Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Notes from A Stephen King Interview, Part 2

Photo: Stephen King at The Harvard Bookstore, June 6, 2005.  From his Wikipedia page.

[This is Part 2 of a blog started a few days ago, which you can go to here if you don't want to scroll.]

[Stephen King gave this sort of loose interview to The Atlantic on April 12, 2011.  The interview was in conjunction with a new-at-the-time short story, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," which you can read here.  (You should read the story first before continuing on with this blog entry.)]

To another vein.  You know how your writing and English teachers always tell you to walk around with pen and paper (or, today, an iPhone, or an iPad, or just talk into your cell, or--) because you must write down that great idea or you'll forget it?  Well, the guy who has sold more books than anyone currently alive says:

I never write ideas down. Because all you do when you write ideas down is kind of immortalize something that should go away. If they're bad ideas, they go away on their own.

For the record, I also believe this, and I very rarely write anything down.  When I do, I hardly ever use them.  I also believe that ideas you'll use will germinate in your head and simply not leave until you write them into a story.  All the other ideas are unwanted guests who are correctly shown the door.  The more I practice this, the more writing I get done.  The more I let every single idea take root, I stray or the elevator stops.

Out of nowhere, practically, King gives a pretty good description of what poetry is good for:

[Poetry] takes ordinary life, it takes things that we all see, and concentrates them in this beautiful gem. When the good ones do that, that's what you get. When the Philip Larkins or the James Dickeys do that, you get something that is heightened, that says to us that reality is finer and more beautiful and more mysterious than we could ever possibly express ourselves. Which is why we need poetry.

Indeed so.  I'm not a good enough poet to do this myself--I've only managed to sell one poem, though it's also true that I've only sent out one poem--but I agree that this is what good poetry can do.  It's life, super-concentrated, super-compact.  I wrote a line that says, "A poem is a thought shared in compacted time."  I believe this to be true.

But I respectfully disagree with King on one point.  When asked to compare the short story markets of his youth to the ones today, King said:

All those magazines published short fiction. And it started to dry up. And now you can number literally on two hands the number of magazines that are not little presses that publish short fiction.

While this may be true in terms of physical, tangible magazines you hold in your hands, this is not true overall.  There are a ton of markets--many of them big, that pay well--on the Web.  They're called e-magazines.  I've been published in a few of them, and they often pay better than the hand-held, paper ones.  A sign of the times, but a fact nonetheless.

In fact, when King says that people don't read short stories (or much else) anymore, I would politely disagree with that, as well.  Those online mags wouldn't be able to pay what they do if nobody was reading them.  And there's a ton of decent-paying online mags. Again, I know: I've been in them.

And, finally, here's an interesting irony:

JP: It is odd, though, if you think about it, that with all the speeding-up that we're being told about, and the dwindling of the attention span and all that, that people would rather chomp their way through a 400-pager than just get zapped by a little story ...

SK: And so many of the 400-pagers are disposable in themselves. When I see books by some of the suspense writers that are popular now, I think to myself: "These are basically books for people who don't want to read at all." It just kind of passes through the system. It's like some kind of fast-food treat that takes the express right from your mouth to your bowels, without ever stopping to nourish any part of you. I don't want to name names, but we know who we're talking about.

This is also true.  I'll name names for him: James Patterson.  Many of the heart-felt vampire books, or young-heroine dystopias.  But, I should also add, in all honesty: Stephen King himself, sometimes.

I think he would admit that, most of the time.  He was just having a negative, cranky interview.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Notes from A Stephen King Interview, Part 1

Photo: Stephen King's house in Bangor, Maine.  From his Wikipedia page.

Stephen King gave this sort of loose interview to The Atlantic on April 12, 2011.  (I don't know why I'm reading it now, four years after the fact.  And...It's not called The Atlantic Monthly anymore?  Was I napping when that happened?)  The interview was in conjunction with a new-at-the-time short story, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," which you can read here.  (You should read the story first before continuing on with this blog entry.)

King said a couple of things I thought were interesting, things I didn't always agree with.  So, without further ado...

James Parker: Would you mind filling our readers in just a little bit on the back story to "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive"?

Stephen King: Every year my son Owen and I have a bet on the NCAA March Madness Tournament, and last year the stakes were that the loser would have to write a story [with a title] the winner gave to him. And I lost. Except I really won, because I got this story that I really like. The title that he gave me for the story was "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," because he'd just a read a piece saying that the guy was still alive and he's still writing even though he's 95 or 96 years old.
So I thought about it a lot--believe me, I thought about it a lot. The tournament was over by the first of April that year, and I mulled that over in my mind until about July. So there was a period of about four months when I thought, "What am I gonna write, what am I gonna write?" Usually you get an idea yourself and then you write a story -- you don't think of a title and then write a story to go with it. So it was kind of an ass-backwards kind of thing. And my first thought was to write a story about a guy in a mental asylum who believed that he was keeping certain writers alive by brainpower. And it was going to be kind of a funny story, and there was going to be a list of writers that he'd gotten tired of and that he had allowed to die.

Belanger: These are the minds of writers.  He started with a title and no story (99.9% of the time it's the other way around) and then had a thought about a mentally unbalanced guy who thought he was keeping writers alive out of his own will.  And when he tires of the writer's stuff--boom, the writer's gone.  Now, that's not normal thinking--on the part of the character and on King himself.  But that is how the minds of writers work.

Stephen King offers another moment of how he gets ideas for his writing:

The other day I went out to the mailbox at the end of the road and there was a flyer in there, one of these things where they give you coupons and you get a dollar off mouthwash or makeup or whatever, and on the back there's a number of pictures of children, missing children. It says: "Have you seen me?" It's just a sort of throwaway -- you get it and you don't really look at it. And I was looking at it on the walk back from the mailbox, and I thought: "What if there was a guy who got one of these and one of the pictures started to talk to him and say 'I was killed and I'm buried here in this location or that location, in a gravel pit or stuffed into a culvert ...'"? And I thought: "You know, a guy like that, who could find bodies, would be under a lot of suspicion from the police. And there's a story there.

Now, that's messed up.  But, interesting, right?  I mean, that's not a bad story idea, right there.  But it's still messed up.  King always calls such moments his "What If?" moments.

I've had these moments.  Not to the same degree, of course.  (Or to the same benefit.)  But these are indeed very cool moments.

Writers speak differently, too, because they think differently--and, hopefully, we've all learned to think before we speak.  Here's what he said about having too many good story ideas at once:

In the old days, it would seem like ideas were crammed in like people in an elevator. And my head was sometimes a very noisy place to be.

Now that's a great comparison!  I'm going to bet that your average intelligent person (the question of whether the average person is intelligent is a different conversation) wouldn't be able to have that thought or explain it in quite that way.  And, by the way, he's right: This is exactly how that feels.  To this I would add the extended metaphor that, when the small elevator gets too crowded with ideas, the elevator gets stuck between floors.  At least, mine does.  They're all so busy pushing and jostling everyone aside to get to the front, closer to the doors, that nobody ever presses any buttons, and the damn elevator can't move.

And what happens when all these ideas come at you, but you're busy working on something that's going very well?

The other thing that happens with that is, say you're working on something and it's going along pretty well, and two or three ideas occur, and they're all yelling "You should write this! You should write this!" It's almost like being married and all of a sudden your life is full of beautiful women. You have to stay faithful to what you're working on. But it can be uncomfortable.

Again, just not a thought, comparison, or verbal explanation that most people would have.  And, again, he's perfectly right.  My problem is that I've "cheated" and, sometimes, I've just run away from all of them, because there was just too many.  This is why novels take years and years...

To be continued, in another blog entry, in a couple of days...

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Black Chaos 2 and "The Zombie's Lament" Now Available!

Black Chaos II is on the way!  You can get my story--"The Zombie's Lament"--and 24 other great zombie stories for just $4.99 on Kindle and other devices.
The e-book versions are currently up for pre-order at Smashwords and Amazon. The print edition also will be available directly from Big Pulp and through any bookstore.  Links to those will follow.
Please support me by sharing this message and the links on your blog or Facebook page.  Thanks!
The premise of my story: It's about a guy who loses the love of his life, gets bitten in the face by a zombie, and tries to apologize to his beloved before he turns--or dies. 


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Another Sherlock Holmes -- The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Photo: Book's front and back cover, from

A good Dan Simmons book, though not one of his best (Drood and The Terror are that), The Fifth Heart has a lot going for it, and not too much against it--depending on the reader's level of patience and tolerance.

It's a lot of things, perhaps too many.  It's a thriller in a potboiler vein--like Conan Doyle's work.  (He's often mentioned but never seen.)  It's a mystery of rich people's manners and mannerisms--a la Henry James, perhaps the book's main character.  It's a mystery of deduction and induction--a la Sherlock Holmes, the book's other main character.  It's a historical adventure, like Simmons' Drood and The Terror.

But--and here's where the reader's patience and tolerance comes in--it's also a pseudo-metaphysical work, one that has the characters very self-aware, and pondering their reality: Are they themselves, or are they characters?  The one failure of all this to me is that the characters remain surprisingly productive and un-neurotic despite these philosophical quandaries.  We know that Holmes is a character, but the conceit of the novel is that he is not: He's a real person, and so is Dr. Watson.  Arthur Conan Doyle is nothing more than the editor of Dr. Watson's unfortunately melodramatic scribblings of Sherlock Holmes's adventures.  (Conan Doyle and Watson--both never seen--get a lot of verbal abuse from the many characters.)  The reader has to swallow this.

The reader is also forced to swallow the occasional interruptions of a first-person I / omniscient-writer narrator who never fully shows himself.  Is it Simmons?  Conan Doyle?  Watson?  Or someone else entirely?  It's never definitively shown; the question, in fact, is shied away from.  But we, the reader, are supposed to wonder about it, which seems to be the purpose: to cause philosophical wonder.  This is a drastic break of the fourth wall / suspension-of-disbelief, and so it needs the reader's tolerance. 

This last bit struck me as unnecessary.  The philosophical ponderings of existence, of character / person, of reality, and of unreality are all over this book, so we don't really need the intrusive first-person narrator break.  It's too much. 

Another unwanted intrusion is the much-more-rare Dan Simmons statements.  This single-handedly ruined Flashback, which was really just one long Dan Simmons diatribe.  He really tones it down here.  But you can catch a few times that he elbows his character aside for a moment so he can speak directly to the reader.  The most blatant of these was when Simmons makes his characters talk about the Pledge of Allegiance that apparently came from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  Simmons actually makes a character ask if anything interesting came of a certain meeting between characters.  That question is answered by bringing up the Pledge.  Another character says how barbaric it is to make students say it, and Holmes himself says that making them do so is something that would happen in Germany.  This is a constant Simmons break: He says something disparaging about the American education system as often as he can, in any book.  And so he does here.

However, at the end, this book is a good distraction--which Simmons himself seems to realize, as he constantly has characters refer to badly-written but entertaining mystery-thrillers, clearly referring to himself and to his own book.  This book, like its characters, is very, very aware of itself.  Dan Simmons is always hovering in the shadows over every page, his tongue in his cheek, pleasantly aware and happy about his own literary magic trick.

If you have the tolerance to handle these breaks--which are not as avant-garde as Simmons seems to think they are--then chances are good you'll enjoy the book.  It is as meticulously researched as Simmons's historical novels always are, often to the point of approaching info-dump.  The characters are amusing, though distinct--so much so that you'll wonder why their married or friendly with each other.  The characters had all been real people, and they all get knocked around a bit verbally by the other characters and by Simmons himself.  Samuel Clemens, John Hay, Conan Doyle, President Cleveland, and especially Henry James all get some chiding, some of it quite heavy.  You'll learn more than you'd probably want about the 1893 Columbian Expedition (read Erik Larson's book about that, too), about the horse-drawn carriages of the time, about Mark Twain's foolish financial disasters, and about train schedules.

It all works somehow, and you'll feel like you're really there.  Whether you're able to get back there after the author intrusions and first-person fourth-wall breaks is a big question.  I was able to again suspend my disbelief, but only mostly, and only barely, while watching for the next unwanted and unappreciated break of that wall.  It didn't ruin it for me, but I could understand how it might for somebody.

I still recommend that you try.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Indiana Pizzeria Says NO to Gay Customers

Photo: Indiana Pizzeria Tells Local News Station They Won’t Serve Same-Sex Marriages. Provided by The Wrap at the link below.

If you knew about the new "religious protection" law in Indiana, then you knew this was going to happen.  An article by Jordan Chariton, of The Wrap, from a link on my page:

A local Indiana ABC station spoke to a pizzeria Tuesday night who will not serve to same-sex marriages after the Indiana law was passed.

"If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no," Memories Pizza owner Crystal O'Connor told ABC 57. "We are a Christian establishment."
O'Connor said the business is not discriminating against anybody, but she and her family has her beliefs and other people are entitled to their own.
"We definitely agree with the bill," she added, saying she doesn't think the bill targets gays or discriminates but instead protects businesses like hers who have a religious belief.
ABC also spoke to her father: "That's a lifestyle that you choose, I choose to be heterosexual, they choose to be homosexual--why should I be beat over the head because they choose that lifestyle?"
The business said if a gay couple stepped into their business, they wouldn't deny them service--they just wouldn't cater their wedding.
The company's Yelp Page--which has a one-star rating--is being besieged with critical comments: "I look forward to the day when Memories Pizza is just that- a DISTANT LONELY MEMORY," one reviewer wrote.
Me, again. 

First of all, who has tons of pizza catered to their wedding?  I don't remember that being an option for any of the receptions I've ever been to.  Not the point here, obviously.  I'm just sayin'.

Secondly, if you've read this blog before, you probably know where I stand on this issue.  We'll see if the pizzeria's stance is legal when the Indiana lawmakers, including the governor, amend the wording of the law--which they promised this week they will do.  Until then, expect more of this.

Update from 4.3.2015: The same paper says that Crystal O'Connor had been hit with such a barrage of criticism and negative publicity that she has had to temporarily close down her business.

Looks like she's not serving heterosexuals, either.