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:



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.


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.


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


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!