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.

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."