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).

 

clifford_giveupthedead__2-2-copy

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!

planting-the-clues-2

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.

user1014376_pic103363_1373608951

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.

enhanced-buzz-wide-5417-1378832798-28

 

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.

12795339_347278102279341_2354345114311097952_n
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).

Best of 2015: The Force Awakens / Creed

What’s it say about me that my two favorite films of 2015 are sequels to movies from 1976 and 1977?

I’m old.

6cc6434f4bb76088d88d6c794a7a798dObviousness aside, The Force Awakens, the long-awaited next installment in the Star Wars franchise, and Creed, the next Rocky movie nobody was clamoring for, would seem, on the surface, to have little in common, aside from the fact that I thought they were the year’s best, “best” being a relative term, meaning the ones liked best, so, really, who gives a shit? I only know, leaving the theater produced furtive little feelings, euphoria and joy, I didn’t get following any other movie. Despite one film being a intergalactic space opera and the other a boxing movie, the two films share remarkable similarities. And since it’s the end of the year, all lists are arbitrary, and everyone loves fucking lists, here is a fucking arbitrary list because I need something to write about.

Since (inadvertently) ruining the ending of Breaking Bad (sorry, Kevin), I am a hyper-sensative about spoilers, forcing me to go a little more abstract than I’d like with a movie review, but not being a dick is important.

The Story Began 40 Years Ago / Seven Is a Lucky Number

51hnDH+JS6LWhich is insane if you think about it. That is forty long winters, my friend. Part of the appeal of Rocky and Star Wars is in their familiarity. The tropes, Joe Campbell, power of myth, hero with a thousand faces, that kind of shit. Even before all the analysis, Rocky and Star Wars were already cultural phenomena. Although Rocky’s story has always been rather predictable. Such is life with only a win/lost/death outcome. There’s not a person … of a certain age … who doesn’t recall the big bang produced a long time ago by a galaxy far, far away. It was the movie everyone saw in 1977. Not unlike The Force Awakens, number 7 in the series, this year. Creed, the latest Rocky, is also number 7. Which probably has next to do with nothing except when you do a shit-ton of speed, you develop this weird affinity for coincidence and numbers that don’t exactly go away. Same as pervy sex stuff. Don’t do speed; it’s a bad drug. Still. it is a little weird that something so fundamentally appealing could’ve been planted in the mid-70s, enough that studios are willing to shell out billions to churn out sequels (although I am guessing Creed was less of a risk). Rocky was never intended to be a serial character like James Bond, and the world of Star Wars, well, who can explain the appeal of a giant shaggy dog man and James Earl Jones’ voice behind a black mask?

Both Pay Tribute While Reinventing the Saga

Michael-B-Jordan-CreedWhen I planned on writing this post, I was going to choose which movie was better. Though I loved both, only one gave me that punch to the gut when I walked out the first time, Creed. (I’m a frustrated boxer at heart). But there were extenuating circumstances. I saw the movie alone, after visiting my pain management doctor (yes, my bones are still disintegrating), with lower expectations.

UnknownThere were like 10 people in the entire tiny theater. Quite a different experience from when I saw The Force Awakens. For that, we had to buy tickets months in advance, camping out early like a rock show, to get good seats. When I left TFA I was more shellshocked than anything. As I wrote last week, I had waited 33 years for that movie. It was too much! A little like when you want a girl so bad and you finally get her and it’s over in 38 seconds. I couldn’t really focus or enjoy anything (I am a huge Star Wars guy). But I went and saw it again on Christmas Day. This time, I could relax, see the movie for a movie. The little things that bugged me the first time (sticking too close to the original) were softened, and the new things being said, more pronounced.creed-movie-images-jordan-stallone

Creed is the story of Adonis Creed, illegitimate son of former champ Apollo, Rocky’s first opponent from 1976. Here “Donny” seeks out Rocky to train him. Simple enough premise. We’ll get to why the filmmaker and star deliver such a knockout shortly. And unless you live under and rock and/or are one of these people who “don’t own a TV,” you know the deal with the new Star Wars. But like Creed, here the baton has been handed off to a new generation. In both cases, there is an appeal to the past with a nod to the future (we can expect more Creed-based films. Though thankfully not more music. Because the band sucks).

Passing the Baton by Tapping into What Made Franchise Great (by Passing the Baton) Pt. I

OBIIII-WANStar Wars nearly died following the dreadful prequels. Given our penchant for all or nothing in the Star Wars world, it’s easy to get sucked into overselling how bad the prequels are. But, no, they really are that bad. I love to take contrarian positions. I thought The Dark Knight Rises was the best in the trilogy, thought True Detective Season 2 was better than 1. But I can’t defend the prequels. They are just awful (although they could’ve been saved with some good editing). Watching Force Awakens, you are reminded just how bad because TFA gets it so right. It’s amazing that someone like George Lucas could create something so special to so many, and yet still have no fucking idea what made it so great. Thank God for Disney. TFA is great because George is gone, and the franchise is now in the right hands: namely, that of the fans.

MomshootposterSylvester Stallone isn’t quite as culpable. Stallone has always been an odd artist, responsible for so much crab. I can’t begin to list all the Stop or My Mom Will Shoot offenses. Yet … the man gave us Rocky, which might just be the most American story every told. While the Star Wars universe is never-ending, Rocky is just the one story: a man rises from nobody to take a beating and show he has the heart of a champion. (Maybe it’s wishful thinking.) How many times can you tell that story in an original, refreshing way? Well, really just the one. And then there was Rocky II, III, IV, V, and VI (although it was called Rocky Balboa, technically.) I loved Rocky III as a kid. But it’s not a good movie. IV is comic book Cold War propaganda, and is just fucking awful. Unlike George Lucas, Stallone still knows what makes Rocky great; he simply fell victim to flogging dead horses. Surprisingly Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI) is a damn good movie, so much so that I dreaded when I heard they were making CreedRB was a great note to go out on. But Creed is, well, way better.

Passing the Baton by Tapping into What Made Franchise Great (by Passing the Baton) Pt. II

Having the men who started it all relinquish control proved paramount to both these films’ success. George simply had to go or Force Awakens doesn’t get done. Or rather it gets done but we get more racist lizard men and dancing teddy bearsCreed offers a more compelling narrative. The movie needs Stallone–no one else can play Rocky–but by not writing, not directing, not starring (Stallone is a supporting actor in this one), we get a fresher retelling, and maybe by not shouldering the entire burden Stallone was freed up to actually act; this is his best performance since probably Copland. Both Force Awakens and Creed draw from the same nostalgic well, but of the two Creed feels more original. Although if you break down each film, Creed is even more of a Rocky remake than FA is a Star Wars retelling.

2000px-Heroesjourney.svg_It’s hard to discuss movies without spoiling. But it’s easier with Creed because there is only one boxing story. The only outcome in question: does he win the big fight or lose the big fight (thus winning by losing)? That’s it. There’s the Raging Bull biopic but that’s a totally different animal. It’s all about the journey getting there. Ryan Cooglar (Fruitvale Station) was just the man to drive this bus. He tapped into what made the original Rocky so fucking good, stripping away the bloat and cheese that made such a mess of the middle in the series. For his part, JJ Abrams had both the easier and harder job. The latter because TFA was the first in what is slated to be a bazillion-dollar franchise. Fuck this up, you are not working in Hollywood anytime soon. But by this point I think most Star Wars fans would be able to make a good Star Wars movie. Like the Summer of George, just do the opposite of Lucas. Orphan fulfilling destiny, call/refusal, journey, devastating event, overcoming in climactic finale, check. No holding anyone like they used to “by the Lake on Naboo.”

 

 

A Force Awakens: A Sort of (Not Really) Review

aqBeym1Yes, we get it. You don’t like Star Wars. All six of you.

I waited 33 years for last week. The release of a brand-new, actual sequel to Star Wars. Of course, there was an actual sequel called The Empire Strike Back, and then a few years after that we had Return of the Jedi. There were the dreaded prequels. But for most Star Wars fans, of which I am very, very much one, these movies fall in two groups: the awesome original trilogy, and then the nearly unwatchable drek, Episodes I – III. Of which only the last 20 minutes of III is watchable. (Although I do enjoy Ewan McGregor’s Alec Guiness impersonation.)

10437325_972875009438388_8955436106138305972_nWe are a funny lot, us humans. Or maybe it’s an American thing. I don’t know. I don’t leave my house much. I used to joke that one day I’d live virtually, and that has sorta come to fruition, given the amount of time I spend online, which is where my job is, my writing network, etc. As such, my take on reality may be skewed. But I have picked up patterns–and maybe this is accentuated by the online, anonymous culture–but the reaction to mainstream, populist culture always amuses me. And by amuses I mean bugs the fuck out of me.

funny-man-halloween-smallDoesn’t matter what the “thing” is, if it’s popular enough, someone is always there to tell you how much they hate it. Which is really quite silly if you think about about. You have hundreds talking about how much they love something, but Bob over there feels compelled to let you know that he doesn’t like that … thing!

I wish I could say I was better. But I’m really not. Ask my wife.

bmlj6cpcaaanwxsAnytime Justine is watching some insipid reality show, whether it’s The Bachelorthe Bachelorette, or American Idol (or any number of the crappy ones she watches), I can’t walk in the room without letting her know how much I hate it. What does it matter if I think reality television is stupid? It’s not like my wife is asking me to watch it with her. But I do it every time. I’ll walk by and have to make a snarky comment about how lame I think that shit is. They get millions of viewers, every week–or else they wouldn’t be on the air–so clearly many, many people enjoy them. But I don’t. Like Ray Davis, I’m not like everyone else.

Of course I am right and they are wrong, my tastes correct, and if you don’t agree with me you are fundamentally lacking in aesthetic appreciation and artistic acumen. Duh. In short, I am no different than anyone else.

starwars_forceawakens

 

tumblr_nruaxcLzVS1uvm6rjo1_1280I bought advance tickets for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and was super stoked to see it (so much so that I am using phrases like “super stoked”). For the past 20-odd years (or whenever I got off dope/signed on to the Internet), I’ve had my morning ritual. I make my coffee and I click through my sites. The pattern has always been the same, some sites get added, others get dropped, but it’s basically this: Email. Social Media. Sports. Pop culture. Book sales. It became habit to type one of the two phrases into a search engine: “Pink Floyd reunion album” and “New Star Wars movie.” Did this, regularly, for years. Nothing on the former (I want a new record with Roger), but about two years ago, after all the fruitless searches, I got a hit. Disney had bought Star Wars from George Lucas, and we were getting an honest-to-God sequel. Everyone was happy. Then came the haters.

I hate the term “hater.” Much like I loath the phrase “disrespect” (respect is something you give–how can you impact in the negative?). But it’s part of the lexicon, and it fits here, so who am I to rage against?

12391807_1653624958238446_7541737088376461463_n33 years of waiting came to an end last Thursday. I woke up in the morning, tingling with little kid Christmas morning excitement. Just like when I was 10. Star Wars has always been–like it is for most boys–something of a religion to me. Everyone has his/her favorite. I liked Luke. (I also like Springsteen, Catcher in the Rye, The New York Yankees, Taylor Swift, blue jeans, white tee shirts, motorcycles, tattoos, short jail stints, and am pretty much a walking talking American boy cliche. Even had a drug problem I kicked [and then wrote a book about it!]) The wheel works fine. I see no reason to reinvent it.

All day Thursday leading up to the movie, any time I’d check social media I’d see the gleeful masses waiting in eager anticipation, friend after friend brimming with (a new) hope that this new Star Wars wouldn’t suck. Resoundingly positive stuff, recollections of the first time they had seen the movie, or how, now, they were now taking their own children. Oh, what a glorious day! And then there would be that one killjoy who felt the need to let you know how much he didn’t like Star Wars. No, he just didn’t like it, he hated it, had never seen one movie, didn’t get, couldn’t understand what the big deal was and couldn’t care less (although they’d often phrase it “could care less,” but whatever). And he wouldn’t shut up about it.

Fuck that.
Fuck that.

I read some spoilers in Rolling Stone so it wasn’t that. Although some people felt compelled to do their best to ruin the experience any way they could, offering spoilers, trying to ruin the ending, etc. Again, I rag on the shit I don’t like, so this isn’t a “I’m better than” comment. More a commentary. What we don’t like shapes our identities as much as what we do. You have all these people super stoked to see a movie, with which they deeply identify, but it is every bit as important for another group (albeit statistically smaller) to let the world know they don’t like it! It’s the “I don’t watch/own TV” argument from Pulp Fiction.

121507_600I’ve been writing this blog for a while, so I know, like my 83-year-old shrink, that I repeat myself. But I’m getting old too. About the time Return of the Jedi came out, I was taking art in high school with Miss Wilensky (I think I have that right), and she introduced this concept called Notan, by which drawings are defined by negative shapes. That’s always stuck with me. I have a remarkable memory. I can’t remember stuff like receipts and taxes, but the important (barroom trivia) stuff stays in there.

Anyway, the movie was fucking awesome. I can’t talk about it because it just came out and I would’t want to spoil it for anyone else. Thomas Pluck does a good job capturing the emotions in a (spoiler-free) review over at his place. I can just say that it was worth the wait. I have a few minor quibbles, like I do with every movie, but Star Wars finally seems to be in the right hands (I love George, but anyone who calls Empire Strikes Back the worst in the canon clearly can’t be allow to oversee the project anymore. Once an artist creates, especially a defining work that resonates as much as Star Wars did/does, propriety is out the proverbial window). Overall, I was thrilled with The Force Awakens. Especially since I was able to take my boy. (The circle is complete.)

201206151258As for the rest of it, no big deal. Got a couple funny texts/emails, like, “Did you unfriend me over Star Wars?” And the answer is, yes. But I didn’t mean to. I tried to unfollow certain naysayers because I wanted to enjoy the movie and not deal with the negativity (how’s that for irony?), but when that didn’t work I had to block the worst offenders. Apparently when you block on Facebook, you unfriend, so that was a little embarrassing. But not really. I might have to do it again. The Force Awakens reestablishes the Star Wars franchise in a big, big way, which means we can look forward to a couple absolute certainties: more Star Wars movies, and more people who feel compelled to tell you how much they hate a make-believe galaxy far, far away.

Of Promises Broken

jack-kerouac-portrait_1_1024x1024Some of you may’ve noticed (the lonelier among you) that I haven’t been blogging much lately. I popped back in a month ago, promising to blog more. And then proceeded to promptly break that promise. Hence the title of this post, one of the contenders for Pink Floyd’s “comeback” album in 1987, the Gilmour-led, underwhelming Momentary Lapse of Reason. All of which has little to do with nothing. Except it’s early and I don’t sleep well these days, not since my youngest son, Jackson Kerouac, displaced me in my own bed about four months ago, relegating me to the sofa (with my bad back).

As for why I’ve been in absentia, I have several very good excuses.

The Motley Crew from last Friday's LSW...
The Motley Crew from last Friday’s LSW…

In case you’ve missed pointless musings and old KITH clips,  I can explain. Truth is, like Danny Gardner, I cling to Catholic guilt. One, I’ve had a string of colds that has left me sounding like Sam Elliot. Another good, better excuse is I have too much shit to do. My paying job (I know it’s shocking but being a writer doesn’t pay all that well) practically doubled my hours. Then there’s the magazine, reading series, and being a dad/husband. Both my lovely wife, Justine, and I work, but she has the misfortune of going to an office, which involves a daily commute, something I refuse to do. Not just the commuting or even the day job part. Just, y’know, fuck pants. Point is: all those other household item stuffs–the bills, g-shopping, laundry (though we split the cumbersome, dreaded task of folding), cooking–falls on my shoulders (I make a mutherfucking mean quiche). Since my wife reads this, I have to make clear that we split household duties, and she gets sleepless nights with Jackson, who, though a doll during the day, suddenly turns to Rosemary’s Baby at night, scratching any exposed flesh with talon-like claws. But I’m home, so I deal with Comcast. Enough said.

10410600_790770237641596_8027750657844198895_nI like being busy, even overwhelmed, maybe frantic. I thrive having less time to think. Because my head is a mess. My day splits into units of time, like Will in About a Boy. Those units are filled with everything from answering email to editing to working out. And this isn’t to bore you with the minutia of my very middle-class white day, only to say I’m fucking busy. As such, I had to start trimming fats. (Not just in my everyday life, because low body fat percentage is a priority). The blog was one of those that didn’t make the cut.

The real Jay Porter...
The real Jay Porter… Along with our kids and my sister. At Disney World. (Note: the respective shirts.)

Truth is, man, I’ve been writing. Like, a lot. That’s where much of the time has gone. I am working on a new standalone before I have to start the next Jay Porter book, which is yet untitled but already sold (advance spent). I am not worried about its being due in June. That was the case with December Boys last year. Sold the book. Due in June. Stuck the landing. The thing with me? I am great at repeating patterns, reliving those units of time. Some people, dirty hippies mostly, hate routines and rigidity. Though I share the free-spirit disdain for lower appendage restrictions (i.e., pants), I need routines. Because, as I wrote in Junkie Love, left to my own devices my results tend to suck. So I know the process to finish a book by June. I have to start writing it by January. I’ve been frantically trying to squeeze this new book in before I start that one. At 22K it’s been a slow show but I am planning on writing 50K in the next three weeks. Which I think I can do. Of course this 50K is going to suck, but I want to get it down.

2015-11-27 20.53.08
A running joke in the family. All Cliffords get tattoos, ride motorcycles, and go to jail. (They are getting an early start.)

I was really cooking and then we went to Disney World for Thanksgiving to meet the real-life Jay Porter. Jay is based on my half-brother, Jay Streeter, who lives down there. Since Jay has, effectively, landed me a 3-book deal, I figured it was time the kids all met. Jay and his wife Kristina have three kids Holden’s age. The funny thing about the real-life Jay (RLJ) is he still hasn’t read Lamentation, which has become a running joke. At least on my end. When I sent RLJ the audio version with Timothy McKean’s awesome reading, he still hadn’t gotten around to even listening. I was busting his balls, and RLF was making excuses. He was like, “I know, Joe, but I want to listen to it in my truck, but my radio doesn’t work. I have this new radio, in the package and everything. I’ve just been so goddamn busy I haven’t gotten around to installing it. The fucking thing is still in the package. Sitting in my truck. Just have to find the time to put it in.” And I said, “Y’know, Jay, that exact scene is in my book.” It’s true. There’s a scene in Lamentation where Jay Porter is kvetching about how his radio doesn’t work and he has this new one his boss gave him (both Jays working the swap shop/flea market scene) but he just can’t find the time to put it in. It was pretty funny.

December Boys high-res copyDisney was wonderful. My sister, Melissa, and her new husband met us. It was great getting the families together (finally). Disney, as I’ve mentioned, is my only happy childhood memory, hence Holden’s 7th trip in his 5 years. But it gummed up my writing machine, and I am just now getting back up to speed.

Plus, I know when December Boys comes out, I will have to, again, ramp up the self-promotion stuff. Figured y’all could use a break from me (I know I could). Or to quote Gluehead, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?”

Jerry Stahl & 20 Years of Permanent Midnight

men_are_from_mars_151475Tom Pitts used to say, “Reading options suck when the gutter is your library.” They don’t let junkies into the actual library, because junkies immediately head to the bathroom, clog up the toilet, and get blood everywhere. The SF libraries have timers on the lock (and good luck hitting a tiny capillary in five minutes with that dim light). I once read Men Are from Mars; Women Are from Venus simply because I found that crap lying on the street. Oh, who am I kidding? I fucking loved that book (and it would go on to serve as the basis for my myriad marriages and subsequent divorces). Junkies collect stray books like broken men and regrets. You have nothing but time to kill and a life to waste. You see homeless selling these books for a buck on scabies-infested blankets next to broken toasters and one shoe, but that is wishful thinking. Because you can find books for free everywhere when you’re a bum. Just can’t be too selective. You read what you find. Can’t say I’d ever pick up The Unauthorized Biography of Art Garfunkel otherwise. There are, of course, divine exceptions.

Comic-3One day I found Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight lying in the gutter. I’d probably been walking to Gluehead’s shack, a trek I made most every day to grovel for speed. Or maybe I was coming back from Martin De Porres, the soup kitchen on 16th @ Potrero, which cooked up the best oatmeal. I don’t know where I found the book, exactly, only that I did, and that I read it, straight through, riveted. Midnight fast became a favorite, like Catcher in the Rye or On the Road; like it was written just for me. The day the movie version came out, I borrowed my dead friend Troy’s car to take my crazy wife on a date down in Colma. Cost me half a gram. Best balloon I ever spent.

when i rocked
No, that’s all of me…

I just did an interview with the Last Bookstore, which will be hosting my upcoming reading with Jerry and Ryan Leone (Wasting Talent). Like I told them, I know this will sound hyperbolic: but Jerry Stahl saved my life. At least his book did. Or maybe not. Maybe I would’ve eventually stopped shooting junk all on my own, got off the street, gone on to earn my degrees, get married, have kids, publish a bunch of books, and buy a big house in the suburban hills regardless. I have no way of knowing. But the day I found Permanent Midnight, I was eating out of dumpsters and selling my blood (the UFO Study would give you $20 to test for diseases), I was at least 50 pounds lighter than I am now, my face was covered in pancake makeup to hide the sores and oozing pus, and I was dying. Permanent Midnight showed me there was another way for guys like us. Full of self-loathing and black, gallows humor, the story told of a deranged and damaged man who found the better parts of himself through words. Jerry Stahl offered me something in short supply in those days: hope.

And here it is, almost 20 years later. On Thursday, I get to read with one of my literary heroes, Jerry Stahl. I’ve written a lot of fiction since I picked my ass up off the street, but I could’ve have written a better script. No one would believe it.

Untitled copy