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Garden of Unearthly Delights

July 23rd, 2007 7 comments

<![CDATA[by Jeffrey Thomas

Whenever I fear I’m imitating myself as a writer, returning too often to territory I’ve worked before, I always remind myself of Monet and his water lilies, a series he painted over the last twenty-seven years of his life. Sometimes I worry that I’m being lazy or unimaginative, not pushing myself far enough or hard enough when I return to old themes and ideas. But Monet wasn’t being lazy; his subject matter was an obsession, a very intentional and intensely focused pursuit of the myriad compositions of form to be isolated in his water garden at Giverny, the countless ways ephemeral light can interrelate with physical matter. One painting could not have expressed all that he needed to capture and convey.

I had read Lovecraft’s story AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS (1931) before reading his shorter but still eerily effective THE NAMELESS CITY (1921), which despite its reptilian mummies in place of frozen carrot monsters, still feels a bit like a sketch for that later piece. The same can be said of Nabokov’s THE ENCHANTER (1939), a precursor to the longer and more brilliant LOLITA (1955), but still a worthy work in its own right. In the case of Lovecraft, I think he was merely revisiting a certain kind of atmosphere or environment because he enjoyed his first visit there, the way we might return to a city or museum or theme park that we didn’t entirely cover the first time around. Lovecraft wanted to explore this sort of situation more at length, to descend into its caverns and vaults more extensively to see what else he might mine from them. With Nabokov, I feel it had more to do with him being dissatisfied with the earlier work, needing to tackle it again from the start. Both these reasons for returning to one’s earlier literary stamping grounds seem legitimate enough to me. But I still find I have to justify my own repeat journeys to myself, nevertheless.

Now I’m not talking about Punktown, here. This of course is my long-running series of novels and short stories (among them, DEADSTOCK, PUNKTOWN, MONSTROCITY, EVERYBODY SCREAM! and the forthcoming BLUE WAR from Solaris Books) set in a nightmarish future city called Punktown. Writing a series, whether it be about Harry Potter or Arkady Renko, John Carter’s Mars or the Land of Oz, is another matter. In a connected series, you are not reworking an earlier concept but working further within that same space. Or is it so dissimilar? Why establish a series (besides the consideration of a plump paycheck?) unless, again, there is more you want to map of its world, more of that world's characters to introduce to your readers – why, unless you are not satisfied with leaving your own water garden behind? I ask myself again and again, "Are you going back to Punktown out of laziness?" But such is Punktown, fortunately, that anything can happen there. I can, and have, written Punktown horror stories, romances, detective stories, social satires, humorous stories, though mostly in combinations of these genres. Punktown’s like our own world that way, but cranked to volume 11. No one’s holding a Darwin .55 loaded with flesh-dissolving plasma rounds to my head, forcing me to only write Punktown stories, but if they did – well, I could live with that. I also set stories in my version of Hell (LETTERS FROM HADES and the upcoming VOICES FROM HADES, etc.) and there are plenty of one-offs...but yeah, okay, don’t shoot. I could do it. I think I could live the rest of my literary life in Punktown and keep it fresh.

When I get even more uncertain, though, is when I return to working within Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. That’s when I feel like Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER PART 3 (a series that, for the most part, Coppola would have been better off not revisiting that third time around), when he bellows that every time he tries to get out, they pull him...back...IN! I keep swearing that I’ve written my last Lovecraftian story. And then I write DEADSTOCK, which like MONSTROCITY combines both Punktown and the Cthulhu Mythos. Not that I regret this decision at all; I’m proud as hell of DEADSTOCK. But for BLUE WAR, which features the same protagonist, Jeremy Stake (a series within a series!), I stuck by my oath and kept all manner of Lovecraftan beasties out of it. (Oh, there are beasties, but the "benders" and "snipes" are my own babies.) I never would have written so many Mythos-type stories in the past, though (most of the short pieces having been collected in UNHOLY DIMENSIONS), had I not thought I was bringing something at least a little different and idiosyncratic to Lovecraft’s world each time. In DEADSTOCK, for instance, a child’s cute pet turns out to be a larval Cthulhu, whom I hope is one of the novel’s most sympathetic (and at the same time, ominous) characters. But whenever I do allow myself to be slimily sucked back into the world of shoggoths and the Great Old Ones, I always wonder now if I’m relying too much not only on my own past ideas, but even worse, the past ideas of another writer. Sure, Lovecraft encouraged his friends to share in his creations, and everyone from Ramsey Campbell to Stephen King has done so, but maybe now I should really, for real, put away my dog-eared copy of the Necronomicon for good. There are so many other books to read – and to write!

There’s another well I dip into frequently, and that’s love. But cut me some slack here, cuz that’s a damn deep well. And is it a lack of imagination on my part, or an overabundance of imagination, that makes me view romance again and again through a fantasist’s distorting lens, so that the object of love is often otherworldly? Sure, I create the occasional female protagonist who falls for a demon or alien or what have you, but usually it’s a male protagonist, for the obvious reasons. Check it out. MONSTROCITY: man falls in love with a gray-skinned alien woman. EVERYBODY SCREAM!: secondary character loves a woman with a parasitic twin; this also takes place in my short story THE SISTER. LETTERS FROM HADES and BEAUTIFUL HELL: men in love with demons. DEADSTOCK and BLUE WAR: man in love with a blue-skinned alien woman. In the short story I MARRIED A SHOGGOTH, man in love with a shoggoth (!) that takes on the form of women; DUST, man in love with his mom’s ghost as resurrected by an alien force (!!); incestuous tension between man and his dead mom in ADORATION, too. In REFLECTIONS OF GHOSTS, man in love with a cloned, female version of himself (!!!); in PALE FRUIT, man in love with a "tulpa" thought form; in THE SCHISM, man in love with a semi-human extradimensional version of his wife; not to mention the assorted vampiress, and so on. Whew! That's a whole lotta monster lovin'!

So am I just being redundant, here? And why the heck do I even do it? Does making the object of love other than human heighten the differences between the two characters and hence pump up the drama, make the passion more disorienting and feverish? I’ve wondered if in my personal life I’ve been copying these characters of mine for the past few years (instead of the other way around!), by becoming involved with a Chinese woman, an African woman, and three Vietnamese women (the last of whom I’ve married); hell, even my first wife was of a culture "alien" to mine, being deaf. Is it something in my personality, my need to crank up the exciting differentness between men and women to that volume 11, both in my writing and in real life? It would be only too easy for me to fall in love with a real alien woman. Well, if she had a nice rack. (Humor!) Now, where was I going with this? Again, beyond the fact that as a fantasy writer I view things in a fantastical way – am attracted to the exotic, the excitingly different – there are things I need to examine and express again and again, whether because it’s simply rewarding as a writer or because it helps me digest the reality that lies in my own water garden. It isn’t so much that I feel I didn]
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For the Sake of Appearance

March 24th, 2007 3 comments

by Jeffrey Thomas

In about three hours, my friend Clint LeDuc will pick me up to drive me out to the South Shore Plaza Mall, where at the B. Dalton Bookseller from 2 pm to 5 pm I’ll be autographing copies of my new novel DEADSTOCK – or not, if no one is keen on buying it! Back in August, Clint and Eric Markiewicz, the store’s young manager, did a terrific job of setting up an earlier signing to promote my novel A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: THE DREAM DEALERS. A talented illustrator and graphic artist, Clint created a groovy poster for that event, and I imagine he’s done the same this time. For that signing I was delighted that members of the New England chapter of the Horror Writers Association dropped by to say hello, since they’d had their monthly meeting nearby. It’s been a long time, alas, since I’ve attended one of these get-togethers, though I hope to do so more frequently in the future. Twice in the past – at the Tatnuck Bookseller in Worcester, Massachusetts (now relocated to Westborough, MA) and at the Barnes & Noble in Burlington, MA – I joined the New England HWA crew for joint signings. One would think that these events with their multiple authors on display would pull in more book buyers, though I’ve not necessarily found that to be the case. I think much of the buying that goes on is from the authors purchasing books – either out of sincere interest or out of a sense of politeness – from each other. Which begs the question, how successful and helpful are public appearances like author signings/readings, anyway?

Clint told me August’s DREAM DEALERS signing went well, maybe the best single author signing of a horror title the store had done to date, though that doesn’t mean hundreds of copies were sold. I’ve come to find that even selling ten copies of your book can be deemed satisfactory. My first personal appearance of this type was to promote my collection PUNKTOWN at a Barnes & Noble back in 2000. Family, friends and coworkers accounted for nearly all the sales, and this tends to be the case a lot, I suspect, unless your book has HARRY POTTER in its title. (Hmm, HARRY POTTER AND THE PITS OF PUNKTOWN?) Well, there was one lady who kept peeking at me from the maze of aisles before she shyly came up at the very last and admitted she was a hopeful writer herself. But I’m not complaining about the appearance of friends at these events. It’s always great to see long-time pals like Margaret Smith (a brilliant poet, and a belly dancer besides), Paul Tremblay (author of the cool collection COMPOSITIONS FOR THE YOUNG AND OLD) and publisher Paul Miller of Earthling Publications again. Their continued support of my work over the years has meant a lot! And I was floored when Jack O’Connell came with his young son to the signing for my novel EVERYBODY SCREAM! back in January 2005, at the Tatnuck Bookseller in Westborough. Jack lives in nearby Worcester and is the author of one of my very favorite novels of recent years, WORD MADE FLESH, which has something of the literary noir feel of Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko series, but so dark and macabre that one could almost consider it horror. Jack had read about my signing in a local paper, and recalled that I had asked him about giving me a blurb sometime (I’ve never got around to soliciting one for a particular book, though DEADSTOCK would have been perfect for this). Like my Punktown, Jack’s fictional city of Quinsigamond has been heavily inspired by the city of Worcester. Anyway, I was so excited that he came to see me that all I could do was trip over my tongue and lament that I didn’t have my copy of WORD MADE FLESH with me for him to sign.

I shared that event with popular thriller writer Lisa Gardner, who was promoting ALONE and who kindly autographed a copy for me, buying one of my books as well. I was too shy to do something like her brief talk and question and answer discussion, but she was generous enough to plug me during her own. As popular as she is, though, I didn’t see her selling a large number of books herself. What is realistic to expect, then? Is selling ten books at this signing, fifteen at that, the best we can hope for? Every single copy sold is another reader, and it’s one stone at a time that builds a palace, right? But why aren’t there hordes of people lining up at these occasions?

Well, there’s the sad fact that not enough people are enthusiastic about books in the first place, let alone expecting them to stand in line for one that’s scribbled in. Then, there’s the fact that a lot of people simply aren’t familiar with the notion of an author making an appearance to sign copies of her/his book, and don’t recognize it when they see it. Clint has told me that at other B. Dalton signings he’s helped organize, authors were asked if they could gift wrap presents! At my own DREAM DEALERS signing, I guess my table at the front of the store was mistaken for a customer service information counter, because I was asked where a certain cell phone store was located in the mall, and if I had seen someone of a certain description that a woman had lost track of. Sigh. This time I’ve asked Clint to put a sheet on the front of the table that reads: Author Signing, or some such. But I think people are shy about approaching authors, even when they do recognize what’s going on. I’m guilty of this myself, but not only because I’m shy but because I’m simply not interested in that particular book and don’t want to chat and then not buy it. Still, I feel a wince of empathy when I see some lonely author clinging to his table like it’s a scrap of driftwood, bobbing out there on the ocean of obscurity, eyeing each person hopefully like a puppy in a pet store waiting to be adopted. (Yikes, if I keep mixing metaphors like that I’ll never see an increase in signing attendance!)

This time we’ve been thinking of new ways to entice book buyers. One of my editors at BL Publishing (owner of both Black Library, which did DREAM DEALERS, and Solaris, which did DEADSTOCK), Mark Newton, sent me a life-size cardboard Freddy Krueger for a gift, and I wish I had had this at my DREAM DEALERS signing. But because there might be a few copies of that book to sell today, and simply because it will be eye-catching, Freddy’s going to be making an appearance with me. (Heh-heh, sorry, little kiddies. Happy nightmares!) And there’ll be a drawing for prizes, consisting of several of my other books. And most importantly, Solaris has promised $50 or so to reimburse me for this event, as it’s pretty much the DEADSTOCK “launch party,” so I’ll be buying free coffee and doughnuts. Free coffee!? You can’t beat that with a stick!

Recently Solaris has tried to encourage me to attend conventions in LA and NYC, promising to pay for flights, hotels, dinners, but I’ve had to defer – partly out of work issues, partly out of shyness. Would my appearance at these cons have boosted sales of DEADSTOCK, and generated interest in next year’s sequel, BLUE WAR? Sure, but to what extent? I attended Readercon in 2000, and was given an hour in which to read from PUNKTOWN. The only person in the audience was my then-wife Rose. And Rose is deaf, besides! But I said to hell with it, I’m here to read, so I’m going to read. Finally, three more people trickled in, and I was too nervous to look at them until I’d finished, when I realized they were friends of mine. In a way, maybe this wasn’t as satisfying as attracting the anonymous strangers we court most as writers, but I was relieved and grateful that they’d come in. At a reading from MONSTROCITY a few years later, there was a better showing, th
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the author who read before me carried over into my spot, cutting it from about a half hour to fifteen minutes (I joked to the audience that I had enough time to read the book flaps, but I did manage a few passages). I’ve also participated in two joint readings, at two different Readercons, to promote the bizarre anthology THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD POCKET GUIDE TO ECCENTRIC AND DISCREDITED DISEASES, in the company of other dubious physicians such as Dr. Paul Di Filippo, Dr. Stepan Chapman, and Dr. Jeff VanderMeer. Those readings went over quite well, and I was pleased with the laughter (appropriate, thank God) as I related one of the afflictions I contributed to that important medical reference guide, “Internalized Tattooing Disease.” (Not to concern you, but even now you might have a spontaneously generated tattoo of, say, Marlon Brando in “The Wild One,” on your spleen. Hey, read the book, it happens.)

Solaris is eager for me to participate in more signings and con appearances, even offering to call stores to set these up themselves. I’ve promised I’d at least be at the next Readercon in Burlington, MA this July, so as to meet Solaris crew members Christian Dunn and George Mann (editor of THE SOLARIS BOOK OF NEW SCIENCE FICTION, which contains my DEADSTOCK-related short story “In His Sights”). I’ll feel awkward and tongue-tied, as is my way, reclusive and tormented writer that I am, but I’ll do my best, and it will be fun. I hope to read from DEADSTOCK, maybe BLUE WAR, sign some books, and maybe turn on a handful of new readers. Like I say, I guess I can’t expect them to stampede to buy my books as I once fantasized. Stone by stone…stone by stone…

After all, that’s how I read the work of other authors. It’s a personal relationship, a quiet connection between the author and myself. That’s the way it works. The trick is courting and seducing one new lover after another after another. Oh, it’s all so sordid! But all so fun!

I’ll let you know how it goes, at this blog or my own. Wish me luck in this and my future appearances, okay? I hope to see you there. And hey, I’ll even gift-wrap my novel for you – how’s that for enticement?

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An Interview With My Muse

January 23rd, 2007 8 comments

by Jeffrey Thomas

Horror/SF author Jeffrey Thomas was kind enough to make time in his busy schedule to chat with me about his life and views as a writer. Looking untanned and ill-rested, Thomas greeted me in the mirror of his bathroom, while brewing a cup of ginger tea, burning a stick of incense, and playing a CD of Natacha Atlas, all presumably in an effort to impress me with his coolness. I asked Thomas about some of his projects past, present, and future, and how he manages to juggle working on his books, a day job, and writing scintillating if self-indulgent essays.

ME: Thanks for talking to yourself today.
JT: (Gazing at his reflection warily.) Sure.
ME: Of course, other writers have probably used this witty self-interviewing gimmick before you…
JT: (Starting to move toward kitchen) Okay, look, I didn’t come to the bathroom for this…
ME: Wait, please – okay, we’ll get right into the questions. On the topic of cliches, a large portion of your body of work takes place in your milieu of Punktown, but hasn’t that sort of world been done before? A future mega-city, flying cars? I mean, from THE JETSONS to BLADE RUNNER…
JT: Look, it isn’t really about the flying cars, is it? Whether I’m writing about a futuristic society, or a serial killer, or working on the thousandth zombie novel this year (and it’s January), it’s about what you (er, I) bring to it of yourself. Your own signature, idiosyncracies, eccentricities, obsessions, style, personality; the smell of the incense you were burning as you wrote, the lingering aroma of your ginger tea, the echo of the songs you were playing. Your DNA should be wired right into the words. Otherwise, instead of giving birth to a baby, you’ve manufactured an android that might walk and talk like a book but has no memorable features and nothing in its soul.
ME: Sort of like the replicants in BLADE RUNNER, which you seem so influenced by, hmm? (Knowing, accusatory smirk.)
JT: Look, I wrote my first Punktown story two years before that movie came out.
ME: Dick’s book was out long before that.
JT: I didn’t read it until after I saw the movie! Jeesh! I hate being accused of stealing ideas from other sources. At Amazon.com, my original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET novel THE DREAM DEALERS has been accused of ripping off the movies BATMAN FOREVER and STRANGE DAYS, neither of which I’ve seen. At various times, in various interviews, it’s been hinted that I’ve emulated authors like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Marshall Smith, who I hadn’t even read at the time (but have greatly enjoyed since). It goes back to the previous words about striving for originality. Not only do readers and reviewers instinctively work to draw comparisons between your fiction and the stuff they’ve encountered before, but writers do this ourselves throughout the process. Even before we begin. I want to write a vampire story with the tone of SALEM’S LOT. I want to write something incorporating Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. I want to do a thriller in the vein of Thomas Harris. But whether you go into it mimicking the voices and mannerisms of the stories you’ve enjoyed, or you make the story so much your own that the spark of inspiration becomes drowned out in your own fire, is the critical difference between original creation and factory mass production.
ME: Boy, you don’t shy from mixed metaphors, huh? “Drowned out in fire?” Anyway, I think I see my point. For instance, what you’re saying has been said before, ad nauseam, but you’re saying it in your own way, however tortured your prose might be. Okay, next question, Mr. Originality…
JT: I swear, I’ll walk right now if you don’t…
ME: Hey, without me to take the wind out of your sails once in a while you’d sail your boat right off the edge of the ego map.
JT: (Under his breath) Talk about tortured prose.
ME: You write novels, short stories, blog entries, plus you hold a third-shift job, are father to a teenager, and a husband. How does a writer juggle these aspects of his/her/my life? Are the most productive writers overage fan boys who don’t have a girlfriend and live in their mom’s basement and don’t have a life so they don’t have anything better to do with their time besides writing more misogynistic slasher novels and masturbating, while you’re sleepwalking through your pharmaceutical manufacturing job at night and trying to do something all literary and shit in the scant few hours you have to yourself?
JT: Jeesh, where did that come from?
ME: You tell me.
JT: Well, I think all serious writers find that conflict to be their primary nemesis (even before rejection slips, overzealous editors, skimpy advances, nonexistent royalties, etc.). If writing is just a hobby to you, then you squeeze it in where you can. But if you’re serious, you have to make the time, even if you crowbar it into your day. Huh – that’s easy for me to say, but not always for me to accomplish. I can’t stick to a writing regimen, though I know some writers do, working for such and such an amount of time every day. For me, it depends on errands I have to do, practical matters I have to attend to, email correspondence with friends and family and editors, deadlines for blog entries, and so on and so on. I do my best to crowbar open some time, but sometimes I’m just too tired, man, or the muse simply isn’t there for me. Hello? Hel-lo?
ME: Huh? Say something?
JT: Sigh. Anyway, I wish I could live off my writing (I don’t ask for a private jet, just to make enough money to pay my bills!), so I begrudge my blue collar job, but I don’t begrudge the time spent with my son or wife, of course. In fact, I see it the other way – I’ve often felt guilty about all the time I’ve spent writing. How many more books could I have read to my son instead of writing books that sometimes not too many people may have read? Yes, I need to nurture and nourish myself, and writing does this for me, but has the sacrifice been worth it? Would I have been a better family man if I had taken a second job or poured my energy into pursuing one well-paying job, instead of squeezing what little money I could from writing fiction? Just how selfish should I allow myself to be? How much should I sacrifice of one or the other of me – the writer me, and the husband/father me?
ME: Wow, how many me’s are you? Hey, let’s divert the subject a bit before you get all weepy on me with that self-loathing of yours.
JT: I don’t loathe myself.
ME: Well, I do. Anyway, you mention your wife, and you’re always quick to point out that she’s Vietnamese. In your blogs, message boards, emails, etc., you bring up your travels to Viet Nam at the drop of a non la (Vietnamese straw hat). What’s up with that? Are you trying to show off what a lovely, lovely lady we’re married to?
JT: Hey, hands off my wife, Jackson.
ME: Easy, man, easy. Really, though – are you showing off about how worldly you are? The super-interesting writer boasting to all us folks in Smallville about your exotic life?
JT: Well, first off, you do have to promote yourself as a writer. I’ve found that some publishers will put your book out and that’s pretty much the extent of it. No advertizing, no review copies, no promotion; makes you kind of wonder why they even bother. Of course, other publishers are quite the opposite! I’m not knocking all publishers, or even any publisher, since I’m grateful for all of my books whether they’ve sold well or moderately (I don’t want to have to find that second job, you know). Still, you have to promote yourself by any means, even if it gets a bit obvious and obnoxious.
ME: Like this interview?
JT: Precisely. You have to make your presence known, get some notice, on blogs, message boards, Myspace, conventions, whatever. If trying to come across as interesting makes people interested in reading my books, great! But I don’t mean to make things sound so calculating. It

has more to do with my personality, the trait that makes me a writer: the need to communicate my enthusiasm to people, to make them share in the things that excite me, so that we share in the experience. Babbling on about something that has stimulated me – like visits to a foreign land, marrying a person of another race and culture, being the father of a fascinating and delightful autistic child – is just my way of expressing myself, very much the same thing as when I say to a reader, “Hey, let me tell you about this crazy place I’ve invented called Punktown!”
ME: Do these true life experiences find their way into your fiction, or are you too busy hanging around on message boards to actually work on a story now and then?
JT: Yeah, the irony is that the promotion effort does take away from the actual creative time. But yes, of course my true life experiences find their way into my stories. And yet, I still haven’t written a story about an autistic child, and I’ve set a short story or two in Viet Nam but haven’t been able to devise a Viet Nam novel yet. I guess it’s just the way my mind digests the world; I’m a fiction, not a nonfiction, writer. Things get warped into distorted shapes. I’ve written about special children, but made them misunderstood monsters or mutants to heighten the pathos or to make the reader more unsettled and challenged, or just because I like monsters and mutants. I’ve written about men falling in love with alien women, demons – again, heightening for dramatic effect the experience of being involved with a woman of a very different culture. And my impressions of Viet Nam are finding their way into the science fiction novel I’m working on right now. Well, that’s me. It returns us yet again to what I said at first about our idiosyncracies, our private obsessions, the things that make my fantastical city different from another fantastical city. It isn’t the flying car so much as the guy in the flying car; where he’s going, and why.
ME: Zzz.
JT: I just can’t rely on this muse of mine.
ME: Huh? What are you talking about? You couldn’t come up with a subject for this essay and look how I bailed you out!
JT: Do you think the interview bit distracted them from the regurgitated platitudes?
ME: Aw, who cares. While we’re in the bathroom, let’s finish our business and get back to our real writing.
JT: Now you’re talking…
ME: Yeah. To myself.
JT: Well, that’s what it’s all about, right? You write for yourself, as if speaking into your own ear, and if someone else listens in and likes it, then…
ME: I thought we were finished. Any final thoughts?
JT: Buy DEADSTOCK, my new SF/horror/Punktown novel coming out in March.
ME: Subtlety is your bailiwick.
JT: And modesty is yours.
ME: Thanks. And thanks again for taking time out from your busy schedule to participate in this monologue.
JT: I’m entirely welcome.

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The Harris Syndrome

December 24th, 2006 10 comments

- Jeffrey Thomas

This blog entry comes from the Innocent Abroad. Well, at least that’s how I must have come across as I flew from Tokyo to Vietnam to spend Christmas with my wife’s family. As I sat crunched into my little airplane seat resting my eyes, my hands folded primly in my lap, someone (presumably the Vietnamese girl seated opposite me) pointed me out to one of the Japanese stewardesses, who then said, “Yes — innocent!” Hm! Maybe they’d be disappointed to know that I really ain’t no angel!

Disappointment. I guess that’s what I felt during my first-ever stop in Japan on my way to Vietnam (in the past it’s been via Hong Kong or Korea). Because Japan comes across to me as being such a colorful, exciting place — the home of samurais, video games, J-horror! — I guess I expected something more. As it turns out, Nakita Airport was rather drab, lacking in charm or style, compared to the airports in Hong Kong and Korea. (Talk about jaded, I know, but…) Even the landscape, coming in, was lackluster by comparison. Even the sounvenir t-shirts in the scanty gift shops were less impressive than the ones I’ve bought in Hong Kong. I guess I experienced what the Japanese call the “Paris Syndrome.”

This is the tragic affliction being suffered by Japanese tourists who travel to Paris and are not only disillusioned, apparently, to find that the city doesn’t live up to their fanciful expectations, but are psychologically scarred by the fact. (They are also shocked to find that the French are rude; they must really be out of the loop!) About a hundred tourists a year suffer this trauma, with about a dozen requiring treatment for feelings of persecution and suicidal depression. Well, at least I haven’t gotten suicidal over those cheap sumo wrestler t-shirts at the airport, yet!

Judging from the comments at Amazon.com, I think a lot of readers of the new Thomas Harris book, HANNIBAL RISING, are experiencing something akin to this Paris Syndrome. Not that one should take Amazon comments too seriously. In fact, I pray that they don’t discourage people from checking out any book for themselves. (After all, one “review” of my own novel A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET: THE DREAM DEALERS refers to the virtual reality oufit in the story as being a “softwear compant.”) Nevertheless, these many negative comments about HANNIBAL RISING are getting a rise out of me.

Instead of trusting the creator of the infamous villain (become hero?) Hannibal Lecter to put the character through his paces as he sees fit, readers are having fits as if Harris has betrayed them somehow. Instead of respecting the author’s artistic direction, they judge the book by their own preconceptions of what it should have been. (Yet if they’re so skilled at plotting, where are their own New York Times bestsellers?) There’s nothing wrong with being disappointed in a book’s direction. I wasn’t too pleased with where Clarice ended up at the end of HANNIBAL (which I otherwise loved). I would have liked to see the next book bring back RED DRAGON’s Will Graham (to me, Harris’ most fascinating character) to hunt down both Hannibal and Clarice! Yes, Hannibal had a rough childhood, but he’s still a bad guy, and as Will Graham himself says, cry for the child they were but stop the killer they are. And as I’m still reading HANNIBAL RISING, I may myself not be too crazy about the book by the time I’ve finished. We’re entitled to our impressions and opinions as readers. But there’s a level of indignation in these Amazon comments that is really out of proportion; it’s as if the readers feel the character belongs to them, instead of Harris. One of these comments sports the heading: “What did Thomas Harris do with Thomas Harris?!” As if to say that this reader not only knows better who Hannibal Lecter is, and what he should be up to, but that they also know who Thomas Harris is better than he knows himself. Another example of this line of thought: “this book had to be written by someone else other than Thomas Harris.” And this says it all: “How odd it is that Harris doesn’t even seem to understand his own characters; that we the readers know Dr. Lecter better than the author does.” Such comments surely merit having one’s impudent tongue bitten out by Francis Dolarhyde!

When Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, the clamoring of his readers made him bring him back from the dead, and I believe I heard that even Stephen King is begging J. K. Rowling not to kill off Harry Potter down the road (if so, such sentimentality from the guy who let the kiddie croak in CUJO!). People were so upset about the death of Tess in Hardy’s TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES that apparently even a judge protested to Hardy that he wouldn’t have sentenced Tess to death — but Hardy was very much pained by his decision to see her hang. Clive Barker reports that he wept over the decision to kill one character in IMAJICA. The writer is the god who molds these creatures into existence, and should presumably have the right to crush them back into clay or reshape them into a new configuration as they see fit. But still, it is an intriguing question: do readers, after a while, own a character as much as the writer does, or at least own it in a different way?

For my own part I have been enjoying HANNIBAL RISING immensely, and my admitted initial doubts about its direction have been forgotten as I entrust Harris to take me by the hand through the dark labyrinth of Lecter’s early evolution. There is something about his style that pulls me along like no other’s, while maintaining a high level of literary excellence along with the twists of the ice pick. Yes, the tone is different from the clinical feeling of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. HANNIBAL RISING (the only thing I’m not crazy about so far is the title), especially in its earliest chapters, reads like a morbid fairy tale. But after all the RED DRAGON rip-offs in books and movies, do we really want more of the same old, same old FBI versus serial killer thriller? To me, HANNIBAL RISING is not only a look into how a child can be mutated into a vicious madman; it shows us how the scary journey of every person from childhood to adulthood leaves us with both bright gifts and dark curses.

Ahh, who’d have thought that — as in a recent Storytellers essay I wrote about Mark Z. Danielewski’s dizzy ONLY REVOLUTIONS — that I’d need to leap to the defense of an underdog like…Thomas Harris?

Well, I took the long route in arriving at this kernel of thought, but after about twenty-four hours of flying to arrive in Vietnam, I guess that’s where my head is at. Anyway, I extend my holiday greetings and best wishes to all. And based on what I’ve read of HANNIBAL RISING (and every one of Harris’ earlier books, including the still topical BLACK SUNDAY), I encourage you to dive right into the book if you receive it as a Christmas present, or buy it with any Amazon/Borders/Barnes and Noble gift card you may receive. I say, let’s show the master of thrillers that his bold choices are appreciated by his truly loyal fans. Let’s let the writer make up his own mind about what he chooses to write about, or at least, let’s show that we can make up our own minds about what we choose to read. But what do I know? After all, I’m just another reader, arrogantly thrusting his opinion into cyberspace, my essay heading just another oh-so-witty Amazon-style pun. I’m just as guilty as the rest. Told you I weren’t no innocent!

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Celebrity Style

September 24th, 2006 10 comments

by Jeffrey Thomas

(First of all, an apology for missing my turn the last several months, something I swore I’d never do. I had my July essay written but I was in Viet Nam at the time, and the eleven hour time difference and my dependence on internet cafes meant I missed the deadline anyway. I ended up posting it at my own blog site, at www.jeffreyethomas.com. And the next month, well, I guess I just got too busy with other projects. Huh, like you missed me, right? Anyway, I’m back, so here we go!)

I’m certain there are many writers, and even readers, who feel that a story’s author should be an invisible entity, who leaves not so much as a fingerprint on the scene he or she creates. An absent God, if you will; Oz behind the curtain. I can understand this line of thinking. It may be akin to the notion that if a movie’s director were to come in front of the camera, it might jar the viewer out of the plot, remind them that they’re watching a movie. Hey, wait a minute, didn’t Martin Scorcese do that in no less a classy movie than TAXI DRIVER, playing the scary passenger who sparks Travis Bickle’s obsession with the .44 Magnum? And didn’t Hitchcock do that, again and again?

Of course, there are countless novels and short stories that are so inspired by the authors’ own personal experiences as to blur the line between fiction and autobiography. So it isn’t really an issue of drawing upon one’s own life. I think it’s an issue of style that I have in mind. Critics of film-maker David Lynch might argue that his style is so strong and bizarre, so self conscious, that it overwhelms and obscures whatever story he might be trying to tell. Of course, Lynch’s quirkier-than-thou approach is what endears him to ardent fans like myself. But this kind of self conscious or “artsy-fartsy” style in the writing of fiction can alienate certain readers. Case in point is Mark Z. Danielewski’s new book, ONLY REVOLUTIONS.

I call it a “book” instead of a novel because I guess it’s hard for some people to classify it, due to its unconventional approach. My local bookstore has it listed in their computer as an anthology, of all things (because the story is narrated by two characters whom the cataloger mistook as co-authors?). And the store couldn’t even locate the copies they had received only days earlier so that I might buy one of them, said copies perhaps having vanished into the strange void between the terra firma of clear-cut genre and traditional approach. In any case, I have not read ONLY REVOLUTIONS, but I’ve been supporting and defending it based on the fact that Danielewski’s first novel, HOUSE OF LEAVES, is one of my favorite books. Even if I am disappointed with ONLY REVOLUTIONS, I feel compelled to champion it against a surprisingly hostile reception from some readers (who have not read it yet, either, and seem disinclined to even give it a chance). Words such as “arrogance” and “pretentious” have been slung in its direction. First of all, I think a writer has to be arrogant in the first place, to believe their book is worthy of trees sacrificing their lives, arrogant to think a reader should sacrifice their time and hard-earned cash. As for pretentious, well, one man’s pretentious is another man’s ambitious, challenging, thoughtful. To again use film as an example (hey, I’m a child of my times), one could say REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is pretentious and that one should still to watching purely entertaining stuff like AUSTIN POWERS. Me, I have no problem loving both those films, baby. In a comment responding to an earlier essay I posted here, in which I talked about how the names I choose for my characters often have hidden symbolic meaning, it was suggested that such efforts were “artsy-fartsy” and meaningless. Maybe that’s the case. Or maybe I’m having fun, and sharing that sense of fun with the one or dozen or hundred people who might catch on to what I’m doing, and maybe it doesn’t hurt anybody if I have hidden meanings in my characters’ names even if not a single soul catches on to them. But there is ever this animosity toward the dreaded “A” word…Art. Artsy is a bad thing, to some. It implies flatulence. Well, to each their own. As I say, my diet is pretty diverse. But you want to talk arrogance? One could say it is more arrogant to mass produce another bland, unoriginal paint-by-numbers book or movie that apes last year’s (or last decade’s) bestseller or smash hit again, and again, ad nauseam, with no real personality behind it, no sense that someone put their own soul into the proceedings.

I’m not saying I don’t feel some works – some creative people – aren’t artsy-fartsy, to put it that way. I’m not part of any crowd or camp; I take what I like or dislike one book or movie or artist at a time. For instance, I can see what Andy Warhol was doing with his soup cans, with his silk screened reproductions of other people’s photos (of Marilyn, Brando, etc.), but when I recently heard someone in a documentary say how terribly “important” those cans were, how “powerful,” I just sort of groaned inside, especially when they went on to suggest that the full collection of can paintings (bought for $1,000 at the time of their creation) might be worth $100,000,000 today, well…pass me a Norman Rockwell calendar instead, please. And let’s not even get into Jackson Pollock’s…messes. But that’s just me. That’s my tastes. If you’re into these guys, good on ya! See, though? I can scoff and sneer at what I’m not into, with the best of them.

Some writers, artists, singers and so on end up looming bigger than their art; I think Warhol is like that. I think Yukio Mishima is like that, but Mishima I love; one of my very favorite authors. Mishima was a brilliant writer who became a bodybuilder, a modern day samurai, started his own fanatical paramilitary group (which ended up storming and taking over a military school), a movie director, a movie star, and whatever else I’m forgetting at the moment. This week I watched Mishima as the star of the 1960 Yakuza film AFRAID TO DIE, directed by respected film-maker Yasuzo Masumura. Mishima does a great job as a sleazy, bitch-slapping, leather-clad antihero scratching himself and slouching around enough to make James Dean and Marlon Brando proud. *Spoiler alert!* The end has the shot and dying Mishima (like DeNiro in HEAT, trying to change his ways – with the help of a good woman – too late in the game) running in place against the flow of an escalator, a great symbol for how it is too late for him to run away from his dark past (regardless of having traded in his black leather for a sacrificial-white sports jacket). It’s a cool little flick, but most of its appeal for me is that it’s Mishima there, hamming it up tough-guy style to self consciously compensate for his homosexuality, the same Mishima who ended up disemboweling himself a decade later. An incredible writer, playing a gangster! Should his work be treated any less seriously for such antics? Was he overstepping the boundaries, becoming far from the invisible writer, wearing Oz’s curtain as a cape instead of hiding behind it? Well, that’s for you to decide. Me, I was eating up AFRAID TO DIE’s nasty grittiness and jazzy dialogue. Mishima’s ex-girlfriend: “You call yourself a man?” Mishima: “Me? Nah, I’m a Yakuza.” Coool! Bring it on, Yukio! The thing is, beyond his egotism and narcissism, it would be hard to dispute that Mishima had the talent to back it all up.

On Mark Z. Danielewski’s web site www.onlyrevolutions.com there’s a video clip from the Conan O’Brien Show of the singer Poe performing her song “Hey Pretty (Drive-By 2001 Mix),” which starts out with Poe’s brother Danielewski reciting an excerpt from HOUSE OF LEAVES, wearing a purple silk shirt and gripping the mike like a rock star. This is sure to be a turn-off for many a book reader, sure to further alienate th

em from this artsy-fartsy author*, but again, I thought it was, well, pretty cool. Why the hell not? Don’t hate the guy because he’s flamboyant, because he likes attention; a writer is all about getting attention, isn’t it? Whenever I get tired of hearing the words HARRY POTTER or DA VINCI CODE, I remind myself that these are books! Books, that people are getting so excited about in this age of movies and TV and X-Box. Let’s hear it for books, and authors getting themselves seen and heard, and strutting and showing us what they got. Hell, if Jewel can put out a book of poetry, I think Mark Z. Danielewski can have his moment on stage, and Mishima can have his drawn-out death dance on an escalator (oops, the spoiler slipped past me that time!).

Author know thy place? And stick to your “traditional” storytelling – so you won’t rile or offend or intimidate the opponents of ONLY REVOLUTIONS, who sadly seem afraid or at least unwilling to be challenged by it? Nay, I say. Be big, flashy, noisy, full of eccentric personality, if that’s your gig. I’m not knocking the legions of stolid and solid storytellers who puts it out there in the tried and true approach. I read it all. More than being disappointed, I might end up disliking ONLY REVOLUTIONS very much, in fact (if my bookstore can ever find the damn thing)! But no matter how I feel about the book itself, I defend Danielewski’s right to be brave, and idiosyncratic, and experimental, and…a celebrity.

(* I saw one message board thread where people expressed their hostility toward the word “author,” seeing even this as pretentious. That any reader or, worse, writer would reject this term depresses me. It suggests an aversion to the outrageous notion that literature might be literary. Or called literature, for that matter. Well, you know what I’ll do if anyone ever asks me, “You call yourself a writer?” I’ll scratch myself, slouch a bit, and retort, “Me? Nah, I’m an author!”)

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The Naming of Names

June 24th, 2006 8 comments

by Jeffrey Thomas

Okay, you’re sitting there writing your novel, going full steam ahead, the action unfolding smoothly, and your police detective protagonist lets himself into the coroner’s office to have a look at the latest victim’s weirdly mutilated corpse. You’re brought up short. Not with concern over how to describe the body or fashion the coroner’s dialogue – you’ve seen enough episodes of CSI to write a sequel to GRAY’S ANATOMY – but by the question of what name to give the coroner.

Hmm. Crap. Literatus Interruptus.

If you’re me, the first thing you do is start mentally skimming through the names of coworkers you haven’t already used (I never use given and surname together, though). Writer and publisher friends, too. If there’s a book within easy grasp, without having to waste further time by getting up from my desk, I’ll grab that and look for promising real life names to alchemize into the fictional. But things can get complicated. If this is a futuristic and otherworldly location, I might have to invent an alien’s name that hasn’t already been used in one of the numerous STAR TREK incarnations.

Come to think of it, what did you decide to name the protagonist? He’s a cop, so let me guess…his first name is Nick? Jack? Please don’t tell me that since it’s a vampire story, and he’s a quarter vampire on his mother’s side (but fighting his darker inclinations), his last name is Bloodbone. Jack Nightguy. Tony Dracolini. Is he a quarter werewolf on his mother’s side (but fighting his darker inclinations)? Then please don’t tell me he’s Harry Dogget. Lou Garou. You know what I’m sayin’? Okay, I admit, I’ll give my characters names that are puns, or which have a secret or not-so-secret meaning, but sometimes the names writers slap on their protagonists give me fits. If your cop is a quarter demon on his mother’s side (but fighting his…yawn), please don’t name him Stan Hellbender. Mike Hellguy. Only Hellboy can have hell in his name – got that?

Like I said, I do choose names that relate to the characters’ personas or the story’s themes, but I try to keep things a bit more subliminal. The novel I’ve just completed for Solaris Books, DEADSTOCK, has a plot that involves cloning, shapeshifting, bio-enginered life forms – consequently, the question of identity in the midst of all this. So I have one character named Janice (sounds like two-faced Janus) Poole (as in Narcissus’ “pool”). There’s Mira (sounds like “mirror”) Cello. And she’s sad and mellow as a cello. There are the blandly-named clones Mr. Doe (as in John), Mr. Jones and, because Mr. Smith was taken for THE MATRIX, Mr. Smithee (as in the ubiquitous but anonymous movie director, Alan Smithee). However, one pun is not intentional. The novel deals with bio-engineered livestock (nicknamed “deadstock”), but the protagonist Jeremy Stake is not meant to sound like “steak.” I had his name before I had the plot in place. Yeah, the surname Stake has a little bit of that Jack Nightguy feel, but I hope his given name Jeremy softens the effect a bit.

Jeremy Stake’s love interest, by the way, is a beautiful alien woman named Thi Gonh. (Gonh as in “gone,” as in they are not together any more.) But Thi is the middle name of my wife Hong, and Gonh is Hong spelled sideways. Oh so brilliant I am. (Or do I mean, lazy?)

The protagonist of Neal Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH is named Hiro Protagonist. That’s a hilarious pun, but – not to diss a book and author I’ve never read – I don’t know if I could get into a story with a pun that spoofy. Still, it may very well work brilliantly within the book’s scheme and style, precisely because of that in-your-face spoofiness. Another character in the novel, I understand, is Y.T. (For “Yours Truly”). I guess I should see what this is all about, one of these days; the book certainly sounds fascinating and complex.

When I first read RED DRAGON (one of my very favorite novels), and the character of Francis Dolarhyde was introduced, I remember thinking, “Please let this guy be a red herring…he can’t be the REAL bad guy!” Not with his over-the-top behavior (I think he was wearing tinfoil balled up in his ears, or something, in the first scene) and not with a name like Dolarhyde (conjuring up both formaldehyde and Dr. Jekyll’s alter-ego). But soon enough, I was sold on this character big-time, and his name was his name. Period. (And what of Hannibal the Cannibal? How con-veeeenient. He couldn’t be Roger the Cannibal? But it’s Thomas Harris. He makes it work.)

My favorite character name filled with meaning is Winston Smith, from Orwell’s 1984. Winston, as in the charismatic Winston Churchill. But Smith quickly brings us back to the anonymous Everyman, thus showing us the dichotomy of Winston Smith’s initially rebellious but easily broken human spirit. Stephen King’s remarkably gifted Johnny Smith works well in THE DEAD ZONE, for the same ironic reasons.

Many times I give characters “ethnic” names because I like to mix characters of varied ethnicity into my stories; the real world isn’t all white bread and will be even less so in the future. But as people of different races and cultures intermarry, maybe their names will blend and lose their original homogenity, too. Therefore, in a story set in my world of Punktown I might have a guy with the last name MacDiaz, indicating a conscious fusing of two names of different origins – this fusing going beyond the hyphenated surnames some women take on when they marry, or unmarried parents sometimes give their kids. In this case, “Mac” sounds Scottish and “Diaz” sounds Spanish. The future of names…something else to consider.

Then there are stories in which authors make themselves, in a metafictional sense, the main character. (Maybe this is the ultimate form of laziness in selecting a character’s name! Sheesh!) Bret Easton Ellis is the protagonist of LUNAR PARK, Bruce Campbell the protagonist of MAKE LOVE THE BRUCE CAMPBELL WAY, Jeff VanderMeer (though he refers to his doppleganger as “X”) the protagonist of his novella THE STRANGE CASE OF X, and so on. In my book LETTERS FROM HADES, the protagonist whose journal comprises the novel flippantly gives himself the pseudonym Dan Alighieri (after Dante Alighieri), but originally I had him reveal his true name as…Jeffrey Thomas. A friend of mine advised that this would take people out of the story too much. However, in a sort-of sequel on the way called BEAUTIFUL HELL, I go back to revealing that Jeffrey Thomas is his actual name. In addition, the new protagonist who is writing the manuscript of BEAUTIFUL HELL is named Frank Lyre – as in angels strumming lyres, but also as in “frank liar.” Who am I to say Hiro Protagonist is over-the-top?

All symbolic or embedded meaning aside, it’s ultimately about the cadence of the name, its resonance, that mysterious Factor Z that makes you want to relish its taste on the mental tongue. Vito Corleone. Bilbo Baggins. Lolita. Ahh…bittersweet Lolita.

The names of fictional characters stay with us when we’ve forgotten the names of classmates and coworkers and obscure presidents. This is important stuff, here. I’ve sometimes agonized over the names of characters more so than over the naming of my son (Colin – because it’s a name reflecting his Celtic roots, and because I admire the writer Colin Wilson). Name your imaginary children well, my friends…so that one day, he or she may linger in the mind with Macbeth. With Quasimodo. With Jack Nightguy and his tormented kin (but they’re fighting their darker inclinations…really).

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Parallel Worlds

May 24th, 2006 10 comments

by JEFFREY THOMAS

A few weeks ago, one of my publishers made me an offer. Since they knew I’d be out of the country on vacation the whole month of July, and thus couldn’t afford another trip in August, they offered to take care of my expenses in bringing me to Los Angeles for the next Worldcon. They’d pay for my flight, my hotel for the week, even buy me dinner. This was how much they wanted to meet me in person, and have readers meet me, too.

Shortly after I write this essay, I’m going to let them know I can’t accept. The main reason is…I don’t think my boss would like it.

I’ve been procrastinating in telling them I can’t make it. Everyone I’ve talked to, myself included (right, Jeff?), has told me what a great opportunity it would be. And when might I ever receive such an offer again? I could be introducing myself to new fans, psyching people up for the novel I’m writing for this publisher. It would further my career as a writer! But it’s my career as a blue collar worker in a pharmaceutical company that has to take precedence. See, the company shuts down every month of July, and employees are pressured into taking their vacations then. Were I to take another vacation in August to attend this con, I’d have to take it as unpaid days, and these would count against me in terms of attendance – and in this company, if one takes more than six days off in a year for illness or personal matters, one is “abusing the system” and can anticipate closer scrutiny, a poor(er than usual) pay increase the next year, and possible termination. My boss especially has it out for me since I recently complained to his supervisor about his favoritism, his sexism, his racism. His last pay evaluation of me kindly reported that I have the “potential” to be a “good producer,” but I guess I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. I’m too busy crawling on hands and knees under machines (there are holes from broken glass in the knees of all my uniform slacks, not to mention the bodily scars I’ve received from glass, scalding water, and cranial collisions with said machines), sweeping up shattered vials and ampules, to take note of the practices of the “good producers.” I have at least noted that these outstanding performers tend to be of my boss’s same religious beliefs and/or to come from his region of the world, and also that they tend to sit or stand around talking for a good portion of every night while I’m apparently slacking off in my slacks-shredding pursuits.

There are two worlds that I live in. But one world too often eclipses the other. They are two versions of Mars, let’s say. One is the beautiful and melancholy Bradbury Mars…or better yet, the exciting and exotic Burroughs Mars. This is the world the writer Jeffrey Thomas escapes to, his spirit swept there through space like that of John Carter. But the Jeffrey Thomas who pays the bills to keep that guy’s internet service turned on, who puts the roof over his dizzy dream-filled head, is the Jeffrey Thomas living on the cold and airless Mars of harsh reality. This guy worked five years in a boot factory, went on to become a security guard, work in a sticky soda-making plant, a pocketbook factory, a plastics company. Fifteen years in a print shop. Now, going on five years doing his part to keep hospital patients high on morphine and the like. The two Jeffreys resent each other, in a way. Both resent when their twin steals away some of their too-precious time. But they also resent themselves, for how they cheat the other. The Burroughsian Jeffrey feels guilty when he takes his too-brief flights abroad. Shouldn’t he be doing something “practical” to help out the grumpy guy, like mowing the lawn, balancing his checkbook? The hard-nosed Jeffrey feels guilty when he can’t let his creative twin sit down to his keyboard for a number of days at a time, the same way he feels remorse at not having more time to spend with his young son or even giving the poor dog a longer walk.

How to reconcile these two worlds? Or is that like trying to reconcile matter and antimatter?

We don’t always hear what writers do when they’re not writing, because it can shatter the fantasy for reader and the writer both. It can be…humiliating. But for the vast majority, the truth is that this writing thing isn’t all (or at least, only) glamourous literary parties, book signings and readings, lectures and conventions. It isn’t all gigantic paychecks (those are reserved for the occasional teenage plagiarist). I know only a couple of writers who live exclusively on their writing – just barely. Well, fortunately a lot of writers are also journalists or technical writers or teachers, are experiencing less of a dichotomy in their lives, don’t have to hesitate so much when they talk about what they do when they’re not writing. I doubt I’m the only blue collar worker whose books are being read and respected; it can’t be so. I think it’s just that not too many people would want anyone to know about such a situation. It might discredit them as writers. If I’m so good, what am I doing punching a clock every night from 11 PM to 7 AM? My skills must be lacking, eh? It doesn’t look good on a dust jacket bio, does it? “Jeffrey Thomas is the author of the books PUNKTOWN, LETTERS FROM HADES and UNHOLY DIMENSIONS. He feeds over a quarter million dental syringes through a sanitizing tunnel every night. In his spare time he tries to keep his house from being foreclosed upon. He lives in Massachusetts.”

God…Ramsey Campbell had to work in a chain bookstore briefly, in order to make ends meet. Is that a story full of horror and tragedy, or what? At least he put this state of affairs to good use and wrote a novel incorporating the experience (THE OVERNIGHT). And that’s what I try to do, so that something more is coming of this than merely keeping my phone turned on. I’ve used my blue collar experience as the basis for many a story. My observations of my coworkers have bettered my sense of character, and exposed me to people from a greater range of cultures and backgrounds than I might otherwise have come into close contact with. (Not to mention that I met my first wife and several ex-girlfriends at work. All work and no play makes Jeff a dull writer.)

I’m proud to say that some of my books will soon appear in Taiwan, Germany, Russia and Greece in their native languages. Through the way I tell a story, through the way I give illusory life to characters, these faraway strangers will come to know me in a way that is actually quite intimate. They may in fact know me better than people I work beside every night, because those people might not read my books. Too many of my coworkers know me the way a mortician knows the body on his slab, not the way my family knows me.

The most I’ve made yet on a single book is $7,000 from a mass market publisher; a nice fee, in my experience, but not enough to live on. It’s usually much less than that. I’m not blaming small press publishers (except for a couple of assholes); these folks aren’t exactly bathing in champagne, either! If you really believe that’s how writers and publishers live, you’ve got a wilder imagination than I have and I find it hard to suspend my disbelief. Would those readers in foreign lands – even more removed, in a number of senses, from this author than English-speaking readers – be shocked to know about the job that pays my bills? Well, but then we all have two lives, don’t we, and the flip side of the coin isn’t always pretty. Tom Cruise sits on the toilet, just like I do. Angelina Jolie menstruates, just like I…well, you get the idea. But I don’t mean just people who to a great or humble degree express themselves through forms of entertainment. We all have our work personas and our home personas; our children know us as parents, our employers know us as employees. Maybe it’s just that a situation like mine heightens that contrast. Or maybe it seems that way because I’m feeling

extra sorry for myself for having had an extra stressful day. And because I have to write that email to my generous publisher, soon.

I deeply appreciate their offer; I’m proud that it was made. Even if its like never comes again, I will remember it with fondness. It will inspire me; reconfirm that my kookier self must be doing something right when he’s playing around on the computer. Remembering their offer might help me find some sort of inner balance, the next time I am on hands and knees sweeping up those little shattered vessels, sparkling like the detritus of dreams.

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Seeing Things

April 24th, 2006 11 comments

by Jeffrey Thomas

On the grounds of Saigon’s sprawling zoo is the Museum of Vietnamese History, an impressive and fascinating place. A museum of any kind is pretty much the best place to put me, besides a book store. Here, I encountered a mummified body that sent my spooked wife out of the room (I reassured her by saying that the mummy would be standing at the foot of our bed watching her sleep that night), wooden stakes that had been planted in the bed of the Bach Dang river to sink invading Mongol warships (and I bet the Mongols said, ‘Dang!” about that), a number of giant stone dildos, er, “linga” fertility symbols from the Mekong Delta (my wife’s eyes grew in amazement when I told her these were meant to look like a “baby”, as she calls such appendages), and a Buddha with a gazillion arms. Hong is taking a course in nail care (which may come as a surprise to you – a Vietnamese woman working as a nail technician), and so I asked her how much money she’d charge Buddha for a manicure. She replied, “Ong Xa (husband), do not joke about Buddha.”

But the one item that really seized my imagination was a wooden statue of Buddha. The statue was wearing a kind of hat, and had one of his mere two hands upraised. Yet the wood had decayed considerably, so the hand was barely more than a misshapen mitten. And the face – well, there was only a hole there in the middle of a kind of swirly vortex, like a giant knothole. Another, smaller vortex was in the center of the chest. The placement of these holes was just too weird for me: the site of the face, the site of the heart. Could they have been there from its creation? Had the sculptor worked around them, worked them into his piece? But it seemed just too weird that an artist would purposely create such a grotesquely disfigured representation of a holy person. So had the statue been defaced (literally) during the war, the bullet holes having grown since then? Or were termites the sacrilegious vandals? Whatever the cause, the statue’s visage put me in mind of a very disturbing photo I once saw of a man who had lost all his face to cancer. And those two images became superimposed in my mind.

I wanted to take a picture, but the brochure and posted signs warned against them (even though I did sneak a photo of the giant “babies”), so I sketched the statue in my notebook later on. I knew I had to work this image into the novel I was currently plotting. This novel is called DEADSTOCK and is set in my future world of Punktown. In the story, the protagonist is a private detective who a decade earlier served during a controversial conflict called the Blue War. There are a few flashback sequences, and in one of these I have the protagonist – Jeremy Stake – encounter the clerical class of his blue-skinned enemy, the Ha Jiin. These clerics purposely deform themselves with a cancerous agent, so that over time their faces become obliterated in a symbolic giving up of personal identity. Thus blinded, during their prayers they wander their monastery feeling the contoured mosaic images set into the walls, in place of reading a holy book.

You would read this novel without knowing how I arrived at that idea, that image. I read other writers’ books without knowing the origins of a lot of their ideas. All that matters, of course, is how well these things work in the context of the story…but it’s intriguing when I learn a little about the behind-the-scenes stuff. Those “making of”DVD extras kind of facts, pertaining to an author’s creative process.

I pride myself on my imagination, but I don’t always just grab ideas out of the ether, and this is true of other writers – though their personal modus operandi and the images that resonate with them of course vary widely. Every person I meet, every conversation I hear, every place I go might become transferred to the written page through the distorting lens of my imagination. It’s not a laziness, it’s not that I’m reaching only to the nearest objects at hand. It’s that I am so thoroughly a writer that everything I digest must pass through a creative tract of intestine before it gets assimilated elsewhere. Everything that catches my attention, everything that I love or that I hate. Images, emotions, impressions. From a statue on public display, to the look on my wife’s face when we are intimate. I can’t help it. It’s all fodder. It’s all inspiration.

It’s a fascinating process. It takes me by surprise sometimes. I don’t go looking for these things. I didn’t go into that museum looking for ideas. But that Buddha raised his deformed hand as if to beckon me over, as if to whisper to my muse through the black hole of his face.

There’s an abandoned abrasives factory just down the street from me, its numerous buildings spreading out like a little ghost town. For years now I’ve taken my dog on walks through its parking lots and outer grounds, and my son and I have taken long walks into the woods down a desolate access road to view the most distant and secretive of these derelict structures. Yes, a wealth of impressions, filling me to the brim. How could it not be so? I first touched upon this setting in my novel BONELAND, but I really embraced it for my novella DOOR 7 in my collection THIRTEEN SPECIMENS. In that story, I endeavored to make the factory’s giant smokestack an imposing and sinister image of power, a kind of corporate “linga”, a gigantic evil “baby”. The little brick warehouse sitting in the middle of a sea of asphalt became a place where the protagonist hides on a night when there is a threatening windstorm of strange debris. A crushed turtle my son and I found on the access road…a mummified frog embedded in the tarmac…odd vines in the trees by the side of the road…a huge metal tank. It all became part of that story.

Oh, but they’re tearing it all down now, even as we speak, my wonderfully creepy factory. To replace it with…stores. Restaurants. Condos, and a park. Yeah, it will be nice for my son and I to walk to these conveniently located places. But there are stores and restaurants all over this town. There is only one ghost town factory. Sigh. Will these new places inspire images and settings in my stories? Maybe not – but my muse will let me know.

I’m best known for my Punktown stories, and while the general idea for that world was probably gestating in my subconscious for some time, it was one weird image that seems to have punched through into the bubbling black oil below the surface.

It was 1980 and my father was still alive, and driving me somewhere or another. I looked at another car, and its female driver had long hair. The sun made her eye sockets look as black and deep as a skull’s. The way her hair fell about her face, it looked like strands of it were pouring right out of her empty eye sockets themselves.

Unbeknownst to her, that anonymous woman became a Tikkihotto, one of the alien races that recur in my Punktown stories. They basically look like us, but in place of eyes they have these ocular filaments that writhe in the air. They see things in odd ways. Well, kind of like I do.

Why that should have given me this “eureka!”moment, an epiphany, I don’t know. But it did. That’s the way I digest the world. No wonder I have a constant upset stomach!

Let’s go back to Viet Nam. On an earlier visit there, outside the War Remnants Museum (which has enough ghastliness inside to humble a thousand horror writers), I met a man who was selling souvenir books, and who like all Vietnamese street vendors was very persistent, but he’s the only one who ever broke me down – because he was missing a number of limbs and one eye, and said an American land mine was responsible for his maiming. He insisted I shake hands with him (that is, he got me to shake his stump), which definitely cinched the transaction. We sat and talked for a while, as his English was quite good. Well, he made an impression. Cut to an excellent novel I recent

ly read: LOST SOLDIERS, by former Navy Secretary James Webb (whose lovely wife is also named Hong). In it, Webb describes a beggar named Hai who I instantly recognized as the guy I bought a badly photocopied Vietnamese phrase book from outside the War Remnants Museum. I contacted Webb and brought this up, and he confirmed that the person I met was the same person who had inspired him to include him in his novel. In all of that huge teeming city of Saigon, we had both had an impression made on us by the same individual. (Well, with his tragic appearance he makes a strong impression.) I have no doubt I would have put this guy in a story myself sooner or later had Webb not beat me to it. But this was one of those instances where I could specifically isolate the source of another author’s inspiration for a particular detail; something he had observed in real life and incorporated into his fiction. Of course, all of Saigon has impressed Webb and found its way through his digestive process, and as I’ve said in an earlier essay, I’ve got a Viet Nam novel in me that waiting to find its way out (and a publisher who’s already interested in it, to put more pressure on me). But the way Webb sees Saigon and the way I see it, through our creative lenses, will be quite different. That’s the wonderful part. Many eyes can look upon the same city, the same object – like that wooden statue of Buddha – and come away with different impressions. To my wife, that Buddha was a ruined but still historical representation of the being to whom she prays. To me, well, he was a funky weird alien with no face – cool!

(Shh. One mustn’t joke about Buddha.)

So if you meet me at a convention or book signing, be on your guard. You might just become a Ha Jiin or a Tikkihotto in my next Punktown novel.

Huh. You should be so lucky!

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Writer of a Thousand Faces

March 24th, 2006 6 comments

by Jeffrey Thomas

I know a talented young writer who once admitted on a message board that he was not ready to write a story from the point of view of a woman. He seemed to feel he could not do so with authenticity. I thought this was odd, coming from someone who feels they can write convincingly of supernatural occurrences. How much more commonplace are women than ghosts, demons, and aliens! Though often, they are hard to distinguish from such entities…but I digress. This writer seemed to think it was presumptuous of him to even deem to write from the perspective of the opposite sex, as if he feared being called to task should he get the psychological flavor wrong.

Then I know of another writer named Stephen King, who has a healthier attitude. This young fella came out of nowhere with a novel about a teenaged female outsider with psychic abilities. Yikes, how did he pull that off? Well, aside from the fact that a male writer may have a wife or girlfriend, a daughter, sister, female friends and at the very least a mother, I guess he just drew upon his own experience from interacting with this exotic race. King grew even more ballsy (or ovariesy) as he moved along in what I predict to be a successful career (keep your eye on this guy). He wrote one short story in which an African-American woman who works in a hotel collects, um, stains from bed sheets to use in some kind of juju. When I think of this story I sometimes sit back in admiration and wonder, “How stumped for ideas was he that night? Jeesh!” But you know, it’s Stephen King, so it’s a good read. The point is, he made me believe in that woman. And King is not a woman, nor is he African-American. Now maybe if I were either of those things, I might scoff at this story, poke holes in it. But for this white male reader, at least – I bought it.

What separates a white writer writing from the perspective of a black man from a white actor of bygone times acting in black face? Aside from matters of respect and sensitivity? Well, it isn’t impossible for white actors to portray black characters (as they have done in Shakespeare plays like OTHELLO) in a work of artistic merit. For that matter, in Japanese Kabuki plays men in geisha drag traditionally played the female roles. Linda Hunt was brilliant playing a male Indonesian (neither of which she is) in the film THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY. But acting and writing are different forms of art, and use different means to accomplish their ends (the actor dons physical makeup or costume; the reader dons the writer’s words and ideas). In writing, the process has to do with facts, sure. It has to do with observation. But most importantly, it has to do with empathy. Empathy will take you far as a writer (and in life in general; try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes sometime – it can do wonders in human relations). Yep, empathy can be a writer’s Swiss Army Knife.

I was very gratified when an early short story of mine called A WOMB SCORNED was accepted by the small press publication ABERRATIONS, with the praise that I had made the editor feel a woman had written the story (though I can’t recall now if that editor was a woman or not). But I was prouder still, years later, when a female friend read a story of mine in which the main character was based on my first wife Rose, who is a deaf woman (neither of which I am…but it didn’t seem like that big a stretch to me, with my empathy instrument trained at such point-blank range). This friend praised the fact that she could closely relate to the female protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. It amazed her that a man had written it. Besides a sense of accomplishment, I think I felt a bit amazed that this should have to amaze her.

I was to experience yet more flattery for my skills of empathy, for my amazing abilities as a chameleon, a Lon Chaney of the written word!

Do you know I almost became more successful as a writer of gay pornography than as a writer of fantastical fiction?

It almost happened like this. I had placed a story in a small press anthology edited by a writer who was gay. Later he became the editor of a mass market paperback collection of gay erotic western stories, and since he liked my work he invited me to contribute. I was a bit amused by this and said to my wife, “How could I ever come up with a gay erotic cowboy story?” It wasn’t so much the gay part that stumped me as the cowboy part. My wife said, “Maybe I could come up with an idea for you.” That was when I puffed up my chest and thought, “Whaaat? I am the writer in this relationship! I don’t need YOU to come up with an idea for me! I’ll plot my own damn gay erotic cowboy story!” Which I did. And thus, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was born. Oops…wrong story. Anyway, it was ironic that this editor had had me do several rewrites of a story set in my world of Punktown for his previous anthology, but he accepted this story straight off (am I then better at gay porn than SF?). In fact, my story was so arousing that he confessed he had to, er, relieve himself of said arousal after reading it. After that, he would often tease me by asking if I were truly straight. When the book came out, on its back cover it boasted of “gay literature’s brightest stars.” But the editor told me another of the “gay” authors therein was a woman writing under a male pseudonym. He went on to plan more anthologies of various genres for this publisher, and solicited more stories from me…accepted story after story. For some, I simply took an existing hot heterosexual story of mine and turned the female character into a man. (And made the appropriate anatomical adjustments in the naughtier bits.) Well…as fate would have it, I did not become a successful writer of gay porn. There was a falling out between editor and publisher and only the western-themed book made it to print. I sold one of the orphaned stories to a magazine where the editor informed me that my story had made him “hard – damn hard,” but I never heard whether or not the magazine ultimately came out. One of the stories, about gay Chinese gangsters, appeared recently in my collection THIRTEEN SPECIMENS. Anyway, I was proud to have succeeded in impressing gay writers, editors and readers with these stories. It again confirmed that I was able to put myself in the spurred boots (and nothing else, girlfriend!) of a person who was different from myself.

But really…that different? I know what warm flesh feels like against mine. Is it too far of a leap to extrapolate, then, what it would be like if that flesh were male? The leap was not in overcoming the physical facts, but the psychological barrier. But why should that be daunting? I have written about characters who were clones, aliens, mutants, devils, ghosts, androids. I even wrote a story from the perspective of a pistol (GUN METAL BLUE, in AAAIIIEEE!!!) – though the idea of the story is that every gun is the personification of a demon. Shouldn’t I be able to write from the perspective of an Asian, an elderly person, an autistic person? These creatures all have one thing in common. They are human beings, with a very similar range of feelings and needs. When you tap into the universal, it really isn’t that difficult.

I may not care to write from a certain perspective too much, though. For example: children. I used to look askance at children as protagonists in adult fiction (despite brilliant stories like LORD OF THE FLIES). That was stuff for the King wannabes, I thought. Adults are far more complex and interesting to write about than children.

And then I became a father.

I still tend not to put child characters in my stories often, but only because adults are generally more empowered to act upon their situations than children are, and thus make more dramatic protagonists – generally speaking. I can still “get into it” more if I am writing about a female protagonist, because she is more like me in being an adult. As different as the protagonist might be from me in

their particulars, as I say, I like to be able to find that common ground.

I love the writer Patrick McGrath’s work, and in his collection BLOOD AND WATER he has a story told from the point of view of a fly, and another from that of a boat. And these are not, to me, silly stories, experimental fluff, but fine pieces of effective storytelling. A writer of McGrath’s stripe can even empathize with an insect, an inanimate object.

And the best part of that? He can make the reader empathize with these things, too.

Dare I say this is where writing can perhaps be most important? Not in pushing a political stance, addressing a particular issue…but simply in letting us see through the eyes of a person who is not us? In reading, we can become chameleons. We can become anyone and anything. And in becoming them, maybe find out more about ourselves in the bargain.

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Stop and Spell the Roses

February 24th, 2006 5 comments

– Jeffrey Thomas

I have respect for Elmore Leonard. Let me say that first. But man…I don’t have much respect for rules. (See Joe Nassise’s essay of February 15, dealing with Leonard’s ten rules of writing.)

The first rule of Write Club is: there are no rules.

How dismal the reading experience would be, if every voice were the same. Imagine every song sung by the same singer – even if it were a great singer. Every character played by the same actor. Even a Robert De Niro would become tedious, after a while. Rules are too much like conformity, to me. Limitation. I’m not suggesting that Leonard is advocating limitation! But I think inflexibility can sometimes become a byproduct, when must-do’s start to set in concrete. And I’m not saying people shouldn’t make a list of rules to apply when writing…but I feel they should apply to one’s own writing, and not be presented as a system that other writers need adhere to. Writing and reading are matters of personal taste. Of personal opinion. The rules Leonard extols – well, if they make his books effective, that’s swell! But maybe I’m writing a different kind of story. Not better. I’m not as well known as Leonard…ha! Not by a long shot. Never will be. Still, whatever greatness they might lead him to, his rules don’t necessarily work for me.

I like Merchant-Ivory type films. And I like PULP FICTION. But I would not want to see Quentin Tarantino direct THE REMAINS OF THE DAY in his customary funky style. I’d be fascinated to hear what rules Q.T. sets for himself, but I wouldn’t want every film maker to think that he or she should apply Quentin’s approach to their own vision. (Haven’t we groaned over the overabundance of Tarantino rip-offs? I know I still groan over the Stephen Kingisms that are as rife in horror stories now as they were in the 80′s.) Yes, read a Quentin Tarantino’s rules. Take what you can use. He’s brilliant. He’s experienced. But disregard what doesn’t work…for you.

I find that many times when absolute writing rules are given, it comes down to a kind of fear of the word. Okay, maybe a fear of every other word. As if the embrace of words is something a writer need be wary of. Huh? (Yeah, like a bird should apologize for having wings.) Of course, there has to be a careful application of words – yes! They must be laid down like bricks, to hold the story up. You should fear those bricks falling apart. But that’s not what I’m saying. In the no-frills philosophy, the fear seems to be that we have to get to where we’re going fast, fast, fast. We should gulp down our meals rather than savor. How much paring should I do to tell my story most concisely? Here’s OLIVER TWIST, streamlined: An orphan gets in with some thieves, but he ends up living with a rich dude. The end. Yeah, I’m being facetious. But hey…I’m exaggerating to make my point. And I haven’t even started yet. I’m taking the looong road. Sue me.

I particularly had a problem with Leonard’s rule #9, that places – hence, settings – should not be described in great detail. If you’re writing about L.A., okay, we have a good sense of it from movies and other fiction. You want to keep things snappy – sure, gloss over it. If it matches your tone, your style, no complaints here. But when China Mieville is taking me into New Crobuzon, as he did in his novel PERDIDO STREET STATION, I want to do a little exploring. I’ve never been there before. Let me see the sights, get the feel, soak up the atmosphere. The atmosphere in some books is half the story. New Crobuzon is the main character of PERDIDO STREET STATION. If you find Mieville’s heavy layering of detail exhausting, that’s cool; then it’s simply not the book for you. But personally, I eat up books set in rich, palpably exotic and unusual environments. Recent books of this stripe are Jeff VanderMeer’s CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN (his city of Ambergris) and VENISS UNDERGROUND (his city of Veniss), Michael Cisco’s THE DIVINITY STUDENT (San Veneficio), Kristen Bishop’s THE ETCHED CITY (Ashamoil), my brother Scott’s stories set in the world of WESTERMEAD. I feel like a tourist venturing to another country, when I crack the covers of books like these. Yes, the balance can be tipped, even for me. I loved the descriptive passages in Ian R. MacLeod’s THE LIGHT AGES, his sense of place was tremendous, but there were just too many of these passages even for my taste. Those are the words I stress again: for my taste.

A punchy, cut-to-the-quick style might get us through a jazzy detective novel, but if we’re in Lovecraft country, I want to see the cobwebs blowing. I want to see the moldering floorboards. You don’t have to tell me what Grandma is wearing in her scary portrait, but you can tell me that it’s hanging on the wall. AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS is a masterpiece of eerie setting. It will make you cold. It will fill you with cosmic wonder. But a snappy read it is not. One book is a loud carnival you fly through on a roller coaster. Another book is a quiet museum of fascinating oddities to be explored more slowly. I like to visit both kinds of places.

I have a very personal reason for my stance; much of my work involves the intimate relationship between people and place. I revisit my worlds of PUNKTOWN and LETTERS FROM HADES again and again, building further upon them, trying to make them textured and tangible. These settings affect the characters that move through them. In reading Thomas Hardy’s TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES, set in a beautifully evoked British countryside, I was struck by how Hardy used the changing of the seasons to reflect Tess’s emotional state. In the summer, Tess – a kind of pagan Earth Goddess in a patriarchal world – is happy, optimistic, in love. By winter time, she is rejected, alone, suffering. I’ve consciously worked to achieve similar effects in my stories. In a recent novella of mine called THE MASK PLAY OF HAHOE BYEOLSIN EXORCISM (from my collection THIRTEEN SPECIMENS), the protagonist doesn’t discover his true nature until he is displaced to a foreign country (Korea). I tried to give the city of Seoul real…soul. It isn’t a scary city, and I didn’t portray it as such. But as an American, this oriental city was disorienting to me when I visited it, and I tried to recreate that effect in my story, to set the character off- kilter, to make him feel alone, an outsider, a person in need of doing a little sight-seeing deeper inside himself.

Right now, I’m reading James Webb’s post Viet Nam War novel, LOST SOLDIERS. It captures that country in lush, minute detail. Is it overkill? If you stripped out the travelogue, you might lose a quarter of this book or more. Would that fact make it boring to another reader? I’m sure it would, for some. To me, I’m eating it up. The detail is vibrant. The country’s fractured, wounded state is a mirror of the fractured, wounded characters. Like I say, in something like Dan Simmon’s SONG OF KALI, the place is the story. What is extraneous to one reader is pertinent, indispensable, to another. What would Leonard make of the other novel I’m reading right now, Chinese author Han Shaogong’s A DICTIONARY OF MAQIAO, a mock dictionary of interrelated vignettes that challenges the very notions of narrative flow and what constitutes a novel? No zippy and simple point A to point Z here.

So…anyway…this is just an example of why I scorn rules. (I took exception to some of the others on Leonard’s list, too, but maybe that’s fodder for further essays.) The only rule I would urge writers to follow is: spell correctly. So that’s rule #2.

Okay, and rule #3. Read, read, read. Read Leonard. And read me.

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