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

On Air sign

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

image

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.

A Little Midweek Perspective

Earth from Saturn

See that black thing up in the corner? That’s Saturn, with its rings evident toward the top of the frame. And that tiny dot with the arrow pointing to it? That’s Earth, as viewed from the Cassini space probe now heading out of our solar system.

On that tiny dot is you, everyone you’ve ever known and everyone who’s ever lived or died – the entirety of the human race and everything we’ve built, destroyed, learned and chosen to ignore.

About the same time this picture was taken (July 19), I was gazing back at Saturn with my son through a telescope in our suburban front yard. I felt incredibly small and insignificant. Seeing us as we look from space only magnified that feeling.

But that feeling of being a speck of dust floating in a sunbeam is liberating, too. On a cosmic scale, the things we worry about wouldn’t stir the breeze on an alien planet.

So, if you’re a bit peeved at your spouse or things didn’t go so well at work or you can’t get your head around that bit of writing you’re trying to hack out, remember this is what it looks like peering back at us from the edge of our little island of stability in this very dangerous universe. A universe that is much, much bigger than any of your problems.

Sci-Fi Author Richard Matheson Speaks to What All Authors Hope For

Science fiction author and screenwriter Richard Matheson died this week, having contributed immensely to the sci-fi canon with some of the best loved episodes of The Twilight Zone and the novel I Am Legend (the source for the Will Smith movie of the same name, as well as two earlier film incarnations – The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston and The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price).

Matheson also wrote What Dreams May Come, the basis for the Robin Williams film of the same name, and which coincidentally shares some similar imagery with my novel Immaculate Deception.

This is a great clip because it speaks to Matheson’s own legacy, but could be translated as the ultimate hope for most anyone who writes fiction of any genre.

 

 

A Barbecue-Basted Lesson in Creating Honest Characters

Bessinger's BBQ SauceWhat you see here is a bottle of barbecue sauce. With it I will give you some tips on writing compelling and honest characters.

Why barbecue sauce, and why specifically this one? Because it helps me illustrate some important points.

First, let’s talk about the sauce. It’s what’s known as Carolina mustard sauce, which, in the complex geography of South Carolina barbecue preference, is the style of choice from the state’s Midlands (Columbia and the surrounding counties) down to Charleston on the coast.

The Bessinger family has what might be called a barbecue empire in the Palmetto State. This bottle (smuggled up to me by my parents after a visit to my hometown of Camden for the Carolina Cup steeplechase) is produced by Thomas Bessinger. You probably haven’t heard of him, because he basically makes sauce, runs a restaurant or two and minds his own damn business. He is, however, challenged by the hurdles of being a businessman when he shares a last name with …

… Maurice Bessinger, who also makes sauce and runs a couple of barbecue restaurants, and is freakin’ famous – mainly for being a hyper-religious, Southern “heritage” zealot and fringe right-wing nutbar. Unlike his more business-minded relative, Maurice still plasters the Confederate flag on his bottles of sauce and plants right-wing leaflets at the tables of his restaurants. He begrudgingly lets non-Caucasians sit in his main dining room when it’s clear from the years he spent segregating his restaurants that he’d prefer they sit in the kitchen or at a picnic table out back.

Pretty much an asshole – so much so that I’ve declined to link to his restaurants here because most of the sites where he’s featured are along the lines of “Yay, Maurice! You’re an honest, racist American. You go, boy!”

And for lots of folks outside the South, they’d classify him along with other blatant Southern stereotypes – Boss Hogg, Big Daddy and that creepy banjo playing kid from Deliverance.

But not everyone in the South is a mini-Maurice. As is always they case, there’s hint of truth in all stereotypes. But what often gets overlooked is the nuance of the individuals who share similarities but defy the stereotype.

Take Maurice, for instance. In essence, he’s the Southern version of everyone’s Embarrassing Uncle.

Yes, the Embarrassing Uncle. He’s not just Southern – he can be anything. He’s basically the guy who fulfills a given ethnic, cultural or regional stereotype for your family to such a degree that you worry him blowing your image as a non-asshole, non-stereotypical member of your given group.

And don’t think that this is simply a “woe is us, the misrepresented Southerner” screed. This lesson goes to writing about any group with which you aren’t personally familiar and cuts across racial, ethnic, cultural and regional lines. I won’t list other stereotypes here – you know what they are for who you are – and me even acknowledging them would make me come off as kind of an asshole.

The problem with the Embarrassing Uncle is that he (or she – there’s plenty of traffic in Embarrassing Aunts, too) represents the absolute worst of a large, otherwise diverse group of people.

And even if they do share some of the Embarrassing Uncle’s unsavory traits, it’s less likely that they represent such an easily drawn image. Take the Embarrassing Uncle out of the mix and suddenly you have a nuanced, layered group of characters who, while having to deal with certain societal and personal issues specific to their region/ethnicity/culture, would still resonate with readers without looking like cartoon characters.

Striking this difference is difficult for many writers, because lots of people from outside the South think Southern characters are easy to write. Just throw in some neanderthal philosophies; some cute, deep-fried turns of phrase; wrap it up in some fake twang and serve it with a side of fried chicken and okra and everything will be OK, right?

I see this representation frequently on TV where Southern characters are thrown into decidedly non-Southern situations to represent regressive politics. Let’s say you have a (ahem … purely hypothetical) show about self-righteous, horny surgeons in Seattle or Santa Monica doctors who stand around discussing the ethics that none of them actually has when they’re not busy screwing each other. Need an anti-abortion or religious fanatic plot line? Well, hell … that’s easy. Throw in some folks with suspiciously Southern accents – regardless of the Pacific Northwest/Southern California geography – wind them up and go!

I make a point of calling bullshit on this whenever I see it because it speaks to writing that is lazy, lazy, lazy. You want people to fill that character? Great – but don’t assume that Neanderthal politics have to be represented by someone with a drawl. As with any stereotype, this sort of writing is an attempt to create characters out of literary Lego blocks – piece on some things that you think most folks believe about a particular group and then give that character a voice.

This brings us back to my barbecue example. If you were looking for a character to place in your story about a barbecue mogul, which one do you think would drive the narrative better? The Confederate flag-waving racist or his relative with the identical last name, who must deal daily with the challenges of being in the same business and trying to live down the stereotype here in the 21st century?

The obvious choice for many outside the South – where, unfortunately, most of our entertainment is created – would be Option A, because it would reinforce what most of the world actually believes about Southerners.

But the truth is Option B would make the much better primary character. He’s challenged by his relationship and deals with both inner and outer conflict.

Will the story still leave a tasty mustard-based tang in your reader’s mouth and suggest an atmosphere redolent of pit-roasted pig, hushpuppies and coleslaw? If you do it right, absolutely. But instead of nodding his head and muttering, “Yep, they’re all rednecks down there,” the reader will be challenged to consider that everyone everywhere has to deal with his or her own special kind of crap.

So whether you’re a Kansan who wants to write about South Philly mobsters, a New Yorker who wants to write about cowboys or an African-American who wants to write about the British servant class, you have to get a handle on a character’s humanity first, then layer on the things that speak to the world in which they live.

Jak Smyrl and the Joy of the Picasso Napkin

Jak Smyrl Rockin' Horse

There’s an old story about a woman who approached Pablo Picasso in a cafe and asked him to draw her something on a napkin. However, before he would give it to her he asked for an exorbitant sum of money because that tiny sketch represented the culmination of his life’s work up to that point.

Not many of us ever actually cross paths with a great artist, let alone get up the gumption to ask him or her to create something just for us. Still fewer will have an artist create on his own something so very personalized that it could only ever be yours, and then hand it to you as a mere throwaway gesture.

Jak Smyrl self portrait
Jak Smyrl in a typically rendered self-portrait.

I was fortunate enough to have that happen to me thanks to a gentleman named Jak Smyrl.

He was the first staff artist for The State newspaper, the major daily newspaper that covers Columbia, S.C., and the surrounding area. His satirical map of South Carolina (rife with intentional misspellings and regional in-jokes) was first published in the late 1960s and since then has become iconic. His style mimics that of many of the best Mad magazine artists with a flair that was straight-up Southern.

Back in 1995, when I was a young reporter and columnist at the Chronicle-Independent in Camden, S.C., Jak, who had retired to Camden, was suggested to me as someone who could create a logo for Rockin’ Horse ’96 (top).

Rockin’ Horse was a concert that grew out of a newspaper column I wrote calling for more entertainment surrounding the Carolina Cup steeplechase event, which annually brings in more than 60,000 visitors and millions of dollars to the town of about 8,000 or 9,000 people. The concert was held on the grounds of Historic Camden as a benefit for the Revolutionary War historic site.

In the absence of our own newspaper staff artist I could hire to do the logo on the side (we got all our editorial cartoons from syndicates), one of the ladies in the layout department suggested I get in touch with Mr. Smyrl. She described him in loose terms as a former artist for The State, a description that really only scratched the surface.

We met at his home studio and I did a rough sketch of what I was looking for. He gave me an anticipated date of delivery for the final image and we worked out terms that were entirely too reasonable for someone of his stature (I seem to recall he asked about $100 for the image).

When I went to pick up the sketch, he was out of the house, but he had left it for Jak Smyrl Scott Noteme in a manilla envelope adorned with the personalized image you see to the right. As a result, an item that would otherwise have been recycled or tossed in the trash became, for me, a valuable work of art.

Jak, who died in 2007, is the subject of a new exhibit that was recently dedicated at the University of South Carolina. That means a significant number of people who actually know what they’re talking about considered his work a valid subject for study and appreciation.

I’m not sure where the rocking horse-and-jockey drawing I commissioned for the concert stands in that body of work, but I do know it adorned t-shirts, tickets and banners associated with the event. If you lived in or visited Camden in the spring of 1996, chances are you or someone you know could still find a Rockin’ Horse ’96 tee stuffed in the back of a drawer somewhere.

Maybe if I contacted the University of South Carolina they’d ask to include it. If so, I’d happily donate it to the collection.

However, as for that small bit of an ordinary manilla envelope that in a few pen strokes became something only for me, that I’ll treasure as my own little napkin from Picasso.