Checking In During the Hahapocalypse / Mystery Writing Class

m1-copyI know. it’s been a while. But it’s a been a rough stretch. One, we have the election, and despite my desire to not discuss politics, I’m finding it harder and harder not to get sucked into the vortex of Internet comments. Even trains don’t wreck this spectacularly.

m2-copyI wonder if it’s always been like this and I just didn’t see it. We tend to bubble. I bubble. More and more, when I see the crazy racist ALL CAPS in my feed, I stop following. (I have angina and an anxiety condition; it ain’t helping.) I wax and wane, but mostly wane, feeling like I should fight back somehow, lend my authorial voice to the cause. I’m just not sure of the cause. Other than preventing the apocalypse, or to borrow a phrase from my good friend Jason Carlson, the Hahapoalypse, which is very much already upon us. Frankly I am not sure I am going to make it to November with my sanity (or what’s left of it) in tact. Part of me wants to go out in a brilliant blaze. The other part, well, makes me want to shut off the world until it’s over. Which depending on election outcomes might be just a couple months. I guess I can hang on.


So I’ve been doing stuff. Just finished a couple novels, including the new Jay Porter, Give Up the Dead, which I think is the best yet. I know an author is supposed to say that with every book. Especially in a series, but I really believe it true this time. The best part of a series (also potentially the most hazardous) is you slip into that skin again so easily. In the case of Jay, an anxious alcoholic suffering PTSD, that can be uncomfortable. But it certainly lends verisimilitude and ethos in the character (thank you, grad school).



14379613_978860382223264_2091712943683065937_oThe other novel I wrapped up, The Girl Who Got Away (I know.  Another “girl” title. It will be changed, which sucks because that really should be the title) was equally draining but for different reasons. But who the fuck wants to hear about the writing process, a topic as wholly unoriginal and uninteresting as politics?

14368769_10154063144622737_5249223622294603932_nBack to Jay. With the series, even as you are wrapping up one book and planning the next (the untitled 4th Jay Porter is out June 2018), you still have to promote the most recent. In this case, December Boys, which has been selling awesome. We’ve hit #1 a couple times over at the Amazon with various promotions. So thank you all for that. But the less sexy part is . . . touring.

It is well known there are two things I hate to do: put on pants, and leave the house. And going on a book tour, unfortunately, involves both.

This time I was away from my wife and kids for 10 days, and I know that doesn’t sound like some crazy amount of time. But add in the having to wear pants, and it was hell. It’s funny. Mornings like today, where I wake up and am bombarded with whining, shit in all its various forms (cat, dog, dirty diaper)–both boys are getting over colds–my back hurts, grumble, grumble–I would kill for a moment of silence. Then the silence comes, and a moment later I miss the chaos. It ain’t not sin to be glad you’ve alive. Or admit you need your family.

14369885_10154050024217737_3892815586397023349_nThe you started in Boston and a Noir at the Bar (put together by Chris Irivn), highlighted by my best TV appearance yet, and culminating with a reading at my hometown library in CT before me and my tattoos jetted down to New Orleans for the always-awesome Bouchercon. I won’t list and link the name of every supporter, friend and fan, who came out, because I just did that in the Acknowledgments section for Give Up the Dead (my publisher said the Acknowledgments were so long this time they have to go in the back of the book!), but I love all these people, the BHS Class of 1988, and this mystery-writing community. But fucking tours are fucking draining, and by the end I was coasting on fumes, analyzing every interaction, reflecting on social graces like a never-ending hall of mirrors casting me in a light most unflattering.

The Motley BHS Class of '88
The Motley BHS Class of ’88

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been. And up next: editing and teaching. The first involves the new Johnny Cash anthology I am helming for Gutter, Just to Watch Him Die, as well as a co-editing gig with David James Keaton, Hard Sentences, an Alcatraz-based anthology coming out with Broken River. The second, and sorta the point of this post, I will again be teaching a mystery-writing course over at LitReactor.

Writing, editing, and teaching are, at least for me, a three-headed monster (a delightful, delightful monster). I can’t do one well without working at the others. Given the demands of life (and desire not to wear pants), online course work out great for me. I am way more impressive digitally. Online I don’t panic or fret about fucking up an introduction to a writer I deeply respect. I can edit my thoughts and words. I am sure many writers, anti-social by nature, feel the same way. This format allows me to put my best foot forward. The last class was a blast, as evidenced my several students signing up this time around. There are still a few slots left (I think). The class starts next Tuesday, October 4th. If you’ve want to learn how to write a mystery, we go into great detail, not only about plotting and process, but also how to get agents and editors to look at your work. And compared to most courses, it’s pretty damn affordable. LitReactor is one of the best tools for writers out there. Wonderful community and resource. Hope to e-see you there!


Release Day & Book Deals & News

December Boys high-res copyI am always wary of plastering social media with too much stuff.

I have A LOT of stuff to plaster. So I figure I’ll plaster it all in one jam-packed, chock-ful blog post.

First, today is RELEASE DAY!

Though December Boys was made available early by the fine folks over at Amazon (it all counts toward the week 1 push for bestseller lists), today, June 7, is the actual release day. Though I’d love for y’all to buy the pretty hardcover edition, the e-book is for a very limited time just .99. The reason my publisher and Amazon did this is simple: the more first week sales, the better my chances of making that coveted bestseller list. So please, buy, share, tell your mom about it (if she is, y’know, cool and hip and likes her mysteries like I like my chocolate, semi-dark and bittersweet. That’s not true I like milk chocolate. Fuck dark chocolate. Dark chocolate tastes like a broken promise).

13246122_503936559803455_940881873_nSpeaking of deals … The fine folks over at Amazon have also made Book One in the Jay Porter Thriller series, Lamentation, a Kindle Monthly Deal, meaning for the rest of June that book too will be just … .99.

And sorta burying the lead on this one … but Oceanview is buying TWO MORE JAY PORTER NOVELS. Which for those of you keeping score at home brings us up to FIVE books in the series. Meaning you can expect a new novel a year until 2019 (holy fuck am I old).

And last I will be launching December Boys with a few readings in the Bay Area in the next couple weeks, starting with Why There Are Words this Thursday, June 9, followed the next night with an In Conversation with David Corbett (Friday, June 10), and capped off a week after that with the formal launch at Pegasus Books (Friday, June 17), where one lucky winner will win a chance to poke Rob Pierce with a stick.

13227871_503866013143843_24893243_nI think that’s it. For now. I’ll be doing a tour of the East Coast, culminating with a trip to New Orleans in September. And there’s the Beast Crawl and Litquake and regular Lip Service West stuff. Also I’m wrapping up Mike Creeden’s All Your Lies Came True for Gutter, and hoping to start tackling the long-alluded to Cash anthology.

And now here is Micah Schanbel of Two Cow Garage singing “Jackson, Don’t You Worry,” the title track from December Boys. Every book of mine gets a soundtrack, and Micah’s song provided a particularly poignant one this time. (And he graciously allowed us to reprint the lyrics.)


December Boys Release

December Boys high-res copyThe December Boys‘ release date is technically June 7, but, like when my buddy Rich and I attended Knebworth in 1990, looks like someone opened the gate early (2nd row center sounds great but 12 hours and one perforated bladder later … actually it was pretty great). Amazon has started making the hardcopy available. Kindle, you still have to wait for June 7. Barnes and Noble too. But for those of you champing at the bit (or chomping at the bit, if you are Will Viharo), here you go.

Also gearing up for the release, my lovely wife Justine is giving away copies over at her The Book Contest, a new business enterprise she’s started giving away, well, books. Doesn’t cost you anything to enter, and she’ll soon be extending the service to other authors. I don’t know how she’s making money giving away books, but she has the MBA (I can’t make my joke about her being a closet Republican or she’ll get mad), so it must work out somehow. In the meantime, you win a chance at a free book!

lamatations_featuredAnd, last, in related news, Oceanview has made Lamentation available for Kindle at the low, low price of .99. Since it’s the first in the Jay Porter series, probably a good place to start if you are planning on reading December Boys (though not necessary; DB was written to work as a standalone too), might want to take advantage, since it usually costs like $14 (and to all of you who paid the $14 for Kindle and are now pissed that it’s $13 less: 1.] It’s not my fault; blame capitalism, and 2.] find me at Bouchercon and I’ll buy you drinks to make up for the difference).

Now that class (LitReactor) is over, I hope to get back to blogging more. But chances are, since I had to step down from the Flash Fiction Offensive (don’t worry, my hardboiled friends, Tom is still there, and he’s been joined by the delightful Hector Duarte, Jr.), I’ll still be scrambling for time. Writing books is hard.


LitReactor Class/Lamentation Paperback

joe_banner_dates13007264_1075996875805631_7386897451547778943_nBeen a pretty crazy stretch. Seems like all I have done lately is write. Which is what I am supposed to be doing, I know, but I’ve written two novels since November, and this feels like probably the busiest I’ve ever been. Whenever people would say “There aren’t enough hours in a day,” I always sorta wanted to punch them. I get what they mean now. I used to feel like Will in About a Boy, trying to kill days as fast as possible. Now I wish I could slow down time to get more done before resuming suburban dad duties every evening.


Couple bits of housekeeping. Before I dive back into the next round of edits, I’ll be teaching this class over at LitReactor starting Tuesday. Writing/editing/teaching is a wonderful three-headed-monster. I learn as much from editing and teaching as I do reading/writing. Which is hardly a revelation. These things feed off one another. Like my elliptical machine–self powered. (Sorry this isn’t a more entertaining blog. I’ll be sure to throw in an uplifting meme somewhere.)

10799702_306820702848376_1014875482_nAnyway, class starts Tuesday; there’s still space. I’m looking forward to talking shop with other writers trying to crack the code, or just get better. Writing is like golf: it’s not about spiritual perfection; it’s about spiritual progress. Or maybe that’s AA. I get those two confused. Last class I taught was at the SF Writers’ Grotto, which was a blast, and I certainly got as much as I gave. I have no doubt I’ll end up in academia. I’ve spent half my life in school, and I feed off that environment of improvement. This class will be entirely online, which is, frankly, better for me. I express myself better digitally than I do in person. I am sure I am not the only writer who feels that way. Just far less anxious behind a keyboard than trying to figure out what to do with my hands. And, y’know, no Bridge traffic.

Also Lamentation is finally out in paperback. Which means we sold out our initial hardcover run (I think). Yay! I mean, you don’t get a paperback unless the hardcover does well. So I guess it did well. Thanks to everyone who bought it. If you held out this long hoping for a physical  copy less … heavy … here you go! (Seriously, mailing hardcovers is nuts. Shipping costs almost as much as a paperback.)

Hope to see some of you in the e-ther on Tuesday.

And now your uplifting meme …




Being Bad Feels Pretty Good

Later on in my scumbag years, anytime the subject of The Breakfast Club came up (and it came up more than you’d think), people naturally assumed I identified with John Bender. The truth is, growing up, I was more on Team Andy. I wanted to be a jock, and I sorta hated the burnouts in high school. Of course, I switched teams, and subsequent viewings of the film found me rooting for John Bender more and more. John Bender is rude, abrasive, brutally honest, cutting, damaged, and kind of an asshole. But Bender is always the most interesting character on the screen.

12924615_507059162831601_7509215167134207243_nWhen you start writing books, you will hear you need to make your characters sympathetic. Well, you’ll hear a lot of shit. Often this information will be contradictory. Like a bird in the hand vs. nothing ventured, nothing gained, life is nothing if not contrarian. You weigh these platitudes, and like they say in AA: you take what you can use and leave the rest at the door. I don’t necessarily worry about sympathetic. I want you to care about and still root for my characters. Similar. But not the same thing.

I just got word I’ll be receiving a very nice review in Booklist for December Boys, next up in the Jay Porter Thriller series. I didn’t get one from them for Lamentation, so it’s very cool. It goes live April 26. I’m not allowed to share the entire review until then, just a sentence or two. This sums it up nicely.

“The author suggests it’s the pain in Porter’s life that has him acting so awfully, but whether readers buy that or not, they’re still in for some fine writing, plus an interesting mix of people and a truly offbeat, if arguably rude, hero.”

12985571_1122364691118716_3393949242774473043_nI always find it funny when people point out that Jay is a jerk. Mostly because Jay is based on me. He’s based on my brother, Jay (Streeter) too. I steal my brother’s line of work (estate clearing) and other details of his life (he worked in the northern NH mountains for a while and is technologically averse). In fact the entire plot for the new  book (WIP title Cold, Cold Hills, borrowed from the great Paul Kelly, this before I found out there is currently a hot new book called In a Dark, Dark Wood. That’s okay. My agent hated the temporary title. That’s what I have Jimmy for) came from a recent Thanksgiving trip visiting my brother, who is planning on buying the estate clearing business from his boss. Jay (Streeter) was worried about coming up with the cash to buy the business. So the new plot: Jay (Porter) is trying to buy his boss’s business and is worried about how he’ll get the cash. Family is a fucking goldmine for plot. That and crimes in Pennsylvania. 

faa0844c1a1251e11797310d0f155e1cStill, the more I write the character, the more I realize Jay Porter is me. Or more like an idealized version of me. And by “idealized version,” I mean the way I’d act if I didn’t have to worry about getting along with people. Life is hard, and it will beat you down if you let it.

Right now being online is torture. The upcoming election is hell, and keeping my mouth shut (or fingers still) can be murder. But I don’t want to fight. People won’t always agree with your POV. Standing around with my hands clenched in fists of rage helps exactly no one. But I sometimes wish I had two lives. One where I could be like I am now (civilized). And the other where I could say whatever the fuck I wanted.

563b5fba365fb608caffb24770352e8cIt’s nice to say you should always speak your mind. But, like expecting to always be happy, to quote my dead friend Troy (to whom Book 3 is dedicated), it’s not a very grown-up expectation. There are considerations we make to our fellow man in order to share this planet. One of which is you don’t get to be a dick. We must assimilate, conform (in a non-creepy 1984 way). Or you’re in for a bitch of a time.

12963366_1116650135024727_8394743455776426110_nWhen you write fiction you can explore what might’ve been. In the case of Jay Porter, I don’t have many questions. I don’t live like Jay Porter because I am smarter than he is. I’ve learned to not give in to his self-destructive tendencies. Though I have them, and, yes, I flirt with them. I just don’t fully submerge. I wrote the character to be the way he is being perceived (success!), and it’s a fine line. People who don’t like the books often point to Jay’s choices and voice as the main issue.

Talking with my wife the other day, I joked, “I don’t see the problem. I don’t think Jay is a jerk. I think he’s right. He’s based on me, y’know?”

To which Justine replied, “That’s the problem.”

Which was pretty funny. And I imagine it sucks at times to be married to me, because I do have a lot of Jay Porter in me. But at forty-five, I’ve also learned that if I actually did act like Jay, I’d have what Jay does, namely, a lot of hurt and pain. And I’d be alone. He’s a character I wrote to be just short of self-awareness. Or rather, slightly more aware than those around him, which is a horrible fate. To quote Annie from the greatest baseball film of all-time, Bull Durham, “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”

12961658_869512909824679_2474471166638443370_nMy publicist at Oceanview, Lisa Daily, said, in response to Jay’s jerkiness, “I nearly always find the outlier, the alternative point of view, to be most interesting.” Marlowe is a bit of a prick. I am reading Holden Catcher in the Rye (he’s 5; it’s time), and I still think Holden Caulfield is right. Rob Gordon too. I rooted for Walter White, and I think most people did as well. Was Walter sympathetic? Maybe when he had the cancer. But once you start dealing meth and killing people, sympathy sorta goes out the fucking window. But like John Bender, Walt was always fucking interesting.

“They loved each other very much and nothing ever went wrong” makes for a shitty novel, and I find Mailer’s edict that heroes must be larger-than-life boring as fuck. I want edge, flaws–I want good intentions gone wrong–because, well, that’s life. And it’s the imperfections that make things beautiful.



LitReactor: Planting the Clues

joe_banner_datesStarting Tuesday, April 19th, I will be teaching a four-week course over at LitReactor on planning and plotting mysteries. Since it is an online class, you can literally take it from anywhere, meaning, best of all, pants are optional. (Lord knows I won’t be wearing them. Hate the damn things.)

Here’s the thing with mysteries. Writing them doesn’t have to be that mysterious. I know before I started doing this for a living, I had two central ideas: 1.) I wanted to write books, and 2.) I had no fucking idea how to write books. I could write pretty sentences. I’ve always been good with words. It’s why I played in bands for so many years. Wrote great lyrics. Singing was … trickier. 

titleWhen I sat down to write my first book, which, if we skip over the amateurish teenage attempts (and, yes, sadly, they exist) we’re mostly talking Junkie Love. There are those who will argue that Junkie Love is the best thing I’ve done, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. I mean, who can forget Joel Landmine‘s riveting performance as a young me? Or the kick-ass Get Set Go soundtrack?

91gncXzx1RLLike a first-born child, Junkie Love will always be special. But it’s also not a traditional book. When I interviewed Brian Panowich, whose masterful debut Bull Mountain will surely be on the tip of many an Anthony tongue this year, Brian confessed part of the reason for BM’s episodic approach stemmed from necessity. Like me, Brian found the story better told via fragmented, interconnected vignettes. That approach works perfectly for Bull Mountain, and I think it works well for Junkie Love, too.

But I wanted to venture into more mainstream, commercial fiction after Junkie Love, which is, let’s face it, a one-off story. I chose to tell the tale of my addiction and redemption via a highly stylized form of narration. Again, this isn’t to disparage the end result. I love Junkie Love and would never distance myself from it. But it’s not a commercial mystery. It’s not conventional, period. Part of the reason it took so long to find someone to take a chance on it (thank you, Vagabondage Press!). In fact, without my MFA (the degree always a controversial topic), I don’t get that book published period.

December Boys high-res copyBack to wanting to write a novel. I always figured I would someday. Once I figured out how. That took longer than I thought. Turns out writing a book is really, really fucking hard. Part of my time as a junkie I swear was research (though my tax person still won’t let me write-off the years of addiction. Too bad. We added up all the money I spent on dope as part of a rehab class. Conservative estimates placed the amount around $325K).

What I learned getting my Master’s in creative writing is that writing can be taught. There are some writers, like my buddy Tom Pitts, who understand the process inherently. Without an MFA, Tom has written several pulse-pounding thrillers. If you can do that too, good on you. I needed school. And, in particular, Lynne Barrett, who showed me how to write a book via causality, a concept I just couldn’t grasp until she broke it down. This instruction is the only way Junkie Love was seeing the light of day, and it also helped me forge a successful career writing mysteries. This causes that. Sounds simple. And it is. Try putting it in practice. But there are tricks, tips, techniques, and, not to bust my arm patting myself on the back, I’m good at explaining them. In addition to Lamentation, December Boys, the second in the Jay Porter Thriller series, is out in June (and off to some rave reviews), and we’ve sold Book 3 in the series, the tentatively titled Cold, Cold Hills, which takes its name from this bone-chilling Paul Kelly song.

angermanagementsessionWhile this is a pitch to get folks to sign up for the class, it is also a confessional. Combining my rich junkie history with how to write mysteries is a (wait for it) novel approach. But this is me. This is how I talk. How I convey information, straight from the heart, heart on the sleeve, no punches pull, name your cliché. Part of the benefit of living the way I did involves certain communicative skills. Maybe I always had them. Maybe it was the years on the street, nursed via survival, second chances, augmented with an education. I’ll never be sure. But I do know this: I can teach writing. I do it all day, every day. I have people–strangers, friends, everyone in between–writing me, and we talk writing, mostly because I am a lonely, lonely man desperate for validation, but also because I love to help.

33_03photoNot people at large, mind you. I still possess disdain for mankind in general. But writers? Artists? I’d bleed for them. Especially ones who desperately want to be published–want to be published so bad the desire feeds off the marrow of their bones as they scream into a infinite abyss like Natalie Portman. I care about those people. Because that was me. And it sucked. I had all this stuff in my head and heart and I couldn’t get it out, and it ate me up. Cost me a wife. And it almost killed me. But then CCSU, FIU, Lynne, and I learned.

Now I want to teach other people how to do it. Because writing a book, specifically mysteries, is a formula. Note: NOT formulaic. As Lynne used to say, “All art is contrivance. When someone says something is contrived, what they are really saying is the author/artist has done a bad job in concealing the puppet strings.” I am paraphrasing.

10799702_306820702848376_1014875482_nI fully expect to end up in academia someday. My dream job is to buy back the old family homestead in Berlin, and teach at my alma mater, Central Connecticut State University (Tom Hazuka, my number is the same). Until then, I’ll be ramping up classes like this (and the one I taught at Josh Mohr‘s place, the Writer’s Grotto), because I love talking shop, and after having slagged off so many years, it’s a joy to find something I’m good at that’s a benefit to others. Being a cynical bastard, I know I should caveat that with something snarky. But I can’t. When it comes to writing, I mean every goddamn word.

Hope to see you there!


Left Coast Crime 2016: A Lamb Is a Baby Sheep

lcc-2016-e1448205825557Just got back from my first Left Coast Crime. (Actually I am sitting in the airport waiting to board my flight. I have a feeling upon returning home, where my wonderful wife Justine watched the boys for the past three days I am not going to get a lot of “me” time to write this.)

As you may’ve noticed (or maybe not), I don’t blog much these days, and if I promise to do better, it’ll be like Dave Pirner says, “One more promise I couldn’t keep.” Just no time to blog. And I can’t get over the feeling that blogging has become like playing music live, a terribly invasive, in-your-face medium. At least with blogging I don’t have to haul my amp up a flight of stairs on a Wednesday night to “headline” (i.e., play last). Plus I get to include memes, which I realized at LCC is 99% of my material.

That and stories I’ve told a hundred times.

Rock and roll IS a crime, as evidenced by this pic.

Sharing a cab ride to the airport Sunday morning with S.W. Lauden, he joked he was going to finish my “A lamb is a baby sheep” story that I’d told the previous night at the bar, which was probably the 7th time over the weekend I’d told that same story, replete with the same inflection, same manufactured observation, same, well, everything. (The story: about 2 years ago I dropped Holden off at preschool where they had adult and baby animals on the wall–cow, calf; pig, piglet, etc. When I got to  “sheep/lamb,” I exclaimed, rather loudly, in a room full of moms and kids, “Holy shit! A lamb is a baby sheep!” Just never dawned on me. There’s more to the joke, which I am sure I will repeat another hundred times. See you all at Bouchercon.)

Reminded me of I Heart Huckabees and Jude Law’s Shania Twain story. (I can’t find a clip from the actual movie, but here is the audio over Adventure Time.)

cockroach-far-side-1-780x1024It’s a default position, I suppose, and I imagine I’m not alone, especially at a crime writers conference. Left Coast Crime features many of the same players as Bouchercon. This year when AWP rejected all three panels, I was, like, fuck it. Why give AWP money to feel even weirder? I’d rather be among my own kind at LCC. And it was a great decision. Because, let’s face it, I am going to feel awkward and out of place wherever I go. It’s a feeling that only gets worse as I get older. I become more self-concious, feel more like a phony, but every time I come back from seeing my fellow crime writer friends I also experience a strange sensation: I feel loved.

Don't even ask...
Don’t even ask…

And I know that sounds a little goofy. I’m six foot one, covered in tattoos, have a criminal record. At this point I should be able to get a coffee and not feel like my buddy Clayton once described David Byrne (“He was getting a coffee, all twitchy like everyone was watching him. No one was watching him!”). But it’s important to recognize your limitations, know what you are good at. I suck at math. Don’t ask me to hang a curtain rod. Some things I do well. Some I don’t. Just like everyone else in this life. In the middle of the conference we got a great write-up in the Washington Post about a new anthology I am in re: gun awareness, and some yahoo called me a “social justice warrior,” which caused me to panic, which makes no logical sense. He wasn’t even talking about me, but every author in the collection. I am an introvert. Big deal. But the only time I get close to feeling like I belong is a crime writers convention, where (like Frank sings) the best people I know are looking out for me.

11990408_10153248763672737_4992777054754062145_nI could list all the names–Sara J. Henry, Steve Lauden, Holly West, Josh Stallings, Matt CoyleLou Berney, Hilary Davidson, Jay Stringer, Tyler Dilts, Christ Faust, CW DeWildtMichael PoolJohnny Shaw, and so many more names I am forgetting (I am not including Rob Pierce because I see that mutherfucker almost every day). I am doing the whole stream-of-concious thing. Oceanview sent me the final proofs to December Boys. These people, my mystery-writing friends, continue to hold me up. There is a line in the new book, which I steal from Scrubs, the best sitcom ever, a variation of, “Only the weak need help.” I know that’s not entirely true. But there are grains.

I am glad I made the switch to genre and get to go to conferences like Left Coast and Bouchercon because as much as I fear/hate/loathe leaving my house, it is necessary. Unless I want to be one of those weirdoes with a car packed full of newspapers who listens only to transistor radios, I have to force myself to mix and mingle, and not only because my career demands it; it’s part of being human.

Drugs-Not-Hugs-Don-t-Touch-MeSo that’s it. A big goddamn thank you to Left Coast, and specifically Ingrid Willis and Deborah Lacy, and all the folks who put these things together and make oddballs such as I feel so welcome (and a special thanks to Catriona McPherson, one of the very few whom I willingly hug!). As I prepare to hunker down indoors until New Orleans, I can’t express how much I need to do this. It’s a lot like working out. You don’t exactly look forward to the process, you know it’s going to be hard, but when you are done it was so fucking worth it.

Joy of Series

meandmylittlebrainjohndfitzgeraldBefore I started doing this writing thing as a career, I’d see a novel series and wonder what the appeal was for the author. I mean, as a reader–and more accurately movie viewer–I enjoyed going back and revisiting the same characters. (I’ve seen The Force Awakens four times so far. For my son’s sake, you understand.) My favorite book as a kid was The Great Brain series. I loved Tom Fitzgerald’s boy genius. I devoured those books. Mostly because I secretly hoped that I, too, was special and could have the run of my hometown (it didn’t quite work out that way). We get invested in characters and their worlds, and when a book is really great, we don’t want it to end; we want to stay there.

dreamsdemotivatorFor the author, however, this is tricky. I figured a writer creates a book with a beginning, middle, and, most importantly, an end. Closure works because of that whole “ending” part (and that’s really the most important part of the ending process). Of course back then I was a kid, and I believed silly things like dreams come true if you follow your passion and do the the thing you love most. But you eventually have to grow, and for me that meant waking up naked in a Massachusetts’ jail on my 30th birthday (unfortunately for me, the thing “I loved most” was heroin).

Now that I have been blessed to write books full-time (mostly due to a bus God threw in my path. The Lord works in mysterious ways), I see why authors enjoy writing a series so much. And it’s pretty much the same reason readers enjoy reading them: familiarity.

December Boys high-res copyLast October I began a new novel, Through a Glass Darkly, which I aimed to finish before starting the new Jay Porter novel, already sold to Oceanview on spec, final product due June 2016. We did the same thing with December Boys (which will be out when the next installment is due in June) last year and the timing worked out well. Start new book in January, be done by June. I like patterns. Appeals to the OCD in me. The first week of January, I was still wrapping up Darkly, and my wife was nudging me to get started on the book I’d already sold. But I had to finish Darkly because it’s fucking awesome and it features a female protagonist (a first for me), and I couldn’t enter a new world until I left the old one. Just how I am wired.

12540637_10208069719197515_5028869841085160058_nI was pretty shocked to finish an 80,000-word novel on January 10, only to begin the next Jay Porter book on the 11th, writing another 30K more in less than two weeks. While that is a #humblebrag, it’s only a slight one. Because it wasn’t very hard to slip back into the world of Ashton, New Hampshire (really Berlin, CT). Darkly was a very difficult novel to write. The subject matter is particularly gruesome, I was writing a female POV, and experimenting with narrative (going 3rd person, which is more of a challenge for me than 1st). This’s both good and bad. It’s good to be challenged and to push yourself. Returning to Jay Porter was effortless. Like an old pair of running shoes* (*note: wait for motif payoff next paragraph).

There are other challenges, of course. I think December Boys is an improvement on Lamentation, and I can’t write a 3rd without trying to up the ante. I don’t want to tread water; I want to forge new ground* (*I didn’t say it would be a good payoff).

The Revenant and Hateful Eight: A (Sort of) Review

revenant-leoOn Saturday, my lovely wife Justine and I went to see The Revenant, the new film by Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu. And usual for any Tom Hardy movie, my wife hated it. She thinks I have a thing for slow, plodding, uber-violent manly-man movies (most of which star Tom Hardy), and she’s right; I do. I walked out mesmerized. The Reverant is not an “enjoyable” movie. Though beautifully shot, with wide, aching shots of the hostile, frozen landscapes (which appeals, for obvious reasons), it is difficult to watch at times. The film, like the best art, challenges, and its themes go full 11th grade high school English teacher on your ass (man vs. nature, man vs. man, man versus self).

Iñárritu makes you think, dig deep, and the movie doesn’t take easy outs. It is such a widely different film than Birdman, both stylistically and thematically. As an artist myself, I found that scope enthralling, to see a filmmaker willing to take the risks, shoot so high, achieve something grand and remarkable. Writing reviews is hard to do without spoilers. I’ll do my best, but if you haven’t seen the film, or The Hateful Eight, you might want to stop here.

The_Hateful_EightA couple weeks ago, the wife and I saw Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight. And at the time, I thought it was … meh. Keep in mind, I love Tarantino. Though he only wrote (i.e., didn’t direct) True Romance, the film remains one of my all-time favs (and it is the movie my wife and I fell in love to). And Pulp Fiction is, hands down, one of the best films ever made. The only Tarantino I didn’t like was Jackie Brown, and even the ones I didn’t love (Inglourious Basterds) possess sublime moments. I thought Django was magnificent (we will discuss that shortly; in particular Tarantino’s infatuation with a certain derogatory term). H8 employs all the director’s strengths–character, dialogue, homage, a true genius for cinematography. But the whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. I left the theater feeling like I got my money’s worth. Like blowjobs and pizza, even bad Tarantino is pretty good.

UnknownThen again, I live in California, where they regularly put things like asparagus and nettles on pizza, and as for the other? Well, I’m married. But after seeing The Revenant, I’ve changed my mind about The Hateful Eight. It is a bad movie. The film commits the most egregious of sins; it opts for style over substance, and refuses to make any sort of meaningful statement. H8 is like that joke band, of which I knew so many in San Francisco back in the ’90s. Y’know, the kind, where every song is about erectile dysfunction and no one takes a damn thing seriously, like that 4-Non Blondes video–not, not song. I’m talking about the video for “What’s Up?” I love the song. Very emotive, honest, heartfelt, but the video is performed all winks and nods. Strap on a goofy hat, mug for the camera, try to have it both ways. I hate that shit. Frank Turner sings about the phenomena in “Four Simple Words”:

Is anyone else sick of the music
Churned out by lacklustre scenesters from Shoreditch?
Oh it’s all sex drugs and sins, like they’re extras from Skins,
But it’s OK because they don’t really mean it.

It’s really easy to make fun of everything when you don’t stand for anything.

12507652_223200454683785_2754933046588361170_nThat’s what Hateful Eight felt like. A big wink and a nod, a whole lot bluster and beauty signifying nothing. The acting is great. Sam Jackson is always wonderful. Kurt Russell terrific too. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is one of America’s best actresses. But the film is almost three hours long, and in the end it says … stuff. Plus, can Quentin Tarantino please stop with the n-word shit? It’s 2016. Can we evolve? In Django, a film about slavery, where the oppressed overcomes (to a degree), its usage makes some sense. Here it only highlights one of Tarantino’s real shortcomings.

The Reverant covers roughly the same time frame. I mean, it’s the fucking 1800s. If there are no cars and people have to poop in the woods, it’s the same time frame. But what radically different visions! And, yes, not every movie has to be heavy or severe. Even There’s Something About MaryThis Is Spinal Tap, and The Hangover has something to say. There can be sincerity in comedy, even the slapstick variety. An artist only has to take the leap and put their heart out there, take the risk of being judged (so glad the singular they is now accepted). And that is scary shit, for any artist. Or human being.

revenantLeonardo DiCaprio, who may be the best actor of our generation (something both Justine and I agree on [although I’d probably take Daniel Day Lewis] [either way he’s really, really good]), stars as Hugh Glass, a frontier explorer on a fur-trapping expedition, along with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk. I don’t want to recap the plot too much, but what you see in the trailers is what you get: Glass is attacked by a bear and left for dead, Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a total dick, and Mother Nature is one cruel bitch, the movie taking place across a particularly grueling winter in the Montana and South Dakota badlands (not the literal badlands, the Springsteen-esque metaphorical badlands, where the broken heart stands as the price you gotta pay).

298049_2441792681508_1152540498_3230211_1585944489_nThe screenplay, co-written by Iñárritu, is based on a true story (aren’t they all?), and this time it seems like they stick a little closer to the facts (while still taking plenty of liberties). But the movie succeeds (much in the way H8 fails) by going big-game hunting. Iñárritu asks the big questions. Who are we? Why are we here? If you were really, really cold could you sleep inside an animal carcass? Seriously, that grizzly bear attack was one of the hardest scenes I’ve ever had to watch, and yet Iñárritu never makes it sensational or gratuitous like the climax of H8.

Maybe it’s not fair to compare the two. Like comparing Springsteen to a pop singer. Then again, I love Taylor Swift because she means what she sings. And I’ll close with this, a point on which both my wife and I agree: The Reverant is not an enjoyable movie. She hated it. I loved it. But, either, it’s not “enjoyable.” (Although I suppose that depends on your definition of the word “enjoyable.”) The Hateful Eight is enjoyable. It’s fine, easily digestible fare. Much like movie popcorn. Fun at the time, makes you a little sick later, and then becomes forgettable with no lasting nutritional value. The Reverant is something better than enjoyable. It does what all great art should do. It moves you.

This is an actual photo of me in middle school. I think it was taken around the time of the Revenant…

2016: Ten Years Later

walkerOn New Year’s Day, I realized it had been ten years since my near-fatal motorcycle accident. I threw up an old post talking about that other life-changing event (the first being my near-fatal drug addiction. Though, granted, that one crept at a slower pace). I was surprised how many people read that post, especially since, like I said, it was old. But it got about 10x the hits I usually do, even when I write something new. Of course nothing sells like death and consumption (though not necessarily in that order).

Everyone loves a good “coming back from the dead” story. How else do you explain six thousand shows about zombies and vampires?

BmFw8J4IIAAGbqk.jpg-mediumChrist, 2006 sucked. In a life defined by bad news, underachievment, and breaking your mother’s heart, I kicked off the year by seriously underwhelming even by my own lackluster standards. I’d gotten divorced, blown five years of sobriety, and was close to pissing away my last ticket out: grad school. Sticking to my clichéd script (albeit a few years too soon), I chose to end this disastrous year by getting a motorcycle. In Miami. The city with the absolute worst drivers in America.

By the end of the year, it looked like I’d put my shit back together. I was on the straight and narrow, almost done with my thesis draft, and then … the crash.

Waking up unable to walk is a lousy way to start any New Year. Although, in all fairness, I’d woken up plenty of times in the previous decade highly immobilized. But this was worse. Despite the “freelapse” (a word I just learned from Josh Mohr’s forthcoming biography) and a steady stream of morphine (my “favorite” part of the crash was after the paramedics found me spitting up blood, I managed to mumble, “Can’t … have … morphine … I’m … a … recovering … addict,” and the paramedic took one look at me as he loaded up the shot and said, “Oh, you’re getting morphine”), I was in agonizing pain.

That older blog post details the recovery from the accident, which saw 2007 kick off in bed, then a wheelchair, walker, crutches, cane, until I was finally walking again without assistance seven months later.* If you want to read about the gruesome parts (with pictures!), just hit that link. The quick version is I almost died, and it sucked. But I got better.

(* I’ve returned to using a cane over the last couple years, but only when I know I am going to be on my feet all day long. Like Disneyland or Bouchercon.)

psycho-the-rapist-its-one-word-george-psychotherapistDuring my weekly sessions with Dr. Goldberg, we frequently address my … reluctance … to accept the good. I prefer to focus on the negative. Just how I’m drawn up. I see the bad much more easily than I do the good, or to quote Mike TV, I’m the sort of guy who can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Just like fiction can’t exist without conflict, why the fuck else would I need a psychiatrist?

Likewise, I tend not to recognize all the adversity I’ve overcome. Mostly because I was the dumbass who put himself there in the first place. Overcoming a drug addiction is cool, I guess. Sort of. Except that, yeah, I probably shouldn’t have been taking drugs. Where’s the glory crawling out of the hole you dug? The crash is a little different. A lot of people ride bikes, and they are dangerous. It’s not a question of “if” (re: crashing) but “when” and “how bad?”

1339311729431_6857957When I met my lovely wife, Justine, she asked why I had so many women’s names tattooed on my body. “There’s a certain kind of guy who gets a woman’s name tattooed on his body,” I said. “I’m that kind of guy.” My answer seemed to suffice. It’s less about trouble seeming to find me, and more that I drove to trouble’s house and taunted it by throwing rocks at its doors and pissing on its lawn.

But maybe I am doing it again, not accepting the good, the blessings that have been granted to me, unconditionally. Regardless of what I did to land in some pretty bad situations, I still got out of them (right?), if only by learning how to step aside, stop fighting so goddamn much, just let the good things happen. The Universe/God had been doing me a solid for a while now. And I certainly have an awful lot of good things to be happy about as 2016 kicks off. My health, (most of) my hair, the books, 13% body fat, and these guys below. They are the best part about surviving that accident. I got to see this happen. I got to meet this amazing woman. I get to see my boys grow up, and, I hope, live long enough to see them become men. Taking those two boys to see the new Star Wars (for the 3rd time!) this weekend, watching their eyes light up like mine did in ’77, was pretty fucking amazing. Life is a pretty sweet fruit.

Happy New Year from the Cliffords!