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).

 

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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!

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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).

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!

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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.

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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.

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins, and the Force

Maybe it’s left over from my days doing meth or a perverse appreciation of early M. Night Shyamalan movies, but I still look for signs. Not in the hippy-dippy, cosmic sense. Okay, maybe a little bit. Some call it God. Others the Universe. We can go with the Force to keep all parties happy and non-offended. I wasn’t always like this. But like Han Solo, I reserve the right to change my mind. It’s how we evolve.

In my new life, authors are my rock stars. I used to travel across oceans to meet my rock and roll heroes; now I risk puddle jumpers to meet writers who rock my world.

Book Review-The Girl on the TrainOne of the shitty parts about becoming a writer is you trade in the magic for the mechanics. That is, you willingly surrender the transformative powers of (reading) literature to create the illusion for others. It’s a worthwhile trade. Writing books for a living is fucking awesome. I am not complaining (at least no more than usual). But it does suck that I can’t read a book anymore without picking it apart, dissecting the engine to reassemble my own Mickey-moused gears. To misquote Steve Earle, I take every book apart to see how they work.

gone_girl_on_the_trainTwice in the last decade I got swept up again, became just another reader, a fanboy who couldn’t put down the book. A former professor of mine, James W. Hall, said after he read Silence of the Lambs that he felt both enthralled and disheartened. Which is what happens when a book is so good you realize the bar has been raised that much higher. That’s how I felt when I finished Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.

Like choosing between The Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady, I go back and forth about which one I like more. But it’s quibbling because both are fucking fantastic; they are the books I hope to someday write. I don’t mean copy or emulate. I’m talking proficiency, mirroring that perfect blend of page-turning, pop culture thriller. But, y’know, in my own voice and shit.

JoeMargharita
One of many, many trips to Cabo. This is the last known photo of my naked right arm.

I read The Girl on the Train while I was vacationing in Cabo with the family earlier this year. The locale certainly didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the book. Sitting poolside, sipping margaritas (all-inclusive is the only way I roll), I devoured the book in two days, and have recommended it, ad nauseum, to everyone who’ll listen. I gave a reading a few weeks ago down in Pacifica. After my Q&A, a line formed at the register. They were all buying Girl on the Train. That’s how hard I pimp that book. Great art must be rewarded.

IMG_1492.JPGI’d seen that Paula Hawkins was on book tour but, unfortunately, the closest she was coming to San Francisco was Portland, Oregon, at famed indie bookstore, Powell’s. Not that far away. But still an airplane ride, and going that far for a reading might be a little crazy, especially given no guarantee that I’d even get to meet Paula. Holden Caufield says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” Thanks to the Internet, sometimes it does.

IMG_1497.JPGI’d written Portland author Johnny Shaw, who said if I did come up I’d have a place to stay. Then I had lunch with my agent, Liz, and our foreign rights people. (Italy and Spain are interested in Lamentation. But I really want the French.) We were talking about Girl on the Train and how much I love the book. I mentioned I was even thinking of going to the reading at Powell’s. All during lunch, my phone was going off with incoming messages. After we ate, I checked my e-mail to see I’d … won a meet and greet with Paula Hawkins at Powell’s. Apparently, I’d entered an Instagram contest about a question I’d ask. I don’t even remember doing so. I don’t sleep well at night. See? The Universe, God … The Force. So I booked a flight.

In the days leading up to the reading, I revisited The Girl on the Train. Like any great work, the book only proved better a second time. I don’t want to give spoilers in case you haven’t read it (and if you haven’t read it, what the fuck is wrong with you?). All I know is from the first line, you get sucked in. I suppose voice is the most obvious culprit. Though the book is told via 3 first person narrators, this is Rachel’s story. She is the girl on the train. Alcoholic, defeated, broken. A loser. If you know my past, you can see why such a heroine would appeal to me. There is also the top-flight mystery and flawless pacing.

There-is-nothing-to-writingAs a musician, I learned that the notes you don’t play are every bit as important as the ones you do. Great pacing is about omission, the stuff you leave out. Call it Hemingway’s Iceberg or simply sleight of hand. To write a successful mystery, you only show what is absolutely necessary. But you can’t skimp either. Of course a lot of other shit goes into it; and if deconstruction was that easy everyone would fucking do it. There’s a reason only an infinitesimal fraction of the books written become bestsellers.

On this second reading of The Girl on the Train, something did change: my opinion of Rachel. My question, the one that had won me the meet and greet, was simple: Where is Rachel now? Without giving too much away, I wanted to know if she conquered her demons. The first reading I would’ve said no. The second time through? I think she just might make it.

11990408_10153248763672737_4992777054754062145_nAs for the night itself, I mean, it was fucking awesome. Paula’s super nice and down-to-earth, gracious with her time, funny. I got to bring along Johnny Shaw (who gave me an Advanced Reader’s Copy of his newest novel, Floodgate–eat your heart out, Pitts) and fellow author Michelle Bellon, whose work I’ve read and love (and blurbed). I got to meet Oliver Brennan, another neurotic Portland writer who tries to never leave the house. Once we got past the expected awkwardness of cramming socially challenged writers in a very tiny space, I was able to talk to one of my favorite writers about a work that has shaped my own. While I was reading The Girl on the Train in Mexico, I’d been simultaenously wrapping up my latest novel, December Boys. Though the style and subject matter may differ, there are definitely some threads that link the two, certainly that of madness and doubting one’s own perception, etc.

The Girl on the Train has spent, I think I heard, 39 weeks atop the NY Time Bestseller list? I’m not greedy. I’d settle for one.

In Defense of Tom Brady (Sort Of)

No, this isn’t about soft balls.

the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world-meme-generator-i-don-t-always-keep-up-with-politics-but-when-i-do-i-laugh-at-donald-trump-d41d8cA couple weeks ago, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was spotted with a Donald Trump “Make America Great” ball cap in his locker. Brady’s comment to reporters that Trump has “done great things for America” led to speculation he supported Trump for president. Brady later ended any doubt when he said “[it] would be great” if Donald Trump were president. Some of my left-leaning friends were outraged, but many of them already hated Brady and the Pats so that was easy. But my liberal friends from New England were left reeling. How could they still support their team?

trump-catI know there are actually people who support Donald Trump for president. I don’t actually know any of them, and if you are one of these people, please don’t contact me or respond, or engage me in any way. Nothing personal. But we’d have nothing to say to one another. There’s a better chance of a doorknob and tuber collaborating on a wholly original fruit salad recipe than the two of us having a meaningful conversation. (Although the “trump your cat” is pretty much made for the Internet.)

meme10I should state here that I am not a Brady “fan.” Nor do I hate the guy. I grew up in New England, and always had a soft spot for the Patriots, going back to the great Steve Grogan. When my 49ers fell by the wayside after Eddie D. (the glorious, short-lived Harbaugh rejuvenation notwithstanding), I’d find myself rooting for the Pats. But even then it was mostly in opposition, love defined by hate. I hate the NY Giants. I loathe Roger Goodell. Even in the wake of scandals, I took the Pats side. I am also slightly contrarian. I get outraged at zealots and the righteous who isolate moments of unfairness when this whole fucking world is unfair. (Yes, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons did steroids. And Babe Ruth didn’t play against black people and half his home runs bounced over the fence; every ball player in the 1970s was on speed.)

My point is I am not a Brady fanboy. I like him enough, but not enough that if here were caught pulling a Cosby I’d defend him. Though I might still have him on my fantasy team (as I do in one league this year, full disclosure).

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imagesAs an unapologetic liberal (in theory. Being a liberal, I apologize all the time. Sorry for my white privilege), I can’t imagine anyone supporting Donald Trump, or most right-wing candidates. Same as the other side doesn’t understand why we like Bernie or Obama. (I’m not saying who I am supporting in this year’s election, but astute readers might be able to read between the lines). Talking politics is pointless, and I sure as fuck am not letting it affect my friendships. Some of my best friends are on the right. We talk about movies or music, and if we broach touchy subjects, we find common ground. I honestly can’t recall the last political argument I had. My 20s?

11825673_964737956922041_7611139539374316021_nSo if my closest  relationships aren’t affected by political beliefs, why the fuck would I care what some bazillionaire athlete thinks? Most athletes lean right of center. If it’s not the “God thing,” it’s the simple fact that one side wants less of their money. No offense to the jocks out there, but they don’t tend to be the brightest or most progressive bulbs. Chris Kluwes are rare. Dumbing it down: we vote in our own interests. Usually. I’ll tell you this: I understand Tom Brady and Curt Shilling and whatever other 1%er voting the way they do way more than, say, someone from the reddest parts of Mississippi.

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.

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Three Reasons Why Season 2 of True Detective Is Better Than Season One

**This was drafted before Sunday night’s episode**

true-detectiveI have not been on social media as much these days. Part of the reason is I’ve been finishing up December Boys, the sequel to Lamentation. Another reason is it sorta depresses the shit out of me. Which has less to do with social media than my ever-vacilating moods. I remember being in rehab and a counselor asked me how I was feeling. I said, “I’m at the mercy of my moods.” I’ve stopped doing heroin. The other part hasn’t changed much.

11705715_10153085620092507_8181218686014728940_oAnyway, I won’t waste your time with my therapy today (see you at 2, Dr. Goldberg). When I do pop on the Facebook, seems I spend most of my time defending the (much-maligned) second season of True Detective. Obviously this isn’t a pressing issue; the fate of mankind hangs not in the balance. It’s a fucking TV show. I won’t get suckered into discussing politics. But I have a hard time passing by threads beating up on TD.

First let me say, I loved Season One of True Detective, and saying #2 is “better” is a bit of hyperbole, necessitated by the sheer volume of shit it gets. A little devil’s advocating, I suppose. Still I don’t get the vitriol. Here are my three reasons why I think TDS2 is better than TDS1

11222962_10153150393238089_8037722935873564652_n3. Better Mystery

This one is easy. There was no real mystery in the first season of True Detective. For all the talk of who the Yellow King was, he ended up being the same dude we saw (spoiler alert) riding around on a lawnmower in, like, the 3rd episode. What propelled the narrative for TDS1 was one thing: Matthew McConaughey, who was sensational. We basically fell in love with S1 because of his brilliant acting. I read somewhere (it might’ve been Joe Loya) that McConaughey’s career has become what we’d always hoped Johnny Depp’s would. Rust Cohle is a fascinating study, a modern existentialist burning in the pursuit of the big nothing. But the plot? Wasn’t much of one. The best scene of the first season was the infamous 6-minute single shot. Great, great scene. But if we break down the reason we were there in the first place? It was an excuse to have a single 6-minute shot. The Aryan bikers was as red as herrings get. Take the similar scene in TDS2. I don’t know how long the shootout lasted, but the moment was organic, the logical result of the mystery our three detectives were pursuing. So the scene, for me, carries a great pathos and logos. Fuck, ethos too. And, what the hell, verisimilitude. Who killed Caspere has more layers than the Yellow King, in terms of pure mystery. Politics, cults, diamonds, Russians, etc. It simply isn’t as sexy. Y’know, because there are no antlers.

2. Better Setting

I will take heat for this, I know. But one of the reasons TDS1 felt so exotic was because we were in Louisiana. I know nothing about the place, except that Ro Cuzon lives somewhere down there. I lived in the South. I find nothing exotic about it. When I was leaving grad school to move back to SF, I started packing my car at 7 a.m. It was 95 degrees. I do not miss it. Los Angeles is noir, a rich, layered history, from Ray Chandler to Ray Velcoro. I, for one, love the aching overhead shots of the city. It may be (and it is) preference, but being lonely in a city cuts far crueler than the being alone in the cuts. One of the saddest parts of my life in the nineties was because I lived in a city with millions (I think; I’m not good at math), and I couldn’t buy a friend. (Forget the part about my being a scumbag junkie; addicts gets lonely too.) TDS2 feels like a contribution to that ongoing hardboiled dialogue. You never feel more alone than being surrounded my millions of strangers.

1. Better Characters

rust_cohle_by_sergeiknish-d8cq8buTake away Rust Cohle, and what do you really you nothing in Season One? TDS1 is tantamount to buying a house because it was well staged. Rust made everything look wonderful because he’s such a wildly original character. Except all the crimes TDS2 is charged with was just was prevalent the first time around. They (the universal they) talk about the heavy-handedness of S2. McConaughey plays a character literally named “Rust.” With a last name of “Coal.” I didn’t mind being hit over the head. And neither did anyone else. But you take his “time is a flat circle” speech and put it into this season? Someone is getting strung up by the balls. I love Woody Harrelson, but there was nothing to his Marty other than the foil to rust. The buddy in a buddy cop dynamic, who couldn’t keep it in his pants. Nothing else there. Michelle Monaghan, likewise. Love her. But the role gave her nothing to work with. Rachel McAdam’s Ani Bezzerides is a fully formed and -rounded character, that legitimate “strong female” everyone ached for in S1. She has backstory; she has motivation. No, there is no one as good as Rust. But Kitsch is doing solid work, with a convincing, tortured subplot; and I’d argue Collin Farrell’s acting is on par with Matt M. from S1. The character isn’t as strong, but Rust Cohle was one for the ages; you aren’t getting that again. I know everyone hates on Vince Vaughn, and I’m not saying he’s without fault, but just having a character on the other side of the law adds a wrinkle lacking the first time around. And while Vaughn’s Frank consistently underwhelmed the first few episodes, I think he’s stepped up his game to be like a good number five starter: serviceable.

poorpoorfifiagainObviously this is subjective, and in all honesty, all things being equal, I probably wouldn’t spend a whole blog post quibbling semantics or vehemently going to bat for a TV show. The attack on TDS2 feels like the result of the basest of human dynamics. There are two things we love to do as a peoples: build something up. And then tear it down.

I had a girlfriend a while ago. She lived in a farm with chickens. A lot of chickens. Baby chicks, too. She had a favorite chick. So she painted its toes red, so she’d be able to pick it out easily. You know how this ends, I’m sure. The next morning she goes out and finds the chick dead. The other chickens didn’t like that it stood out. They waited until dark, and then descended upon and killed it.

UnknownIs this season of True Detective great television? I don’t know. It’s not Breaking Bad. Fuck, it might not even be Wayward Pines. But I’ll tell you something else it’s not. It’s not fucking Knight Rider. I grew up in the mutherfucking ’80s. Dukes of Fucking Hazard. Fucking Knight Rider. The goddamn A Team. You can say you liked these shows, but they weren’t “good,” not by any stretch. I hate to see a writer like Nic P. shoot so high, attempt something so grand, and watch the packs gang up and tear it to shit.

I know it’s just a TV show, and having people disagree with me will be a friendly way to spend a Monday morning (before I see my shrink). We’re not talking abortion, war, gun control, or the upcoming election. But as an artist, I take this criticism seriously because I got two bad Amazon reviews over the weekend and it made me sad. As an author, I strive to write something great. It is the guiding light of my darkest days. So when I see a writer like Nic Pizzolatto take such a beating, I feel the need to voice my support. Not because Nic needs my defense, but because should I ever attain the level of success he has, and I write something as solid as TD, 1 or 2, I’d hope my peers would do the same for me.

Second Act of a Two-Person Job OR the First Attempted Murder of a Crime Writer

10710625_10152701954121840_1767772750612028360_nLip Service West played to a great crowd for the Beast Crawl Saturday night. Probably our best yet, really. My lovely wife, Justine, read a story about her crippling fear of squirrels; Seth Harwood read about watching a kid die; everyone else–Mckay Williams, Tom Pitts, Steven Gray, and always-hilarious Patrick O’Neil (“we have a cat?!”) read about drugs. Because that’s really what LSW is about. Horrible people doing horrible things (my lovely wife of course excluded).

When we got home, we found out our four-year-old son, Holden, threw a toy at his baby brother Jackson Kerouac‘s (five months old) head, leaving a noticeable welt.

*

bettermemory_zps76350220When I was seven years old, I tried to kill my baby brother, Josh. OK. That might be hyperbole. But I did try to seriously maim him. Josh was (and still is) about three years and half younger than I, about the same age differential between Holden and Jackson (same Zodiac signs, too). So this would’ve been, what, 1977? (Holy fuck I am old.) I can still remember the house on Longview Drive, the cheap wood paneling, the layout with my room at the far end. Small, odd details. Like the storage area, which was ran the length of the wall, like a secret room. Strange the particulars your mind retains.

tumblr_ltlcyt9s5M1qf1nsqo1_1280On the stairs of that house, if you parted the rug, there were these little tiny holes, which perfectly captured a toothpick, locking it snug in place. I’d set up a few on the stairs and called my brother down. My brother did not answer the call. Instead my mom came down. The toothpick entered the heel of her foot and got caught in the bloodstream. Eight hours of surgery later, the doctors were able to fish the toothpick somewhere near her big toe.

20698_902158986509880_4457311705806089337_nOf course I felt terrible. I was seven. I don’t think I was really trying to kill my little brother. I know I was very jealous of him. He was a happy go-lucky kid, and already I could see our dad favored him. (I was on the outs early on.) Plus, I was a mean little shit. Our house was a pretty violent one. We ended up solidly middle class, but in those days we were relative poor, my folks extremely young. You don’t know jack shit in your twenties. My parents married as teens, and weren’t much older when I came around.

There is also the chance that I had, well, mental issues, even then. Hard to gauge why someone is what they are. Biology (my family has a history of mental illness), sociology (alcohol, gang activity, violence, and teen pregnancy aren’t the greatest mind-molders), and psychology (who the fuck knows) shape our being.

imagesThat wasn’t the first time I’d tried to harm my brother. I remember once putting a paper bag on the top of the stairs and telling him to walk. My brother was a sturdy, blocky kid. He was fine. Looking back, though, I honestly can’t say I had any intentions. It was more something to do on a Wednesday afternoon.

Childhood is a lot like Welcome to the Dollhouse. You pass on the hurt. The rage and violence in our house was pretty bad (this was around the time my father threw my mom down that same flight of stairs and broke her leg). So maybe it was like that old anti-drug commercial: I learned it by watching you! (If you really want to know what my lousy childhood was like, just watch the movie Affliction. Or, y’know, read the book if you have the time).

Writer copyWe are going on, what, 38 fucking years? I have no goddamn idea what I was thinking that day. The toothpick incident (as it became known in my family) became a running joke. My mom didn’t harbor resentment (she was a sweet lady), and my brother and I grew much closer later in life. Once our father was gone, life got better. I mean, until I became a junkie (didn’t see what one coming). Up until I was 30 and I began dealing with the emotional baggage/garbage/horseshit, life sorta sucked.

Anyway, fast-forward. I am better now. Way, way better now. Dealt with much of the wreckage. Lots of therapy. Some in-patient hospitalization back in the 1990s. Soul-searching and all of that. My job now (writer) means I mine these emotions, examine them closely. Problem is, 40 years is a long time, and I really don’t know why I put that toothpick on the stairs. I could’ve just been a curious 7-year-old. Maybe the nefarious intent I now assign is done so merely because it shapes a more compelling narrative. Unless I was simply evil.

*

As a dad, I probably shouldn’t read too much into my kid’s occasional naughty behavior. Holden is well adjusted, a happy go-lucky kid, who draws pictures of himself (literally) holding up the sun, and is a wonderful big brother (much better than I). He lives in a loving house where voices do not raise; no one is railing drunk or getting flung down the stairs. I am almost 45. My wife is not that old. But she’s older than my mom was when she had me (19). We are established in our careers, living in suburbia. The biggest issue we have with Holden is limiting his “screen time” and trying to get him to eat more vegetables. That’s the nice part about this second act of mine: I get to rewrite the script.

Still, you want to spare your kids the aggravation you went through. You don’t want to be obnoxious about it. But it comes from a place of love, from somewhere good. One of the reasons I ended up being a writer is because of this over-analytical brain of mine. It’s working overtime anyway. Might as well get paid (not that writing pays particularly well). There’s a downside, too. Sometimes your four-year-old is just acting like a four-year-old. Which is one of the reason I am so grateful for Justine, my wife who is far more levelheaded about this stuff, the rock in my storm of crazy. Because parenting really is a two-person job.

BookBub / Bestseller

19c8peiyk6e98jpgOne of the nice parts about making the jump to the bigger publisher is that feeling you’re not doing it all on your own. I work for a small publisher (Gutter) so this isn’t a knock on the indies. Snubnose gave me my start, Battered Suitcase my break (Junkie Love), and I’ll forever love both. Just the reality of the biz. When you have teams of two (Hi, Tom!), there’s only so much you can do. You sign the author, edit/format and upload the book, and then it’s on to the next one. The promotion, interviews, launches, the writer is on his or her own. It is all about the hustle.

Like any (successful) marriageL1 copy, the relationship between a book player (as my son Holden calls it) and the (bigger) publisher still requires the writer to do a shit-ton of work. Most of which is the un-sexy marketing stuff. Like many, I’m sure, I had the original disillusion that once the book came out, you got to sit back and watch the money roll in. Maybe for guys like King and Panowich (that last one’s a plug for my boy, Brian, whose book is due out this week with Putnam, and for whom I am predicting BIG things). The sad truth of writing is no one is getting rich (except maybe King and James). Which is cool. Writing is about the craft, and my kids can grow big and strong from a heaping bowl of integrity.

10403547_10153403919036763_1438473545402863607_nDavid Ivester, the publicist over at Oceanview, does a bang-up job. I can’t tell you how much I love the man. It’s more than not feeling alone as I walk through this valley of a bazillion books (seriously. Is everyone I know an author?). David’s worked with authors like me before. We are needy, insecure things, desperate to be loved. So his job transcends promotional strategy and media kits. Occasional pep talks get sprinkled with the father’s love I never received. Anyway, Dr. Goldberg and I will have a lot to talk about in today’s session.

In the meantime, David worked out a deal with the fine folks over at BookBub, blasting out a couple e-mails over the holiday weekend advertising Lamentation‘s sale of .99 for Kindle. Which is really fucking cool. Even before the blasts went out we’d shot up to #23 on the bestseller list at Amazon. BookBub has, like, 2.2 million subscribers, so working this out was a pretty sweet fruit. By the end of Sunday, we’d hit #1 for Kindle.

1972312_10205897380024907_4538266175163988145_nFor my part, I still had to do my share of pimping. I’ve grown leery of the unabashed hard-sell. I know it rubs some folks the wrong way (Julie Kazimer: People like to buy; they don’t like to be sold.) Over 30+ people shared this news on Facebook over the weekend, which catapulted Lamentation up the charts). So to everybody who helped make this promotion such a success, I say thanks. But I’m not done. I’m told BookBub “averages” 3K – 4K in sales. Which is fucking sweet. I don’t know if that’s true. But I like arbitrary numbers, especially when I don’t have to do the research. Turning arbitrary into an unrealistic expectation? Even better, I will hit my goal, or hate myself for failing. Either way, it’s a win.

article-0-01B52E1F00000578-77_468x536For everyone who put up with the shameless self-promotion interrupting America’s birthday, sorry. And thanks. Lamentation is still on sale, and will be until July 12. For the price of just .99 you can, well, get a digital copy of my book. I know this constant barrage of “buy my book” and/or “look at me!” can be, well, grating (if not outright obnoxious). So I appreciate the patience/support while I make all my dreams come true.

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