Wednesday Writing Tip: The Best Genre is the Genre Mashup

This video, brought to us by the fine – and brilliant – folks at Postmodern Jukebox – is a stunning example of what I like to call a genre mashup.

Assuming you have any perspective on 20th century music and 21st century TV, it’ll be easy for you to get most of the references above. For those who need an education, here’s a brief breakdown. Continue reading → Wednesday Writing Tip: The Best Genre is the Genre Mashup

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.

 

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.

An Early ‘Guide’

Last week marked what would have been the late Douglas Adams‘ 61st birthday, and I should take this (belated) opportunity to thank him for proving to me that although writing is a serious business, it doesn’t have to be entirely serious.

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The original, having passed through many hands, as evidenced by the vigorously taped spine.

As a kid, I’d always been a fan of the absurd. I glommed onto Monty Python and Benny Hill early and shared many long BBC-via-public TV blocs of Fawlty Towers with my dad, mostly to the consternation of my mom, who never quite got what the appeal was.

But when I discovered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I quite literally fell in love.  Since my original edition (shown here – the cover held together by Scotch tape) notes that it is the fifth printing of the Pocket Books first edition with a publication date of 1981, I suspect that I stumbled across what would prove to be one of the defining books of my youth when I was in 7th grade.

As American readers go – at least for my age group – I always felt that I was a bit of an early adopter when it came to H2G2, as it is now fondly known. Many of my classmates were clueless, unaware that such a perfect melding of sci-fi, satire, social commentary and outright hilarity even existed.

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Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent and Zaphod Beeblebrox from the 2005 film version of H2G2. Or, me and pretty much any two of my friends after an evening of festivity.

I recall reading and re-reading my copy (thus the tape), then becoming something of an evangelist for the novel, loaning it out to friends who I thought would appreciate it. They, too, became fans, and joined what, for me, was like a special little club of in jokes and cultural exclusivity.

Even today, I sometimes have to restrain myself from foisting it on others – my kids included. Thankfully, my son, at 9, has a growing appreciation based on the 2005 film version. He has my full permission to read the novel whenever he is ready. In fact, he noted to me the other night that his copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys (a must for any adventurous-minded lad) lists H2G2 as a must-read.

This is a good thing, because I can’t even begin to estimate the role H2G2 played on my development as a writer. I can most definitely trace my style of column and opinion writing, first honed at my high school newspaper, right back to the novel. As I grew as a writer and began to read other novelists and columnists, I always found myself drawn to those that maintained a sense of the patently absurd (Dave Barry and the late Lewis Grizzard, I’m talking to you guys).

In fact, I can also trace my eventual discovery of Christopher Moore to my fondness for Adams, and that led me to the legendary West Chester Christopher Moore Codorus Press Ambush, of which I might be convinced to write about some other time.

Nevertheless, if you’ve actually read my novel Immaculate Deception, and you also happened to have read H2G2, I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw some similarities. Hopefully they also made you smile.