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An East Coast Gringo Embraces Day of the Dead (Line)

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When I moved to Yuma, Ariz., in 1996, I was the freshest of fresh-meat gringos you’d ever want to meet.

Prior to crossing the Mississippi River on my way there, it was my first time ever doing so. I had never been into a western (or really, even Midwestern, state). The farthest west I’d been, I suppose, was the mountains of North Carolina. Or maybe West Virginia.

So when I pulled into Yuma, which sits just north of a little notch carved into Mexico and directly adjacent to California, I had a lot to learn about how things were done in my new home.

First lesson, learned during my orientation week: If someone tells you his last name is Cruz, do not leave a note for the sports editor spelling it as “Cruise.”

Second lesson, learned two months after my arrival: There is nothing weird about spending Halloween weekend picnicking in the cemetery to honor and celebrate your deceased loved ones.

This, I soon learned, was a perfectly normal celebration of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. So dear departed uncle Hector loved beans, rice, and tortillas washed down with Tecate with Tejano music playing in the background? Excellent! Cook up a mess of Southwestern soul food and bring the party to him at he gravesite. It’s a family thing.

When you think about death and mourning rituals, it all makes perfect sense. But as I was the most gringo of gringos – and had no departed relatives buried within 3,000 miles – I chose instead to adopt little pieces of Day of the Dead to incorporate into my own personal life.

The most important was the image of the skeleton performing some typical earth-bound task or profession. These fantastic folk art figurines are nearly ubiquitous during Day of the Dead celebrations, and I spent a lot of time and energy in nearby Algdones, Mexico, looking for one that represented a writer or journalist. No luck, but I’m still searching, so if you know where I can get one please let me know.

At that stage of my life I was single, in a new town and learning not just the ropes of a new region but basically an entirely foreign culture. But because I had a lot of time on my hands outside work, I spent LOTS of it during that period working on the third or fourth draft of Immaculate Deception.

One of the images that really kept me on task was – you guessed it – culled from the Day of the Dead tradition. It was a clip-art cutout of a skeleton wearing a vintage biretta – the pom pom-topped headgear worn by some Catholic priests – and holding aloft a hourglass.

This picture remained taped to the border of my computer screen for my entire time in Yuma and for many years beyond. The purpose? To remind me that time is short. The Reaper always waits. If you don’t get it done today, there’s no guarantee you’ll have a chance to get it done tomorrow.

Reminding yourself of impending death seems like a drastic means of motivation, I know, but I’m convinced that if more of us stepped back and considered that our time on this earth is finite, we’d be motivated to get a lot more done. And more of what we did would be of consequence and value.

Entirely Biased and Totally Subjective Book Review: ‘Sacré Bleu’ by Christopher Moore

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You can dive into Sacré Bleu, the most recent non-spinoff work from comic/fantasy yarn spinner Christopher Moore, without an art history degree, but it might not be a bad idea to have a working knowledge of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters of Paris in the late 1800s before you start.

That’s because most of them (at least those Moore can place within temporal or physical proximity to the setting) make appearances in Sacré Bleu, a paranormal mystery that casts artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the unlikely role of investigator when his pal and fellow painter Vincent van Gogh suffers what appears to be  self-inflicted gunshot wound, but then proceeds to walk to find a doctor, dying not long after he arrives.

Toulouse-Lautrec has reason to believe that his friend’s death was instead a murder, and sets out to find out who might have been the killer. He enlists the help of a young baker, Lucien Lessard, whose father was both an aspiring artist himself and a patron of the Impressionist community. Lucien, it turns out, has some talent of his own, and as such is doted upon by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and his peers.

Central to the plot, as you might gather from the title, is the color blue, specifically the “sacred” blue reserved in European art for the shade of the Virgin Mary’s gown. Its origins and mysterious purveyors – and how they relate to the artists of late 19th century France – help Moore explore the primary themes of talent, inspiration and madness, and how the three can be inseparably intertwined.

Stylistically, Sacré Bleu hews mostly closely among Moore’s works to Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. In Lamb, Moore took the established canon of the New Testament and, through legitimate historical and theological research, filled in the blanks of the missing years of the life of Jesus with fictional suppositions about his travels and the earthly inspirations for his later, better documented ministries.

Of course, Moore being Moore, he did so with a heaping helping of satire, naughty wit and downright hilarity, and Sacré Bleu is no different, reflecting the same narrative base – actual people and history are folded into a completely fantastic storyline that somehow manages to incorporate real events and landmark art in a way that makes you pause and say, “Well, maybe it could have happened that way after all.”

As a character in a Moore novel goes, Toulouse-Lautrec is so perfect it’s like history planned for him to star in this book. Short in stature but overwhelming in his confidence in his own talent, the artist was well known as a libertine and based much of his oeuvre on the sensory experiences of spending lots of time in burlesque halls and brothels.

Complementing it all are the full-color (at least in the first edition hardback copies) illustrations of nearly every painting Moore references in the course of the narrative. They are used both as a (very subtle) art history lesson and to place into context the interactions between the artists and their mysterious muse. It’s a clever – and to my knowledge, unique – device that does nothing to interrupt the story and so very much to remind the reader that the characters placed in these fictional situations were indeed real people doing real and very relevant work.

I noted earlier that this is a “non-spinoff” work to distinguish it from the pseudo-sequels of two of Moore’s earlier novels, Bloodsucking Fiends and A Dirty Job – those being You Suck and Bite Me. While, as a Moore fan, I enjoyed the latter two, at times it felt as if the author was phoning it in to try and grab some of that tasty vampire mojo that keeps copies of the Twilight series flying off the shelf.

This novel doesn’t suffer from that feeling. Indeed, when Moore puts his mind (and research and shoe leather) to it, he can craft a detailed and stylistically pleasing novel that incorporates a detailed and well organized story, plenty of Tom Robbins-style wordplay and sexy-sexy plot points with the abundantly weird supernatural/science fictional elements that keep readers coming back.

Today’s Funky Friday Brought to You by The Roots and … Elvis Costello? (A Rumination on Genre Busting)

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OK, lemme ‘splain.

Anyone who’s read this blog … you know – ever – has a pretty good idea that I’m an Elvis Costello fan from way back, and there’s a good reason: I consider my discovery of Costello on par with my initiation into a musical world that included the Beatles as its foundation.

But I’ve never really explained why.

Better than why, I’ll explain when. It was 1983, and I was 15, riding with my dad in his tiny Chevy pickup truck to help him out with a rehearsal for a play he was directing at the Chapel Street Playhouse, a tiny but very active community theater in Newark, Del. As we got closer to the theater, this song came on the radio – likely longstanding Wilmington, Del., Top 40 station WSTW. Something about the opening piano chords with the bass guitar right up front grabbed me, then the singer’s falsetto kicked in, followed by a more normal register, and the sound of the female background singers.

That’s about 20 seconds into the song. And man, I was hooked. I did something I rarely did. I asked my dad to just sit there in the parking lot and leave the radio on while I listened to the rest of the song, which turned out to be about a lovelorn writer using literary imagery to explain the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.

OK, I thought. You got me. I’m done. Who is this guy?

But the DJ didn’t say. Because this was the Stone Ages, when there was no handy digital display to tell you the artist if the DJ neglected to, I was in the dark. When I got home, I was doubly in the dark, because my family had no cable TV, and thus no MTV. That might have been the last time I heard it on the radio.

Sadly, even though the song was on the 1983 album Punch the Clock, it took me until 1985 to actually own the song with the release of Elvis_costello_best_1985The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1985. It contained the single I had heard – “Every Day I Write the Book” – as well as enough cuts from his back catalog to make me want to investigate further.

What I found was not a gold mine but a friggin’ platinum mine. Here’s this skinny dork (hello, 115-pound theater nerd 11th-grader) who not only rocks with this weird amalgam of new wave pop and pissed-off punk, but who is obviously literate. His songs, dense with words and metaphor and cross references, were like novellas in themselves.

Since then I’ve been a permanent fan, and pretty much anyone who knows me well is aware of this. Example: When I met up for lunch with a former college girlfriend a few years after graduation, one of her first questions as we made awkward smalltalk was, “Still like Elvis Costello?”

I wanted to say, “Yes, because he A) Didn’t break up with me, and B) Writes great brokenhearted nerd songs that helped me get over you.”

But it was more than that. I admired not only the literary quality of the songs, but the fact that his style was all over the map. One minute he was channeling pop-punk rage, while the other he was crooning a country song or paying homage to the sweet harmonies of Motown.

It was that ability to adapt and cross genres that, in the end, kept me as a fan. And, as it turns out, those same qualities are frequently what I look for in the authors I read and the ones I try to apply to my own writing.

As much as I love science fiction in books, film and TV, it’s the work that is able to admit that it’s other things that really grabs me. For instance, one of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore. If you’ve ever read his work, you know he’s hard to pin down as far as genre. Does he write humorous fantasy? Fantastic humor? Is it horror? Scifi? Occult? Why does he say the F-word so much?

Exactly! You never really know where he’s going – only that along the way you will be taken on an absurd and ultimately sweet adventure. Whether it’s a Pacific Island cargo cult, a pesky Native American trickster spirit or a rumination on what happened during the “lost” years in the life of Jesus, you will laugh and you will encounter elements of the weird, fantastic, science-fictional and – occasionally – the kinky and naughty.

Another example: I just watched the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, about a team of magazine writers pursuing a story about the guy behind a classified ad seeking a time travel companion.

Is it science fiction because there’s the prospect – real or imagined – of time travel? I say yes. But what makes it great is that around that conceit is a deep story of real people trying to recapture lost time or bygone days. The emotions are true and the situations believable, even if, at the center of things, is a concept that goes back to the earliest science fiction novels. The same could be said for films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

So, how does this all relate back to the funk mentioned in this post’s title?

In his latest collaboration, Elvis Costello has teamed with perhaps The Best Band in the World, The Roots (hailing from my adopted metro area of Philadelphia), working together to fuse The Roots’ particular brand of neo-soul, funk, hip hop and R&B to Costello’s dense storytelling. It’s what makes me love Costello still, repackaged and re-purposed with a funky back beat, a driving horn section and a noir feel that he hasn’t inhabited in years.

There’s no fear as both he and The Roots venture into uncharted waters of creativity, and the result, as it frequently is when fear is cast aside and new frontiers are explored, are extraordinary.

 

The Monorail – Getting from Here to There the Science Fiction Way

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One of the early criticisms of Immaculate Deception (from a friend and former newspaper colleague who had not yet read the book, incidentally) was that there would be no way that anytime in the near future the United States could agree to build any sort of high-speed rail system, let alone the extensive maglev network I describe in the novel.

Had he known they were present in the narrative, he probably would also have pooh-poohed the presence of the aircar, loosely based on the designs of the Moller Skycar, which is an actual thing.

Granted, when it seems difficult for some in politics and punditry (the real in which my skeptical friend now dwells) to wrap their brains around better, cooler trains. The fact that people in urban areas (particularly along the Northeast Corridor of the U.S., where I live) actually like to use trains and would like to see more of them seems antithetical to the the current widespread belief that investments in forward-thinking infrastructure are silly. Honestly, it’s so much easier to spend all that money on fighting spurious foreign conflicts and letting bridges rot, right? But that’s another blog posting…

Suffice it to say that whether they’ll every really happen in the U.S., high-tech public transportation systems like maglevs (beyond the one at Disney World, of course) are an integral part of science fiction literature and film. There are even a few musical references – my favorite being “IGY” by Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagan.

And it’s not just a current (pipe?) dream – it’s one that’s apparently been around a very long time. Here’s a great story from the website io9 talking about the monorail concept through history.

All aboard!

Oh, Hey … Did I Mention I Was On the Radio?

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As I mentioned here a few weeks ago, I was scheduled to appear on Destinines: The Voice of Science Fiction, a fantastic weekly radio show out of Stony Brook, N.Y., on Aug 16.

Well, the interview happened and I really can’t stop saying great things about it. Dr. Howard Margolin was a stellar host and had a great selection of thoughtful, insightful and funny questions to ask about Immaculate Deception and the process of creating it. I also had the opportunity to do my first radio reading of an excerpt from the book, so there’s that, too.

It’s under the assumption that the host enjoyed the book that authors are invited on these types of shows, and Howard was very kind in his praise.

I invite you to listen to the entire interview here. If you’re the interactive type, use the comment field to let me know what you thought of the interview and whether you plan to go out and buy ID (assuming, of course, that you haven’t already).

As a follow up, my good friend and Codorus Press colleague Tom Joyce (I order you to follow him on Twitter at @TomJoyceAuthor, as well as on Facebook, and to buy his new novel, The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report) gave me a very kind shout out on his own website talking about how ID harkens back to some of the sci-fi novels of the 1960s, when authors were starting to realize they weren’t bound by many of the conventions of the genre that had been established from its emergence through the 1950s.

Thanks again to Howard from Destinies and for the continued support from Codorus Press and our fine stable of authors.

Tonight, I Invade Your Earholes (In the Most Pleasant of Ways)

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As I’ve written here before, I love being on the radio. It’s like TV, but without the need to actually be handsome or … you know, wear pants.

So when after enjoying an awesome family Disney World vacation this past spring, I returned home to find frantic e-mails from Codorus Press honcho Wayne Lockwood telling me a radio host was trying to get in touch with me … well, that was just the cherry on top of the Disney princess sundae.

Turns out it was Dr. Howard Margolin, who’s a host of the popular science fiction radio show Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction. Needless to say, I got back to him very quickly and we arranged for an on-air interview. You’ll be able to listen to that interview live tonight at 11:30 p.m. Eastern. If you’re in the New York City/Long Island area, you can tune into 90.1 WUSB, or click the Destinies link to listen to the live stream. The show will also be posted as a podcast for you day-dwellers to listen to at a more amenable hour.

Howard’s a great interviewer and in a few decades of doing this has talked to a lot of really big names in the genre for the program. I’m truly honored to be among them.captphil_online-destinies

Perhaps the best part about talking to Howard is he doesn’t just read the book’s back cover blurb and ask a bunch of general questions. He reads the whole book, then takes copious notes and asks some very specific and probing questions. Honestly, I’m prepared to have to answer some questions about Immaculate Deception that even I hadn’t considered, so be ready for a thoughtful and in-depth discussion of the book.

Howard was also kind enough to invite me to read an excerpt of the novel, which I recorded ahead of time and he was kind enough to tidy up a bit for broadcast. So there’s another little bonus for you, since the only other readings I’ve done have been live and – except for one instance – haven’t been documented for posterity.

So join me tonight on the radio for some fun. And if you’re lucky, I might even decide to wear pants.

 

Summer Reading Can Still Be Foundational Reading

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So I spent a good portion of the spring and early summer slogging through an exceptionally dense non-fiction tome on Napa Valley that was serving as background for a large scale co-writing project that, unfortunately, tanked hard in mid June.

I don’t consider it wasted time, because I’m one of those folks that considers any reading good reading. And in addition, I learned some things I didn’t know before, so it all evens out. Also, now if I ever want to set a story in California wine country, I’ve at least got a jumping off point.

But with the burden of research-related reading lifted, I got to return to some writing by several of the authors that have really inspired me along the way.

The gentlemen represented here aren’t going to be taught in high school English classes anytime soon, but I’ve immersed myself in their work over the years nonetheless. And that’s not to say that I haven’t spent my time with some English class stalwarts – diving back into the pool with Ernest Hemingway helped me learn how to write with a bit more economy. Then again, a few walks along some long dark alleys with pulp-master Mickey Spillane (who, incidentally, lived the last years of his life in Murrells Inlet, S.C., just down the beach from Myrtle Beach, where Immaculate Deception is partially set) helped me pull some tough-guy detective fiction tricks out of the bag, too.

But as far as modern-day writers who are still busy writing go, these guy are my boys. If you’ve read Immaculate Deception, you can probably see each of them peeking through the narrative, the subject matter and the writing style here and there.

Derivative? Some might say so. But others – mostly other writers – will be the first to tell you that the way to get started writing like yourself is to write like the people you love to read. What comes out after it’s passed through the creative filter of your own unique brain is – shazam! – your style of writing.