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.

Better Than the Beatles

If you follow me on Facebook, you know I recently discovered Frank Turner, an English singer/songwriter from, well, England. How this artist has alluded me, given my constant search for new, life-affirming music, mystifies. Then again, not really. My ability to compartmentalize is legendary, if only in my kitchen, where I spend 99% of my time (Brian Fast once said: no matter how I treat my guests, they always like my kitchen best).

10348204_680049412099995_5254871434238716560_nAnytime you discover a great new artist, you push it down the throats of tell your friends because you want them to feel good too. One of these friends is a guy named Petersen who lives on the East Coast. A surrogate father, Petersen grew up in the ’60s, which as everyone from that generation knows boasts the best music, the best movies, and best athletes of all time. And if you’d don’t believe me, all you have to do is ask; they won’t shut up about it.

Whatever era you came of age, nostalgia always holds a special place in your heart, but it’s tough to argue with the music one. I mean, all anyone has to say is the Beatles.

I know people who claim to dislike the Beatles (I don’t believe them), but only an idiot will deny the band’s place in the pantheon on rock. Some purists/contrarians will go back to Robert Johnson or even earlier, talk about purer blues, and I won’t argue. I mean, I don’t give a shit. The Beatles were the first band to put it together in the modern pop culture vein. But that doesn’t make them “the best.”

My buddy Petersen, like a lot of … older … people frequently complains about how “there is no good new music.” The rub being when you try to introduce good new music to someone who lived in the ’60s, you are up against not only the Beatles, but the Stones and the Who and Dylan and the list goes on. No matter how good an artist is, you can’t beat the Beatles.

12241272_932149966839988_8204072385303865074_nExcept you can. Now I love the Beatles. Or rather I appreciate their place in the lineage of rock and roll. Like I said, only a moron would deny that. But does that make them the best? Because there are bands I like a fucklot more: Springsteen, Gaslight Anthem, Hold Steady, and, now, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. I mean, literature has deigned Don Quixote the first novel. Don Quixote isn’t close to being the best. In fact, it’s rather unreadable. Author Miguel de Cervantes did as well as he could given that he was fucking inventing a new form. But art dictates evolution. How sad would it be if music never got better than the Beatles?

12304300_875686839212943_4952939902542458265_oThis all started when I told Petersen “Frank Turner is a better songwriter than the Beatles.” Petersen treated the comment as though I’d just took a dump in church. Which made me almost retract. Then I thought about Cervantes. Fuck, there are hundreds of songwriters better than the Beatles. And the Stones. And Dylan. Every time Rolling Stone comes out with a list of the best songwriters, you know damn well it’ll have Paul and John, and Mick and Keith. You’ll get a nod to current trends with a rapper or two, Tupac or whoever. But mostly that list will revolve around ’60’s icons, despite there being literally thousands of artists coming after–artists who took an original statement and then used it to create something better. How–or rather why–would anyone expect the dialogue to retard? How many times do you need to hear fucking Hotel California?

enhanced-16976-1439320460-1I’m not immune. In my world Springsteen and Westerberg reign. Because I came of age to their music. I had a girlfriend, or maybe a wife, who loved Pearl Jam. Personally I’d rather get Chekhoved by Kahn than listen to Eddie Vedder sing, which sounds like a very short man taking a shit with a mouthful of peanut butter. I like Frank Turner because he sounds like the music I already like. But as good as I think he is, I’d never think the dialogue ends here. The best music is yet to come. I’ll just be too old and/or dead to appreciate it.

 

Of Promises Broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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A Search for Common Ground

12107217_10153787348414369_2670603592495987593_nYou might’ve heard there was another mass shooting this past week. That’s 294 this year, and closing in on 1,000 in the last three. Now, in terms of ways I want to spend a Monday morning, debating the 2nd Amendment falls somewhere between reading Jane Austen again and getting tested for the clap (again). Couple weeks ago, I wrote, what I thought was, a fairly benign, lighthearted post about Tom Brady’s support of Donald Trump. I still managed to upset a couple friends of mine who reminded me of a promise I made: no politics on this blog. So what I’d like to try to do here today is talk about a very touchy, incendiary topic, with wildly vacillating points of views and impassioned perspectives, and come up with common ground, however shaky. I want to write Hemingway’s one, true sentence re: guns in this country. So here goes:

We have a problem.

GunGraph copy 2Can we at least all agree on that? Is that even debatable? Not proposing background checks, more mandatory this or that, stricter regulations, whatever; I am not infusing this post with my own ideological beliefs. I’m not mentioning presidential candidates or legislation, just making a simple statement that there’s got to be a better way. Is there anyone who views 1,000 mass shootings in a three-year span as acceptable?

mass_shooting_map.0Now the tricky part is how to fix it, I know that, and I want no fucking part of it. At least not here, not now. Call me a coward or a pacifist, or just a dude who at 45 is way too busy to spend his day fighting with no hopes of resolution. I have good friends who love their guns. I have good friends who would love to see them outlawed. You guys want to talk, I’d be happy to put you in touch. Although if you are looking for a little discourse on the subject, you don’t have to look far.

I spend a lot of time on social media. I work (my paying job) online and so often I’ll have two laptops open. Soon as a mass shooting occurs, I watch the lines light up. And I tip-toe away from the inferno. It’s not that I don’t care–I care deeply–it simply gets exhausting watching the two camps splinter and say the same damn things. Nothing gets solved. And then there is another shooting pretty much the next day. Or later that same day. That isn’t hyperbole. 290+ mass shootings in 270+ days. Do the math.

mass_shootings_calendar.0So I wondered if I wrote a post, could I come up with a single sentence that wouldn’t offend anyone, the most base of assertions to achieve consensus. One as simple as 1,000 mass shootings in 3 years is too many. Again: Not advocating for stricter laws. Not championing arming every man, woman and child in a school. I take no position on here (right now) other than to say this: what we are doing isn’t working.

That statement has proven pretty instrumental in my life. Back when I was a junkie, it helped me get clean. When I found that proverbial bottom, lying, quite literally, in the gutter, without shoes and covered in sores, I said to myself, “Joe”–because I often talked to myself in the 3rd person in those days (Joe doesn’t do that anymore; he finds it hubristic)–“we don’t know what’s down that road over there, that road without drugs, where emotions run wild and feelings hurt, but one thing is for sure: what we are doing sure as fuck isn’t working.”

gun homicides per capitaAnd so I’ll evoke it once more, and that’s as far as I am getting into it. Everyone has a finger to point and something(one) to blame. I have opinions too. Talking about them would get me nowhere. Gun control is like abortion twenty years ago, a hotbed topic; bring it up, veins pop and people get fired up. I have a real problem with my temper. Or I used to. I learned to control my temper, mostly by not challenging it. Like Bruce Banner not riding the subway at rush hour. Not a good idea. People, places, and circumstances, all things to avoid. I just know something’s gotta give; something has to change. Because what we are doing sure as fuck ain’t working. And if at least we can all agree there is a problem, then maybe, just maybe, that means there’s a solution, too.

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.

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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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Back to School

I took the last few weeks off from blogging (sorry for the hole I left in your lives). I did this for a few reasons. 1.) the hits tend to wane in the summer, and 2. it’s a lot of fucking work to come up with new, relevant, titillating topics every week, and 3.) I’m lazy.

There are a handful of tricks to writing blogs and getting the most bang for your buck. You want to touch upon current pop culture topics without being divisive. You want hyperlinks. And most importantly…

Short blocks of text.

And pictures.

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In my absence, we had several developments on the professional front, some shit that is coming up soon. Mostly good news. A little light on mortality. Let’s start with positivity.

  • We sold Book Three in the Lamentation series. Very cool, since the sequel, December Boys, isn’t even out yet (I just finished writing it!). DB is slated for a June 2016 release. The new, as-yet-untitled 3rd in the series, a year after that. I have the plot and arc. Looks like I’m locked into a series with Oceanview. Which is the start of a bonafide career as a writer. Life is some trippy shit.
  • Speaking of December Boys. Had a conference call with Oceanview the other day, and experienced a first. Or maybe its evolution of craft. Whenever I’m teaching a class or speaking on a panel, I usually say, something to the effect, “the one thing we want as writers is to write our book, hand it to someone and have them say, ‘It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.’ And the one thing that will never happen is you write a book, hand it to someone, and they say, ‘It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.'” And that didn’t happen here. Because before it got to Oceanview, I had several readers, including Tom and my wife, pointing out major structural issues, which I addressed. But once OP got it, they seemed pretty damned happy with the final product, editorial suggestions strictly the line-item variety.

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  • Perhaps the best news, or at least my favorite, I can’t really share (#vaguebooking). All I can say is that I asked a writer who has written one of my favorite all-time books for a blurb (I’m talking a writer I love, love, love), and he/she wrote back and said to send it. And I know that doesn’t sound like much. But, man, I really love this writer, and if this blurb comes through it truly will be a career highlight. (I feel as flush as a schoolgirl on prom night.)
  • C6cLf2eLest I leave you with the impression that it’s been all great. We just got back from Disneyland, which was great. But four days on my feet, even with a cane, I came closer than ever to needing to rent one of those scooters like some fat American tourist. I don’t think I’ve experienced more physical pain in my life. That is not hyperbole. Hurt more than the damn motorcycle accident itself. I slapped on Lidoderm patches, took as much medication as I am allowed, and I could still barely walk. At one point over the course of our trip, my spine went numb, which can’t be a good thing. Even though it was nice not to be in agony. I saw my doctor when I got back. She reminded me the reality of my condition, reiterating that a hip replacement is not if but when. She said something like “You have to accept you’ll never throw your sons in the air.” And even though doctors have been telling me this stuff since the accident, I never really believed them. I figured I could just will myself to health. These last could weeks (after I fucked up my back trying to climb onto Holden’s LEGO loft to play with him), I’m forced to admit the obvious: my body is failing me. And nothing I do will fix it. There are just ways to treat the pain and slow down the inevitable. But, fuck, ain’t that what we’re all doing anyway? Life is a terminal condition.

And on that cheery note…