Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Number 50

(The Birthday Babes)
Five years ago, the Big 4-5 consisted of a day spent in my pjs enjoying the quiet of our old apartment.  Bruce went out for the day, and the cats honored my wish for time with the Muse by napping (or so I like to think; it's possible napping was their plan all along).  I plucked at an old idea (1982, according to the time stamp on the note card) -- a Lost in Space fan fiction called "Lost and Found" that soon found its legs.  It was only to be written for fun -- and what fun it served up! Over the course of several weeks, I read my beloved birthday novella to my then-writers' group members.  When all was done, various members told me they were sad it had to end.  That birthday memory -- complete with Chinese takeout later that night when husband returned from his errands -- may be one of my all time favorites.  There's another from a long time ago: a chocolate cake with coconut and cherries.  It was served in my beloved boyhood home on the lake, a house that no longer exists. Every birthday since coming north to Xanadu, I've made a version of that cake, and this year, the Big 5-0, was no different.

I've anticipated this year, my fiftieth on Spaceship Earth, for a while.  Back in my teens, I posited reaching Year: 50 with a kind of foresight that I think is unusual for the young.  I knew I wanted to be living in my own home by then, and living the life of a published and happy writer -- mission accomplished on both counts, whether by destiny or design.  Of course, I pondered the loss of loved ones (despite my wanting some people and things to last forever, many of the best haven't).  But as 50 crept closer, I decided to celebrate it instead of mourning what I've lost over the years.

(My favorite birthday cake)
This year's May writers' group party served a two-fold purpose -- to gather for a day of celebrating the muses, and also to celebrate not one but two birthdays, mine plus my fab friend and fellow group moderator Irene (about to enjoy her 29th-and-holding).  On a gorgeously sunny and balmy Sunday, guests began to arrive -- 21 in all -- and food appeared on the big kitchen table. So much of the latter, that we were forced to pull out our Thanksgiving folding table to accommodate.  Among the offerings were baby meatballs, two sandwich platters covered with baby sandwiches in a wide variety of types, fried fish kabobs with sweet & sour dipping sauce and sriracha (my newest obsession!), homemade potato salad, veggies and dip, and desserts stretching around the room -- the aforementioned birthday cake, hot pink diva cupcakes, lazy blueberry pie, rum cake, and fresh fruit platters.  I made my trusty fruit punch in the big drinks dispenser, and the birthday gifts stacked up. One was a new coffee mug bearing my Muse's handsome face.

(A living room full of writer friends)
The house filled with its second-largest guest list since becoming a destination for friends and writers in early 2013 -- twenty-one crammed into the living room and spilling out into the foyer. The readings were up to their usual brilliance, most centered around the themes of "The Number 50" and "The Number 60", in honor of the birthday babes.  I had written a chapter of my Space:1999 novel, METAMORPHOSIS (one of only two unwritten fan fiction ideas left in my catalog of ideas, and Number 50 on the list), but decided to hold off reading until the following Tuesday night's writers' group meeting because of the party's huge turnout.  Instead, I read the opening page of my sixtieth completed work of fiction, a short story penned in my Junior year of high school, "The Beckoning Sphere" (based on a surreal dream, as I recall).  To my surprise, the story's folder contained only a typewritten copy of the first draft manuscript.  That would have been the time I owned my first typewriter, which I'd spent the entire previous summer earning.  Apparently, I'd forgotten that I had, indeed, at least once in my life composed a first draft of something other than a screenplay on a machine.

(Cheeky!)
The day was energetic and energized, and stretched on well past sunset.  Then, our overnight guests, the fabulous Sisters Dent, and I did two hours of writing following clean up duties.  We spent the next day enjoying more of the same -- writing fresh copy, with breaks to refill coffee and to read aloud stories and novel chapters.  I was fifty, and still going about my days as I pretty much have from the time I turned fifteen and was shown a glimpse into this wondrous and fulfilling literary life I've embraced.

Next up, it's the big 6-0.  So long as I meet the decade to come with the same verve as my fiftieth, putting down fresh pages, seeing my work in print and on the screen, and harming none, I'm looking forward to what those ten years will bring!

Friday, June 19, 2015

All My Children

(Doing my thing at 2 p.m. EST, with my TV family on General Hospital,
the Quartermaines)
Last summer, I started doing this thing. Unconsciously at first, but as the weeks wore on, it became second nature, like breathing. During my one hour of TV time in the afternoon, my soap opera break for General Hospital, I started standing up instead of sitting.  My friend Irene does this at the weekly meetings of our Berlin Writers' Group (BWG is the Cadillac of writers' groups; I'm always learning something and leaving there inspired). Irene stands because of comfort issues. I figured I sit enough throughout my days, so why not do something other than plunk my butt on the sofa when I take sixty in the living room.  But then something else started developing, and I'm so happy it has.  During that hour and other fun, mostly mindless breaks for TV (I'm talking about you, Guy's Grocery Games and the occasional Red Sox outing), what I've done is spend that time attending to the needs of my other family: my writing.

My flash fictions, short stories, novellas, novelettes, novels, teleplays, and screenplays are my babies. I never had the desire or instinct to want human children (feline, absolutely!), so my babies, my legacy, are my stories.  And like any healthy familial relationship, it requires maintenance.  So, during these little weekly sips of family time with my writing, I spread out my list of as-yet unwritten tales, make sure that new ideas find their way onto note cards, and review the stories that require my immediate and near-future attention.

(A novella that wants to be a novel, a novel presently in the works, and
some insanely gorgeous new designer file folders)
Right now, there are over a hundred and fifty babies in my card catalog of unwritten story ideas -- call me the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe of Writing (emphasis on 'old' following my recent 50th birthday bash, a subject for an upcoming blog story). Like any good parent, I don't discriminate between them. When an idea hits, I jot it down. Are some of my babies better, prettier, smarter than others? Probably, but I've been writing for a long time, and trying to write all of my ideas to completion since I was a teen, after I read an article in an old Writer's Digest about a Science Fiction legend who had abandoned two out of every three of his story ideas, and left the stalled drafts moldering around his office.  To this day, all of my efforts are neatly filed away in designer folders (not manila; how bland and colorless!), even my stalled drafts.  Some of the completed never leave home for publication. Many others have brought home contracts, awards, and have helped to put food on the table and pay the mortgage over the years.  Still others, the ones requiring a little extra attention, howl at me in the night, telling me they require more of my time.  I'm trying to be the best 'parent' possible for all my children, focusing on their needs, and feel fairly confident that I'm doing a fine job, with a long way yet to go.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

BEHOLD! SLAVE STORIES: Scenes From the Slave State

We're all slaves to something -- loves, lusts, chemicals, memories, obligations, history.  For a long while, I've jokingly said that I'm a slave to my Muse, that rugged, unshaven taskmaster who, for a decade now, has resembled a certain lieutenant colonel from the lost city of the Ancients but in recent weeks has taken on the guise of a former Deputy Sheriff tasked with the unenviable responsibility of saving the world.  I love my Muse, though I am, to use the lingo of this era, his bitch.  I'm lucky that I get to pour my coffee in the morning before I hear his fingers snapping, motioning me toward the lined page and pen or laptop for whatever deadlines and adventures await. I'm also lucky in that my Muse and I play extremely well together, that we have since our introduction on a muggy, stormy July night in the summer of my fifteenth year on Spaceship Earth when I figured out what I wanted to do with my life in one of those Eureka! moments that forever changed my world and, yeah, saved me.  I love to write.  I am a slave to my muse.  I am among the luckiest human beings who've ever walked the planet.

Not so the slaves who inhabit such fourth-dimensional shadow realms like Moosejaw, Wire City, and the other hopeless landscapes where humans are forced into hard labor in alien mining enclaves explored in author Chris Kelso's grimdark universe, Slave Stories: Scenes From the Slave State, published by the fine folks at Omnium Gatherum.  I was one of several scribes who received a personal invitation from Kelso, a young writer from the UK whose brilliant star is on the rise, to contribute to his shared-world experience. After reading up on the Slave State Primer, I had the opening for my story, "The Coin-Operated Man" -- about a hired gun who shepherds two refugees deep into Moosejaw territory, where a particularly valuable substance is being extracted as part of the mining operation. My foray into Kelso's sandbox left me immersed in a world of nihilism, betrayal, sweat, and pain.  And I had more fun in his fourth-dimensional world of horrors than I initially thought possible.

The book is stunning, with cover design by Terence-Jaiden Wray and gorgeous interior illustrations by Robert Thomas Baumer (Soussherpa Art).  Many of my fellow authors who also played in Kelso's world were kind enough to share the back-stories behind their stories.

Simon Marshall-Jones on "Shatterdemalion": "I suppose, like most creative people (and writers and artists in particular), the inspiration for stories or images can be found anywhere. In this instance, the springboard for my Slave State story is two-fold, a concatenation (or, perhaps, a collision) of two influences -- the very human need for spiritual salvation, and the darker end of the mystical pool from which ‘saviours’ appear to surface on a regular basis. Desperate people are malleable; provide them with promises of an end to their existential sufferings and a reward for their endurance, and they will gather. The aromatic honey of that desperation will often bring the worst type of the charlatan to it: unscrupulous monsters willing to denude those who have already suffered enough for their own personal gain, and in the process subverting the definition of what it means to be human itself. The saviour here is a cipher of that erosion of the soul such charlatans enact. The title came to me whilst travelling on a bus -- a combination of tatterdemalion (a person wearing ragged or tattered clothing) and people whose lives have been unknowingly shattered. Hope you enjoy it!"

Roger Lovelace on "Wax Worx": "I’ve always wanted to write a story with the idea of setting it in a wax museum. This goes back to my love for old horror movies. The vintage Universal logo with the plane circling the globe was my late night North Star. When my good friend, fellow writer and sometimes co-conspirator Gio Clairval suggested I submit a piece for consideration, I immediately dropped what I was doing and churned out a story. I was familiar with Chris Kelso’s work and wanted a chance at being a part of this project. Chris’s response was positive, but he was looking for something different. I picked back up the as yet untitled wax museum story and molded it into something that I hoped would fit into this exotic, dark world he had created. I saw the Wax Worx as a pit inside an already stygian world. It is a place entered through a fractured revolving door. A haven revealed to be worse than the polluted city surrounding it. Marie Antoinette is a stained adult toy and Marco a misshapen Caligula of a moldy kingdom of ages. Did I have fun writing about masochistic pimps, cardboard torture and ‘happy’ trash? You bet."

Violet LeVoit on "To Imagine Disaster is to Invoke the Same":  "Despite all my efforts to the contrary, I am irrevocably American in character, and the way that most often manifests in my behavior is a slavish desire to believe in contemporary mythologies. We Americans enjoy self-delusions about clean slates and new frontiers: California dreaming, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, the synthetic rebirth of Times Square as a corporate-funded simulacra of itself. But despite all the churches in the Bible Belt promising a fresh start after being born again, the South is still where the bodies are buried, literally and figuratively. The tumult rises to the surface every now and again, as it just did, messily, in my hometown of Baltimore a few weeks ago, and sinks back down into the sweetly perfumed mire. I wanted a story that could span those two polar truths about the American South while addressing the Disneyland impulse for newer and better ersatz experiences, while also still staying humble in light of how the contrast between antebellum gentility and bloody secrets isn't new territory for writers. To that end, I paid homage to those who had gone before me with a title that sounded like it could have come out of Flannery O'Connor."

Love Kolle on "Doctor Sector and the Song of the Artificial Transmatizer": "When I was first approached by Chris Kelso about writing a piece set in the slave state literary universe, I immediately jumped at the chance. I had admired his writing for quite some time before the offer, and as Kelso and I have similar influences -- I am referring to Burroughs and Dick in particular -- I felt right at home in his Slave State setting (both as a reader and a writer). The very first artistic decision I took had nothing to do with plot or characters, but style. There is this experimental, daring side to Kelso's work that I find really inspiring, so that I had to try to honour. The idea for the actual story -- a piece called ‘Doctor Sector and the Song of the Artificial Transmatizer’ -- came as I read ‘Transmatic’ as preparation. One particular scene featuring a rather eccentric supporting character named Dr. Sector struck a chord that resonated with me on a subconscious level, and made me ponder the metaphysical constitution of Kelso's literary universe. Then, a few days later, during a sudden flash of inspiration that came out of nowhere like a burst of spontaneous transmatica, I wrote it all down in one sitting."

Seb Doubinsky on "Ruins": "Chris Kelso had asked me to write something for an upcoming anthology set in his Slave States universe. I had said, ‘yes, of course’ and immediately forgot about it, as I was fairly busy with different projects. A few months later, Chris asked me if I had written that something for him. Of course, I hadn’t and I felt really bad about it, as I am a great admirer of Chris’s work and grateful of his unflinching support. What’s more, I was stuck in a crazy schedule that completely prevented me from sitting down and writing a story. Fortunately Chris had eyed some of my recent poems, which dealt with the desperation and angst of youth. He asked me if he could use those, and I realized that, indeed, they would fit well. After all, isn’t adolescence all about living in a permanent Slave State we call ‘society’?"


Richard Thomas on "From Within": "With my story, I tried to use the new voice I'm working on where I replace death at the center of my fiction with love. I have a habit of killing off a lot of people, using it as a bit of a crutch, so I wanted to make sure that neither of my main characters died. But that doesn't mean there isn't a threat. And world domination, slavery, at the hands of these beasts, well, it's kind of a fate worse than death, right? I thought about what the father's greatest fear might be in this new world, something I've been doing ever since I took a class with Jack Ketchum, and the obvious thing to me was that his boy would be taken from him. It's bad enough they have to work in the mines, but to have him taken away, never to be seen again? That seemed like the worst thing that could happen. I also wanted to give the boy a chance to be the hero, and if you pay close attention early on in the story, you'll see that I plant a seed toward the front, the old Chekov concept that, ‘One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off.’ Can you spot the gun?"

John Palisano on "Dodge and Midge Escape the Silo": "It’s been a long, crying time since I met Midge, deep in the Slave State -- hopeless purgatory fuck-all. I swung an electro-hammer beside him, smashing stacks of dried shit bricks of the Drivers. We reeked of burnt cherries and milk-bone. There was one decent Driver. Chris Kelso. Instead of fetid bricks, he fed us wildberry pies laced with Scorpion powder. Stuff makes two rocks about the same size look like the sexiest thing you ever saw. Those rocks’ll turn into planets and you’ll be in outer space. That’s where Dodge bonked me upside the head. I was busy tripping my balls off when this spritely wad of energy found me. ‘You? Yes! You’re good and ripe, and ready to hear how me and Midge rode the floods and took down the Silo?’ A frowning oaf of a man stood nearby. Dodge giggled like a nervous schoolboy. ‘I don’t think he’ll have any problem taking this in and spewing it out later, will he?’ ‘Don’t think so,’ Midge said. He was right. I was open . . . on a plain they say . . . when Dodge sat, cleared his throat, and didn’t shut up for twenty minutes."

Laura Lee Bahr on "Black Out in Upper Moosejaw": "Once Upon a Time I worked corporate. I had good and bad masters.  My last corporate master almost broke me.  I kept my heart alive by writing emails to myself of story fragments, thinking up rap lyrics, and fantasizing about different relationships with co-workers beyond the mechanistic robotic roles we enacted daily. There is power in what we tell ourselves that we love, even if we know it can never love us back. Acting upon that love can be an act of sabotage.  It can destroy you, the other, or even the hive itself."

Gio Clairval on "Escape From the Slave State": "The idea of my story came from my pyromaniac tendencies. I already blew up an anthology when I was invited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer to contribute to The Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, a gathering or weird objects. In that story, the protagonist went and burned down the good doctor's cabinet, along with the stuffed dodos and an entire box of ampersands, which is why my story was the last on the Table of Contents. So, when Chris Kelso elbowed me in the ribs about The Slave State (I was already going to accept because he's the haws, but I let him try to convince me anyway -- I'm bad like that), I started to plot the new bonfire. It's all set now. Ignore the billowing smoke. Keep turning the pages. You'll find my story at the end, and it will scorch your eyes."

Saturday, May 16, 2015

SLAVE STATE OF MIND: Interview with Chris Kelso and Kate Jonez

I woke up this morning to a warmish day, gloriously green outside all of Xanadu's windows. But six months ago, the view beyond the panes looked suspiciously like I imagine the Slave State appearing: cold, colorless, the trees bare, an unforgiving, inhospitable landscape I've come to think of as kin to the winters up here in the north country. A gray place and time.  Late in November of 2014, while the snow was already piling up outside our home, I received an instant message on Facebook from a young, talented rising star, Chris Kelso, inviting me to contribute to an anthology he was putting together.  The project would mine the depths of the sinister world he'd built, the Slave State -- a fourth-dimensional realm of pain, where humans are forced to live out hard time mining metals and other essentials under alien dictatorship.  Chris was aware of my byline, stating he wanted me to be part of the madness. I was both touched and humbled, agreed to write for the project, and quickly immersed myself in his world of pain and horror. The Slave State is populated by individuals living in hopelessness and nihilism. Within hours of reading up on the Slave State primer, I had a title involving my main character, a man-for-hire -- "The Coin-Operated Man" -- and a road map into Moosejaw, one of those places you never want to wake up in (but are great fun to visit!).  I dashed my story's longhand draft off in two days, and it was quickly accepted into the project, where it shares space with a stellar galaxy of talented scribes. SLAVE STORIES: Scenes from the Slave State has just been released by the fine folks at Omnium Gatherum Books.  It was my joy to speak with Chris, Editor and World-Builder, and the fabulous Kate Jonez, publisher and multi-award nominated author, about the journey forth -- or fourth -- into the Slave State.

Chris, the Slave State originated in your wonderfully wicked psyche, and you've shared with me that it has a clear connection to the surrounding lay of your home in the UK.  You've built a pretty bleak world in the Fourth Dimension -- tell us about the Slave State.
The Slave State is the worst place in all the universes, worse even than contemporary Ayrshire. It’s where hope goes to die. It’s the spider that eats you when you get to Hell. But the all ensconcing misery of slavery and subjugation at the hands of our alien overlords is just the beginning, Gregory. There is much more. There is constant violence around you, every face you meet will return a glance full of unwavering apathy and there’s a pesky little depression virus assuming the form of a black dog patrolling your streets in search of hearts and minds. Think of the Slave State in the same way you’d regard the allegory of the cave. There are three stages; imprisonment in one world, freedom from it, and then further imprisonment in a new world, and there can be absolutely no escape from that world. The Slave State isn’t so far removed from this reality. It gets as dark as charcoal the deeper you delve into it, it just depends how far you’re willing to go really. Which is exactly what you’ll have to do. People should enjoy these tales of humanities enslavement though. There’s a lot of truth and pathos in there that can provide you with a unique perspective on life. More often than not, things only get light again when circumstances are seemingly at their darkest.

(Editor Chris Kelso)
Kate, what was it about Chris's concept that intrigued you so the project was green-lit by Ominium Gatherum?
I first encountered the idea of Slave State in Chris' The Black Dog Eats the City and when he told me he invited other writers to explore the world he'd created I was excited to see how the world would expand. I wasn't disappointed. Wire City, Spittle, Ersatz and the rest are even more vivid than before. I feel like I could hop on a plane and visit. Although maybe it's a place I should just read about...

Chris, you built the world and then invited others to share in your lunatic vision.  This must have been an eye-opening experience, seeing other writers interpreting that vision, right?
It was truly wonderful. I didn’t expect to get so many submissions. I actually predicted that no one would have a bloody clue about the books or their history and I figured that the writers I sought out for solicited submissions would give me a polite refusal. Neither of these things happened. The first timers in the book wrote with frustration and bite, like pissed off teenagers seeking to foment revolution. I could feel them eagerly articulating and projecting their own personal Slave State fables. It was even more wonderful when writers I admired sent in stories rooted in my creation. Everyone really seemed to get what the Slave State books were all about and took the mythos to places I could never have reached alone. The entire legacy of the Slave State has been strengthened tenfold because of these writers’ contributions. 

(Publisher Kate Jonez)
Kate, in addition to being the anthology's publisher, you're also a successful writer.  You know story.  What are some of the surprises you enjoyed from helming this project in terms of the submissions?
 I was impressed by how well this anthology brings together such a diversity of stories and illustrations while still adhering to the Slave State theme. The quality of the writing from story to story is exceptional. The emotional tone varies from horror, to abject misery, to melancholy and, surprisingly, even hopefulness. Each story can stand alone, but also does its part to add another piece to the whole. 

Chris, you hand-selected the authors who appear in the Table of Contents.  How and why did you approach the scribes that you did?
Well, you know, I selected some of the writers. There are a few people in there who merely responded to the sub call on my website -- stories from Shane Swank, James Sposato, Love Kolle, Roger Lovelace, Mitchel Rose, Ian Welke and Clive Tern were unexpected blessings, all talented writers who have gained a new admirer (Shane Swank also happens to be an amazing artist and supplied some beautiful interior art for the anthology). The writers I handpicked were chosen purely because I loved their stuff. There are some incredible pros in the table of contents, it’s still a bit surreal to scan the final line-up. I’ve appreciated people like John Langan, Gary Shipley, Andrew Hook and Kris Saknussemm from afar for a while. It took guts to approach them and ask for fiction donations. I got some great verse from Seb Doubinsky, who I was initially just a fan-boy for, but who has since become a valued friend. As for the others, well…. Much like yourself Greg, Andrew Coulthard, Richard Thomas and Rhys Hughes -- all fine examples of those seasoned genre authors who are just fucking addicted to writing, so I figured you guys would definitely be up for sending something in and I knew the standard would be really high. You were my safest bets, the willing and profoundly gifted.  Mary Turzillo’s short fiction has always impressed me and, I mean, getting a submission from a Nebula winner is always a boon, isn’t it? I felt like she was one of the marquee signings. She didn’t disappoint! Laura Lee Bahr, Spike Marlowe and Violet LeVoit are my three favourite bizarro writers -- PERIOD. I had to get them in there. I’ve worked with writers and artists like Hal, Terence, Preston, Gio and Michael Faun on a few occasions now and am always keen to get them involved in projects because they’re so talented and versatile. Same goes for big John Palisano. In fact, he gave me my first break by publishing ‘A Message from the Slave State’ through Western Legends, and apart from being a multi-award nominated author and screenwriter, I felt John was as important a part of the mythos as anyone. I guess he’s to blame….I always considered Simon Marshall-Jones’s Spectral Press to be one of the best horror imprints out there. He’d expressed his fiction writing desires on Facebook a few times and I thought it might be interesting to test the water there, fortunately his fiction is also brilliant. When it came to finding home-grown flair I didn’t have to look much further than the Slave State template of Glasgow for writers. Sometimes I help out with a local event there called the Speculative Bookshop, which is where I met Mick Clocherty, Phil Differ and Dale McMullen (and subsequently became acquainted with artist Dario D’Alatri and collaborators Tony Yannick and Warren Beckett). I know most of those guys personally and we’re all pretty like-minded. I consider them gifted artists in their own right too. I was always going to seek subs from my Speculative Bookshop buddies. Finally, I wanted this book to be fully illustrated and Soussherpa Art (Robert Baumer) really caught my eye on Facebook. His depiction of the miners toiling in their enclaves was absolutely perfect. I was lucky to get so much talent involved, yourself included. 

Kate, there's talk of a potential follow-up to the anthology. What's next for the Slave State -- and for Omnium Gatherum? 
I'm looking forward to publishing more tales from the Slave State. This summer Omnium Gatherum will be publishing Wire and Spittle by Chris Kelso. This is a companion novella to Slave Stories about inner city anarcho punks and their last gig before the eventual annihilation of the state. I hear Chris has plans for other works set in the Slave State. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next. As for Omnium Gatherum, we are growing fast. This year we'll be publishing 14 books from fabulously talented authors. I'd love to invite your readers to sign up for our readers club. http://www.omniumgatherumbooks.com/club/  We're about to unveil a preferred reader program that will give people an opportunity to receive books in advance of publication. Even greater things are coming in 2016 as we add new employees and explore opportunities opening up for innovation in small press publishing.

Friday, May 8, 2015

BEHOLD: SCI PHI JOURNAL #5

Last summer, I woke from one of those haunting dreams that left invisible ice over my flesh, and an ache in my heart.  In the dream, I learned that a friend of mine who died in a terrible car accident soon after the summer I turned eighteen had been brought back -- his parents had won the right in a government-sponsored lottery years earlier, but had kept their second chance on the q-t.  By the time I met this incarnation of my friend in the dream, he was a teenager, pretty much the age I last knew him in the real world leading up to the accident.  I woke up the next morning to welcome our wonderful weekend house guests, those fabulous Sisters Dent (both are world-published authors, great friends, and forces to be reckoned with; Karen, as I often like to point out, was once a successful actor who appeared on my late, beloved soap, One Life to Live).  As is usual for one of those weekends spent with two of my favorite friends and writers, we ate a spectacular lunch, filled our coffee cups, and settled in the living room to write and read from our latest projects. From the moment I put pen to page, the story based upon that eerie, bittersweet dream dashed itself off, pretty much in the order I experienced it.  The story went out to Jason Rennie, publisher of the spectacular magazine Sci Phi Journal.  Late on a Saturday night, during a break from whatever movie we were watching on the living room flat-screen, I sauntered into the Writing Room to check emails and found that 'George the Second' had been accepted into Issue #5.  The issue was just released, and contains work by amazing writers and artists, many of whom were kind enough to share the back-stories behind their contributions.

Roy Gray on "Why We Are Here" (Article): "New Scientist, 20 April 2006 issue contained Amanda Gefter’s piece 'Exploring Stephen Hawking's Flexiverse'.  Quoting from that, ‘The real lesson of these so-called singularity theorems is that the origin of the universe is a quantum event.’ My article started there.  It set me thinking that assuming the act of observation is crucial to quantum phenomena we, humanity, could be the observers. But we are here and now and the singularity that birthed our universe was then. I likened that moment as a version of Schrodinger's cat (a cat isolated in a box lives or dies by a quantum event) and our stargazing as opening the 'box or boxes' and so slowly closing in on the singularity. That led me to wonder if our future activities, using more advanced technology, have opened boxes. This suggested a variety of possibilities so I wrote the article but had no idea what to do with it. I even turned the result into poem but, as I’m a less than competent poet, no one was interested. I have read it out at a few SF conventions but probably bemused my audience."

Jeffrey A. Corkern on "On Emotion Drugs" (Article): "Is it possible to prove the existence of the soul using purely scientific methods, cold, objective logic and reason? Yes. Quite easily. In Sci Phi Journal #4, Jeffrey A. Corkern, in ‘On the Sentient Constraints of a Sentient-Containing Universe,’ explained why the existence of sentients in a Universe must be eternal, asked if analysis of human behavior would show at its rock-bottom the assumption of eternal existence, and urged the immediate commencement of a scientific effort to build a soul-detector. In Sci Phi Journal #5, in ‘On Emotion Drugs’, he shows this assumption clearly exists at the societal level, how the universal societal prohibition against emotion drugs has as its founding assumption the idea our existence is permanent and eternal. As a matter of logic, the entire problem turns out to be completely trivial. So completely trivial, in fact, any reader will be able to follow the logic for himself or herself and decide whether or not Mr. Corkern is right in urging the immediate commencement of a scientific effort to build a soul-detector -- or not. He guarantees you an interesting read."


(Artist Cat Leonard's beautiful artwork for 'George the
Second')
L. Jagi Lamplighter on "HMS Mangled Treasure: The Rescue of Mister Spaghetti" (Fiction): "My story takes place in the background of my Prospero’s Daughter series. (Mab, the supernatural detective, is a character in that series.) I originally wrote it for a Bad Ass Faeries Anthology.  When the time came to contribute, I didn't really feel like writing anything, but I sat down and prayed about it. The idea for this story came to me, and it made me cry. I figured any story that made me cry, I should probably write. It was hard to write, in a way, because it posited things that made me uncomfortable. I thought someone was going to complain fiercely about what the story says about autistic children...but to date, no one has. Sammy, the main character’s son, is based in a large part on a friend of my son. But the incident where Sammy peed on the neighbor’s doorstep was taken from the annals of actual family events -- though I am happy to say that, in my case, the neighbor forgave us."

Scott Chaddon on "The Great Teacher" (Fiction): "Years ago I spent a lot of time contemplating God's purpose for this world. In college I majored in art and minored in theater and learned that perfection of form never happened in a first attempt. I applied this understanding in forming one potential explanation as to why this world was so messed up. In all honesty the planet itself was perfect and it was mankind that was so terribly flawed. Humanity has a disturbing tendency to destroy everything it touches, including itself. Along this line of thinking I derived the theory that our world was a sketch, a rehearsal if you will, for God to realize every possible flaw and error in it's design so that it could use this experience to create a perfect people for a world. A world where the people lived, loved, created and did not destroy. It was from contemplation of this idea that my story was created."

Anthony Marchetta on "The Philosophy of Serenity" (Article): "‘The Philosophy of Serenity’ was originally an article I wrote pretty much for my own amusement called ‘Serenity: A Philosophical Review’. I wrote it right after I finished the movie Serenity for the third time (since then I’ve seen it at least once, maybe twice, more). I am a huge, slobbering C.S. Lewis fan, and when I watched the movie it struck me that Whedon, virulent atheist that he is, was making a pretty massive concession to the theistic side of the Great Debate.  Essentially, through the characters of Mal and Book, Whedon was admitting that, taken to its logical conclusion, atheism leads to complete despair. He even goes as far to say that it’s better to believe in literally ANYTHING than nothing at all. And C.S. Lewis said much the same thing in the climax of his novel The Silver Chair. Think about how blasphemous of an idea it is, in the modern world, to admit that it’s better to believe in a lie than to believe in nothing. It’s remarkable Whedon managed to get away with it without being publicly drawn and quartered."

Ben Zwycky on "Beyond the Mist" (Serialized Fiction): "Beyond the Mist -- a serial that began in Issue 2 and is still ongoing -- is a story of a man beginning with absolutely nothing: no possessions, no memories of who he is or how he came to be here, no reference point to be able to tell where he is or what is happening, no knowledge of the wider world, and not even solid ground to stand on; he is falling (or is it flying?) through an endless mist. One voice informs him that the mist is the last refuge of freedom from a world full of suffering and slavery; another that it is a self-imposed prison in a world full of beauty and adventure. Which should he believe? He makes his choice, and then things get interesting."

Patrick Baker on "Civic Militarism and Heinlein's Starship Troopers" (Article): "I am a part-time military historian, and I was working on an article on the history of civic militarism in the West.  Civic militarism is the idea that active citizenship is a transactional relationship between the nation and citizen.  In short, the concept is that a free citizen joins in the military forces of their country to fight and defend it; in return the citizen is recognized as a fully participating member of the body politic.  The thought occurred to me that the so-called 'Heinlein Rule' from Starship Troopers, where only military veterans are allowed to vote and  hold office, was the logical extension of civic militarism.  At the same time, I had to address the various objections to the idea, such as that it is fascist, racist, sexist, and so on. The article also gave me the chance to write about my favorite book, Starship Troopers.  So win-win."

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Death's Realm Blog Tour: On Death and Dying

When the fine folks at Grey Matter Press asked me to hop on the tour hearse to help promote the spectacular anthology Death's Realm containing my short historical tale set on the Titanic"Drowning", I paid for my ticket and grabbed my seat before realizing all this would entail: the introspection of envisioning and facing my own death.  There's a great chestnut about not pulling too hard on one thread, for fear of the rest of the tapestry unraveling.  But the concepts of death and dying are subjects I've covered in my writing career from the very beginning, and lately they've closely dogged me from over my shoulder, like Edgar Allen Poe's chatty raven. You see, in twenty-one days worth of time, a smattering of hours, a handful of minutes, I will have reached my fiftieth year on Spaceship Earth. Writing has always kept me feeling young, upbeat, and alive, my version of Dorian Gray's portrait or Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth.  But I'll admit it: even my inner child, who picked up the pen one overcast, muggy July night in 1980 and was forever changed by the possibilities contained within a magical potion of ink and imagination, is now grown aware of his mortality.  I am closer to the end of my life than its beginning, despite feeling (and often acting) like a kid.

If I could somehow communicate with the me that used to be, that fifteen-year-old who was lost and miserable, who started living inside himself (like in the great old Gino Vannelli classic from that long lost era), and tell him of the many joys and accomplishments he would know as a result of his writing, it might unleash a paradox -- and cause him to faint dead away of a heart attack.  That he would stand beside the Bridge set of the Starship Voyager (not on it -- signs were posted to keep out when the cameras weren't filming, because the producers didn't want soles tracking in muck across the pristine carpeting), or take to the dance floor in Los Angeles on the all-important night of September the 13th, 1999, with the cast of his beloved Space:1999, the show that first inspired him to take a stab at writing through original fan fiction, those ancient longhand drafts penned on lined school paper still archived in his future self's file cabinets alongside shooting scripts and over 1100 original fiction manuscripts. Not one but two cabinets containing his archives of published work. So many other instances.  All as a result of finding the one thing, the only thing, he ever wanted to do with his life. And doing it. There's no way that version of me could survive the shock of such knowledge, of knowing how happy and fulfilled his life would be.

It's been better than a good life.  It's been great, and I don't want to die.  Despite losing my grandfather, both grandmothers, a friend in high school who was the victim of an automobile accident, my mother from cancer at an age far too young (any age is the wrong number when your mom was as cool as mine), one great dog, five beloved cats, and various celebrity icons from my boyhood over the course of my near-fifty years, I want to live at least for another hundred -- albeit with new teeth and considerably less arthritis, especially in my right hip.  I know it sounds impossibly greedy, especially when you factor in the temporary nature of life and the randomness of living it to potential. There's a reason we age and pass beyond the pale.  But that's no comfort, not when I have so many stories within me left to write, like Scheherazade seeking to keep head attached to shoulder by telling tales in the face of death.

When asked to blog about about this subject nature, I was inspired to opt for a direct, personal approach: how I imagined my own end as playing out.  In my twenties, I joked about choking on a boneless spare rib after stuffing my face full of Chinese food between sweaty adventures with a dozen Major League Baseball jocks (this, long before I settled down with my partner of now-thirteen years, and landed my butt in this very seat in our happy home on the hill).  A decade ago, I remarked after attending a writers' group that I'd likely buy it from a shiv in the parking lot following the meeting, thanks to some disgruntled fellow scribe who didn't approve of what I wrote (today, I moderate one of the most amazing writing groups on the planet, and am more likely to code as a result of an overdose of laughter and enlightenment in the company of my many talented writer friends).  In the final reckoning however -- whether it's a hundred years away or creeping down from the woods in my backyard even as I type these words -- I hope the script reads something like this:

FADE IN:

EXT. OLD NEW ENGLANDER – NIGHT

A house on a bluff, illuminated by a lone streetlamp outside and lights inside the house, including a necklace of blue and white Christmas strands strung around the two windows of a home office.  NOTE: Houses can be forlorn or happy places.  This old soul seems happy, judging by its appearance.

INT. OLD NEW ENGLANDER – NIGHT

A foyer, painted indigo-blue.  To the right is a living room with a pomegranate accent wall.  To the left, the office room glimpsed from outside: painted beach-blue and filled with books, artwork and family photos, a desk.  Seated at the desk is an OLD MAN (THE WRITER) who feverishly runs a fountain pen across a notepad.

                         THE WRITER (VOICE OVER)
                 Ancient hands, so weak and old,
               hasten to the task.  Tell the
               tale that must be told, this is
               all I ask…

The Writer writes with haste.  He tears off a page, fills another, and another after that.  All of the pages form a neat stack on the desk.

The Writer’s pen stills.  We look down to see he has written THE END at the bottom.  Silence as he ponders the finished draft of the manuscript.  Then, he tears the last page from the notepad and assembles the sheets in proper order.  The manuscript goes into a decorative file folder labeled: THE FINAL STORY.

The Writer stands, gives one last bittersweet look around the room, and shuts off the lights.

EXT. OLD NEW ENGLANDER – NIGHT

The blue and white Christmas lights go dark.  As they do, a SHADOWY FIGURE approaches the front door. 

INT. OLD NEW ENGLANDER – NIGHT

The Writer crosses the foyer and climbs the stairs, which CREAK beneath his steps.  The Shadowy Figure follows him up and around the banister, making no noise, to a bedroom with crimson curtains and a big bed.

The Writer prepares to close the door.  As the door shuts, we see the Shadowy Figure in the room, standing behind him.

The door SHUTS.

                         THE WRITER
                    (through door)
               Now I’m ready.


                                                  FADE OUT.


My dear friend and colleague, Martin Rose, whose brilliant story ‘Mirrorworld’ shares space between the covers in Death’s Realm, was bold enough to also share his thoughts on the moment of his final heartbeat:  “I've had my future predicted for me, which is another story for a dark and stormy night, but I've got reason to believe I'm going to live to be very old, and then I'll probably pass away from the usual ailments of old age. Hardening heart, pneumonia, infection. Not very spectacular, is it? We'll die, and it won't be noteworthy, or excite interest, and we'll be missed for all of five seconds, and then easily forgotten. That's a component of Jude in ‘Mirrorworld,’ to show life can be disappointing, we aren't guaranteed happy endings. Working, getting through life, suffering. Then it's over. There's no bright lights, no manual for the deceased, no great epiphany, no illusion of endless love. All you have is everything within your mind, and if you believe in reincarnation, you can't even take the memories with you. But you'll do it, over and over again. Go into the gentle night angry, you'll come back angry. Go into it a trivial fool, you'll come back out a fool. Letting go of regrets and discrimination is the best advice I can give anyone before they go to meet their final appointment. It is how I will meet mine.”

Monday, April 6, 2015

Meet the Luminous and Talented Dan Szczesny

Many blessings of the very cool variety resulted from my July 2013 appearance on New Hampshire Chronicle, not the least of which being that my writing career was documented by the big lifestyle TV show and broadcast across the entire state and well past its borders. A filmmaker tuning in hired me to write the screenplay to a feature film that now inches ever closer to release, and I made many excellent friends thanks to my brief time in the spotlight. Among those amazing friends is Dan Szczesny, a talented and committed writer from my old home region in the southern part of New Hampshire who saw the episode and then sought me out.  Dan made the effort to join us and writers' group friends for dinner on a blustery, brisk January Sunday two winters past -- and when his car was unable to scale the snowy hill where our house is located, he simply put the considerable hiking skills to use that once led him all the way up to the base camp on Mount Everest.  He's since become a vital, energetic, and welcome figure among our writers' group and its extended family, and one of my favorite authors.

Dan's new collection of short fiction, Sing, and Other Short Stories, was just released by Hobblebush Books.  It was my pleasure to sit down and speak with Dan about his amazing writing career.

Dan, share with us your literary background.
Believe it or not, my first full time job in writing was building obituaries for a local newspaper in Washington, Pennsylvania. I say building because the way it worked was as more of an assembly line. I'd get a sheet of information from the family -- name, age, work, survivors -- and have to put together the obit out of that. And sometimes the information was so horrible, or boring, that I'd try to dress it up with clearly inappropriate adjectives: John Smith was an ‘excruciatingly detailed’ mathematician, that sort of thing. I didn't last long at that job. But before that, my career started in Buffalo with a degree in English Literature. The first short story I ever had published appeared in 1991 in The Buffalo Spree. I'm proud to say that the story, ‘Blue Lady’ has been reprinted in my newest book, Sing and Other Short Stories. Like all writers, I had to pay the bills, so I started off on a career as a reporter, then editor, then publisher. I've written for newspapers and magazines around the country in Buffalo, Philadelphia, New Jersey and all over New England. Some that your readers might be familiar with include Pennsylvania Magazine, The National Catholic Register, Huffington Post, Good Men Project, Yahoo Parenting, and closer to home, the Union Leader where I was a reporter for two years. Since 2001, I've been Associate Publisher of The Hippo, now New Hampshire's largest newspaper. About three years ago I took a six- month sabbatical from The Hippo to write my first book, The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie. The book details my one-year hiking journey with my foster daughter bonding in the White Mountains. But when the time came to go back, I decided to set off on a life of book writing instead and I haven't looked back!

Please talk about Sing -- share with us the destinations readers will travel to and the people they’ll meet between the story collection’s covers.
I'm so excited about this new book! First, it's my first full-length volume of fiction. My first two books are narrative non-fiction. Second, the ten stories included in the book span my entire career, from 1991 to 2014 so it really gives the reader a peek at the full development of my life and interests as a writer.  Some of the stories were updated slightly for the new collection.  I'm a child of a blue collar family and grew up in a little town just outside Buffalo. My interests then and now have revolved around the choices made by or sometimes for ordinary people and how they respond to what I call their moment of epic choice. If you're affluent or poor, life choices are often givens. But for those of us in the middle, I've been fascinated by the single instance in someone's life where they can excel and better their lives, or fail and destroy it.  Survival after a plane crash. Appearing on national television. Choosing career over relationship. Recommitting to an estranged parent. Taking an incredible risk for love. All these potential outcomes are explored in the ten stories, and the stories themselves take place over time and space -- from 1930s South Dakota to 1980s Manchester to present day Alaska. Readers will meet a rancher desperate to hold back modern life, a plucky teenager given the chance to prove her worth to a national audience, a woman desperate to find her way back to her father's good graces, and a young man so in love with the girl of his dreams that he's willing to risk his life and face his greatest fear.

You not only participate in but also run multiple writing groups. Please talk about that.
What can I say, I'm a glutton for pain and frustration! I've been a member off and on of writing groups my whole life and often times, they can turn into social clubs. Nothing wrong with that, but not for me. I don't care what your ideology is, how old or experienced you are or what you write. All I want out of a writing group is that you produce and that you work hard to publish. Which is why I've been so thrilled by the groups I'm honored to be in now. Or at least in the case of The Berlin Writers’ Group, I love being an honorary member. I'm also a member of an occasional group out of Derry called Spaghetti and Writers. Both groups are filled with prolific creatives that work their butts off to produce, improve and publish and I love that!  I am also the moderator of The Blank Page, the writing group of the Goffstown Public Library. The librarian there asked me to take over after the last couple moderators fell through and I was happy to step in. My role there is basically to keep them focused and writing and set meeting times. But I try to be proactive by setting an example and by being encouraging. And that leads us to the next question!

You were one of my 2014 National Novel Writing Month buddies, and I had the pleasure of joining you for a write-in at our local library. What was that experience like for you, and do you plan to repeat it in November of 2015?
That was my first shot at NaNo and I'm proud to say I won! Haha! I finished a 50,000-word mystery novel called The Ballad of the Lost River Hog. To be honest, I have always dismissed NaNo as little more than a publicity stunt, but I wanted to use the challenge as a way to inspire my Blank Page comrades, to show them that it's possible to write every day. And I surprised myself by getting it done. Further, the challenge jump-started my own writing and pushed me to a new level.  Look, that whole myth about getting up every day and writing that the good people at NaNo push is, to go blue on you for a moment, bullshit. No other industry demands and pushes the idea of working EVERY SINGLE DAY! That's nonsense. Doctors don't perform surgery every day. Garbage men don't collect garbage every day. Where the heck has this idea come from that in order to be successful writers we have to force words out of our brain seven days a week? So screw that. That said, some writers enjoy that sort of schedule. I would go insane. But NaNo showed me that I can produce at a higher level then I had thought possible and that's been so important ever since! And I loved doing the write-in with you. In fact, I was so inspired, I took it to my Blank Page group and we had two write-ins at Goffstown. Then I sat down with my foster daughter for a write-in at our house. I love the idea of just sitting across from another writer and shutting out the world and getting down to the business of writing together. So, you bet I'll give it another go this November!

Can you talk about the course you’ll be teaching in June?
So, this workshop I have in mind is not scheduled yet. I'll let you know when it is. But basically, I want to call it “It's not magic, it's a job.”  Have you ever heard these things about writers; they hear voices in their heads, they are flighty and everything is a story, a muse speaks to them, they wake up in the middle of the night with ideas that must be written down. None of this happens to me. Ever, literally, ever. I don't sit at my computer and wait for my muse to alight on my shoulder and whisper the proper plot twist into my ear. Writing to me is a brutal grind, a sort of deep psychic punishment that involves slow, meticulous effort and practice and dedication. It's a job. It's a job that has been crafted and molded in my brain over the course of two decades. When an idea comes to me, it doesn't arrive via winged messenger. It arrives because I've been doing this all my life and I know what plot structure, and dialogue, and red herrings, and character development actually means. And I don't say that to brag, but rather as an illustration of the fact that writers draw on education and learning and experience, just like any crafts-person would. Listen, I don't mean to crush any romantic images -- oh, heck, yes I do. Wait for the muse at your own peril. Instead, sit down and fucking write.  And another thing, writers as a collective community suffer badly from a problem of image and perception. Stop reading this right now and Google ‘writer.’ Go ahead I'll wait. Now look at the images. Typewriter, ink well, pad of paper, another typewriter, typewriter key, picture of some 16th Century fop day-dreaming with his quill. Now Google ‘doctor.’ Yeah, see the difference? No pictures of 18th Century medicine men about to apply leeches are there?  Our profession is stopped in time, someplace about 1950. In order to be taken seriously, in order for people to understand what we do in terms of a professional industry, we need to break out of the mythology of the romantic writer, holed up in earthy writing room, banging away at a typewriter, drinking bourbon. Because you know what else goes along with those archaic images? Being poor. Do you think any of those doctors you just looked up are going to work for free, or for a positive Tweet? Nope. And either should we. But to do that, we need to at least pretend to stop acting like starving artists. Then maybe the compensation will follow.

(Dan's snapshot that inspired "Little Warrior", the collection's
opening short story)
What adventures in literature and in life are next for you?
So much! First, I've been tapped by Plaidswede Books as the editor of their newest short story collection, Murder in the New England Newsroom. That will be a crime noir collection of fiction revolving around the theme of the newsroom. The deadline for stories is June 1 and anyone looking for more information can email me. Second, I've gotten a couple agent bites to look at Ballad of the Lost River Hog. I'm developing that as a series and I'm currently editing furiously to get it ready for agencies.  Third, I've been given the green light on a new book, tentatively titled Pass the Corn Pudding, which will be a non-fiction narrative history of the Northern New England Pot Luck. Finally, I'm touring all this year in support of all three of my books. You can find a full schedule of where I'll be at my website.   All that said, the greatest adventure, by far, of my life began on December 30, 2014 when my baby girl, Uma, was born. And her presence in my life has driven me to nearly obsessive heights of inspiration and determination in my craft. I write now always with her in my mind. I have found ways to streamline my day-to-day writing process, to be more efficient with time and resources. There are so many books I want to read to her. There are so many books I want to write for her. I won't have time for them all, but I'm going to try!