Daniel has wanted to be a writer ever since he was in elementary school.He has published stories and articles in such magazines as Slipstream, Black Petals, Spindrift, Zygote in my Coffee, and Leading Edge Science Fiction. He has written four books: The Sage and the Scarecrow (a novel), the Lexical Funk (a short story collection), Reejecttion (short story/ essay collection), and The Ghosts of Nagasaki (a novel).
I think if you look at my ratings on Goodreads you'll see that I'm much more sympathetic to short story collections. A good short story collection often shows an author's commitment to craft. You can see how much care the author takes with every word, you can get a sense of his or her range when dealing with subject matter and characters. You can get a sense of how their style carries from one kind of story to another.
There is another reason -- there is very little money in short stories, even for established writers. Thus, writers write short stories "for the love of the game".
For the most part, the stories in this collection share a kind of tonal consistency. Each story tells a tale of disappointment, subtle loss, memory, and the way we look foolish in pursuit of a dream. All the stories share musical elements and songs. Various songs and melodies tie these stories together. But this short story collection could also have been about the travails of writers and writing.
The story "Come Rain or Come Shine" stuck out for me as a bit awkward. It wasn't poorly written. It featured compelling characters and fantastic dialogue. However, because the short story takes place in a single space and is mostly dialogue, I felt that the story would have been better as a one-act play. (In some ways, it reminded me of the low-budget, but clever movie "Tape" with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman). The story also features an absurd scene that doesn't quite work prose fiction but might have seemed less absurd and entertaining as a piece of theater physical comedy. You'll know the scene as soon as you read it.
There are some compelling reasons to stay away from these stories. One -- the emotional journies in these stories are subtle. There is rising action and things do happen, but by the end of the story, you often get the impression that the things that were left unsaid and that didn't happen were just as important. As a writer, I love these stories. I also appreciate how hard they are to pull off. Also -- the endings are not traditional endings. They may even feel like non-endings to some readers.
If you are a writer, there is also a compelling reason to read this book. A close reading of these stories will help you master your craft. In particular, these stories will help you master the craft of dialogue, character, and how to use compelling details.
Trench Angel is a novel of early 1900s mayhem and upheaval -- a lone war photographer struggling with the memories of his past, a twisted family history, and a landscape of hardnosed Pinkerton detectives, class warfare, anarchists, and death.
The author has a clear talent for using historical details and recreating the mood of the early 1900s. We get each scene in a clear and engaging style. The sentences were beautifully written and a pleasure to read. The tone of the book is at times hard-boiled, at times romantic, and at times tongue-in-cheek black comedy. For the most part, these varying tones work to create an entertaining period piece. Though, occasionally, the varying tones don't always balance.
There are two main stories going on at once: one that takes place in the post-WWI period when the main character has returned from abroad and must unwind a tangled knot of family history, personal failures, labor tension, and a murder mystery; and a second one that takes place in the past that involves a love story set in the early days of the WWI.
For me, my heart was set in the WWI story. That story was simpler and more beautiful. However, it also had much more unexplored territory. Unfortunately, this story comprises much less of the book than I hoped. It's entirely possible that they are two separate stories that could have been told in two separate novels.
At times, too, I struggled to understand the protagonist's motivation. Since he is in a state of depression and alcoholism when we meet him after WWI, it's hard to know exactly what his internal motivation is (other than to get another drink). If I read the book a second time, I might pick up on this more.
One last note about this book. I was able to finish it in a few days on top of a busy schedule. Thus, in addition to being a solidly written work of fiction, it was also highly engaging.
I'm not without bias, but I'd like to think I came at this book with an open mind. I have a deep respect for hard-won expertise. But, like most academics, I also have a deep respect for modesty and the careful application of knowledge. This book doesn't argue against that kind of expertise, it argues against the use of technocracy to overlook issues of rights and politics in development.
And in this respect, the book is actually a little late to the party, since these issues have been discussed and examined for more than two decades outside of the economics discipline in the field of human geography, sociology, and more particularly the subfield of political ecology. (You can also read a fantastic book in the area of humanitarian assistance called "Condemned to Repeat" by Fiona Terry.)
Largely, Easterly makes a great argument for "rights-based" development and bottom-up forms of development based on the economic theory of Friedrich Hayek. Some reviewers have argued against the structure of the book. But I actually found its approach refreshing. I found the early use of the "debate that never happened" to be excellent. I like when authors interrogate the historical genesis of ideas. It highlights that ideas are never innocent -- they are always for something (and usually for someone).
As for the case study and long history approach -- fantastic! (Even though it summarizes the scholarship of mostly other authors).
It's bizarre that in a book about the "tyranny of experts" there would be little mention of James Ferguson's "The Anti-Politics Machine" or Arturo Escobar's "Encountering Development". Michel Foucault's concept of power/knowledge would have also been a helpful addition (though it would have turned off some potential mainstream readers). Ferguson gets one paragraph. Escobar is nowhere to be found.
The book is well-written, largely divorced from partisan ideology, and well-researched. It is grounded in the academic ethos of the honest search for truth. One of my concerns is the way this book might be used. Just as the book demonstrates how the knowledge products of experts are utilized for very narrow political interests, I have a feeling this book will (and probably already has) been utilized for various political interests it was never intended to serve.
I could, for example, see the author's ideas being used to argue for drastically cutting development aid. (I haven't looked into this, but such is the problem with mainstream economists).
Page 96 has the best quote of the book: "The findings on autocracy having a lasting effect suggest one simple lesson: get out of the vicious circle of autocracy and bad values as soon as you can! The sooner you begin the virtuous circle of democracy and good values, and the sooner you get through the rocky transition, the better".
Mirroring an idea from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Easterly writes that technocratic actors are worse than market or government actors because unlike these two actors, they aren't held responsible for their actions by either market or the democratic public. (In other words, no skin in the game.)
An idea I found useful "the new growth model" - the number of new ideas increases with the number of people on earth (as well as the number of existing inventions plus the proliferation of rights). Thus innovations can be seen as the simple formula: population + rights + already existing innovation = new innovation.
This then explains the extraordinary factor growth in innovation. This was an idea that was new to me.
Thank you very much, Mr. Easterly, for a fantastic read.
The First Sally
The story of Don Quixote is one that plays itself over and over again. In real life and in literature, to the point where it is hardly clear where one story ends and another begins.
Manager: Customer renewal rates!
Me: Señor, are you referring to those windmills.
A story of a person fighting metaphysical monsters only he can see. At this very moment, I’m typing this review as if it’s the most important thing in the world. Meanwhile, a mere ten feet away, my boss in contemplating other things – operating expenses, renewal rates – that to me seem fantastic, the ramblings of a lunatic.
Don Quixote is raging against the death of chivalry. My own quest is to preserve that which is beautiful and sacred in the written word.
The book does bring up uncomfortable questions about the nature of one’s reading life to one’s real life. What happens when the stories you read become more real than the real world? (These days, people tend to worry more about kids playing video games or becoming absorbed in social media).
It’s fitting that the book begins with Don Quixote neglecting the matters of his day on account of books. Books are what draw him into his fantasy world and into the ideal life of chivalry.
Toward the end of the book, especially, we see Don Quixote, the fan-boy of chivalry and adventure, on full display with his knowledge of history and chivalric know-how. So much so, that I want to abandon my suit and tie and don full armor just like Don Quixote.
The old question – who is to say who is the lunatic and who is the realist? For me, the fantasy of books is necessary to validate the mundane lunacy of an office environment.
The Second Sally
The tale of Don Quixote has gotten me interested in other reality/fantasy hybrids – Joe the Barbarian, I Kill Giants, Tough Girl, The Wizard of Oz. At the foundation of these stories is the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world as it is presented. Their stories are one of redemption by a lonely outsider. (Think Batman! You will see many similarities between Don Quixote and Batman!)
When I was growing up, there was an oil painting in my living room. It showed Don Quixote with his brilliant lance and shining armor facing a field of windmills. By his side was his trusty Sancho Panza (Alfred Pennyworth!). My thought was that this was “classical” romantic literature.
I actually had no idea what classical literature was. I also wasn’t very romantic. I was only in third grade at the time. But that Christmas I received a box set of illustrated kid’s versions of classical literature. And there my adventure began! Huck Finn, Wizard of Oz, Oliver Twist…
My mom, being from Cuba, had of course read Don Quixote many times in its original Spanish. That was why the picture was on our wall. And that’s also why – and this I kid you not – in an earlier house we had a suit of knight’s armor. (I don’t know what happened to it. And we didn’t have it long enough for me to grow into it.)
I wanted to read this book partly for my mom; partly to make my workday feel normal. It’s fitting that I stole 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there to read this book. It’s fitting that I neglected adult life to do this.
My mom would be proud.
Jason, a reviewer on Goodreads, writes: “I’ve discovered that Don Quixote is not a bumbling idiot – far from it, in fact. He is highly intelligent, highly perceptive and observant, and most surprisingly, and in spite of all his delusions of being a knight-errant, he is actually self-aware.” This makes me feel better about the lunacy that is my life. After all, I’m in my mid-thirties. I’m unmarried; have cultivated a romantic anti-career, and have fed my book addiction in a way that would make Mr. Quixano blush.
And yet, I am self-aware. I realize that books have driven me further and further to the fringes – like other lunatics of fantasy. And without the crutch of a Sancho Panza or Alfred Pennyworth.
If I am a lunatic, I am a self-aware lunatic. And while my writing and reading habits have made me quite poor and circumspect to managers who look at renewal rates and other such seemingly realistic fantasies, they also make me better.
Of his chivalry affliction, Don Quixote said, “For myself I can say that since I have been a knight-errant I have become valiant, polite, generous, well-bred, magnanimous, courteous, dauntless, gentle, patient, and have learned to bear hardships, imprisonments, and enchantments; and though it be such a short time since I have seen myself shut up in a cage like a madman, I hope by the might of my arm, if heaven aid me and fortune thwart me not, to see myself king of some kingdom where I may be able to show the gratitude and generosity that dwell in my heart.”
And now I find myself a king! These words – found on the Gutenberg digital library – have given me a kingdom to myself.
The mad king in his mad kingdom finds willing participants in the manufacture of passages such as these: “the reason of the unreason with which my reason is afflicted so weakens my reason that with reason I murmur at your beauty;” and, “the high heavens, that of your divinity divinely fortify you with the stars, render you deserving of the desert your greatness deserves.” Yes, I know why Don Quixote donned the armor.
To what other kingdom can these treasures be exported?
If these passages sound so beautiful in translated English, to think what they must sound like in the original Spanish. As I say these words, I am happy to read this book and think of my mom, who came from Cuba loved this book and read it frequently in Spanish.
Not Dulcinea. No, her name was just Dulce.
The Third Sally
The history of the third sally to this book review could not be found. It is thought that there were many historic deeds done during this third attempt at a book review. However, due to poor historical records, the writer of this actual book review has only hearsay. Some say that he developed a callous on his right middle finger from all the typing he was doing and had to apply for worker’s compensation or some other such fantastical concept that could only exist in the 21st century before the rise of Literary Society as we know it today.
The book ends with Don Quixote apologizing for all the harm he has caused and forswearing anything to do with chivalry or knighthood. It is an ending decisively against the idealism and fantastic adventures that the reader has indulged in with Don Quixote.
One wonders what to make of it.
Despite this finale, I like to imagine the book hanging on a razor’s edge between proselytizing the virtues of idealism and warning against its dangers. I also imagine it questioning who the realist is and who the madman.
But first, dangers! For there are many dangers in our age. For every benign lunatic like me, there are other idealists, some of them rulers of real kingdoms living in bizarre fantasy worlds denying some realities (climate change, electoral results) while extolling their favored fantasies (media conspiracies); these people would reverse the usual order of these words as we know them and claim us of the literary society as the lunatics.
An appreciation of the relativism of lunacy, truth, fact, and other not so trivial things (artistic or otherwise) only works in their favor.
The battle is not new.
Manager: Look at these renewal rates. What do you see?
Me: Nothing. Nothing in comparison to the heartfelt tale of this man of La Mancha (Don Quixote / Miguel de Cervantes). Nothing in comparison to the tale of Joe and his trek amongst the barbarians (Joe the Barbarian / Grant Morrison). Nothing in comparison to the epic story of the girl and toughness (Tough Girl / Libby Heily). Nothing compared to my own adventures in the land of literature.
There is more than a little despair, more than a little anger, more than a little revolution in Dreyfus’s Spark. There is an easy, effortless story-telling, memorable characters, and fantastic pacing that make this book hard to put down.
There is also more than a little “Fight Club” in the book here, including a scene with a character baiting another character into punching him in the face. There is an anti-establishment theme that seems timely, but also a bit lost. There is humor. Much dryer and lonelier and desperate than anything I remember in “Fight Club.” It seems to come from an honest place.
Criticisms? There are some.
There is a romantic element to the book that is teased and then evaporates fairly soon.
As far as a critique of modern and postmodern elements of life, there is a guttural but not necessarily deep rendering. Yes, stale corporate nonsense is dehumanizing -- what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called “repetitive stress” injury. Yes, it’s easy to become lonely and lost in big cities. Yes, the internet has made it easier for us to crawl into small, imaginary tribes (that fail to provide the meaning of pre-modern tribes). But, beyond that, what does the book have to offer those who grapple with big questions about society?
A novel is no place for philosophy, but often philosophy can become the lubricant for real dramatic tension, sharpening stakes and making us empathize with characters and their struggles. The character of Plato seemed like he might just be the person to bring this more nuanced voice.
Late in the game, Plato does bring some insight for Jake, but the particular framing of Jake’s problem didn’t seem as poignant as it could have been. What is it about modern and postmodern living that makes the good life less possible? Is it abundance without work? Is it the alienation of people from the fruits of their labor? Is is the Fordist curse of routine and the post-Fordist curse automation and endless information?
If the narrator Jake was Holden Caulfield, then Plato could have played the role of Mr. Antolini, offering a kind of frame that connected Vinnie, big banks, government, and his loneliness together into some sort of coherent frame, even if that frame is ultimately shattered. (In the end, Mr. Antolini wasn’t able to solve Holden’s problem partially because the intellectual frame was too small and rigid for the vastness of the problems Holden was facing).
In a crucial moment of the book, Plato has a moment to put the novel in coherent framework -- something about the relationship between meaning-making and nihilism. I’ll let you read it for yourself and decide if it works.
The pacing of the book is excellent, but in the middle Jake starts spending more time alone...thinking. As someone who has written a book about someone wandering and thinking, I can tell you with absolute authority, there is no better way to kill narrative momentum than to have a guy walk and think. Mercifully, these bouts are rather short and are largely an aberration in a narrative that moves at a runner’s pace.
In the end, Spark is an excellently paced work of dark humor that will have you asking for more.
***I’ve tried to eliminate the spoilers; but be WARNED -- somewhat spoilery***
Early in the novel, the main character, Mitsu, finds himself in the pit where his septic tank will soon go. He goes into the pit to think. The position is symbolic, as everything is in this novel -- a graphic depiction of his psychological state and our place in the novel. The world has become a septic tank and Mitsu is looking for a way out of the pit.
Set in the early to mid-1960s, in a small town in Japan, the novel depicts the struggle of two brothers over the meaning of history and the future of their town. Each, it seems has been designated a role (by history and the natural, horrific flows of the universe) -- Mitsu, the role of the dispassionate establishment figure; Takashi, the role of the revolutionary figure and tragic martyr.
Without spoiling the novel, I’ll say that it’s perhaps one of the most poignant political novels you could read today (despite being written in the 60s). Relevant themes abound -- racism (toward Koreans), a popular uprising, the shunning of intellectuals, the populist leader who leads by his gut, the thrill of revolution.
In the figure of Takashi you can see shades of Trump or Dutertre -- over-stylized machismo, a fascination with violence and virility, and an intellectual vacuum in place of coherent ideology. In the figure of Mitsu, you see the opposite (but also Takashi’s enabler) -- a despondent “establishment” figure, a principled pacifism that is often equated with sterility, and an aloof rationalism with no coherent answer to the energy of Takashi’s movement.
The “revolution” itself is an absurd, intoxicating spectacle that has the power to entrance, compel, and mystify...but is also essentially empty.
The most compelling and touching aspect of the book is the relationship of the two brothers. The two often seem to have the power to save one another, but tragically are unable to because they inhabit worlds with irreconcilable worldviews.
The politics of the book are stylized with a macabre surrealism not unlike the work of HP Lovecraft. Terrible things lurk just out of vision and appear in unexpected places. Death. Suicide. Retardation. Venereal diseases. These things stick out like warts in the first few pages and highlight the monstrous conditions of modern life. The characters appear with monstrous deformities and the habits of creatures -- a hermit, a character with a deformed eye, and a fat blob. With all these everyday creatures, the mythical “chosokabe” of the Shikoku forests is the least terrifying one.
On a personal level, the book got me thinking about modernity and modern life. It seems all too often that modern life offers us up routines and functions in place of meaning. The book starts with the main character discovering that his friend has committed suicide by painting his face crimson, sticking a cucumber up his anus, and hanging himself. I’m pretty sure that if I did the same thing in my office my action would largely go unnoticed, until I was called upon to do something important. Then, when my unique problem needed to be “handled” the question of the day would be which department would handle my dead body and who would take care of the paperwork. The dry, corporate platitudes that would then follow would only highlight the fact that most people were barely aware of who I was or what I did.
Luckily, I have no such inclinations. Besides, the whole thing seems to me a waste of a perfectly good cucumber.
More than anything the book makes me thrilled that I lived to be an adult with a really bad literature addiction.
I try to imagine Lester Goran a few years before this novel was published. This must have been 1956 or 1957. He's a struggling writer. He's reading the great works of fiction, pulling them apart and putting them back together again to see how they tick. He's in his mid-20s and he's desperately trying to write something worthy of his young ambitions.
Miraculously, The Paratrooper for Mechanic Avenue is accepted. The young man begins a career.
I typically think of first novels as failures. As learning experiences. Who knows if this was actually Lester's first novel. It certainly doesn't read like a first novel. After having read three other of Lester's works, works that were much easier to track down, here I am reading his first novel -- so I can pull it apart and put it back together again (as Lester did with the authors he read).
What do I learn reading this novel? I learn something about choosing subjects. A novel about an impoverished Polish family growing up in the ghetto -- this couldn't have been an easy thing to write about. It must have been an even harder sell. There are no clear heroes in this novel, but the characters are compassionately drawn. If their realism makes them ugly and hard to romanticize, Lester's sympathy for them also makes us care about them -- ugly warts and everything. Perhaps he had to write about this. The subject chose him. Not the other way around.
I learn about characters. Good characters should lead their authors as much, if not more, than their authors lead them. Ike-O, the failed soldier and child of a Polish ghetto, often leads the story in ways that are unexpected but realistic. His story and Dolly's story probably wouldn't fit into the neat boxes of a pre-fabricated plot outline. I think that makes this story stronger, not weaker. It also probably made it a harder sell to a literary agent. (The plot synopsis usually goes before the manuscript.)
Authenticity. Lester always said, you don't have to write what you know, but you can't write what you don't know. It's clear that Sobaski's Stairway is a real place. Catfish Gudunsky is a real person. The authenticity is what makes the novel.
First novels and the collective memory of literature. This was Lester's first novel -- published when he was 26. It's a triumph. At sixteen chapters and 178 pages, it might not be an ambitious artistic work. First novels shouldn't take too many bold risks. But within these confines there is clear genius. 56 years later, the book is all but forgotten.
It's not obvious that it should be. Sure, the novel is about ugly people in an ugly environment doing horrible things (so is most of Steinbeck's novels). The topic itself probably wasn't easy to market. But if good literature is supposed to naturally rise to the top, then there is no good reason to believe this book shouldn't still be with us today in some form.
Thus, the last thing I learned from the book is this: It's not enough to write good literature. It's not enough to read good literature and to try to emulate its practices. We also need to be advocates for good literature. We need to keep our eyes open for the neglected works and keep them alive whenever we can.
What do we miss if we don't? We miss moment like these:
"Ike-O did not look at him; the world pulls in on itself, it ends, it suffocates itself like a match gone out, and Ike-o Hartwell stands on the corner of Mechanic and Gardenia and looks away and asks no questions and waits dumbly to suffer further." (p. 143).
In the midst of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonderful novel, “The General and his Labyrinth,” we get this wonderful passage about one of General Simon Bolivar’s greatest lovers:
“...she traveled in a caravan worthy of Gypsies, with her trunks on the backs of a dozen mules, her immortal slave women, and eleven cats, six dogs, three monkeys educated in the art of palace obscenities, a bear trained to thread needles, and nine cages of parrots and macaws that railed against Santander in three languages.”
Is it real? Is it magic? Surely, slave women cannot be immortal. Unless they are. Surely, monkeys cannot be trained in obscenities. That should come naturally to them, and surely in a monkey’s mind there is no different between palace obscenities and just plain obscenities. A bear trained to thread needles? Parrots and macaws that rail against political opponents in three languages?
What are the numbers? 12, 11, 6, 3, 1, 9, 3. Such specific accounting! If the bookkeeping is in such great order, then how can it not be true? (Trust me, I speak as a social scientist when I say most statistics are just magical fiction!)
Companies pay taxes, and they are nothing but useful fictions. They pay taxes to the state -- which is also a kind of fiction. They pay with currencies, which have value because of collective fantasies. So, if ghosts were real wouldn’t they pay taxes? Or, would they convince their counterparts that things like “states,” “taxes,” and “state currencies” are just fairy tales told by power-hungry storytellers?
When you think about it very carefully, our lives are both wonderfully magic and undeniably real (or is that the other way around?).
Project Summary: The following is the prelude from my 2004 novel "The Sage and the Scarecrow". At the moment, I am revising the chapters from this book into 3-4 page short stories for posting on my blogs and in literary magazines.
The Novel in Short: Six months after his father has died from cancer, Pierce finds himself in a state of anxiety and crisis. The book follows Pierce through a journey to find his best friend and the only person he thinks can "cure" him.
Thinking about Lao Tzu helps me understand my own situation: why I’m writing these words to you, why I feel the need to connect to someone else.
The introduction of the Tao Teh Ching says that Lao Tzu was a librarian during the Warring States period at a library in the Chou capital, and that the book was his way of expressing the accumulated lessons he’d learned throughout his lifetime, regarding such subjects as how a state should be run, human psychology, metaphysics, creation, and so forth. The book roughly translated means The Way and its Virtue. I suppose it’s a story about a general way and a general virtue. But I can’t help thinking about the book as something lonely and personal.
When I think about Lao Tzu writing these words carefully on ancient scrolls or pieces of silk paper, or whatever was the way of writing back then, it helps me understand why I’m writing these words to you. The lonely spaces and places of our existence compel us to search out others, whether it be by words or some other means.
Sometimes I think of Lao Tzu alone in a library working on this scroll, as if he could put his soul in a bottle and cast it out to sea. The bottle would drift and drift, and then finally the right person would find it years later. Magical properties of the bottle would draw it to the right person at the right time in a way that would heal and redeem that person.
Philosophy and wish fulfillment are sometimes so close that I think any philosophy is really nothing more than the expression of a desire.
Nothing is really solved, but the longing for solutions and the creative energies that produce them fabricate things called solutions that just create more longing. They fill bottles upon bottles of human existence that float in a sea. We hope that a magical property exists that will attract the right person...
The accumulation of these bottles creates something not quite wisdom. But somehow in the dark ocean of our existence they light a kind way. Who can say if this way is virtuous or not in the end?
A girl named Jennifer gave me the Tao Teh Ching. Once upon a time, she was my best friend. But what she didn’t know was that she was the best of us, of everyone.
How can I be sure? I follow the bottles of human existence.
This story is about her and me, and for this reason the book has special importance; although this story is also about other things: human psychology, how a state should be run, the impossibility of love, (no metaphysics), the problem of existence, but mostly it’s about her and me, and my love for her.
On page ninety-one the Tao Teh Ching says: “Thus, an excessive love for anything will cost you dear in the end.” A homeless man who claimed to have a doctorate in philosophy once told me something very similar.
I recently had the pleasure of finishing Mike Robbins's excellent book, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzman. As a result I decided to do a short interview with him for this blog.
You can check out The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán here:
I hope you enjoy.
How have your travels impacted how you write and what you think of writing?
They have had an immense impact on what I write, I think, more than how I do it. For a start, living in poorer countries makes you less comfortable about the world. It also had an effect on my politics; I was in Ecuador for some months in 1991 and was aware that people there worried about being sucked into the violent drug economy that Colombia was fighting at the time. It made me ask whose fault that trade really was, and that partly drove The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán, which I wrote later that year – though it wasn’t to be published for many years.
But also, living in places such as Bhutan showed me that some very basic assumptions are not always shared. One example is the belief in the Judaeo-Christian world that you only walk the world once; but really, why should that be so? What is the life force that drives us, and does it survive us? This came out in my most recent book, Dog!
As to what I think of writing itself, I’m not sure. Being out and about in the world made me want to be engage with broader issues. But I don’t have an opinion on what others should write. If someone wants to write a novel about the failure of one marriage, or a piece about a spider’s web in the sunlight, they should.
What’s your favorite sentence or paragraph from one of your books? What does it mean to you?
“Outside, in the Vicar’s garden, the first leaf, a freak perhaps, de¬tached itself weeks early and fluttered its way to the ground like the fragments of a letter that Paul took from his pocket on a sunny Sunday fifty years later and tore into strips, then smaller strips, then smaller yet until nothing of its substance could be divined.”
This is from my second fiction book, Three Seasons. It’s a collection of three novellas set in England, and the paragraph is from the last of the three; it is about a moment in someone’s life when the distant past suddenly illuminates the present, so that he changes his mind about a step he was about to take. Three Seasons is the most personal thing I’ve written, in which I expressed my feelings about my own country, which I had just left.
What advice would you give other indie authors starting out?
That is hard, isn’t it – everyone is so different! I suppose I would say that they should write what their gut tells them to write, not what they or someone else thinks they should be writing. There are exceptions to that, of course. If you’re writing a genre book – say, a Regency bodice-ripper – you’ll need to know what your audience wants. There’s nothing wrong with that; writing for a market takes real craftsmanship. But the very best books don’t get written that way; they happen because the writer had something they wanted to get down on paper, for their own reasons, in their own way. You couldn’t write Ulysses to order!
What are your writing quirks and habits?
Basically, I need fewer quirks and better habits. I have a problem concentrating, and tend to graze the internet too much when I should be writing. I also have a job that I am lucky to have, and which has to take priority. I should really make myself write a minimum number of words every day as soon as I get home, even if it is rubbish. Kingsley Amis always did 500 words in the morning, knowing that he would probably hit the sauce at lunchtime.
What's children's cartoon best represents your personality?
Now and then I sort of identify with Brian, the dog in Family Guy. Though I sound much more like Stewie. In fact his accent’s so like mine I could do the voiceovers.
What question would you like to see in future interviews?
Why not ask a writer whether a landscape or cityscape has influenced them?
Years after he died, I imagine running into my dad at some bar. Perhaps some tiki bar in the keys with coconut bowls for tropical drinks. He’s wearing jean shorts and a T-shirt; he has that weird not-even-trying haircut; and he’s dancing with a girl.
After the divorce, I don’t think my dad ever dated another girl. Not one other girl ever again. He had married my mom when he was so young. I think he was eighteen. When he got divorced he was then in his forties. He drank a lot. He got depressed. But I don’t remember him ever dating anyone.
And then the medical problems started. Perhaps the irregular work had started not too long after that. Too much free time, and then he drank.
I remember crushing beer cans with a big weight out in the back yard. There were always beer cans to crush. When we filled up enough bags with crushed beer cans we could go to the movies. Now that I think about it, going to the movies was expensive. One adult and two kids and maybe popcorn and a drink.
That’s a lot of beer cans.
I was probably in middle school when the very serious health problems started. It's hard to remember if there were any before that. My brother was in high school and had to take on a lot.
I do remember though that my dad helped my brother out his senior year. My brother got paid a lot of money the summer before he went into the Coast Guard. These were all subcontracting jobs so he could do that for my brother.
The stomach problems first; bad gas; hearing problems that resulted from him not taking care of his ears; and then later he had to have laser surgery for the cancerous cells on his face. This didn’t help his self-esteem. But I don’t remember dad ever dating other girls. He used to tease me quite a bit, ask whether I had any girlfriends--but I don’t remember him ever having any girlfriends.
Strange thing...I think dad and I got along well enough, but our relationship was complicated. After all, he was my part-time dad. I loved him without hesitation, but things are never simple in life. He must have thought I was a weird kid. I mean he knew that I wanted to become a writer. He knew that I liked Star Trek and science fiction. He must have known that a scrawny kid like me got beat up a lot in school. I had the reputation of being clumsy and not having a lot of common sense.
So I see him in the bar and he’s dancing with this girl. An older girl to be sure, just like him, but she has sass. I’m not sure what I should say or if I should say anything. If I approach him, will he just disappear again? I’ll wake up like it’s some sort of lame dream.
But I know this isn’t a dream.
What happens if I approach him? He suddenly becomes someone else and my whole fantasy collapses?
I don’t go up to him and say anything. I don’t acknowledge him but instead cast sidelong stares.
Then suddenly he looks over my way, nods, and then keeps on dancing. In his hand, he has a beer. If he did have another life, it figures he would be drinking again.
He quit smoking and drinking. His health depended on it and we were all grateful that he did this for us. It was probably one of the best gifts he ever gave to us.
Life could get complicated. But this wasn’t complicated.
He did a good thing.
The future is not necessarily a place for my dad. After all, the future has computers, iPods, and other digital crap he wouldn’t necessarily be interested in.
But also, it’s plausible that there could be a future with my dad in it. After all, there will still be thrift
stores, beaches, snorkeling, and lobster season. He would never know what to do with an iPod but he could sure rig a cooler for lobster season.
He would find old stuff nobody else wanted and build what he needed.
He was clever that way.
I start hanging out at all my dad’s favorite places. I hang out at the bars in Key West, the thrift stores, hoping to spot him. Sometimes, I catch a glimpse of him. But usually it’s the times when I’m not even really looking for him that he appears to me most clearly.
Always I see him from a distance. Always he’s just relaxing, and always I feel like if I were to approach him he would disappear for good.
One day, I go snorkeling by myself. I don’t take the cooler. Perhaps by this time, I’ve thrown it out. I don’t exactly remember. I head out at his favorite lobster spot around dawn. I start swimming. I’m not looking for my dad out here. I try to just be still. I try to find a time before and past iPods and computers, before his divorce and illness but past his death. I try to just swim and see the ocean from his perspective. I try to see things his way for once. I try not to try. It’s in these moments, when nothing exists and nothing is real, that I’m most apt to feel him next to me.
This time, in the ocean, he doesn’t nod at me or wink. Instead, he grabs my hand. When I feel him I see him in his mask and snorkel. He points vigorously. Real or not, he knows where to find the lobsters.
I remember clearly something Lester Goran told me in creative writing class once. He said if your house was burning down and it was a choice between saving your manuscript and saving your cat, a real author would save their cat.
The point he was trying to make was that all good writing comes from a well-spring of humanism. If we can sympathize with our cat over a bunch of paper then we can create characters with love.
But that brings up another good question. If we begin to sympathize with our characters as real people, do we then care for them as real people?
Do we then let the cat burn?
I’ve just finished a sketch draft of a new novel, tentatively titled “Statues in the Cloud”. The novel is pretty ambitious. Who knows if I’ll ever finish or when I’ll finish (four or five years is my best guess). But it’s important to celebrate the completion of things -- even small steps. So with that in mind, I present you the first two paragraphs from the sketch draft.
*For those of you who are interested, a “sketch draft” is the step before a first draft. It is just a series of scenes and explorations in a somewhat organized format to help understand what plot elements and characters work.
Once upon a time, perhaps ten years ago, perhaps longer, the states of waking and dream became more and more similar. Then, suddenly, I was healed. I thought perhaps that it was the telling of a particular story that made the difference between the awake-state and the dream-state clear.
Now I wonder, Am I dead? It was hard for me to ask this question and not smile just a little. I wasn’t dead. I was older than I ever thought I would be, and in my own small way, I was happy. I had my books. I had my stories. I had a rich internal life where people -- real people -- lived and played. But every once in awhile, I would be going for a walk and I would feel in my bones that I had already died.
Disclaimer: I wrote a book with this guy; so, I can’t even pretend that I don’t have a bias toward his artistic talent.
Long ago, I wrote a short story called “The Lexical Funk.” At the time, I thought I knew exactly what it was, but didn’t understand that it could take many forms, one of the most obvious was beat poetry. From the very first poem, that’s exactly what you get -- funky beat poetry.In the very first poem, Harry writes, “Join a new determination to speak from the soul with words high on wit and wonder./ Stop the devils dragging us under.”
That’s exactly what how I feel about writing and the necessity of writing.
As I read poems like “Mother Nature”, I’m sure that this book needs its own bongo drum. In fact, I’m so sure that this book needs its own bongo drum that there should be a warning on the cover that says, “Bongo drum sold separately.”
Much of this poetry would go very well with a Jazz quartet.
Warning: the book has a social message!
Is it preachy? Yes, but let yourself be preached. You’ll like it.
Poems such as “Hard Luck Hardback” made me nostalgic for the almost-but-not-quite bygone days of used book stores and used books. (I don’t own a Kindle yet, but the day is fast approaching.) Poems such as “Two Steps” made me admire poets, and make me want to give them a dollar. “The Poet Pops his Performance Cherry” was a poem that connected with me because it expressed intimately that pure writerly moment, a subject I have been exploring as well.
This short poetry collection was an awesome way to spend an afternoon.
I sit down to write the review of this book. The slightest bit of blackness on the cover slides off and turns into a black pill…hmmmm….
I avoid eating it, but the book slowly grows legs—does its best Bill Cosby impression before turning into a city politician and attempting to steal my shoes. I didn’t know the book would try to do that. I would look at the warning label on the book, but the book is now off to other pursuits.
The book is now my deadbeat roommate—city politics is light on samba, and besides, he shrugs and explains lamely.
It’s the future now, and owe what a future is shall be—or maybe it’s not. It’s hard to tell if waking up after 3 pm constitutes “the future.”
The book looks less like trippy surrealist art and more like accounting...
In offices somewhere boring people talk about sphinxes rolling around in space helmets and riding across rivers on the tips of penises as if they were compact cars with low gas mileage (riding around on giant penises is actually the “greenest” method of travel in the future—at least according to my new accounting book).
Writing books like A Greater Monster is an utterly practical pursuit in this past 3 pm future. I try to formulate eclectic word bombast, but instead end up writing an editorial to Christian Science Monitor that argues for greater oatmeal consumption. My mom shakes her head in worry—“If you can’t write eclectic, electrifying prose, how will you eat? No accounting firm will want you.”
I do what all rebels do in the future…go to business school. Book called Greater Monster, having long given up his quest to be my roommate and/ or be a city politician, follows me to business school. It won’t be like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School, he explains. Mostly, you just wear a suit and spend the day trying to avoid getting stuff on your tie.
And that’s how you become a rebel in the future.
But I digress…
The gummy black pill, eEye, Sasha—these things—these very potentially real things: constant surveillance, lost love, addiction…they matter the way business school matters, I try to explain to the book.
It’s at this point that he points out I have mustard on my tie…at this rate I’ll fail out very soon.
The bottom line: it’s like modern art, I yell, like a lazy teenager with turrets.
Try again, the book says, I think you mean it’s like contemporary post-modern art.
Modern, contemporary, post-modern, whichever happens in the far off future of past 3 pm.
I try again. Bottom line: It’s like Logan’s Run meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Catchy, the book says, and definitely something I can sell to a movie executive. He goes to the closet and shows me a tied up Michael York. Just in case, he explains.
Book named Greater Monster is in a very practical mood today.
I say so—Book named Greater Monster, you’re in a highly practical mood today.
He responds by pointing to my tie and I find that I have chocolate on it now (in addition to the mustard).
At this rate, I’ll never graduate from business school.
Wrap it up, he suggests.
I smile, clean off my tie, untie Michael York, get on the podium and proclaim: This is an age old story—man works at cybertech security company, man takes strange tar-like drug, man becomes lizard in space suit in surrealistic world; book with lizardman in it makes me go to business school, Michael York still in perfect health despite being tied up in closet for a while, the far off future of after 3pm not so bad.
I smile, book named Greater Monster smiles, book review comes to happy conclusion.
Thank you, Michael York.
Five stars! And no, I’m not in business school…yet.