LitReactor Class/Lamentation Paperback

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

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

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

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

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

And now your uplifting meme …

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LitReactor: Planting the Clues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope to see you there!

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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?”

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 My Tribe: Bouchercon Raleigh Recap 2015

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My “big brother” Mike and me before the Anthonys.

As a writer, you don’t get much opportunity for social interaction. Rather you do your best to avoid it. You eventually have to leave the house of course. Grocery shopping. Doctor’s appointments. Dinner parties. But it’s never easy. At least not for me. Talking to normals has always felt taxing. Which is hardly a reflection on mankind and more a commentary on the faulty wiring in my brain. At this point, my neurosis has become a tic, a slight limp, the stutter that is a permanent part of my personality, neither ingrained nor hidden; it’s simply who I am.

I was talking to Josh Stallings in the bookroom at Bouchercon, both of us frittering awkward, acknowledging how foreign group activities are to persons of our ilk.

“And this crowd,” Josh said, “these are our peopleThis is as good as it gets for guys like us.”

12072732_10205101217588968_1643014766645619647_nPutting a bunch of writers in a room together is, to quote the politically incorrect line from Dodgeball, “like watching a bunch of retards trying to fuck a doorknob.” It’s antithetical to what we do. Social interactions are never easy for us, but Josh is right: Bouchercon is as good as it gets. It is, to use a catchphrase, our tribe.

There are a number of hokey sounding cliches, and few as cloying or cheesy or downright hippy-dippy-sounding as “find your tribe.” But besides being the name of one of my favorite ’80s college records, the other writers who go to Bouchercon every year are, for lack of a better term, my tribe.

07dd7bf6a0ade3064c26f6c3e4c9e41fIt’s why I look forward to the conference so much every year, despite knowing how much it will exhaust me. The trip isn’t cheap. It often involves a long flight. Add in the hotel and cab rides and meals (which this year included the fabulous Chuck’s, which had some of the tastiest burgers and shakes I’ve ever devoured), and, well, it’s not cheap. But it’s worth every cent.

I had been nominated for two Anthony Awards this year. I lost both. Considering the competition–Hank Phillippi Ryan, Louise Penny, Tana French, and Laura Lippman, who took home the coveted award for Best Novel, it was remarkable to have Lamentation (and Trouble in the Heartland by little-known German publisher “Güter Books”) mentioned alongside such literary heavyweights. My nomination was the first time an Oceanview author had been up for that particular award. But as is so often in this life, defeat has its perks too.

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But on the inside, I am a terrified, trembling baby lamb…

Everyone wants to win, and even if it’s is “just an honor to be nominated,” wanting to win is human nature, and coming up short, regardless of the length of odds, will always hurt. After the Awards were over, I was disappointed. Not devastated. Just, well, it sucks. I also knew all my friends were going to offer condolences. Which made me want to disappear for a while. Sometimes it’s easier to take the insults and cruelty than it is the kindness. But they all offered, and we joked and laughed–I got a few emails and texts–and by the end of the night the sting was pretty dull.

12079609_10153545671175709_3767617357352207260_nI woke up the next morning feeling … grateful. It’s going to sound crazy. But the last time I felt like I had friends like this was when I was a junkie. For all their faults, drugs addicts are a tight-knit community, a group of misfits, bound together by defect and long-shot dreams. For all intents and purposes, that defines writers too (many of whom, not so coincidentally, are former addicts and alcoholics, at least in the crime community). My point is, I feel like I have friends again. Some are carry-overs like Tom Pitts, and my buddy from grad school, B-Con neophyte Mike Creeden. Most of these people voted for my books, and really cared about the outcome and my feelings after the vote. Several I’d first met online, and we’d had long, in-depth conversations electronically before ever meeting face-to-face. And now these friendships mean the world.

UnknownSo to Tom, Todd, Mike & Mike, Brian, the Rob(s), Ro, Danny, Michelle, Tommy, Terrence, Richard, The Pluckster, Chris, The Shotgun Honey Crew, Warren, Marietta, Les, Kate, Angel, Rebecca, Christa, Ed, Soledad, Jed, Jen, Jack, Johnny, Jay, Josh, Hilary, Travis, Steve, Seth, Matt, Pam, James, all the variations of Er(y)(i)(c)(k), and everyone else I may’ve missed: thank you. Sitting at the Anthony Awards, having my publishers from Oceanview sitting next to me, surrounded by all you guys supporting me, well, it was touching.

This has already been a pretty fucking sentimental post, so I might as well go all the way. You get much further in this life I believe by lifting one another up than trying to push someone else down. I’ll stop short of saying I love you all, which would probably only invite more people trying to touch me. I’ll just say I look forward to seeing you all next year. Some more of “our tribe” will be nominated. And this time, we’re taking home the gold. (Or at least some decorative dinnerware, as is the case.)

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My tribe…

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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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