Queenie have their work cut out for them when Kari’s ex-husband shows up and breaks the bad news that he and Kari were never actually divorced, and now he wants his share of her lottery winnings. But he’ll settle for the Serenity Sanctuary. When he dies under mysterious circumstances, Kari finds herself the prime suspect, and maybe even Queenie won’t be able to solve this one in time to keep Kari out of jail. There are a number of other pet-centric cozy series that are among my favorites. Second Chance Cat Mysteries, by Sofie Ryan Set in Maine, these books feature a protagonist who runs a secondhand shop called Second Chance, and has a big black cat with a scar across his nose named Elvis who adopted her one day by jumping into her truck. The first book featuring Sarah Grayson and Elvis is The Whole Cat and Caboodle, and the pair have to help out when her elderly friend Maddie becomes the prime suspect when a body is found in her garden. So far there are nine books in the series. Magical Cats Mysteries, by Sofie Kelly This series is another great one, not surprising when you discover that Sofie Kelly is the same author as Sofie Ryan, simply writing under another name. These mysteries have a fun twist; Kathleen Paulson is a librarian who moves to a small town in Minnesota and is adopted by two stray cats with a little something extra. One of them can walk through walls, and the other can turn invisible at will. Initially, Kathleen finds this hard to believe, but Owen (who has a serious catnip addiction) and Hercules (who shares her love of Barry Manilow), turn out to be very handy in solving mysteries because of their special abilities. The first book in the series is Curiosity Thrilled the Cat. Paws and Claws Mysteries, by Krista Davis This series is set in the fictional town of Wagtail, Virginia, a tourist destination for those who don’t want to leave their pets at home. The entire town is set up to cater to those with cats and dogs, including the inn run by protagonist Holly Miller’s grandmother. Holly’s life is a mess when she is called home by her grandmother. On her way there, she picks up a scruffy Jack Russell Terrier, and then is adopted by an adorable calico kitten named Twinkletoes. Together, the three of them have to solve the mystery of a hit-and-run accident, and Holly ends up deciding to stay in Murder She Barked. Davis also has a cozy series called The Domestic Diva, which includes recipes, and one called Pen & Ink featuring a bookstore run by a coloring book artist. Cat in the Stacks Mysteries, by Miranda James If like me, you enjoy cozies with bookstores and libraries in them, you should check out this series featuring a rare male protagonist, librarian Charlie Harris, and his cat Diesel. In Murder Past Due, the first in the series, Charlie and Diesel (who unlike my cats, will actually walk on a harness) have to solve a mystery in which most of Charlie’s friends and co-workers are suspects. This long-running series has fifteen books so far, and is a New York Times best seller. Oxford Tea Room Mysteries, by H.Y. Hanna H.Y. Hanna is another prolific author of multiple cozy series, many of them containing cats. In her first Oxford Tea room book, A Scone to Die For, protagonist Gemma and her cat open a traditional tea room back in her home town, only to find an American tourist murdered using one of her signature scones. This series is set in England, although her many other series are in interesting locations around the world. A Witch’s Cat Mysteries, by Delia James If you like a little magic with your cozy mysteries, try the Witch’s Cat series, starting with A Familiar Tail. Protagonist Annabelle Britton, a down-on-her-luck artist, decides to visit the seaside town of Portsmith, New Hampshire, only to discover a cottage full of witchcraft and a gray cat named Alistair who turns out to be her familiar. Annabelle, Alistair, and a group of friendly local witches have to find out who killed Alistair’s former owner. The Cat Who Mysteries, by Lilian Jackson Braun You can’t have a list of mysteries featuring animals without mentioning the woman who started it all, Lilian Jackson Braun. She started writing about her protagonist, a reporter named Jim Qwilleran, and his mystery-solving Siamese cat Koko, before cozy mysteries were even a thing. Her books were charming and clever, and for many of us, became the introduction to our love of mysteries coupled with animals. Braun died in 2011, but her legacy lives on. *** View the full article
  15. Ellsworth Kelly, Having The Time Of My Life, 1998. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. 1 Several years ago, moving into an old but new-to-me apartment with bare white walls, I tacked a poster-size sheet of heavy paper above my desk. Over time, I began to randomly pin found photographs and scraps of stories and poems to this sheet—including a couple of reproductions of Ellsworth Kelly postcards, which I’d torn out of magazines. Every so often, my eyes would stray upward, and these flashes of color would slide into view. I had not thought of them again until very recently, when I heard of an exhibition curated from the four hundred postcards Kelly made and mailed at various points during his seven decades of making art. I did not think much then about why they appealed to me. Some of the other images on my board were actual found photographs, as in ones I found on the street, including a glossy, black-and-white roadside image of a crime scene, probably photographed by highway patrol, then ripped in half. Like the collages I sometimes made on notebooks containing my first drafts, none of these pictures were meant as literal inspiration; they were just references for daydreaming, vague and strange enough that they might compel some unexpected sentence or train of thought. In one of the Kelly postcards I’d pinned up, four irregular squarish panels of slightly diluted shades of blue, yellow, green, and red are pasted like a scrim over a landscape of a mountain and lake. They reminded me of endless things, like Baldessari dots that simultaneously redirect the eye elsewhere and draw it back to the point of obfuscation, piquing curiosity about what it conceals. In their pure arrangement of color, the postcards were pleasingly like the faded multicolored flags that flutter over used car lots, like the surprise patterns and colors of paint that emerge on adjacent boarded-up windows when old city buildings are torn down. They were both curtains and windows, shielding what lay behind them and opening into something else. Ellsworth Kelly, Brooklyn Bridge II, 1985. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. 2 The first postcard collage Ellsworth Kelly made and mailed featured a cut-out sphere of red paper pasted against a blank background, upside down; along with a scrap of blue paper torn from a pack of Gauloises cigarettes. It was 1954, in the first week of Kelly’s return to New York City. He stamped it and sent it to his friend Ralph Coburn, an artist he’d known in Boston, who was then living in France. Kelly was thirty-one years old, back in the United States after a transformational six years in Paris, and finding his way into abstraction. In Paris, he’d met John Cage, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Jean Arp. In his 1990 essay “Fragmentation and Form,” Kelly noted how Kasimir Malevich’s squares blocked religious material so that “color became his content”—the abstraction of Russian icons signaling the artist’s commitment to “picturing transcendental realities.” He was exposed to Surrealist automatic drawing, Schwitters’ collages, and also the work of the Arps, whose collages were “were my first introduction to fragmented forms arranged by laws of chance.” Ellsworth Kelly, Images des Antilles 2/5, 1984. Collection of the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. 3 During the Second World War, prior to his years in Paris, Kelly had enlisted in the army. He did this “to get away from his family, especially his mother,” Jack Shears, his longtime partner, once said. Kelly served in the Ghost Army, a tactical military unit comprised partly of artists. Kelly and his comrades created inflatable tanks and entire fake military camps—illusions and obfuscations in the landscape, designed to throw the German army off course. On one level Kelly’s postcards can be thought of as a kind of Ghost Army correspondence. The opposite of camouflage, his cutouts insert themselves in unlikely settings, winking at the presence of the surreal. His forms and fields of color create imaginary portals in banal postcard landscapes: a cut-out paper moon floats above a generic Manhattan skyline, or drops of blood dribble over sand dunes. Panels of black, yellow, red, and green descend on grainy, washed-out images of fields, crashing seas, baseball stadiums. For Kelly, postcards were a vacation from the studio. They were both outlet and outline, made quickly and intuitively: Some were places to work out ideas, and a few loose compositions would lead in more obvious ways to larger, more fully realized pieces. Others were just to escape, to play and have fun. All of Kelly’s postcards, though, were equally sketch and message—a brief transmission from wherever he was in the world and in his mind, a glimpse into his creative daydreams, and an invitation for the recipient to see as he saw. Ellsworth Kelly, Manhattan Skyline at Night, 1985. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. 4 Kelly’s abstract shapes were often pulled from the natural world. He framed and isolated snatches of reality much in the way a photographer attempts to do. “I want to catch one thing that’s a flash, a mysterious thing, the beginning of something, a primal thing,” Kelly said in 2008. But even as he acknowledged this desire to stop time, to freeze and distill the everyday, he surrendered to and celebrated the impossibility of doing so. Growing up, Kelly was a birdwatcher, perpetually looking out for fleeting, uncanny colors and markings. After his death in 2015, one of his famous quotes kept circulating: “ What I’ve tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation, to get at the rapture of seeing.” His postcards contain the surprise of a well-delivered punchline: interruptions in otherwise stale depictions of beauty. Ellsworth Kelly, Orange, 1977. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. 5 Can you imagine the person who tosses out an Ellsworth Kelly postcard? But some friends apparently did. He stopped sending them to those people. Kelly also began to suspect postal workers of stealing the postcards. Presumptuous or not, perhaps he knew something from the inside. He worked at the post office himself when he returned from Paris, in Manhattan’s giant Beaux Arts main branch at Eighth Avenue and Thirty-Fourth. Long shifts of sorting mail, interrupted, occasionally, by the sight of something a little out of the ordinary, perhaps handmade, with no obvious value. What would compel a person to steal such a thing, or to get rid of it? Despite his suspicions, he continued to make them. Ellsworth Kelly, Rainbow, 1984. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. 6 For artists, postcards are often attractive propositions—semi-intimate and semipublic, their audience largely accidental and mostly postal. They possess inherent formal restrictions, and their own strange vernacular. Kelly’s hewed to the tradition of postcard pieces made by Miro and Duchamp, which often had the same humor, tactile elements, and deliberate, wildly inaccurate scales. He also acknowledged the influence of Ray Johnson’s mail art. And he had antecedents, too: His postcards played with the notions of tourism and place that Zoe Leonard would later explore in her 2008 series You see I am here after all. In Leonard’s series, near-identical view card representations of Niagara Falls proliferate, the visual experience diluted by repetition. Ellsworth Kelly, Oyster Pond (Blue Form), 1977. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. 7 Stephen Shore’s U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973 — a billboard of a painting of Mount Shasta. Its blues, whites, and yellowed greens blend in with the actual land that surrounds it. Its flatness transcends the natural landscape, competing with it. The text of the billboard has been blotted out with two rectangles of paint, blue and black. It feels close to Kelly’s own games with scale: like one of his postcards blown up and planted in the world. Ellsworth Kelly, Sailboat on Lake Pond Oreille, 1977. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. 8 Even though they weren’t the real things, the images of the Kelly postcards I collaged on my wall still bore the curlicue border all postcards have, and I regarded them as if they’d arrived in the mail. I could read them as surreal messages about stories I was writing. The embedded blank signs were reminders to interrupt the scene. Sometimes Kelly collaged recognizable representations of people onto his postcards—his partner, Jack, and Marilyn Monroe were both among his recurrent subjects. Another Ellsworth Kelly card tacked to my board: Sailboat at Lake Pend Orielle, in which a grainy newsprint scrap featuring Goldie Hawn’s face obliterates the sailboat in the card’s caption. Kelly’s piece is dated to 1980, the year Hawn’s film Private Benjamin was released, and her wide-eyed expression looks like it was ripped from one of the publicity stills from the movie. In The Colossal Head of Harrison Ford, a black-and-white actor’s head looms blimp-like above a shoreline of beachgoers. While Ford is as obvious as a thought bubble, Kelly’s fragmentation of Hawn’s face makes it possible to see her in more anonymous terms, as I came to do in the months when the picture stayed on my wall. I thought of her more as a spirit in the lake, a presence, a visual of laughter itself. Living with it allowed her to exist for me as another abstraction: Unlike Ford’s visage, trapped in the weird balloon of its being, she was liberated. Ellsworth Kelly, Horizontal Nude or St. Martin Landscape, 1974. Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. 9 Sometimes Kelly flipped the landscape, as in a postcard of a painting of the Brooklyn Bridge, collaged on an image of his own nude body. More often he let facial features float out into forests. A freakish-looking pair of eyes are collaged into a stranger’s face that creeps beneath the Chateau Marmont, a haunting. Or he interspersed human elements piecemeal: Black pumps clopping along the beaches of St. Maarten. Wing tips kicking back on the sand. Torsos in the sky. Mouths cresting volcanoes. Butts over Brewster Flats. Body parts clothed and awkwardly intruding into exotic spaces, hovering over various bodies of water. Kelly’s oversized and disembodied elements are the antithesis of a certain bad Instagram trope: the pedicured bare feet in x beautiful landscape, bonus points if the image includes a hammock, the blazing shade of nail polish that brags, I’m here, without really wishing you were too. Meanwhile, in one of Kelly’s postcards, a giant nose stuck into the hull of a sailboat whispers, But who the hell am I and why am I here? “Ellsworth Kelly: Postcards” is on view at Matthew Marks in New York through June 25 and from August 27 through November 27 at https://blantonmuseum.org/rotation/ellsworth-kelly-postcards/. The exhibition catalogue is published by Delmonico Books/Tang. Originally from North Carolina, Rebecca Bengal writes fiction, essays, and long-form journalism. She is based in New York City. View the full article
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