The Woman Who Fell to Earth

uts4 Got pages of mostly illegible notes re: Under the Skin, but not much time to collate. Rather, like Snowman and the Bandit, I got a long way to go and a short time to get there. So, some quick bulletpoint responses, anyway:

1) We all want to be David Bowie, of course. Or, we all want Walter Tevis to have written us, anyway. And, no, sadly, regrettably, unforgivably, I haven’t read the novel Under the Skin is working from. But what I imagine is some amalgamation of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer via Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box.” Though of course I want there be some Brother from Another Planet in there, as well. Eyeballs-as-spycams is where it’s at, alien-wise.

2) Species, Splice, Lifeforce, and all the many-many different kinds of women that apparently come from the moon: it’s never with good intentions, is it? Is this story tendency expressing some male insecurity? Is ‘space’ somehow coded ‘female’—this not unphallic ship penetrating it—but it’s so basically unknowable that it comes back, gives mankind a taste of its (his?) own medicine? I don’t know. I’ve never tried to write one of those stories. Maybe there’s something else making all these women so killer-mean.

3) All horror has a cautionary aspect. The warning here is that, if she looks too good to be picking you up off the side in the road in a giant cargo van, well, you’re probably already dead.

4) We earthlings are either endlessly fascinated by aliens who can ‘pass’ as us, who can mimic us, or else special effects crews are very, very good at convincing the story department that no, really, the scene is better if there’s no tail, no head-antennae. And I think they’re right. I mean, it’s the old Cold War paranoia that your neighbor might not really be your neighbor. But it’s still got some play, too. And some teeth as well.

5) To those who have already seen it (meaning, this could be a spoiler, this is a spoiler, look away, go to #6 already, quit reading this, I’m just making it long in case you’re indecisive, need a moment for your good instincts to kick in): is this basically the same premise as Phantasm?

6) What if the aliens came here and we were inscrutable? What if it turns out we’re the ocean on/of Solaris?

7) Aliens and robots are only interesting when they deviate from their mission/programming.

8) Under the Skin isn’t a talky movie by any stretch of any imagination. Which is fine. I can do meaningful stares, I can pick up meaning from other junk. However. Having the character lounge around in a fog bank while she’s in her extreme state of indecision? A bit much, perhaps? Maybe in the novel it turns out that suspended water molecules properly refract a homing signal or fry telepathy or somesuch. Which: fine, wonderful. I hope so. Please.

9) So the supposition here, it’s that if a vast alien intelligence, to whom we’re amoebas on fleas on dogs, pretty much, if that intelligence decided to make the perfect woman as bait to lure in male specimens . . . now put some quatation marks on that, and suspect that that had to be the pitch they hit Johansson with, yes? I can’t imagine a more flattering role.

Ghost-World-scarlett-johansson-23593999-852-48010) Talking Scarlett Johansson: it’s nice to see her, for a moment, back at a booth in a diner. Seems kind of like that’s where it all started.

11) A good story to read as prep for this is Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.”

12) Another, you’ve already read, of course: “They’re Made out of Meat.”

13) There’s a transformation/unmasking sequence here that’s completely worth the price of admission.

14) Don’t feel bad if the dialect is very Snatch, and hard to track for lazy American ears; either you adapt or it gets better—or there’s little enough dialogue that you don’t really miss anything either way.

15) Chris Carter has been warning us about black oil and aliens for a long time, now. When is anybody finally going to have listened?

16) This has to be intentional—and I’m putting this as the last bulletpoint as it’s spoilery, so please skip if you haven’t seen it: when the, let’s say ‘logger’ enters the scene and attempts a rape, then this has to be commentary on the sex scene that just happened, doesn’t it? Which was just as uncomfortable, as there was zero-minus-ten consent. There wasn’t even the sense that she could consent. Which I think is maybe supposed to get us back on her ‘side,’ after the beach-scene, which pretty much just destroys you?

17) Okay, the real last bulletpoint: not sure I completely trust the end. Or, it’s a very art-house, thematic way to close it. Which isn’t what I’m prepared for at the cineplex. I think the story would have been better served with a gesture we could interpret as hopeful in some way. Don’t hit us over the head, like the fog did, but take a risk, I say. I’m never a fan of a safe ending. Much more interested in beautiful failures than the middle of the road.

Under-the-Skin-35823_9

though I do dig the kind of elegiac photography, especially in that it never quite indulges in its own style too much.

Chapter Six

Chapter-Six-Stephen-Graham-JonesShort story going live at Tor.com the second week of June.

It’s a story of how anthropologists might handle the apocalypse, how academics deal with zombies. Pretty short, and a pretty cool cover.

Thanks to Ellen Datlow both for selecting it and then for editing it into a better form of itself.

Will link when it’s live.

What April Was, and Is Still Being

Man, the links and updates get away from me. I can usually remember to stuff them to the right, here, under Interviews/Stories/Off-Site, but I don’t always remember to put them here. So, doing it now, here. What I can recall from the last two weeks or so (will try to make all the images links):

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 12.42.26 PM

The Elvis Room got Booked

 

some second-person over at HTML Giant

some second-person over at HTML Giant

 

this is at CrimeSpree

this is at CrimeSpree

 

Huffington Post list of books

Huffington Post list of books

 

that HuffPo list of books, excerpted at USA Today

that HuffPo list of books, excerpted at USA Today

 

Not for Nothing got Booked

Not for Nothing got Booked

 

and, finally, for the LA Times Book Festival: excellent write-up

and, finally, for the LA Times Book Festival: excellent write-up

 

Not all Births are Pretty

divide1

We need a new designation: there’s movies about the apocalypse, and all our valiant efforts to stop it from happening, from Armageddon to The Hunt for Red October, and then there’s the post-apocalyptic stories, from Mad Max to The Book of Eli and way beyond. There’s stories that are kind of both, too, like Twelve Monkeys and Terminator, where the apocalypse has ‘already’ happened but can still be undone. Adding time-travel to the mix kind of escapes these movies from the usual taxonomy, though.

Then there’s movies like The Divide, which is a title I initially didn’t go for, as it seemed too thematic and portentious, and maybe not catchy enough. Now that I’ve seen The Divide, though, I get it: it’s a story that’s straddling that thin line between the apocalypse and what comes after.

That thin, bloody line, I should say. That violent, dark, messy, inevitable place between the way it was and the way it is now.

the-divide-movie-poster1This is where The Divide lives. No, this is where it seethes.

And, the odd thing is, for most of the first act, you’re pretty sure you’ve seen this movie: a screaming comes across the sky, resets civilization, and, like rats scurrying across the deck of a sinking ship, a ragged, random group of society’s leftovers dive for the last safe place. Like we see over and over in The Walking Dead, then, a group dynamic establishes itself, and power struggles cause that dynamic to crumble over and over again, Lord of the Flies style. And, yes, as always happens, there’s more guys than there are girls, and there’s a kid involved, and there’s limited food, water, weapons, and patience. Really, throw a bag of popcorn into a room of baboons, and the result will be about the same. These-type stories aren’t particularly uncynical as regards human nature, but they’re especially fun, too, because they hinge on our certainty that, if these people could all just get along, then things would be pretty hunky-dory.

But, if people were hard-wired like that, of course, then this apocalypse never would have happened, right?

Then, moving into the second act of The Divide, where allegiances shift and the walls seems to be pressing in even tighter, we actually get a little injection of hope: is there a way out of this warren? If they work together, maybe, yeah. At this point we believe in humanity. The people who seemed to be reprehensible are revealed to be industrious; in the new economy of survival, their formerly reprehensible behaviors are valued.

But, come on: we are what we are. Baboons right down to the bone.

Like somebody’s said, things fall apart.

You know how writers like to put their characters in extreme situations, as then that character’s true nature can finally be revealed?

This is the third act of The Divide. It’s an unmasking that, seriously, you’ll want to look away from. Not just the gore, every story worth anything’s got gore. No, it’s the . . . the depth to which this crew takes itself, as the writers take a sounding of the human soul.

And what they find, it’s not pleasant. The last twenty or twenty-five minutes of The Divide, you’re so wishing these people would just please put their masks back on (please), and comport themselves like characters in other movies, where injustice is punished, where good somehow manages to win—where the day can, with the right mettle and a little luck, be saved.

I’m not giving anything away, either. But I am saying that sometimes winning, that means cashing in your humanity in the process. What’s worse—or better—it’s that you’re not just watching some ‘them’ up on the screen, there. You’re watching yourself. When horror’s working as it should, as it can, that’s exactly how it works. You come out of watching The Divide slightly different than you were. All the zombie movies lately make living in the post-apocalypse seem like a pretty cool adventure, if you can limp through the rough patches. The Divide disabuses us of that notion. The post-apocalypse is a brutal, bleak landscape. If we come through it, we come through it a different species altogether, I’d say. Or: The Divide says.

Real or Memorex?

Ten Bulletpoints re: Oculus

oculus poster1) This is probably from The Exorcist, but where I remember it from is Hysterical: one priest telling another not to listen, that the devil will lie to you. But then one of the Hudson brother’s pants are actually at his ankles. It wasn’t a lie, surprise. If you could turn that into a feature-length movie—and you can—then you’ve got Oculus, pretty much.

2) Horror lately is really getting good at making its ghost-women kind of legit-creepy, yes? I thought Mama made its ghost-woman about as scary as could be—just visually disturbing, and moving something like that ghost-girl from Stir of Echoes—but this Pennywise-eyed ghost-lady in Oculus, she’s Mama‘s cousin, I’d say. Or maybe they’re all taking from Legion, what with the CGI-jaws kind of dropping inhumanly low? Not sure. But it works, and in the same way the Grays from X-Files did: by stranding us between recognition and revulsion. That face has all the same features, but it’s wrong, too, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

3) Mirrors are to horror as peanut-butter is to chocolate. First time a mirror in  horror really got to me, I suppose, was Skeleton Key. But this mirror in Oculus, it’s more like the Erised Harry gets entranced by in The Sorceror’s Stone, yes? Or maybe a horror reference will be more on-point: Supernatural 1.19, the one with the haunted painting with a ba-ad history. But, tempting as it would be, Oculus never becomes an episode. It stays a feature—possibly a first installment, but still, the story’s not just fifty-two minutes inflated to nearly two hours. Or, it may be an episode for the mirror, but it’s a life’s culmination for the two main characters.

4) I had to look ‘oculus’ up. One definition is that circular or oval window up in attics. Which is a word I really could have used for Demon Theory. But, talking this movie, what’s a mirror if not a window to horror, yes? To another world, Kiefer. And, ‘oculus’ is the good title, here, as what I hear is ‘octopus,’ and then I see a Friday the 13th: the Series artifact with its tentacles in everybody’s head, which gets me on the path either to It or to that other-dimension brain Wong plants in John Dies at the End. And either of those are cool places to be, horror-wise.

5) A little ways into the movie—this could work as a spoiler, so be wary, here—I was completely dreading getting the origin story for/of this mirror, the same way we get, say, Francis Dolarhyde’s origin story. But Mike Flanagan understands that showing the source of the evil usually only serves to absolve that evil of its evilness. It makes the scary thing no longer responsible for its scariness. Instead of a bad guy, you’ve got a misunderstood victim whom it’s complicated to blame. And horror needs blame. It’s what justifies the violence. Wise move, story-wise.

6) I was also completely dreading the braiding of past and present that was going on. But again, the writing saves it: Oculus finally isn’t a ‘braided’ story or ‘parallel’ stories fleshing each other out or an understory and an over story, or a frame, or nested, or any of that: it’s very nearly a collision-course story. The past and the present, they start to collide, in interesting ways, in ways that escalate the narrative. I mean, sure, the structure is a little bit required because of all the exposition-handling difficulties a project like this entails. But the solution is pretty elegant.

7) At the afterparty at the very cool Stanley Hotel, this was the centerpiece for all the tables, just like it was the main set-piece for the movie:

oculus

8) In the talk after the screening, Flanagan mentioned how people he kept going to to get this movie made, they insisted on seeing it as found footage. Very glad he held out against that. Not that I resist found footage, necessarily, or on principle, but, for some of the horror gags to work here, we need to be in the character’s head, not looking through their lens.

katee9) If you’re going to play the Eleanor role, which is the Jack Torrance role, then  you’ve got to be able to sell crazy in what feels like a new way. Which Rory Cochrane does very convincingly. And Katee Sackhoff, whom I know only from Longmire, she’s completely excellent once the blood starts flying.

10) What finally makes Oculus work is that there’s two distinct and mutually exclusive reads. Which isn’t to say its vague or it doesn’t commit. Rather, it’s that good kind of ambiguous, that doubles meaning. But what really makes it work is that it makes us, leaving the theater, question our own perception just a little bit. The first mirror I saw after Oculus, I was a little nervous. And that’s exactly what you want after a movie like this.

oculusing

After the People Lights Have Gone Off

cover_atplhgoFifteen horror stories:

  • Introduction: Joe R. Lansdale
  • Thirteen
  • Brushdogs
  • Welcome to the Reptile House
  • This is Love
  • The Spindly Man
  • The Black Sleeve of Destiny
  • The Spider Box (original)
  • Snow Monsters
  • Doc’s Story
  • The Dead Are Not
  • Xebico
  • Second Chances (original)
  • After the People Lights Have Gone Off
  • Uncle
  • Solve for X

“If I’ve read better horror writers than Jones, I’ve forgotten them. He’s at the apex of his game. After the People Lights Have Gone Off is the kind of collection that lodges in your brain like a malignant grain of an evil dream. And it’s just going to be there, forever.”
Laird Barron, author of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All

 

Pub date: October 2014

Pre-order

Not for Nothing: the Dirt

I wrote Not for Nothing right on the heels of a second read of Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. And that read was because the movie showed up on some ninety-nine cent shelf, to remind me, to impress me, to lure me. And I’ve been telling anybody who asked that that was probably right around 2006 — I was pretty sure Not for Nothing was the last novel I wrote before Flushboy, in 2007. Just looked at the timestamps on the old files, though, and:

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 6.56.47 AM

And that’s kind of forever ago. Specifically, going by that date, it’s right about here, when I was carrying Spillane around in my pocket all the time:

this frame makes this feel like a polaroid, but the frame won’t stay unless I write something here

And, when I wrote it, I was pretty sure I was the first to pull off this second-person PI shuffle. But ‘first’ only matters if you say it out loud, right? Robert Coover beat me to the punch with his Noir in 2010, which broke my heart in all the usual ways. But, really, of course there’d been second-person PI stuff before that, in the choose-your-own-adventures mines. So we both got beat, I figure (but I got beat a lot worse). As for why Coover did it, I can’t say. As for why I did it, I half-suspect I cribbed the trick from those occasional drops into the rhetorical second-person you get in the old stuff, the Spillane and Marlowe and Chandler; when those narrators want to get really gritty but are trying to hide it so as to be not quite so abrasive, they can kind of hide behind second-person. And it’s a good trick. These writers and their characters, they were canny, they had a whole deck of tricks up their sleeves. Lots of stuff we should still be using more.

noirAnd, no worries: I’m not trying to situate myself alongside Coover, here. Maybe the better way to look at it, it’s that everybody shoots at the first body through the door, right? Second guy, he can sometimes duck right through.

That’s me.

And, Not for Nothing. I forget what-all titles it had, but I know what I still call it, what all the early versions of the novel are titled: Tar, Baby. The idea being that this case, the more Nick punches it, the more he finds himself stuck in it, just fighting to breathe. Which I guess is pretty much how it feels to write a novel.

Anyway, for a couple of weeks now I’ve been talking with a student (Tom Mavroudis) about love letters writers are always doing, and that’s what this book is for me — a love letter to where I grew up. Which I’ve kind of done once, with Growing Up Dead in Texas, and I’ve done again with Washed in the Blood (not out yet, but it’s the cap to what I consider not really a trilogy, but more of a . . . a ‘triptych?’ The same way Ledfeather caps Bird is Gone and The Fast Red Road, the way I look at it/them). I’m kind of made of love letters, I suspect. But, Growing Up Dead in Texas, that was about Greenwood. Just over the county line is Stanton — the main town we would go to, the town my mom and dad and uncles and aunts were all from.

stanton

So much of me is still there. I remember my granddad taking me to Dairy Treat for coke floats, and seeing all the high schoolers pulled up there as well, and watching them like they were an alien species, some untouchable breed of person. I remember walking down into the basement of kindergarten there, how I could manage this long scary staircase by myself, because I was wearing my special belt buckle that day. I’ve still got that buckle. I remember being four years old, standing by my uncle’s leg on the other side of the tracks, watching two cars take off from a starting line, how the air just filled with brown. I remember playing at the cemetery by the convent at Halloween, and a friend who’s dead now rising from behind a headstone, scaring me as deeply as I’ve ever been scared, all the way up to now. I remember getting on the news in Midland once for Old Settlers, because I was carving my cow-chip-to-throw with a knife I don’t have anymore, a knife a friend had brought back for me from Colorado, where I live now. I think a snapshot of me might still be up in the drugstore window, from one of those Old Settlers parades. They were always the high point of the year for me. I would borrow boots from my uncle, it was so special. I’ve ridden my three-wheeler in the parade, and I’ve sat up on the awnings and watched the parade pass. I’ve found my grandmother again and again in the shade of the bank, and I’ve eaten some serious lunches at the drugstore.

drugstore

best double-cheeseburgers this side of, I don’t know: anything with sides

And the stories I grew up with, about Stanton. One of my uncles tells of foot-racing down some street once, and falling, burning all the skin from his chest, then rubbing horse liniment into it, and how that really only made it worse. That rocket at the playground, one of my friends kissed a girl up there, a long time before any of us were kissing girls. That rocket’s found its way into so many of my stories. And that overpass that’s here in Not for Nothing: it wasn’t in the story in 2006. But then one of my friends got a police job with Stanton for a while, and he told me a story of somebody who died up there, and it stuck. I still think about it. And, every time I sneak back through town, somebody’ll generally stop me here or there, and say, hey, aren’t you Dennis’s kid? Not because they remember me, but because we look the same, evidently. It’s cool to halfway belong somewhere like that. It’s not something I feel anywhere else.

And, that motel sign that’s all through Not for Nothing, that was all through Tar, Baby as well. That motel sign that’s all through my life. I don’t have even one picture of it. It was such a landmark that nobody I talk to ever thought to angle a camera up there, push a button. But surely it’s in some background? Anybody?

lots of places like this out in that part of the country

lots of places like this out in that part of the country

And these barbecue sandwiches Nick lives on: I would live on them too, if I could. I’m not much into shredded beef, but the way the Water Station (there’s water stations, and then there’s places that call themselves “Water Station”) used to do it, they had some kind of magic. But there was more magic. There’s my grandad, telling about when the sandhill cranes first started coming through Stanton, when he was a kid. How him and a friend went out with a .22, popped one just to see how it tasted. And how they didn’t try to eat any more after that. There’s all the summers I spent on the north edge of town, at church camp. There were campfires and snakes and a lot more injuries than really make sense, but what I remember best about church camp, it’s lying in our bunkhouse one night after lights off, fresh from some sermon about never saying ‘fool,’ how that was the worst thing any of us could do. How we were all lying there staring up into the darkness when one of us did it, one of us said it up into the night, fool, and how perfect that was. How I’m still reaching after that word. How I want just once to say something that well, that right.

And and and: stock tanks. They’re in here as well, from my dad’s stories, of people who died in them. Because of all those stories, I never liked swimming in stock tanks. I always knew something was waiting to pull me down. And the train tracks, they nearly did pull me down one night: a friend of mine was scared of trains, so, easing over the tracks one night after a dance, I play-acted that my truck had just died, stranding us deadcenter on the tracks, the train’s headlight still way on down there, no real danger at all. Until the crossbars came down all at once, right in front of my hood, right behind my tailgate. At which point the night got desperate fast. But we made it. We always made it, even when we shouldn’t have.

these are those tracks

these are those tracks

Greenwood’s my home, but Stanton is too. Just as much. So it was important for me to get it right. I’ve had a lot of concussions, I mean. There’s big swaths of my life that I just don’t really have access to, anymore. But my Aunt Tami, she’s got it all on instant rolodex, and if she doesn’t know an answer, then she knows who to ask.

But a lot of it I know already. A lot of I couldn’t forget if I tried.

pool table

in the early 80s, we’d find suntan beds and all kinds of stuff out in the fields and pastures, left there because they weren’t paid off yet

When I was five, and just had one brother, and we were all living with my grandma, I would spend the afternoons underfoot up at White’s, the Ford House where she worked. And it was so magic. I’ll never forget that expanse of concrete floor, how it was all mine, how I could do whatever I wanted there. Maybe that’s why I fell so hard for the skating rink a few years later: all that concrete. The purple bus coming to get us over in Greenwood every Friday night, so we could drink pickle juice and puke, so we could ask girls to slow-skate, so we could jump hard each time David Lee Roth told us to, so we could fight in the parking lot and scrape together change for cokes. So we could go faster and faster and faster around in a circle.

NFN ARC cover

It’s what you do, in a small town.

And I never even once planned on leaving. Not ever.

And now I’m probably a thousand miles away, a mile up the mountain. Instead of driving tractor or working the oil field like I figured, I write books. Sometimes you stumble into a life you’d never even suspected was out there.

It’s kind of where Nick starts out, in Not for Nothing. I guess I wasn’t making it up quite so much as I thought, maybe.

Which isn’t to say it was easy, either. I’m usually the last to talk about how romantically difficult it is to write. Maybe just because I’ve worked roofs and I’ve worked road crews, I’ve been a janitor and I’ve been a field hand, so I think I have some sense of what hard work can be. And making up stories, that’s not hard work. That’s fun. But sometimes, to get it halfway right, it does take a lot of runs.

Here’s some of the runs I took, getting Not for Nothing down:

the first six drafts

the first six drafts

“Kate” is appended to that one because, I guess, I had a slightly different version to send to my then-agent? As for that first page out of the gate in 2003, it looked a lot like:

part I then was called "City of Angles," a sub-heading I still miss . . .

part I then was called “City of Angles,” a sub-heading I still miss. and this is back when only single-quotation marks would do, too. I was that cool

The next draft is just two weeks later, by which time I’d figured out how to do drop-shadows, evidently — and note that I still wasn’t quite sold on “Graham” as my middle name, which does situate this as far back as 2003, I guess:

it probably took about three of my fourteen days to get this done, too

it probably took about three of my fourteen days to get this done. seriously

And, looking at that document, it’s already starting to become the second-person Not for Nothing that’s out now. Which doesn’t make sense — I clearly remember there being a third-person version in the mix somewhere — but neither is that surprising: you won’t find anybody less responsible with file names and the files themselves than me, I don’t figure (ask Paul Tremblay, who I wrote a novel with a bit ago). I’m thinking I must have retitled NFN, and saved it as whatever that other title was. Meaning either it’s burned and gone on some old Gateway 2000 with a 5 1/4 disk hole, or it’s going to show up as I keep peeling through these ancient-old files. But, so far, Tar, Baby #3, which is dated 2008 — I’m thinking my friend Gavin Pate may have read and corrected on this version? and maybe my then-student / now-editor Christopher Rosales? — there’s nothing drastically different, except by then I was using ‘Graham.’ And I also had the epigraph in place:

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 2.50.26 PM

I’d heard Hicock read at Texas Tech, and was really sold on his poetry, especially this one “Flush,” which is a feeling I think a lot of people never get to feel, as they don’t know its complete and weekslong opposite. It’s formatted different now, though — formatted like he does it, here. I wrote to ask him how he wanted it formatted, but never heard back. So I figured how he did it in the first place was probably safest. And, if he winds up reading this, he’ll remember me as the dude who came to the hotel in Lubbock to pick him up, and ended up sitting on the couch in the lobby by him for a good twenty minutes, until some chance dialogue (neither of us are easy talkers) revealed he was him, and I was me, and we were already late for dinner.

And, peeling through this directory, I now see the problem: there’s no tarbaby4.doc, is there? Sucks. Who knows. I’ll never have the third-person version back, I’d guess. Or, really, what I’m thinking happened is that that was the first version, which I then over-wrote as third-person; the idea of saving versions never occurred to me until recently, I don’t think. I only ever did it as fallback, in case the current thing I was trying didn’t work out. But the new thing always works out, doesn’t it? You never go back. And I remember that back then I never had storage space on my computer. It was like my phone is now: delete one picture to take another. And it used to be that way with story files.

Anyway, only thing slightly cool about the leapfrogged-to fifth version, it’s this cool-fonted end I dreamed up:

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 2.56.19 PM

As a lot of you know, you can spend far too long jacking around with title pages and this kind of stuff. Like playing dress-up, yes? It’s stuff that’ll never matter, that you’ll never send to an editor or publisher, but, too, it makes the file a ‘book,’ somehow, doesn’t it? Just to you? For me, anyway. Here’s what I did for this other book, back around the same time:

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 2.58.36 PM

aka, The Dog Mother, and a few other titles, all of which are right enough to tell me that I don’t really know this novel yet

Back to Not for Nothing, though. In version 6, there’s still this note to myself, for next time I cracked the file open:

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 2.59.44 PM

“F3″ is how I say ‘search’ when I’m only talking to myself. It’s from back when I used to live inside UltraEditor, and F3 was what you hit to search. It’s what I still call search. Anyway, at this point — #6 is Dec, 2010 — I’d screwed up and accidentally used names from Tar, Baby in other stuff (specifically, It Came from Del Rio). But it felt like such a betrayal to change it (and “Clay Banes” is stolen from somewhere, I just can’t recollect exactly where). And I never even halfway noticed until Dirty Noir wanted to publish chapters 1 and 2 of Not for Nothing, as I was calling it by then, and the editor there said, hey, is this the same Dodd who’s a zombie with bunny ears?

thanks again to Jordan Dyke for the pencils, the ink

thanks again to Jordan Dyke for the pencils, the ink

Wish I could say this name-flopping never happened, but, I mean: Doby Saxon, from Ledfeather? First draft of All the Beautiful Sinners, that was Jim Doe’s name. And I don’t even remember all Pidgin’s names, from The Fast Red Road (he’s got about three just in the book, doesn’t he?). And everybody in The Bird is Gone is going under a halfway-fake name, and all the ‘fake’ names I made up for Growing Up Dead in Texas are turning out to be names I just actually remembered, which kind of explains why they sounded so right. And on and on, I can’t even remember all the screw-ups (the one name that was always pure? Nolan Dugatti). Luckily I have editors, and copyeditors, and readers; without all of them, I’d just name all my characters the same name, I’m sure (which, Daniel Crocker has a story like that, where everybody’s named “Charlie,” and it so rocks — kind of like all the “Paul”s in Evenson’s Last Days. names can be so fun).

And, then, long after my agent was sure Dzanc had lost this manuscript along with Flushboy, they got hold of us asking if these were still available. That was right around 2010, maybe? For which  I’m sure I owe Dan Wickett many thanks. And, yep, it was 2010; I’d met Dan at AWP in Denver, I think, and also via something Ledfeather had been up for at Emerging Writers in 2007.  Anyway, by 2010 Tar, Baby was definitely and for forevermore Not for Nothing. It wasn’t just a title I was trying on, anymore. As to the why of it, it’s that I think Tar, Baby is a very cool title on the page. One I still miss. But to sell it out-loud, to have to say it over and over, that comma is so, so important. Like, Tar, breath, Baby. And, stupid as it probably sounds, the idea of pausing over that comma from here on out, it kind of grates. Or, it makes me feel like I’d be reaching for some level of coolness I don’t quite have. Never mind that I don’t think I can say ‘Baby‘ that great, without grinning like I’m getting away with something. Don’t get me wrong, ‘babe’ is every sixth word out of mouth, probably, for better or worse. And I’m an expert with ‘dude’ and ‘like’ and ‘all’ (“Dude, she was all like — “). But the prospect of saying ‘Tar, breath, Baby over and over, and of also seeing it over and over without the comma, it kind of hurt my soul. So I dug around, found ‘Not for Nothing.’ And it fits so much better.

After Dzanc picked it up, then, I was able finally to start on the many-many edits getting it to the shelf would entail. This isn’t a complete list of the edited versions (I never think to save them all), but it’s some, anyway; Guy Intoci and me went back and forth from, it looks like, early June of 2013 until late August:

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 3.07.00 PM

At which point, of course, it had this cover:

which was fine, except that's not Nick's storage units. these are town storage units

which was fine, except that’s not Nick’s storage units. these are city storage units, not outside units

Talking storage units, too, the reason I set this story around them is that, when I was nineteen, I think it was — maybe eighteen? — I’d just quit working an asphalt job I’d hired onto only because I’d heard they buy you a new pair of lace-up Red Wings day one, which turned out to be true, and wonderful. I wore those boots down to nubs:

no, these aren't THOSE Red Wings. These are different ones, in about the same state. Think I threw those particular Red Wings away. No worries, though: my second-boots right now, they're Red Wing

okay, these aren’t THOSE Red Wings. these are different ones, in about the same state. think I threw those particular Red Wings away. no worries, though: my second-main boots right now (after my Whites, of course), they’re Red Wing tried and true. Been with me all over the country, and beyond . . .

Anyway, walking past a storage unit in Midland one day, whatever truck I was driving surely broke down a mile or so behind me (think I was driving a 79 shortbed F-150 around then, with white headache rack and toolbox, and a smoky six-cylinder), I saw a golfer-type guy with a flatbed tied to his truck, and a five-gallon bucket of asphalt he was shoveling into a pot hole in front of a huge spread of storage units. I talked to him a bit about what he was doing, and then he decided he’d pay me to finish the job, which I did; I was used to getting work this way, had stood around down at the employment office more than a few times, where landowners pull up in trucks, say they need three of you who know how to use a shovel, or whatever — like that day-laborer scene in Machete, yes? Just with slightly less Robert Rodriguez. And when that pot-hole job was over, this golfer asked how I’d feel about painting all these units, maybe? And, I’m talking like, I don’t know, well more than a hundred. Just rows and rows of buildings. I quoted him some made-up price that I thought might get me across summer, and it was a bid that included renting a sprayer.

But he stopped me right there: I couldn’t spray.

The doors on the units didn’t seal tight enough, and he couldn’t have powdery white stripes getting onto his people’s stuff. Meaning I had to roll. And roll. And roll. And it was by-the-hour, because I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the whole job would cost, or how long it would take. As it turned out? Six weeks of rolling bright white paint into thirsty grey cinderblock in 112 degree weather, with not a drop of rain (if there had been, I’d have had to repaint that day’s work). I get extra-dark in the summer, just because the sun is a shining thing, and I’d grown up hoeing weeds, so the heat was nothing new, but this was something different.

In high school I’d had a job scraping houses for the painters to come through, and I figured this job would be more of that. And I guess I was right. But it was a lot more. And, except for spot-jobs on places I’m living, that’s the absolute last time I’ve painted. That summer, though, I got to know all the people who were always going to their units. The vending machine guys were the most regular: they’d have to swing by at least once a day, to restock. And some of those days I’d end up helping that golfer empty out a unit, and of course I’d get lost feeling through all these lives. And then there’s all the stuff the people who are cleaning out their unit just stack back by the dumpsters: it was a treasure trove. That’s one of the summers that’s still very distinct in my head, after all the rest kind of smear together. I was living in white, I was breathing white, I was baking in the sun, I was melting away, I was turning to leather, I was probably drinking a gallon of water every couple of hours. But I was getting paid, too. And Burger King was right next door. Me with money and my pockets and that kind of access, it’s a beautiful thing (this is a Burger King I’d once bought a large water from, to pour on my truck, since my truck was on fire).

Anyyway, here’s what that #1 file of Not for Nothing looked like, with edits. Probably unreadable at this non-zoom — maybe even unreadable when/if you click — but it’s not about the particulars, it’s about that this is how Guy Intoci edits. All my drafts of Growing Up Dead in Texas look like this as well (well, worse, really. GDTx required a lot more work, a lot more drafts). You’ve got to question every line, interrogate every word:

click to go the bigger img

click to go to embiggenate

As for some close-ups, here’s one of our countless small interchanges-in-the-margins (this one’s v.4, chosen at random, pretty much):

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 3.12.59 PM

click to go to that Possum story

And, yes yes yes: I just scrolled down in that directory and found a version of Tar, Baby in WordPerfect, which I was going back and forth from back then. I mean, I can’t open it, of course. But it’s from the ‘dead’ year of 2004. Probably some fun in there, maybe even some third-person fun. For another day, though.

Also, with Guy and, eventually, the copyeditor grilling me about the story and all it contained, I eventually had to search this up:

which, I thought it was all in my head. but my head's been rattled a few times, too

if maps get any single bit more complicated than this, I can’t follow them. also: I can’t follow this one. and I can’t follow directions either. or remember how I got anywhere

Scrolling down through that NFN directory, too, here’s a piece of the notes-file I keep for every novel—just things I spark on while writing, that I don’t have time for right then, and don’t want to append to the bottom of the document, such that I have to keep pushing it ahead (problem there is you get to where you’re pushing so much ahead that it becomes too much, and you quit). A sandbox, like. There’s pages and pages and pages of this, and then just so many cut scenes:

and, I don't really know what this-all means anymore, either

and, I don’t really know what this-all means anymore. but, man, Fin was going to run a theater? cool

Also in that file is the list of alt_titles I always keep, in case I rewrite and the working title no longer applies:

I still love that CDB-line "No Child No" title. except I'd have to put commas. and then I'd have to pause over those commas . . .

I still love that CDB-line “No Child No” for a title. except I’d have to put commas. and then I’d have to pause over those commas . . .

Also in those notes, what I kept meaning to be the hook line, except it never would work:

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 3.34.42 PMThere’s also a lot of stuff in this file that I’ll never understand again:

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 3.36.21 PMAnd . . . aside from alternate covers, which I doubt I have permission to post, this is about all the dirt I can dig up on Not for Nothing. Except for that, like all the other books, this one’s the closest to my heart, the one that means the most, the place where I really live, and probably where I’ll end up going when I die, if I’m lucky.

Boulder Bookstore, early March. thanks to Audra Figgins for the snap

Boulder Bookstore, early March. thanks to Audra Figgins for the snap

 

 

The Rashomon Effect

I’m pretty sure the first rashomon I ever saw, at least the first where the on-the-fly construction of the story really set me back on my heels, was this one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYGfgao7FO4

After that I was hooked. Completely. Forever. Happily. Now I keep a running list of rashomon stuff, which I’ll annotate below some. But it also strikes me that every single first-person story is basically being told as ‘counter’ to the version that ‘really’ happened. Yes? Or undercutting it, embellishing it, fleshing it out—taking whatever rhetorical strategy is necessary for our estimation of this narrator to be ‘good’ rather than ‘bad.’ I mean, in the stories that are obviously rashomon, each character’s version of events is that wonderful kind of selecting an offense that anticipates the defense, yes? From Nick Carroway to Patrick Bateman, there’s not a single narrator we can trust. And that indeterminacy, that’s where fiction lives. Without it the process of creating a narrative is really just stacking bulletpoints one after the next. Without self-aggrandizing selection, we’re left with the illusion of non-fiction. Which can be fun in itself—those are fertile grounds to lie in, if you can adopt the right ‘journalistic’ pose, and keep from grinning too obviously, and if you don’t get seduced by research or correspondence to facts or, though I hesitate, “truth”—but what I’m talking about here is conflict. That’s what’s at the heart of every rashomon. As readers, we know almost immediately that all of these versions can’t be the way it really went down. They’re not just wildly divergent, they’re so obviously self-serving. And that friction, it produces heat, and that heat it drives the story.

However, is there even a ‘way it went down?’ I’m looking at you, Verbal Kint. What I find endlessly fascinating and so, so productive with the rashomon is that ‘reality’ slips away, and all we’re left with, finally, is story. We have to judge what’s ‘real’ by the strength of the narrative alone, never mind any useless correspondence to evidence. Who cares about things you can tie toe tags onto. What really matters in the world, it’s story. Without narrative, none of us even have an identity, do we? Narrative is specifically how we manage to persist across time, instead of living moment-to-moment, like goldfish. The stories we manipulate and edit and tell about ourselves, they are ourselves. And it’s an ongoing process. Ask me who I am today, I’ll highlight these select events. Ask me tomorrow, it’ll be a different set of events. It’s the nature of existence, as near as I can tell. And the rashomon—not to reduce it to ‘just’ a means of survival—is a way to externalize that process. To condition and tone those muscles. To heighten our awareness of both the fragility of who we are and our endurance.

And, yes, if every first-person narration can be considered one ‘side’ of a hidden rashomon, then there’s more variants as well. Cabin the Woods, say. When they’re in the bad-idea cellar, unknowingly selecting the mechanism of their death? It’s a rarely beautiful moment, because at that point the movie splits, it branches into as many possibilities as there are unlockable ‘items’ in that room—as many corresponding ‘cells’ as there are in the underground bunker. Which is to say, the story splits into all these versions, and, while we’re busy following the “Zombie Redneck Torture Family” version, part of our minds are aware of the dim shapes lumbering alongside: there’s the death-by-unicorn version also happening, there’s the giant snake, there’s Kevin. And, yes, there’s even the mermaid.

citw

A sophisticated-enough Choose-Your-Own-Adventure can do this as well, and so, so beautifully. I’ve only seen this happen in manuscript, but, when you make decision A on page 2, say, the story goes this way instead of that way, in time-honored fashion. But, what if that decision B you didn’t make, it becomes a sort of stalking horse alongside the narrative path you’re taking? And this continues with each decision, even the dead-end certain-death ones. ‘You’ the hero are always looking over the fence of your own narrative track, seeing the other stories running alongside; as David Foster Wallace would insist, the membrane is permeable. And those ‘other’/side stories themselves are acting like strange attractors, warping the story you’re in. It’s this weird result of conflicting versions that somehow cooperate, or are entangled at a quantum level. It’s pretty magic, really, and hard to pull off, but so worth trying (or, is Go already doing some version of this? is Run Lola Run? or are they each more drawing from that third-time’s-the-charm structure that’s been going on since Gawain?).

gawain

And I wonder if we could even consider ‘It was all a dream’-endings to have been, at some level, rashomons? At the end of The Wizard of Oz, there are two versions of what went down, and they can’t both have happened, right? Or is the ‘rashomon effect’ in these cases a way of doubling meaning, rather than dangling ‘truth’ before the reader, then pulling it away? Granted, not all ‘dream’ endings do that—some merely erase, disappointingly—but the ones that do, they tend to go wide, Life of Pi. Because the audience is getting double the bang for their buck: two stories from a single read. Two stories running alongside each other, and dipping in and out of each other’s track.

Is that the real strength of the rashomon? The same way subtext can make a discussion ‘matter,’ can make it deep enough to be actually interesting and revealing instead of just revealing information, does the rashomon add similar layers? Or is it just pointless narrative muddling, in lieu of a direct, easy-to-unfold story?

Me, I prefer being asked to choose. I like being put in the position where I invest here—no, here—until finally I don’t know who to root for, intellectually. And then I have to make a decision without my head. Which is exactly where I always want to be as a reader.

So, though this list is wildly incomplete and alarmingly light absent on fiction (is that just me, or are there not any rashomons on the page? am I not thinking of them? can’t imagine I haven’t read twenty), these are the good rashomons I’ve managed to crib down. But you’ll have more, and more, and probably better. Put them in comments, maybe? Because I want them, too. I need them.

Rashomon

Goes without saying that it all starts here. Or, really, with the story, right? (pdf of it. and, here’s six mins of Altman on Rashomon). And, while the rashomon has been done since with more humor and more complexity, I halfway suspect that it’s never actually been done better than this:

Hoodwinked

This is some really solid, fun storytelling. And note that “If you think you know the story” lead-in, and how it matches Cabin in the Woods‘ “You think you know the story…” With the rashomon, you never do. I haven’t seen the second Hoodwinked yet, so can’t say if it’s rashomon or not, but this first one is completely satisfying:

One Night at McCool’s

Reminds me of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Reminds me of that title, anyway: everybody’s got their own version of this one woman. And, this time, maybe they’re all true.

Courage Under Fire

Not dissimilar to McCool’s, except the content here’s deadly serious: war. But—you know how in the early twentieth century there were so many Jekyll & Hydes? It’s because actors love to show off how they can be this, and they can be that (a feat Tatiana Maslany owns now and forevermore). For Courage, that’s what Meg Ryan’s doing: in this version she’s one character, and in the next she’s somebody completely different.

And, that’s all I’ve got written down, as far as movies go (I don’t remember 8mm well enough to say if it’s one or not). And I’m resisting the urge to search up everybody else’s surely-comprehensive lists. Even just from this small handful, though, what’s obvious are the basic components of the rashomon:

  • a ‘crime’—usually a victim, too. usually a victim who’s now silent?  that does put the burden on the suspects . . .

  • multiple ‘guilty’ parties: nobody’s innocent, in spite of their so-convincing version

  • an investigator, be it cop or friend or bystander or whoever: somebody to ask questions

  • touchstones: events that all the versions hit (CYA always has this as well, yes?)

In Hoodwinked, that investigator is a frog, I think. But that’s all you need, really: a talking frog with bagful of question marks. I can even suspect that you could pull a legit rashomon off with just two ‘guilty’ parties (would Murder by Numbers be a twist on this? using the rashomon to create reasonable doubt?). And, whether the way it really happened is revealed in the end or not—that can go either way. Some stories leave us to decide (ambiguity, please, not just the vagueness of non-commital), and thereby make all these claims about ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ and all that, and some, Arlington Road-style, give us a reverse-cascade sort of infodump at the end. And both ways can work, too. That’s the cool thing. Just because you’re in a rashomon, you’re not guaranteed this or that type ending. Instead, you have to keep everything in a buffer pattern in your mind, a staging area in your head, only to be applied when that one insight is cued, that one golden key inserted that lights up the backpath, right to the heart of the crime.

It can be pretty cool. It can be about cooler than anything, really.

It happens on television pretty regular, too. Where I’ve seen it going on is:

  • X-Files 3.8, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

  • Psych 7.14, “No Trout About It”

  • Supernatural 2.15, “Tall Tales”

  • The Simpsons, “Trilogy of Error” (“Homer’s thumb is cut off at breakfast and the episode follows three different paths”)

  • Star Trek Next Generation, “A Matter of Perspective”—of special note as it makes the rashomon ‘interactive,’ via the holodeck

But surely there’s some Buffy, right? And hopefully a Three’s Company episode as well. And all shows in-between. And, I guess, every single Law & Order since about 1990 (crime/investigator/versions & touchstones . . .). I have scribbled down in my notes a Mama’s Family episide, “Rasho-Mama,” which sounds suspiciously Kurosawa-ish, but I can’t recall having ever seen it (however, I watched them all first-run, so I’d guess I have, I just didn’t know what I was seeing).  Wait, look, it’s here:

And, wow: eighty seconds in, and we’ve got the guilty pool of soon-t0-be liars, we’ve got word of the ‘crime,’ and there’s an investigator there to ask the necessary questions, to prompt the three versions. Pretty efficient storytelling, yes? Maybe television’s a good place to study the rashomon. On television, there’s no time to dawdle: you dive right in. Novelists, take note.

Just poked around on-line a bit, too, seeing if I was just somehow missing the “Rashomon”-shelf at B&N, and: nope. All the discussions I can find are trying to cast House of Leaves as rashomon, and World War Z, and Sound and the Fury, and Pale Fire. All of which have that narrative undercutting and doubling/tripling/more we like with the rashomon, yes. And in WWZ there’s a journalist-as-investigator, even, and House of Leaves has its ‘investigator’ as well. There’s not that Agatha Christie ‘closed door’ feel to any of these, though. There’s not that distinct sense that one of us is definitely the perpetrator. And, for me, that closed-doorness, it’s vital—it’s specifically why I’m so into slashers, I think: red herrings abound, and are cut down just when the story starts to gel around them, and suddenly I’m launched forward into a different story, and then, ten minutes and a convenient decapitation later, a different story . . .

Couple of other likely contenders I found, novel-wise, thanks to Google: Wilkie Conkins’ The Moonstone, which I confess to never having read. And I’ll just paste this one:

Surreallist writer Raymond Queneau wrote a book called “Exercices de style” which is a brief description of an encounter at a bus stop told from 99 different viewpoints. Published in French in 1947, translated into English by Barbara Wright in 1958. [linkback]

Anybody read this? I hadn’t ever even heard of it. And, I’d so like to pull something like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story in, or Dan Simmon’s Hyperion—novels which are Canterbury-style: a group of people sitting around some version of a campfire, telling stories. Just, plant a dead body on page one, Christie-style, and, man, suddenly these stories are about wiggling out of blame, and we’re half the way there. And, if people are going to count HoL—I don’t—then a lot of the later PKD should count as well, I’d think; just because the ‘guilty parties’ are in the same head doesn’t make them any less culpable, does it? Maybe Identity should even somehow contribute here, though it’d be a peculiar ‘third-person’ kind of rashomon, with both a dislocated ‘investigator’ and a version of the ‘all-a-dream’ ending as well—maybe all to good effect, even. There’s no rule saying if you do a rashomon it has be the like this and this only. What kind of fun world would that be to tell stories in? Pick and choose what you will, I say. Find ways to undercut the form itself, if it tells a clean story. An emotionally engaging story. That’s always got to be the first goal, the prime directive of this many-year mission.

violatorAnd: comic books? The rashomon has to have happened on the comic book page, yes? Which isn’t to say I can think of a single solitary one. All you really need is one character in the last panel, and that panel’s got a different border, like it’s not at the same level, quite, as the rest of the page. And maybe it’s kind of cockeyed, too, just to be sure we get it. And that one character—I imagine him like The Violator, for some reason—he’s looking up out of his frame and saying, “No, no, it didn’t happen like that at all, man. Here, let me show you—” at which point, turn the page, fall into his version (in the first panel of the next page, in a faded box to show narrative distance: “—how it really went down“), and then another version a few pages later. In storyland, the world is built on a stack of rabbit holes. Our job as a reader—our pleasure, that which addicts us, that which trains us how to dream—it’s to fall down through more and more of them, until we lose track of the ‘real’ completely.

Then, anything can happen. And it usually will.

Reeling in the Years

Back in the late nineties, I’d see Stephen Dixon stories all over and flip back to his author bio at the end of the journal or whatever not because I didn’t already know it, but for the rush: it always said he had some three hundred stories published. I had maybe six at the time? Three hundred was an amazing, impossible, never-get-there kind of number. And I’m not there yet. This isn’t that post. Though I did just total up my stories from print- and e-mags and anthologies and best-of-the-years and textbooks, meaning there’s some doubling, even some tripling, and maybe a ‘forthcoming’ or three sneaked in (I did manage not to count novel chapters that ran in different places, anyway), but still, sitting at 201, looks like. Since my first publication in Black Warrior Review back in 1996 (well, ‘first’ would be this little mag MindPurge, then there was North Texas Review. But BWR was the first I got a check for. And checks matter). Still chasing Dixon, though.

check: $150, I think. I'm 20, here. And that girlfriend there is my wife now

check: $150, I think. I’m 20, here? And that girlfriend there is my wife now (but she’s still the same girl). And this isn’t the BWR check, but an earlier check, for a prize-story (first story I ever wrote). But I didn’t take a pic of the BWR check . . .

And, as anybody who’s ever requested a bio from me knows, that’s the thing I suck at the most. I’d far rather just write another story. Or make up a bio. Just because I can’t keep track. But, near as I can tell, here’s the count as of early March, 2014: fifteen novels (just counting ATBS once, though it’s now two way-separate novels, and including Not for Nothing, already on some shelves), five collections, one e-novella that’s soon to be print, and another novella going print and e- right about the same time (this month—an early review). And this total includes Seven Spanish Angels, which is e-only, in a “rEprint” series though it’s not really a reprint (it’s complicated).

not pictured: Seven Spanish Angels

not pictured: Seven Spanish Angels

These numbers change fast, though: I have a co-written YA (Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn’t Fly, with Paul Tremblay) out in April, in Canada / October in America, and also in October, another horror collection (After the People Lights Have Gone Off, from Dark House), and it’s looking like Once Upon a Time in Texas might just be out right around the same time. That’s the second installment in The Bunnyhead Chronicles, for any Bunnyhead fans. Also, I just a couple of days ago figured out the shape of the third of that trilogy.

There’s stuff waiting in the wings, too. Think right now I have three novels primed and ready to go. Two horror (one slasher, one werewolf, each the single best thing I’ve ever written or probably ever will write), and one very much in keeping with Growing Up Dead in Texas, except less generational and a lot more bow-hunty, and featuring the by-far best ending I’ve ever lucked onto, bar none, except one way-broken novel that’ll never see publication. And I’ve got one (horror) I need to re-hab into that rarest of all beasts: an actually working novel.

And, #WritingNow? A screenplay. It’s a slasher, of course. Slasher’s the truest of all genres, I think. It’s where I’m most at home, anyway. Where I feel I can be the most honest. Though more and more, lately, there’s this haunted house / visitation kind of novel making it hard for me to cross dark rooms. Hard to even turn the lights off. Hard for me to deal with open doors behind me. Feels like a big novel, too. ‘Big’ as in ‘many pages.’ Though I wouldn’t doubt if I wrap myself up in some novelization / tie-in kind of stuff before too long, here. I think there’s things to be learned in those fields. I dig the learning. When I can get paid for it: even better. However, don’t be surprised if 2015 for me is more or less bookless. Been talking to some people who know, and it may be the case that I’ve been publishing too much, as unintuitive and not-the-dream as that sounds. I could have a book out every other month, I mean, with no problem. Trick is, making them stick, right? That’s what I’m still learning.

pretty sure this is me writing ATBS in 2002, in the Spring, when my office was also the bedroom. Or, when there was a bed in my office.

pretty sure this is me writing ATBS in 2002, in the Spring, when my office was also the bedroom. Or, when there was a bed in my office.

And, talking updates, there’s A Critical Companion to the Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones out from UNM Press in 2015, edited by Billy Stratton. And, not in that novel-total up there because it’s a book, not a novel, there’s the blindness overtaking me is beating like a drum, an extended conversation/interview me and Pablo D’Stair did in 2011 (me and BEE have real blurbs on a fake book in Pablo’s recent movie). And there’s another book related to that that I can’t talk about yet, as jinxes are real. But hopefully soon. And, that first issue of Demon Theory with Delicia Williams is still in pencils. Hopefully to someday be real; I’ve got the rest of the scripts for “Demon Theory 16″ down, too. I so dig working inside the comic book page, and, in writing the script, have discovered things about that first act of Demon Theory that I hadn’t seen before.

well, this is from issue 2, actually . . .

well, this is from issue 2, actually . . .

And, now that I’ve got some twenty books on the shelf? What have I learned? I’ve had friends win a lifetime of money with a book contract, and I’ve had friends win the Pulitzer. I’ve seen friends write perfect bulletproof immortal impossible gems of novels, only to have nobody notice, and I’ve seen other writers I know and dig kind of drift away, into other ventures. Not because they weren’t talented or because they got burned one too many times, but because fascinations change, I think. Talents redirect. Life pulls, and you follow.

And, over the past fifteen years I’ve connected with a lot of readers, which is wonderful each time. That title story for Bleed Into Me, I’ve had so many people tell me that that’s what it’s like. And Ledfeather‘s gone all over, and taken me with it, and Demon Theory has opened so many doors, and the rest of the books have booked me on flights and gotten me GoH seats in just about all the contiguous states of America, I think (except Nevada and Arizona, for some reason). But, what have I learned?

This feels suspiciously like there’s a colon on the way:

  • Sometimes editors are right. I mean, even a lot of the time they’re right. And this isn’t about me once having had ‘principles’ and now, for money, compromising. The clickover point, it wasn’t one single editor magically fixing a manuscript, either. It was that movie Ravenous. One of the times I watched it, I checked out the deleted scenes, with the commentary, and there was (director) Antonia Bird talking about how the producers cut this, cut that, and there was something a touch mournful to her tone, but I agreed with those cuts, too. I saw that this wasn’t producers swooping in, trying to leave their stamp on the movie just for ego’s sake. This was somebody trying to make the movie sell. They were packaging it to be a better product. Which is of course what’s first, last, and in the middle of any good editor’s suggestions, I have to hope. Literary integrity’s great, but even more important is getting somebody to pluck that book off the shelf in the first place.

editing

  • Poor timing and bad luck are real. Which isn’t news to anybody. So often ‘your’ idea or manner of execution gets to the shelf just about the time you’re delivering your world-changing manuscript to your agent. At which point your great idea is suddenly derivative. There’s nothing to do about this. Just be happy that it was, in fact, a salable idea. And then have another idea, and write it faster this time. Sitting around moaning about the injustice of that King upstart writing your telekinetic high school outcast novel doesn’t accomplish anything. Just, now, start your big haunted hotel novel . . .
  • Write the same way you read. Which is to say: in the line at the bank, standing there pumping gas, on the bus, wherever. When a book you’re reading is going well, you sneak a few pages in whenever you can, don’t you? Write that same way. It’s what I’ve had to learn to do, what with all the other busy-ness of life always trying (without any malice) to steal all my writing time. Steal it back. Easy as that. This isn’t to say that schedules and discipline are bad, either. I’ve just never had any time for them. Any need for them. When I’m writing, then the whole day or week or month is for writing. Everything else has to somehow schedule itself in.
  • Don’t write novels you know you can write. Every time you open a new file, you should be fairly certain that the magic isn’t going to be there this time. The project’s too unwieldy, the concept flawed, you don’t have this or that figured out—you don’t know where or how to even start. Start anyway. Writing novels you know you can write would be so unfulfilling, I would think (though, there’s ‘fulfillment’ and there’s the electricity bill, yes). I want to feel like I caught something new, not like I caught the same butterfly as last time, and the time before. However, of course the market wants that same butterfly, doesn’t it? Don’t let the market tell you where to drag your net, though. Go out and find something nobody knew existed. And then put your name on it. And then go out again, into even wilder territory. Or into the darkest subway in the biggest city, where nobody’s even seen a butterfly for a generation. It might be there, though. You’ll never know if you’re not there too.
  • Humor doesn’t mean your work isn’t serious. There’s nothing wrong with jokes, with slapstick, with bits and rants, even. Coming up through grad school, it seemed none of the stuff we read had any smiles in it. It was all serious and dour and subtle, which I took to be code for ‘literary.’ Having fun on the page, though, man, isn’t that what it’s all about? Do we not love those books which made us laugh out loud, then cry and cringe as well? Stories need to run the full gamut of this human experience. Don’t be afraid to try.
  • Don’t write for the ages. And don’t write for the critics. Write what you want to read, instead. Act like you’re paying back into a system that’s been investing in you since you could read. Write like you owe it to fiction. Write because you’re sick of what you’re seeing in the world, on the shelves, or write because you’re all starry-eyed with love. Just don’t write to try be timeless, to put your stamp on the world. I’m fairly certain that Shakespeare, for all the good he left, was just jacking around, trying to make a buck, trying to get by until next week. And because he didn’t feel like the whole future was watching, he was free to play, to invent, to explore, to make mistakes.
  • Sometimes you get lucky. With a story, with a phrase, with a character, with a whole novel. Every once and again, a novel I’ve just written, it’ll just be there, already what it is, Longshot_(Mojoverse)_003for better or for worse. And that’ll be the first time out, the first time through. The trick, then, it’s to leave it alone. So many novels get drafted on endlessly, until the heart’s written out of them. At the same time, I once wrote two-thousand pages just to get three-hundred and fifty. Each novel’s different. So of course you shouldn’t try to force each through the exact same process. I’m guessing people who cook use different spoons and bowls and mixers for different cakes. Do that with your fiction as well.
  • Know when to let go of a story, of a novel. Which is tricky. You’ve got months, say, invested in this, and scrapping that file, consigning it to the drawer, it feels like giving up, like a betrayal. But it’s not. It’s allowing you now to write something without all those mistakes. And I’ve done this. I don’t see everything I start through. Some novels shoot themselves in the foot a hundred and twenty pages in (that’s the magic number for mine, anyway). In the last three years, I’ve got two like that, novels I’m so completely smitten with, yet can tell are already broken. Walk away, man. And don’t look back when it explodes. That’s how you’ll know you’re cool.
  • Endings are forever tricky. But when you finally luck onto the right one, you can feel it. Very very rarely will I write a novel and jam the ending first try out. The way it usually works is I slap a temp-ending on at four in the morning, then come back to it before lunch, try another ending out, and then another, and another, until, usually about three days later while I’m playing basketball or trying to track down a plug-wire that’s shorting, it’ll come to me, how it should be. And that release—there’s no other word, is there?—that’s specifically why I write. Not for all the two-hundred ninety-nine pages of craftwork and heavy lifting that came before, and all the regret already built into that, of time not spent with your family or seeing a whale or whatever. I write for that very last page. For that flush, that rush. There’s nothing better.
  • Writer’s block isn’t that real. Or, every time I hit that wall of What comes next, instead of indulging in that lack of forward motion and wallowing around in public drama about it, what I do is back up about forty pages, and read so, so closely. The problem’s nearly always somewhere between there and the wall. The wall is just your own storytelling instincts warning you that you made a mis-step x pages back, and if you don’t fix it soon, then this novel’s getting lost, kid. Fix it now or fix it never. I’ve not once been unable to find the so-obvious problem that was keeping me from moving forward.
  • Do fiction for money. To condition yourself to get paid, sure, as Harlan Ellison says, but I’m talking more about what Joe Lansdale says: some stories he’s written because they were bleeding up through his fingertips, and some he wrote the same way you build a chair. Sign on for as many of those chair-stories as you can. Every invitation I get for one, I take it. And not just for the money, but to remind myself that I’m a writer, that you can call me at ten at night, ask for a story in this genre of that length, and I can get it back to you in a day or two, and make it not just good enough, but hopefully the best of them all. Art’s a contest, after all: do it better or go home.
  • Copyeditors are the bane of my existence. But they save my life on a daily basis, too. I’m a lot stupider than it might appear on the page. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to spell ‘okay’ with two letters, or ‘grey’ with that American ‘A,’ and if any of my characters say to get them a coke, then they don’t mean a Coca-Cola, they mean a Dr. Pepper or a Pepsi—maybe a Coke, sure. But, yes, you’ll have noticed some of my ‘dumpsters’ are now capitalized, as are my bandaids and frisbees and kleenexes. So it goes. You don’t win all the battles. What you might not have noticed is that, say, state lines are in the right place, or generations of families stack up the right way, or a character’s name is actually spelled consistently. This isn’t because of me. I wish I could take credit. Or, I do get the credit. But it’s really the copyeditors. They’re angels and demons both, in a single red pen.
  • Have people you trust read your work. And read theirs back. You’ll get good help, and you’ll learn about your own writing—about fiction in general—by giving good help. Sounds very beatific, I know, but your MFA program, the loan might last forever, but the classes won’t. You’ve got to recreate the workshop on your own, from scratch, by trial and error.
  • Be able to logline your novel. It’s a screenplay test—is there actually conflict? do you know the story?—but, man, it works so well for novels as well. Which I recently found out at a party: somebody asked what was I working on, and I had this five-minute out of body experience of watching myself stumble through a muddle of half-formed, disconnected scenes, and the person listening doing their polite-eyes thing, and eyeing the level of their drink. So I promptly quit writing that novel, and very quickly wrote another one, that actually worked, that’s got a logline. And always write a version of the back-cover copy, blast it off to your editor or whoever. They won’t use it, of course—you’re a novelist, and don’t know about marketing—but maybe some of its character will make it through. Or maybe a phrase will inspire someone to write the real killer copy. Either way, it tells you what your novel is, what it’s about.
  • How long it takes doesn’t matter. The last novel I wrote took sixteen days. And the one before that, fifteen days. One before that, thirteen. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily ‘slight’ or inconsequential, though. That’s just the way I write. And some people, they do their best work across a couple of years or more, cobbling the novel together a bit at a time. It doesn’t matter either way. What matters is the product. Used to, when I’d kick a novel out in four weeks, I’d feel halfway guilty, like I didn’t understand the toil, the struggle, the heartache. But each of those novels, they left me in tears, writing them. And not just because I’m a wimp. I mean, I am, but I don’t think that factors in, really. You know when you’re writing real. And that’s got nothing to do with the calendar or the clock.
  • Stay off of Goodreads. And don’t respond to comments on Amazon or wherever, either. I mean, we all go there half-squinting, trying to just read the good reviews. But you always think the good ones are by one of your mother’s many on-line personas, while the bad ones, they’re from the Mount, man. They’re gospel, they’re true, and, worse, they’re formative. The main feedback you need? Your royalty check. That’ll tell you whether you’re doing it right or doing it wrong. Which isn’t to say I’m not so thankful for all those comments and Goodreads reviews. I am, extremely, even the one-star jobs; people are engaging the work. What more can I ask for? But my mind and ego are way too fragile to open my heart and rub it all over the screen like that. Those are the worst sessions, falling into that kind of self-googling. Resist, resist.
  • Back your work up religiously. And irreligiously. And whatever other adverb is going to make sure you don’t lose your work. And don’t trust autosave. And don’t trust the cloud. Keep multiple copies in multiple directories on a variety of machines. Email files to yourself sometimes. To all your accounts. To your friends as well. And maybe to your enemies. Hit print on the whole thing every now and again. It’ll save you. Hopefully you won’t need it, but you will.
  • Writing gets in the way of everything. But at the same time, if you don’t write, it comes out anyway, and leaves you lying in its trail.
  • Don’t take pics with your shirt off. Which is to say: don’t let your shirt be off when pics are being taken. Of you. This is advice straight from Peter Frampton, too, so I trust it. He says you only regret it later. And, there’s so many versions of ‘no shirt,’ right? There’s the author-photo version of the glamour shot. There’s the way the publisher wants to market you, so, say, people really into leopards are going to automatically key on you. There’s photoshopping to erase the years. There’s selfies that were so perfect you had to use them. But sometimes it’s better not to look perfect. Sometimes it’s better just to look like your own stupid self:
this is what I sent to my publisher for my first novel. they quickly rejected it

that’s 1998. this is three or four days ago

  • It’s nobody’s fault but your own if your novel doesn’t chart. You can blame poor marketing, uncharitable reviews, the publishing climate, your secret nemesis, your actual nemesis, and you can hate everybody you want, but it finally comes back to you needing to have written better. Every day when I step into my office, this is what’s on my door, to remind me:

Demanding (or wishing for) a place at the table of high culture is an admission that you don’t have one; the way to get a place at the table of high culture is to pull up a chair and say something interesting. — Douglas Wolk

And, if I’ve learned anything else, it’s just to always read outside what you think your area of interest is. And to read books you fully expect to hate. And to reread books that hit you hard when you were fifteen. And to stop reading any book that you’re not enjoying, including (but hopefully not limited to) mine. Reading should never be a chore. A challenge sometimes, sure, maybe even a worthwhile slog. But not a thing you dread.

Also—but I don’t know how to teach this—learn who to trust. I’ve been with good publishers and bad publishers, crazy editors and editors who are a writer’s dream, and all kinds between. Some are my friends. Some are people I send manuscripts to for their opinion, even when I’m not going to be submitting it to them. And some still owe me big chunks of money. But the only way I learned to tell good from bad, it was by jumping all the way into the pool and splashing around. Not just dipping a toe in to check the water. You can’t know anything from somewhere safe. I’ve done commercial and I’ve done indie. I’ve been on national tour and I’ve also seen books kind of blip instantly off the radar. I’ve read to six hundred people one night and five no-eye-contact people the next. I’ve learned that marketing and distribution are so, so paramount, but so is quality representation. I was with the same agent for fourteen years, happily. Though we’ve parted ways recently, it was nothing bad, except I won’t be talking to a friend quite as much anymore. She never once let me sign anything that wasn’t bulletproof, though—well, when she could catch me before I signed, anyway (and sometimes you’ve already signed in your head by the time you’re asking people for advice . . .).

But, aside from the professional, you’ve also got to learn to balance the personal: family, friends, other work. All of which I’ve been extremely lucky with: a family that supports this bad habit of fiction, and a job that leaves me time to feed my addiction. If only I could stay out of the emergency room, or ever buy a big ridiculous truck that didn’t instantly become a money pit, or keep from always spending all my money on boots and bows and knives and fancy ridiculous shirts, then I’d have nothing to ask for, really.

Well, except for a Bandit-black Trans-Am. But someday, Clyde. Someday.

this has always been the dream

I don’t even have to drive it (this is a lie). I can just park it in the driveway (also a lie). and I won’t call everybody who rides with me ‘Frog,’ either.

 

States of Grace

cover_frontExactly fifty stories, none longer than a thousand words, a couple just a sentence or two.

SpringGun  |  SPD  |  LitReactor  |  Do Some Damage

 

If we had to choose one writer to rebuild American literature after the apocalypse, the smart money would be on Stephen Graham Jones, who is in the process of reinventing literally every genre from the ground up. In States of Grace he offers up lean, deftly composed short-shorts that seem effortless but inflict a surprising amount of mayhem considering their size—like a deadly gang of smurfs.  – Brian Evenson