Behind the Story: The Last Real Man

Posted: September 18, 2015 in Uncategorized
Art by the amazing Luke Spooner

Art by the amazing Luke Spooner

You know how I know that I’m living right?

I’m surrounded by amazing, talented, creative people.

Around about the time I was scaling back on this small press thing, frequent collaborators Jeremy Zimmerman and Dawn Vogel started doing this great publication called Mad Scientist Journal. If you haven’t checked it out, I encourage you to do so as it’s free to read online. Or you can get the quarterlies in print or e-book for the device of your choice that contain fun bonus material like classifieds. It’s an inspired project and it fills me with joy knowing it’s out there.

Last year they put together their first anthology, That Ain’t Right: Historical Accounts of the Miskatonic Valley which I was delighted to be published in. “Goat,” my story for that, was a short piece about Texas high school football and New England traditions that go back a bit further.

This year, they were talking about something a little different–an anthology of end of the world stories inspired in part by a poem that Dawn Vogel had found online.

Now, end of the world stories really aren’t my thing. I mean, I’ve read my share, and l love them. “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clark (1953) is a particular favorite. And as the anthology began to take shape, I got talking about possible end of the world scenarios with Dawn. Somehow, and I’m not entirely sure how, I promised her a story about werewolves.

God as my witness, I really don’t know how that happened, as I’ve never written a werewolf story before. But I started to get obsessed with the idea of what the end of the world could mean. Somewhere in there, I found a story about a manly kind of man, a former logger in a small town in Oregon that’s changing before his eyes, a story about a man facing a very personal apocalypse as muddy pickup trucks are replaced with Subaru hatchbacks with “Organic” and “Eat Local” bumper stickers.

Thus was “The Last Real Man” born. I wasn’t really sure if it was what they were looking for, but hey, they accepted it. Then I saw the cover and I started to get excited. I’ve been reading my copy since I got it and I’m blown away. They’ve managed to gather 23 stories from around the world, paired them with a sharp layout and gorgeous interior art, creating an anthology I’m crazy proud to be a part of.

So, if you’re a fan of small presses, check Selfies from the End of the World out. Jeremy and Dawn are the real deal, a pair of inspired editors with a great eye for a talent who sacrifice sleep and sanity to put out an amazing product.

If you’re a fan of apocalypse stories, they have 23 of them for you, each one a gem.

And if you’re a fan of werewolf stories, I have something weird lying in wait starting on page 81 just for you.

Autumn, Sleep, and the Writer

Posted: September 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

Triple DoorIt’s been a long, hot summer out there. Much of the state burned while Seattle just had heat and smoke, so it could have been a lot worst. But for those of us without air-conditioning (meaning most of us), it was a slog, and sleep was hard to come by in those hot nights, tossing and turning in knotted, sweat-soaked sheets.

Getting through a regular work week when you’re under-slept is rough. A week when you’re trying to write, edit, promote a book, generally do anything other than collapse at the end of the day is a special kind of trial. But you do what you have to do, fight your way to tiny fists full of sleep until the heat breaks around 4am and then maybe 3 good hours until you have to get up for work.

You survive. It’s what you do, because vacations in cooler climes or nice apartments with air conditioning is for other people.

So it was a great relief when cooler weather and rain started swept into the city, apparently to stay for a little while. The smell of rain, the hiss of tires on wet concrete, the tapping of heavy drops on my kitchen’s fan vent–it was enough to bring a tear to this old writer’s eye.

But here’s the thing: I have a history of not doing well with sleep. I call it the Hamster Wheel phenomenon.

Ten years ago when I was living on my own again and really had no life other than work and writing, I would put the coffee on at any time of day or night and just stay up and write whenever I wanted to. I could get by with a few nights of 4-5 hours of sleep and then catch up and it wasn’t exactly a bad thing. I set some really unfortunate sleep habits. But hey, it wasn’t like I had a lot of traditional self-destructive author vices. I barely drank and even then not to excess. I didn’t smoke and never cared for drugs. A little Bohemian self-indulgence, staying up to satisfy my muse, that seemed acceptable. I was also prone to the trap of staying up to what sounded like a reasonable bedtime rather than listening to when I was actually tired.

It wasn’t a huge problem. Except for the nights when I wanted to sleep but couldn’t, tossing and turning with a racing brain, cat-napping through the night. Turns out it’s a neuro-science thing that’s been shown with brain scans. The brain waves when you’re in a creative space are not the brain waves you need to be working with for sleep and relaxation. And I got too used to cycling my brain up at night time, a constant barrage of active mental engagement rather than letting go and sinking into an Alpha state.

My sleep suffered. As a result, my health suffered. So I had a bit of a breakdown a few years ago to just listen to my body. If I was tired at 7pm, by damn, I was going to go to bed at 7pm. There was no shame in it. And I more tightly regulated when I’d write or be creative in the evenings. One, maybe two nights a week. The rest of the time it was morning and afternoon.

And it worked. It helped. My sleep evened out. But last year I knew that with NaNoWriMo coming, I’d be writing more frequently in the evening, and I knew sleep was going to be a problem. I got my doctor to prescribe me Ambien, and with occasional use, I was able to get my bad sleep under control. But doctors are careful not to let patients rely on Ambien, so I got a refill or two nothing since maybe January. And other than the heat wave, it’s been okay. I’ve gotten the sleep I needed.

The heat has broken. Rain is pounding on the windows. And my sleep patterns are broken again.

See, it wasn’t just the heat keeping me awake this summer. I had two books come out, and I was crazy busy with editing and promotional things and thinking I needed to be working on what was next.

I don’t know the last time I finished something. My story in the just released Selfies from the End of the World, probably? And that was in the Spring. I’ve started several books. All have run aground somewhere short of 25k. I don’t think I’m going to finish two of them. I stopped one after the first chapter and I’m going to take a run at the rest of it once I outline it–maybe in December. A shorter piece I just started last weekend I need to finish laying out, but I hope to get it finished in September. But at this rate? I don’t know. I have a short story I want to write for an anthology that’s due mid-December. It might happen. I have two different projects outlined for November, which I should be able to power through under the auspices of NaNoWriMo, my 10th year since writing Greetings from Buena Rosa in that shitty basement apartment in the U-District while I rebuilt my life.

My brain is a coked up hummingbird in a cage of meat and bone.

I go from a night of broken but acceptable sleep to a night where I can’t cycle down, can’t fall asleep until 2 or 3am and go to work exhausted. Then that night I get to bed right after dinner, as early as 7pm, sometimes with an over-the-counter sleep aid, and I sleep for 11-12 hours solid. And then the cycle repeats. The Hamster Wheel is spinning so fast it’s starting to smoke. But it’s spinning in place, producing nothing.

I need to find a solution–something sustainable that isn’t medication. Will be trying reading before bed, maybe some focused meditation the next week. With luck, that will help me get ahead of this. If not, it’s going to be an interesting Autumn.

Available September 1, 2015

Available September 1, 2015 Cover by Luke Spooner

The following is an advance look at the next Cobalt City book, a grim look into the underworld of the city from which no one returns unchanged. Cobalt City: Ties that Bind will be available exclusively for the Kindle on September 1st, 2015.

Chapter Two—Bantam

If you keep your ear to the street like I do, you tend to hear things. For instance, I heard about group of hero nerds who created a complicated ranking system of all known capes, whether they’re heroes or villains or those like me who sort of fall in-between. They evolved this into online message boards and, believe it or not, a sort of fantasy league. I clean up on my office fantasy basketball pool but this was a kind of alchemy beyond even me. My activity on the fringes of the Cobalt City cape and cowl proved to be little to no help. But even if I wasn’t going to win any tournaments, I found their system of defining the relative “weight class” of given super powered individuals fascinating.

I was stunned to see that even I was ranked on their boards. I thought I was being discreet. Or at least as discreet as a vigilante in a rooster mask could be in this town. Apparently I wasn’t discreet enough because there I was, sixth from the bottom. To be fair, in addition to being new I hadn’t displayed any powers, just a pair of tonfa fighting batons, toe-spurs on my boots, and compact glider wings built into my costume. It made sense that I’d be feather weight. Bantam weight, if you will. The only capes ranked lower were ones I tended to think of as jokes or tourists who were going to get themselves killed in spandex. Snowflake, the panda who flew the plane for the Protectorate ranked above me.

I’ll admit, I was kind of hurt by that at first. But I had to be honest with myself. Knockabout could stop an army, locking them in place with the gravity of a dying sun. Mister Grey was a terrifying, immortal cloud of crematorium ash in human form. I could beat on a fool with my sticks. The rankings hurt, but not as much as having my spine ripped out.

I joined the cape fantasy league and was slowly figuring out the system. I made a point not to draft myself as I felt that would be unethical, especially after the corruption scandal that hit the Cobalt City Blue Blazers last season. In addition to keeping me occupied with another fantasy league, I used it as a guide to make informed decisions. When I pulled on the stylized rooster mask, I made it a habit not to pick fights outside of my weight class.

I don’t know what kind of medical plans other Cobalt City heroes might have, but I was stuck on the police department’s plan. If I showed up at my HMO with a proton blast wound, questions were going to be asked. The more questions I could avoid, the happier I’d be.

Bad enough I had a dead dad with a criminal record. Bad enough that I was woman, and barely met the department’s height guidelines at 5’ 7”. Bad enough I didn’t play well with others and hadn’t been assigned a partner since Olson transferred to vice in January. If word leaked that I put on a mask to do things as Bantam that I couldn’t do as a cop, I’d be out of a job.

I learned to embrace anonymity. You hear of people like Tree Frog or Midnight Thunder or even Gato Loco because the press loves the glamor of people in costumes stopping other people in costumes from committing crime. I vowed to keep it simple to keep under the radar. No capes. If they had a costume or powers or a name like “Dr. Destruction” or “The Reaver,” they were someone else’s problem.

I didn’t need press to feel I was making a difference. I didn’t need to climb the ranks in the fantasy league. There was still plenty of crime in Cobalt City committed by ordinary people making very bad decisions. No, it wasn’t glamorous. But even without costumes or powers, they were real monsters. They didn’t bother to wear masks because their victims were their own family, their neighbors. So I was able to work in the shadows because acknowledging me meant admitting that a person don’t need a death ray and an iron mask to be evil. No one wants to read that over their morning coffee.

When I heard that there was someone with a gun spotted entering an old hotel around the corner from me, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check. Give me a guy with a gun over some psycho with telepathic wolves any day of the week. He was relatively easy to spot, too. It was hot as balls out, and this joker was wearing a trench coat.

In retrospect, that should have been a red flag.

I didn’t recognize the fucker until he pulled on his mask at which point it was too late. He was distinctive with the mask: a black full-head affair with a giant blue circle over the face. A contract killer, new to the Cobalt City scene, he signed his two kills as “Regret.” The report said he carried two custom guns that fired a wide variety of specialized ammunition, which he proved to be true by whipping them out in the hotel lobby.

As the two midnight black hand-cannons appear from under his trench coat, I scanned for his potential targets. Despite my rooster mask, he hadn’t seemed to really notice me yet, and trained killer or not, he telegraphed his targets like a goddamned amateur. Two people stepping out of the fancy hotel bar across the lobby, a man and woman in their fifties, both white, both distinctly middle-class—not the kinds of people one usually pictured as the targets for a paid assassin. What could they have possibly done except maybe let the front lawn get a bit out of control? But in my years in Cobalt City, I’d seen people killed for less. And here I was, the only person between a contract killer and his paycheck.

There was no time to think, not even to second-guess myself. I launched a flying kick straight into Regret’s back. The impact was enough to knock him over, and the toe-spur in my boot sliced through the back of his coat. He tumbled across the worn gold-flecked maroon of the lobby carpet and came up in a crouch facing me, no worse for wear. It gave me the first good look at what he was wearing under the coat.

Kevlar body armor. Shit. That’s bad news.

I had my tonfa out, the length of each club down my forearms, ready to block. But two guns beats two sticks, especially with fifteen feet between us. I told myself that at least I bought the intended targets some time, but both of them had frozen up next to this potted plant, a big bastard with wide, deep green leaves that looked more at home in a jungle than a hotel lobby in New England. So much for hoping the rabbits would run.

“I don’t know who you are,” Regret said, “But you’ll bleed like the rest.”

Several years on the force and even more growing up in my dad’s shadow taught me the sound of a guy putting on a fake tough-guy voice. Despite the Kevlar, mask, guns, and stated occupation on his theoretical business card, this guy was not the world-class bad-ass he liked to project himself to be. That said, he was still a confirmed killer with specialized gun, body armor, and the drop on me.

He was out of my weight class. No doubt about it. would probably have given me long odds on dropping him. 45 to 1 was my guess. He opened up on me with one of his guns, and I had the good sense to recognize he wasn’t just waving them around as a threat. I flipped backwards and the shot passed inches below me as I got the hell out of the way. I came down on the other side of a leather sofa that looked as solid as a mid-sized sedan which had taken the bullet meant for me. The shot had dented the leather but not punctured it. Sandbag rounds. Non-lethal.

I doubted someone put him on retainer to tenderize this couple, so he might have balked at the idea of killing a cape. I might not be high profile, or any profile, but that kind of thing puts a target on a person’s back. There were far worse rounds he could have unloaded in my direction. His last kill had burned up from the inside out. While that target had been a sleazy banker connected to a billion dollar fraud scheme, immolation was still a hell of a way to go. At least he was going easy on me so far. I didn’t care much for his condescension, though it may have been the only thing keeping me alive at that particular juncture.

Regret must have figured me out of the fight and turned back towards his targets. I hurled one of the heavy sofa cushions at his arms with every ounce of strength I had. It might have been out of spite at being dismissed so readily, but it was enough to throw off his aim. The huge bronze-finished planter holding the jungle plant paid the ultimate sacrifice and showered the two screaming targets with dirt and ceramic dust. That was enough to get them moving, and both husband and wife, or I’m guessing husband and wife, dodged back into the hotel bar. If there was no back exit, they just boxed themselves in, but it was still better than standing in plain sight with thumbs up their respective rectums.

It still put me no closer to stopping Regret. I could close the distance, but the likelihood of getting shot at least once was phenomenally high. I crunched the numbers in my head, a skill that would have made me a great insurance actuary had I not dreamed for something different. It was automatic, an learned response to pick out this assassin’s weak points. He had his weaknesses. Everyone did. Despite the body armor on his torso and probably lighter weight armor in plating on arms and legs, his joints were still relatively unprotected. His mask looked lightly armored, flexible like ballistic weave, so it would stop penetration from a bullet and prevent slicing, but he would still be vulnerable to a blunt force trauma which I could provide in spades. But seeing a weakness and being able to exploit it were two very different beasts. For me to press my advantage, I had to get within striking distance or fling my weapons at him which was one hell of a gamble. With no practical cover between me the chances of losing my weapon or catching a bullet were high.

He must have seen my considering making a stupid decision and fired off two more shots in my direction to dissuade me. The first hit the sofa and froze it solid. The second filled my area with a choking smoke that forced me to pull back even further, behind a pillar on my left.

That’s when she showed up.

I had seen Velvet in the news for a while now, first attached to Starcom innovator Jaccob Stevens as something of a troubleshooter, and then as a member of the local superhero collective, the Protectorate. She was hot-headed. A scrapper.

As weight classes went, Regret was in for some rough learning.

He managed to squeeze off two shots at her, both of which hit her cloak and fell useless to the ground. Then she was on him, the fingers of her left hand curled in his armored chest piece like it was nothing. She lifted him off the ground and slapped him unconscious.

Not punched.

Slapped. Open palm. From where I stood, it sounded like the world’s largest belly flop and he was out like a light.

I swear on my father’s name, she looked disappointed.

Still holding the limp body of the hitman, she turned to face me. I saw her weighing the costume: rooster mask, brown bodysuit with wide stripes up the side in a deep russet. If she saw the toe spurs, she didn’t react. Most heroes didn’t wear blades. Too much risk of killing someone, which most heroes were careful about. But I wasn’t most heroes.

“Who are you?”

It would have made me happier if she had dropped Regret, but I suppose it was safer to hold onto him until the police arrived. “They call me Bantam.”

“Who calls you that?”

It was a legit question. I worked solo and struck fast, so it wasn’t like I had any serious press outside of the fantasy leagues. No one had called me much of anything out loud, let alone Bantam. I had been careful. But that had been my father’s name when he wore the same costume and it seemed every person on the damn planet had a camera on their phone now. One more thing to blame Jaccob Stevens and Starcom for, I guess. “People.”

It was enough of an answer for her and she nodded her head towards the captive. “Guess that explains the chicken mask. And what’s his name?”

I didn’t feel it was worth correcting her on the difference between rosters and chickens. “The papers call him Regret.”

She laughed, a lighter sound than I would have expected from someone with her presence, her visible strength. “Regret? Oh, that’s got to suck for him. Did he lose a bet?”

“You’ll have to ask him,” I said. “While you’re at it, you might want to ask who hired him.”

I imagine her eyebrows shot up beneath her mask though I couldn’t see it. Her entire demeanor shifted. “He’s a contract hitter?”

“Yes. No idea who hired him, but his intended targets are the couple in their fifties currently hiding out in the bar, likely reeking of their own urine. I’d really like to know why they were targets.”

Velvet looked in the direction of the bar, at Regret, back to me in quick succession. “And why should I trust you?”

“Because I held your playmate there off long enough for you to get here and stop him,” I said. I heard the approach of sirens. This part of town, they were likely from my precinct, too. I couldn’t linger. “Roof of St. Joan at midnight. I’ll share what I know.”

I got half of a nod from her. It was enough. And it was still a few hours away. Plenty of time for me to do some digging. I bolted for the stairs and took them two at a time until I hit the rooftop, somewhat winded. I wasn’t cut out for this. I knew it. Hell, Velvet probably knew it as well.

But I needed to know. It was going to drive me crazy if I didn’t. I took a few seconds on the rooftop to catch my breath before plunging off the north side of the building.

Arms out to my side, the glider fins caught the air, sent me soaring on a thermal updraft. I rode it all the way to my downtown apartment, sighting on the yellow rug hung over the railings as an easy marker.

I opened up the small plastic tool box on my tiny patio and rooted through the plastic baggies of incense until I found the pack of cigarettes I had buried there. I only allowed myself one a day, and damn if I hadn’t earned it today. Mask on the table next to me, I opened the sliding glass door to let my apartment cool off a bit while I sat at the little bistro table in the dark and smoked.
Violence was a funny thing. In the heat of the moment, anyone could be a target. But premeditated violence was something different. Give it enough forethought to hire someone to do the killing—that was something ugly and cold. It was impersonal, wanting someone dead but not needing the release of doing the act yourself, in fact cultivating that distance from the target.

In my experience, there were three kinds of people who went that route: someone who didn’t want to get caught, someone who wasn’t capable of doing the act themselves, or someone who simply believed the other person just flat out needed to die.

It made me wonder which we were dealing with.

And why.

Strong female heroes don't get much stronger than Velvet

Strong female heroes don’t get much stronger than Velvet

Frequent readers know that I have plans to put out another Cobalt City book this fall. I might have mentioned it once or twice. I might also have mentioned that it’s a bit dark.

I’m deep in my final edit pass right now, with a goal to have it formatted by the end of the month. I’ve also been talking to a cover artist who has done great work for some friends and fellow publishers. I think he’ll be a great fit for the material.

Here’s the thing.

It’s dark.

“But dude,” I hear you say, “You write horror. That’s already dark. Isn’t that like warning us that the ocean is wet?”

Yes. And so very much no.

Let me share a bit of an anecdote. Years ago I used to collaborate with a good friend of mine on screenplays. The first two were horror, and we reached an early understanding: he’d do horror, but not serial killers. His reasoning was that it was one thing to write about supernatural horrors, but he didn’t want to write about human monsters. Ultimately, he didn’t want to feed into our inherent distrust of one another. And I respect that, so no serial killers.

Yeah, I write horror. But pretty much without exception it has all been supernatural horror. I have no problem making people look twice at potentially evil finger puppets, or question what might be lurking, evil and eternal at the bottom of a cold lake. But I have pretty much steered clear of human monsters.

The next Cobalt City book is not horror. It is very much a crime story. And like Greetings from Buena Rosa, the roots of the story lie in very real life horrors. In the case of Buena Rosa, it was the large number of unsolved murders in border regions of Mexico, and police torturing innocent people into confessing so that they could show some sort of progress or resolution. In the case of the new book, it was the industry of sex trafficking.

The truth of sex trafficking and human slavery is horrifying. It’s real easy to see why we as a culture are so quick to turn a blind eye or pretend that it “doesn’t happen here.” But it does. It’s a shadow industry that, according to some studies, collectively generates more money than fast food. We’re talking billions of dollars.

It’s the kind of situation that makes me want to see heroes step in and address the problem. And rather than send Gato Loco in again, I found my heroes in Protectorate favorite Velvet and a new character named Bantam. They’ll be joined by Xia Lo, the Harlequin, enforcer for the city’s criminal syndicate. Maybe “joined” is too strong of a word…

In many ways, this book (originally called Thicker than Water but now titled Ties that Bind), is an exorcism. It’s become a deeply personal project for me. All of my point-of-view characters are female. 2/3 of them are Asian. One character is gay, another bi. In watching them navigate and confront the linked industries of human trafficking and sex slavery, I get to see them grow and change. For purely selfish reasons I get to confront a problem I find deeply problematic on a variety of fronts. And as I’m closing in on the end of this final edit pass, I recognize that it’s a damn good book despite being a brutal ride.

Yeah, it’s grim subject matter. The journey is not a fun one. Imagine Andrew Vacchs writing superhero comics in the 80’s. It felt necessary for me to write this, but I honestly can’t imagine anyone wanting to read it. Sure, there’s a glimmer of hope. These are heroes, after all. That said, it’s not like anything else I’ve ever written in Cobalt City.

But I’m publishing it anyway. I’m shelling out cash for a cover I can be proud of. I’m making the text as polished as it can be. And I’ll be dropping this dark little slice of Cobalt City out into the world sometime in late September. A tiny slice of hell at about 50,000 words in length.

I’ll be honest, it’s entirely likely that I won’t sell a single copy. While it’s certainly not the goal, it is the realistic expectation. I know that Cobalt City: Ties that Bind is a good book. It’s a book that I’m proud of. I don’t need sales or reviews to convince me of that. If you want something less grim, I encourage you to read any of the other books in the Cobalt City universe, either those written by me or by several other talented authors. Completely ignore this one. That’s fine. I don’t blame you.

But if you’re ready to take a peek into the darker corners of Cobalt City, I have a book for you.

(Current) Ten Favorite Songs (and Why)

Posted: July 22, 2015 in Music

Ink cover

So, I was asked to do this thing recently while promoting Ink Calls to Ink: pick something for a favorites list, then you know, build the list. Long time readers of my blog know how much I love music, so I chose ten favorite songs. Unfortunately timing didn’t work out and the list was never used.

Until now.

Without further ado, my (Current) Ten Favorite Songs (and Why):

Close Behind — Calexico — Not only does this instrumental capture the feel of the desert and the spirit of the greatest western never filmed, over the years I’ve come to think of it as my theme song. And if my Gato Loco stories are ever turned into a tv series or movie, I want this song over the opening credits.

Heaven On Their Minds — Andrew Lloyd Webber — There’s a reason that Judas is such a key figure in Ink Calls to Ink, and that reason is entirely Carl Anderson’s amazing performance in Jesus Christ Superstar. I’m not typically much of a Webber fan, but this song rocks and has always made Judas a sympathetic character for me. “Your followers are blind. Too much heaven on their minds” also comes back as a theme in my novel.

Night Lights — Gerry Mulligan Sextet — A delicate and simple piano tune leads you into the lush beauty of one of my favorite all time jazz songs. Listen, just listen, close your eyes and imagine looking out over a city at night. It’s absolute magic.

Tristan and Iseult — Tarkio — A great storyteller in rare form with the band he was in before the band that made him famous. For me it’s all about a good hook, and this has a great musical hook. And that line “He whispers soft, god, I love you but you trouble me, said Tristan to Iseult” just slays me every time. Because love shouldn’t be easy, otherwise what would we write about?

Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) — Joe Jackson — The horns slay, the bass pops, the guitar crackles, and the message turned my life around. You really can’t get what you want until you know what you want. No way around that. Once I realized what I really wanted was to tell stories, the rest of my life finally made sense. Plus, that astounding Graham Maby bass solo joined shortly by the Vinnie Zummo guitar solo and finished by horns is sheer perfection.

Jungleland — Bruce Springsteen — Sweeping strings and an epic story combine to show why Bruce Springsteen is such a master. The final song on his damn-near perfect Born to Run album, Jungleland felt like the thematic culmination of the rest of the album. Musically flawless with a sax solo courtesy of Clarence Clemons that will save your soul and lyrics that were sheer blue collar street poetry. It proved to be an influence on my novel Ink Calls to Ink in some strange ways. “Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy. Man the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it be. And in the pit of the night they reach their moment and try to make it on a stand, but they wind up wounded and not even dead.”

Like Rock n Roll and Radio — Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs — One of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, it’s the sound of loss set to music, the sound of drifting apart slowly but irrevocably. Sometimes this track will shuffle into my playlist and I’ll just listen to it on repeat five or six times in a row and let my heart get torn out again and again. To be able to do something like that with words is truly amazing, and something I aspire to.

Wild is the Wind — Nina Simone — Nina Simone is a force of nature that cannot be denied. Her voice was pure emotion. This has been my favorite song of hers for a while now. No list is complete without it. Her “Hmm” at 2:54 before the line “Don’t you know you’re life itself?” is worth the price of admission alone.

Rock and Roll Suicide — David Bowie — This song has been the basis for two short stories of mine, and I won a karaoke contest with it a few years ago. Again, this has a great horn section that sweeps in midway through. And when he bursts out with the “Oh no love, you’re not alone!” the song really flies into hyperdrive. Always a show-stopper, and still a staple in my karaoke repertoire.

All This and Heaven Too — Florence + the Machine — I’m somewhat of a latecomer to Florence + the Machine but this song blew me away almost immediately. That struggle to put words to something you can’t find words for set to a sweeping, symphonic arrangement is the very definition of epic.

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days...

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days…

I don’t think I’d be speaking out of turn by saying that everyone has fears, whether you’re able to articulate them or not. There’s nothing wrong with fear. In fact, there are some who consider a true lack of fear to be a neurological disorder.

The emotion, the reaction, is hardwired. It’s a survival tool from our earliest ancestors warning us when there might be danger.

And as a frequent horror writer, fear can be marketable. Just ask Stephen King.

Since I was nine, I’ve had a fear of ventriloquist dummies. The commercial for the movie Magic (1978) with Anthony Hopkins and Ann Margaret was the triggering factor there, though the seeds had been planted for a while. Now, no one I knew had a ventriloquist dummy. It was as rational as being afraid of zeppelins. But I still had stuffed animals at that age, and I began to distrust them as collaborators. I wasn’t afraid of the stuffed Smokey the Bear, mind you. But I couldn’t trust him. So they were all bundled up in black plastic garbage bags and moved into the basement.

My dad’s reaction was to tell me, “Well that’s just going to make them angry.”

That was very likely key in turning a silly, childish fear into a full-on phobia for a good portion of my life. But that was dad just being funny. I know how it goes. It’s kind of fun to scare your kids with things that you don’t think will stick. I know I did it to my own kids and I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage to their sleep schedules because of it.

But here’s the thing: I know the ventriloquist dummy thing is silly. I wouldn’t be comfortable around one in a dark room overnight, but I’m not really afraid of them anymore. My real, deeper fear is something else entirely. And by coincidence it also has it’s roots in something my dad said to me, though he wasn’t being funny at the time.

My paternal grandfather had Parkinson’s disease. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t have it. He depended on his wife to help with his medications, but when her Alzheimer’s became serious the family needed other options. That option was to pack up and sell their house and move them across state to live with my parents.

It was the first time I’d seen my grandfather in a few years, and it was the longest I had seen him since I was a baby. But living there with my parents, I was sometimes called on to take him to appointments. I loved my grandfather. He was always incredibly kind and a hell of a gin rummy player. He had a bushy gray mustache and a fondness for plaid shirts and suspenders. They lived close to the train tracks in Denver, so I could hear the train at night and remember that grandpa used to work the line when he was younger.

But I had a hard time dealing with him when he came to live with us.

He could barely speak. The Parkinson’s disease was so advanced that he just couldn’t form the words easily and eventually he kind of gave up trying.

My dad told me that grandpa was still sharp–still fully aware and smart as ever–but he was effectively locked inside his body.

My grandfather died a few years later. Shortly thereafter my dad started showing signs of Parkinson’s as well.

You might say it’s a family tradition.

So, let’s segue into the world of geek media, shall we? That seems like a nice, safe diversion! Surely nothing in, let’s say, MTV’s Teen Wolf could trigger a phobia, right? Not that sweet, goofy show about bare-chested young werewolf boys!

Enter the second half of Season 3, episodes 13 and 14. (If you care, there will be spoilers from this point on. But this season is over a year old so whatever.) Stiles, the goofy comic relief character, the normal human in the group whose primary contribution is that he drives a Jeep, has a baseball bat, and his dad’s the Sheriff, was part of a story arc that put him halfway between life and death. One of the consequences of this (for him) is an inability to know if he’s dreaming or not.

Now, usually this is an opportunity to do a lot of dream within a dream within a dream fake outs (and yes, they take that trope and run with it). But one of the elements of his dream-state is that he finds himself completely normal circumstances and be unable to read anything. The letters jumble up. Or move around. Or everyone uses sign language. Gotta give them props for originality. It’s the indicator to him that he’s dreaming.

Needless to say, Stiles is deeply emotionally fucked up by this situation.

And I’ve never seen anything on television that terrified me so deeply and so profoundly.

Fuck ventriloquist dummies. Fuck spiders or clowns or any external object that is typically a focus of fear. I mean, if you’re afraid of them, fine. To each their own. But your own brain betraying you? That’s scary.

I watched those episodes and remembered my grandfather, still sharp, still fully aware and smart as ever, but effectively locked inside his body. I remembered him spending the last several years of his life either trying desperately to communicate and being unable to do so effectively, or giving up on trying. It’s difficult for me to look back at that and not see him spending his last years in a prison of his own flesh, all the things he wanted to articulate but couldn’t locked up in there with him.

It’s the scariest thing I can imagine.

And all I can do is hope that I don’t follow in the family tradition.

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

It was Gaiman who said: “Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but … stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”

So I find it perfect in a way that my novel Ink Calls to Ink is being compared to Gaiman. He is a big influence on my writing. American Gods is a particular favorite. We seem to be on somewhat of the same page on how stories, and their characters grow.

That was what got me writing Ink Calls to Ink, at least.

These characters, removed from the relative “comfort zone” of their familiar texts find themselves in unfamiliar lands. All that they have left is their sense of self. Their stories. But at what point does the comfort of that known story become more crutch than comfort, more excuse to not change rather than grow?

We’ve all been there, believe it or not.

All our lives, we’ve had people try to fit us into boxes, held us up to their expectations. Whether it’s the gender-role expectation that girls want to be princesses who will grow up to be good wives and boys will enjoy sports and cars. Whether it’s the well-meaning societal expectation that we’ll go to college, get a job, and get married and raise the next generation. We’re fitted with labels that become scripts that become the paths society expects us to take.

Some are harmless. But I’d argue that most of them, even the benign ones, hinted at rather than articulated, are, at best, limiting. And it’s too tempting for us to use those same labels and expectations as excuses. Take for example something as simple as Astrological charts. I’m a Taurus, and if you know anything about Taurus, the Bull, it’s likely that they are stubborn. And yeah, I can be stubborn. You know who else can be stubborn? Pretty much everyone. Every time my stubborn streak is challenged and I react with “Well, I’m a Taurus,” then I lose–I lose that opportunity to do better.

It’s easy not to work on your own story. It’s easy to look at where you are and not challenge it.

Want another example?

I’ve been married. Three times, actually. The “Why” of the beginning and end for each of those is kind of immaterial. Suffice to say they all started with the best of intentions. They all seemed like good ideas at the time. And when they ended, that was also a good idea. But the “Why” of the overall narrative bears examining.

I always thought I was supposed to get married. I bought that social narrative. It was expected of me to get married, get a good job. I was sold a lie that that would make me complete. And when it didn’t I felt like I failed. The problem was that I was trying to follow a generic plan for a happy life that just didn’t fit. And as long as I tried to follow that script I wasn’t going to be happy.

It wasn’t until I had been alone for a while, throwing myself into my writing and making it my primary focus, that I realized what did make me happy. It wasn’t until I shed off any notion of what was expected of me, what other people’s idea of my happiness should be, that I was able to find my own. It’s at the very root of Existentialism, that the universe has no meaning for us and our lives that we do not find for ourselves. I found my better story by writing it myself. And it’s an ongoing process. I am constantly trying to evolve and grow my view of the world, to make myself a better person and the world a better place around me. We change the world by changing ourselves first.

But we have to be open to some brutal self-examination. We have to challenge ourselves and our preconceptions. And, ultimately, we have to change.

Which brings us back to the characters of Ink Calls to Ink.

The characters are shaped by their text. Even more so by people’s expectations based on what they know of the text. Judas, for example, is known primarily for his act of betrayal. His death is known, but there are different translations and editions of the bible and his manner of death is not consistent in all versions. Judas remembers all of them, because in that way he is myriad. But where is the deeper reading of his text? How does he fit into the larger story of which he was a part? Without his betrayal, could the rest of the tale happened? Does that make his act holy because it allowed the crucial martyrdom of Jesus? Does that, in turn, make Judas himself a martyr? Is he a villain or a victim? That is something that he’s left to struggle with throughout Ink Calls to Ink. Is he condemned to a limited reading of his text, or is he capable of more? Is he worthy of redemption, and if so, what form does that take?

Removed from their text, removed from that sense of predetermination, is it possible for the Fictional Personae to evolve and grow beyond their stories?

Do the Fictional Personae accept someone else’s story, or do they learn to write their own?

Do we?

Ink coverThe publisher of Ink Calls to Ink has folders of stock photos for their authors to use in creating promotional materials. They have a pretty amazing selection to work from and they’ve done a great job curating it. But in creating character intro posters to seed the launch event on Facebook, something dawned on me. I write some atypical characters.

This was particularly apparent with two characters: Juliet and Franklin, the Steadfast Soldier.

While I was able to eventually find an image that worked for Juliet, it was not without compromise. It’s not difficult to find stock images of teenaged girls. But Juliet is not your typical teenager. She’s been living on the streets of London by the time the novel starts, a frequent Heroin user continually trying, and failing, to poison herself. She keeps herself covered up as much as possible, and while still pretty, she’s not the kind of teen girl you typically see gracing the covers of urban fantasy novels.

But I found something that could work. Perfect? No. But no one gets perfection in this messed up world anyway, so we take what we can and move on.

The real challenge was the Steadfast Soldier.

Also homeless, he has a certain earnest, rugged charm. There’s no shortage of stock photos of attractive men in varying degrees of ruggedness and undress. But for the life of me, I couldn’t find any that were missing a leg. I’m not saying that there are no stock photos in the universe showing a one-legged veteran. I would almost guarantee that something like that has to exist somewhere. But it’s not sexy. It doesn’t sell books. So it’s not the image that would automatically be curated for book promotions.

The sad truth is that the disabled are severely under-represented in speculative fiction.

And honestly, I’m not entirely sure why that is.

Why, in genres where werewolf clans battle ancient vampire lords, where humankind can fly to the far reaches of the galaxy to encounter alien civilizations, where boy wizards and dragon-riding girls can challenge ancient evils, why is it so difficult to imagine a hero with a disability. Genre fiction already requires leaps of imagination to make pig boys into kings. Why is level heroism reserved for the classically able-bodied?

I guess I’ve never really understood that. In fact, in one of my first novels, Greetings from Buena Rosa, the main character spent the half of the book on forearm crutches. And he was strong, capable, and heroic the entire time. It didn’t define him but it was still an integral part of where his life was at that point, something he was still struggling with. It didn’t occur to me that a disabled Mexican detective was an anomaly in urban fantasy. Then again, he had a trigger-happy panda sidekick, so everyone had their own stuff to deal with.

The very first incarnation, the short story “Ink Calls to Ink” I knew that there were two conflicts: Goldilocks vs. the Bears and a third party vs. the situation of Goldilocks and the Bears. I honestly have no idea why I chose the Steadfast Tin Soldier to be that third party. I knew that the Fictional Personae were homeless and that there is an epidemic of homeless vets. (As of 2013 there were approximately 9,000 homeless ex-service personnel in Great Britain, making them about 1/10 of the overall homeless population.) And living in a city, I am no stranger to seeing injured vets on the street. I figured soldier Fictional Personae would be a good point of view character to explore the pointlessness of violence for the sake of violence and cycles of retribution.

Having grown up on the Hans Christian Anderson stories, the Steadfast Soldier just sort of sprung up as an immediate front runner.

And now, having lived with him in my head through that story, all the way through the novel and beyond, I’ve grown quite attached to Franklin. (Anderson didn’t give him a name, so he had to give one to himself.) Because he’s an amazing character, defined by his strength and resolution, his steadfastness, if you will. Not by his perceived limitations. And yes, I treat the fact that he only has one leg as a limitation because it has some very real consequences and challenges. But all good characters have limitations that challenge them. Overcoming challenges is what makes them heroes.

And if you think he’s going to let his limited mobility stop him from challenging a group of racist punks trying to assault another Fictional Personae, then you’re in for one hell of a surprise.

Ink coverIt all started with Mary Poppins.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.

Put a pin in that. We’ll be back around.

My dad was a librarian. More than that, he was librarian whose real passion (other than books) was Existentialism, notably Jean Paul Sartre. But it’s hard to pay the bills with philosophy so he got his library science degree and got a job at a college in a small Colorado town when I was three years old.

So it’s really not a surprise that I grew up loving books. I had this unpainted chipboard bookcase, five shelves, just packed with whatever books suited my fancy. Does anyone remember the Harvard Classics? I had the Harvard Classics “Shelf of Fiction,” all twenty volumes, black hardcover volumes packed with more stuff than I realized until I looked it up on Wikipedia just now. I think ours were originally published in the fifties if I remember right, but they were in great shape. And I’ll be honest. I loved books, but I didn’t have the most general of tastes. I consumed some volumes while others went untouched.

The only drawback of being a well read kid is encountering teachers who want you to read at the district’s level rather than your own. Our district’s 8th Grade reading list was boring as dirt and I refused to read it on principle. By that point I was already reading Catch-22 off my dad’s bookshelf. I really didn’t feel the need to revisit Huckleberry Finn yet again. My clashes with that teacher were the stuff of legend, and I expect to meet her on the field of battle in Valhalla some day. But that’s the story for another day.

Point is, man did I ever love me some old books.

Flash forward to the summer of 2002. I was gearing up to run a Role Playing Game (RPG for the cool kids) over the summer, something I visualized as a three-part epic summer blockbuster. To that end, I asked my players to envision a favorite movie hero to join in this crossover to end all crossovers.

My friend Susan picked Mary Poppins.

That’s when things truly went delightfully Meta. It forced me to confront the structure of the world we were playing in. If these fictional characters were, in fact fictional yet still able to function in a shared space, what did that mean? How would that work and what implications would that have? Beside the obvious being that Mary Poppins would make a kick ass spy, of course.

So I ran the game, but the world that had started taking shape because of those questions continued to bubble in the background. I figured these fictional characters, these shipwrecked Fictional Personae, would have a difficult time adjusting. That even with whatever skills they possessed, it was a tough transition. They didn’t exactly have references you could call. There were already a ton of people out of work. Real people. Resources to deal with the situation wouldn’t be available forever. And after a while, the novelty would wear off. Yeah, life for a Fictional Personae must be rough.

Oh, and naming them Fictional Personae? That was kind of an in-joke. I always do extensive outlining before I write any novel, and at the front of the outline I list all the essential characters with notes about them. I’ve been calling all my characters Fictional Personae for over a decade at that point.

A few years later I wrote a short story about the Steadfast Tin Soldier, Goldilocks, and the Three Bears. I quite liked it. It got published on the Wily Writers Podcast in 2009 (and republished in Night Mantled: The Best of Wily Writers in 2011). In reading the story for that initial recording, Editor Angel Leigh McCoy insisted that there was a novel in there. I didn’t see it. It was just a story. One little story about how there aren’t always happy endings for fictional characters.

Not a novel.

That was crazy.

I had a full outline written in less than a week.

Because she was right. There was a novel there. But maybe not the one she thought. The novel of Ink Calls to Ink gave me the chance to rectify a few raw deals. Removed from the context of their story but fully aware of the text, were these characters necessarily the heroes or villains that the texts made them out to be? If given a second chance, what would characters like the murderous scorned wife Medea do with it? How much blame does Judas deserve for the events of his story, and what would he do for a chance at redemption? What would Don Quixote do without a horse, windmills, or his Dulcinea? Would Juliet embrace life or, with Romeo nowhere to be found, become a suicidal junkie? With the memory of building and losing Camelot fresh in mind, what kind of leader would King Arthur really be?

More to the point, did they have the free will to find out for themselves, or were they slave to their texts and the ink in their blood?

I’ve always seen myself as a bit of an outcast, an underdog, a misfit. I identify with those kinds of characters. And I’ve always loved the characters who stand up for a belief bigger than themselves even if it destroys them. So to play with some of literature’s misfits and see if they could find the hero inside themselves was a dream come true. Of all the novels I’ve written, Ink Calls to Ink is my very favorite.

Ink Calls to Ink comes out in July from CHBB Publishing and will be available in print and ebook wherever you buy books, online or in your neighborhood–though you may have to have your bookseller order it. In fact, I’d sincerely love if you ordered it from your local bookstore, but you do whatever works for you.

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Six Desert Island Jazz Essential Songs

Posted: May 19, 2015 in Music
Time is never on our side.

Time is never on our side.

In my formative years growing up, my dad didn’t listen to popular music. A former musician himself (sax and clarinet), he had a fondness for classical and jazz. I was that kid who recognized the Dave Brubeck tune in the Tom & Jerry cartoon when I was ten just by benefit of osmosis. When I finally moved out and started buying music for my own collection, one of the first CD’s I bought was Jazz. And I still go back to it on a regular basis.

But I know Jazz confounds some people. They don’t know where to start, or what’s good, or what they might like. And that’s fair. There’s a lot of it out there across a wide range of styles. For instance, I’m a sucker for the West Coast Cool Jazz school, but I range outside of that as suits my whims. I find it stimulates the brain and doesn’t distract when I’m getting writing done.

So, because I feel like it, here’s Six Desert Island Jazz Essential Songs that I keep coming back to again and again.

Dave Brubeck QuartetStrange Meadow Lark 

From the album Time Out (which was the Frampton Comes Alive or Thriller of its generation), if you had one Jazz album in your house growing up, chances are it was this one. Strange Meadow Lark, which has a lovely, long piano intro before Desmond kicks in with the alto sax is just the epitome of Cool Jazz for me.

Ella Fitzgerald & Louis ArmstrongIsn’t This a Lovely Day

On their own, they are legends of Jazz. Together, they were magical–honey and vinegar. The formula is simple in concept but brilliant in execution: Ella sings an intro, Louis sings the song, then Ella repeats with Louis playing flourishes around her. Break for a trumpet solo, and then they reprise together, their voices blending into the sound of perfection.

Miles DavisSummertime

From his 1958 album Porgy & Bess which was arranged by pianist and Jazz legend Bill Evans, this is my personal favorite Davis track ever. It makes me think of sitting on a NYC fire escape to try and catch a breeze in a hot summer, neon flickering in the darkness. This song made me want to live in a city and have adventures more than any rock song I’d ever heard in my life.

Bill Evans TrioMy Foolish Heart

Speaking of Bill Evans, I’m so bewitched by this guy. His trio, this incarnation in particular, was absolute perfection with Larry Bunker on drums and Chuck Israel on bass. Give me rain, a cozy seat at the window, and turn on the Bill Evans and I’ll be there all day and night. The way he coaxes a tune out of a piano never ceases to astound me. And the other guys in the trio back him up like they have psychic powers. If you come away with an appriciation for any jazz musician you didn’t know before this, I’d hope it would be Bill.

Johnny Hartman & John ColtraneLush Life

Johnny Hartman is the best Jazz baritone you’ve never heard of. He’s like liquid velvet. Simply the best male Jazz vocalist I can imagine. This song comes from an album which paired him with legendary sax player John Coltrane for one of the best jazz albums of all time.

Gerry Mulligan SextetMorning of the Carnival from Black Orpheus

Ok, I’m putting it out on the line here. If you can find this album anywhere, buy it. You will not be disappointed. Unless you don’t like Jazz at which point I commend you sir or madam for making it this far. Opening with the song Night Lights which almost made this list, it also features this amazing Bossa Nova riff on a track from the soundtrack of Black Orpheus (which you should find and watch). Mulligan is from the West Coast Cool Jazz school, and one of the premiere barritone sax players around. This track sizzles and always makes me smile.