Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Spite Is a Shallow Well

I write this from Portland, Oregon, where the majority of my writing community lives. I was here for a trio of excellent events: a concert, a film screening, and a conversation at Powell's. Luck that the first two were 24 hours apart; guided luck that the third occurred soon after. 

The conversation was between me and Shawn Levy, a fairly eminent biographer of famous actors who happens to be in my Portland friend group. (Not the Canadian director of the same name.) He was fresh from the clusterfuck of Burning Man 2023, but we had a good conversation nonetheless. I sold and signed a bunch of books and gave away a bunch of handmade chapbooks. Folks asked engaged questions and I had fun. 


To promote this event, a local TV station in Portland interviewed me. That clip is here. I thought the segment was happening because of Shawn, so the fact that they never mentioned him surprised me and stroked my ego quite tenderly. I don't know if it brought anyone in to Powell's for the event, but it did notch up the markers of eminence I can claim as a writer: sold books to strangers, was recognized by reputation during group reading event, appeared on TV to promote book. 


And it was part of the general cascade of good news that has drenched me since the release of Junk Film. It's continuing to discover new readers and (important distinction) new corners of readership. I feel happiness about this, but I also feel a particular emotion that surely has a German word attached to it: the fulfillment of spite. 

I wrote previously about reaching the end of the line on a book of essays (although I haven't, in fact; it's out again to two more presses), and mentioned that I did reach that point on JF. The rejections I got for it weren't as numerous as for Ceremonials and the essay collection - not even in the same neighborhood - but they were painful anyway because I homed in on suitable presses so carefully. And yes, I'm still obsessing over the agent rejection I got in 2021, the person who told me a big press wouldn't take the book. Perhaps they wouldn't've, but this book has proven it has an audience, and the money being made by Castle Bridge and by me - she could've had a piece of that. 

Agents always gamble, in rejecting as well as accepting; it's the nature of the job. She was always going to be the wrong agent for the book if she couldn't see its potential. These are the reasonable reactions to how events have unfolded. The unreasonable reaction is


(couldn't get Blogger to center this!) and that is increasingly how I'm feeling about it, as I get incredible, unexpected emails from people who want to work with me or the book goes through cycles of selling copies on Amazon every time I appear on a podcast. You coulda had a bad bitch. Maybe at some point I'll grow up enough to stop feeling that way, but I'll be 42 in just over a month, so...probably not. 

This is the part where I turn my personal lesson into an overarching writing lesson. I think it's not a bad thing to be motivated partially by spite, and to feel an ugly, satisfied thrill when that spite works out for you. But it's a bad way to live your entire artistic life. You've got to find a deeper well than that. The shallow well works when you're writing a CV or a book proposal and you have to let your ego out on the page, but the deeper well has to remain accessible for when you write the next book. 

The other thing is, life happens the way it happens. Wishing it would've or could've happened another way is not as fruitful as working with the way it did. In my case, that means analysis of what "the way it did" has to teach me as well as simply counting the blessings of it. 

Appropriately, I have a bounty of other good news. I can't share any of it; nothing is finished enough to be an announcement. I can tell you that I'll be on the Dana Gould Hour again, soonish, to talk about my book. And about the inimitable Ormonds, filmmakers of, consecutively, exploitation films and religious films in the two epochs of their lives. I recorded something like six or seven podcasts in August and they're trickling out over time. 

Oh, but there is news that I want to share as far and wide as possible: I'm co-editing an anthology of Millennial writing and art on the 1982 film Poltergeist. General submissions open in October. More info about that project is here, including a link to sign up for our newsletter so you'll know the moment we open subs. 

Lots of changes coming in the spring. I hope you'll stick around until then. 

Friday, June 2, 2023

The End of the Line

 

Almost three years ago, in late 2020, I finished the final essay in a collection of them that I'd been working on since around 2015. I started shopping the full manuscript in early 2021. The essays, nine of them, are hybrid: they contain creative nonfiction, film criticism, fiction, and various textual strategies (collage, list, diagrams). I know that my work in this book is rare and I know it's good. 

I've sent the manuscript to sixteen presses, not counting the half-dozen presses and scattering of agents I pitched with a proposal. All have rejected it (except the two who are currently In Progress on Submittable, along with the ones who never got back to me). 

I chose these outlets carefully. I wanted:

  • presses that routinely submitted to book awards, because I think this is an awards-type book. 
  • presses with a history of publishing bold hybrid work, because I knew I'd encounter fewer editorial obstacles when working with folks who knew what my manuscript was doing. 
  • presses that had had at least one hit book (covered by major critical outlets or sold well, one or the other), because just in case my book was a hit, I wanted a press that had experience with that. 
  • presses that didn't publish mostly white men. 
  • should be obvious, but presses that hadn't been determined to be fraudulent or run by shitty people, per Writer Beware and my own whisper network. 
  • presses that accepted unsolicited/unagented manuscripts, whether through open reading periods, contests, or an open-door policy. Because I don't have an agent and I think I've exhausted the relevant favors my network owes me. 

When I sifted the gigantic list of presses I'm aware of through the mesh screen of these priorities, it narrowed out my choices to a couple dozen presses. And I've submitted to nearly all of them over the last two and a half years. So I've almost reached that dreaded place: the end of the line. 

Both of my previous books also reached this place. For Ceremonials, the criteria included a press that'd publish a very short prose manuscript as a book, which is harder to find than you'd think, and with Junk Film, the list of presses that wants such a particular kind of nonfiction is shorter than I'd ever imagined. For Ceremonials, only complaining about the manuscript on Twitter led me (miraculously!) to the right press, and for Junk Film, I decided to work with someone I knew and liked, even though his press had different priorities than I had envisioned, rather than keep trying to sell the book to a dwindling list of possibles for another year or two. 

These were harder decisions than they sound like in that practical little paragraph. The despair I felt at the end of the line on Ceremonials was mammoth. It took me months, and a wholescale rethinking of my trajectory as a writer, to mentally accept the conclusion I came to with JF. In both cases, these were the right choices, and my reservations proved totally unimportant in the end. But it could've gone the other way. With two other projects I won't specify, it did, and I suffered heartbreak and hard lessons. 

I'm writing this post because the end of the line is a hard, lonely place to be as a writer with a worthy manuscript. I want to offer sympathy, but also options, based on what I did with the prior books and what I'm doing next with my hybrid essay manuscript. 

One option that's always available is to give up, either temporarily or permanently. As Gus tells Tina, 

"Quitting is liberating, and could be the way to go."

Maybe you don't quit being a writer, or give up on the manuscript entirely; maybe you set the manuscript aside for a while and try to find a home for it later. Maybe you write another book, an easier one to publish. I firmly believe that opportunities come up at the time they're supposed to, especially in writing. So if you haven't had success at chasing down those opportunities, sit for a minute and see if they arrive on their own schedule. Success at publishing a project doesn't always have a lot to do with how worthy the project is, and giving up temporarily or permanently can be about time, place, and available opportunity rather than writing quality. 

Another option is to ask around. Go to AWP and visit press booths. Go to readings. Join writers' groups on Facebook. Look at the spines of books that resemble yours to see if you've missed any presses in your research. This might be very frustrating advice to some of you - it would be for me, as I'm very tuned in to the small press world and do not need help finding presses - but for others it might be the window to a new round of submissions. 

The third option is to change your standards/priorities/criteria for presses. Right now, I'm leaning toward removing the "submits to awards" and "hit book" criteria from my list. This means I'd start from the top again: first I'd pitch the manuscript to friends who run presses, then to presses that know me from my time as a reviewer, and then cold-submitting. I already did that process for this book to presses that met all the above criteria, so I'd have to do it again once some of the criteria have been eliminated. 

A strategy related to this option is to shift your goals for the eventual book. My initial goal with a manuscript is always to sell half a million copies and win a MacArthur Genius Grant. As I gather up rejections, that goal shortens and narrows. The end of the line is the place where the goal shrinks to bring this book into the world. For some books I've written, that goal is not sufficient for how far I think the manuscript can go. The urban fantasy book, for instance, would find a great home on the Barnes & Noble SFF shelf, and I'm sure that goal is reachable, so I'm not going to submit to presses that won't suit that goal. I won't lower the goal for that manuscript to bring it into the world, because I don't think that's enough. 

For this hybrid essay manuscript, I'm almost, but not quite, at the point where I need to decide if my goal is going to shrink any further. It started out enormous, and now it's reasonable, and I really don't know if I want to make it smaller. I have to decide within the next couple of months, after the final two presses respond. 

I'm not quite at the end of the line for this book just yet; these last two presses have it, and after that I still have some options, even if they aren't ideal. But I remember the sensation I'm feeling right now from both of the prior books - the mentally looking around at an emptied room that was once bustling with possibilities. It's almost time to close the door on that room and open a different one. 

I will weather it, because it's my job to do so, but it would be a mistake to minimize how difficult this process is. You feel helpless, and angry, and sad, and indignant, and maudlin. You feel the train coming to a gradual stop, the stuff that was whizzing by now moving so slowly that you could put your head out the window without any danger at all. It's frustrating to be moving like that, not able to accelerate or hit the brakes yourself. 

Toot toot. 


Tuesday, May 2, 2023

JUNK FILM DROPS TODAY!

Today, my third book releases: Junk Film, the product of about five years of research and writing about bad movies. Aside from this obvious fantastic news, I've had a streak of bad days and annoying problems lately, so I'm a little distracted. Trying to focus on the positive and be happy about the book being out. So far I've heard nothing but joy from friends who've received it and/or read it, and I'd like to think those trends will continue. 

Consider this a placeholder for a post later in the week where I share the related stuff that's going up this week (a piece in the Economist, unbelievably, which is previewed below; a podcast episode; an interview in a Kansas City paper; something in LARB related to another topic but which I suspect will sell books anyway). In the meantime, if you haven't bought the book, go here to do so. Amazon is bad for indie presses, but can be good for indie authors, who don't necessarily have other distribution channels. For this book, Amazon is the place to buy. 


Click to embiggen


I'm going to be doing watch-alongs to promote the book, probably one per month for the rest of the year, and the first one will be After Last Season on May 18. Stay tuned! 

stitched by me, designed by someone else

Monday, February 27, 2023

Bounce Back Strong

Half-jokingly, I've been calling 2022 my year of rest and relaxation. I spent a lot of days last year unable to get out of bed until after 9, even when I woke hours earlier. I spent a lot of afternoons dozing on the couch to reruns of a show I know by heart. My inbox had somewhat fallen asleep, too; I submitted things now and then, got solicited for things occasionally, but for most days of most weeks, nothing came in or went out.

this blog post is not to be construed as an endorsement of this book or its author

Most of the big stuff I do as a writer is early in the year. A book prize I read for is mostly active in January; AWP is in March; and the time-consuming work I do for a residency committee is largely in April. Everyone will tell you that publishing is least active during the summer, and fall is so frantic that I have no interest in ever publishing a book then, or really in doing anything else notable as a writer. 

Last year, once AWP and the mini-tour I did for the Plan 9 book were over, I found myself idle, and I couldn't rustle up any motivation to break the inertia. In late summer I researched for the novel I'm trying to write. That occupied me for a little while, but it wasn't a reason to get out of bed. Nor did I/do I yet have a significant schedule or deadline for anything related to that book, so there was no rush. 

In all, I'd say that I did very little of significance for about seven months of 2022, nonconsecutively. 

I can't complain about this, per se. What most Americans wouldn't give for that kind of leisure - to have nothing pressing to do for half the year. My therapist wasn't worried. But I was. It seemed unnatural not to produce anything for such a long period of time, to find myself with no logical argument for spending the day upright instead of horizontal. And I felt vaguely, minimally unhappy. Not much, not to a clinical point, but like a narrow vein of obsidian in an otherwise buff-colored stone. Something was wrong. 

There's more for me to think and say about all this looking back than there was as it happened. I kept checking and couldn't find mental illness at the root of all this, but I'm still a bit suspicious, because the behavior ticks a few boxes for depression. A thing that occurred in late 2021 harmed and affected me a lot more than I realized at the time, and those effects reverberated in my disposition for most of the next year. (Curious, in fact, how it took exactly a year for the effects to start to fall away, one by one, in succession.) Some of how I justified my inactivity was rebellion against the capitalistic work structure, and some was that I was intensely resting after a period of intense physical activity (while I worked at the barn). Still more was that I watched movies almost every day, which counted as work for a film critic, even if the movies weren't attached to a particular project. 

My year of rest and relaxation was probably sustained by all these reasons in different quantities. It didn't feel good while it was going on, but like any not-so-good experience, now I know what that feels like, and can recognize it if it ever shows up again. Plus, the rest fueled me to bounce back strong. 

Which I think I can safely say is what's happening now. February has been bonkers, full of opportunities and heartbreak and frustration and celebration, but particularly the past week has given me the feeling that I've come back to life. My inbox is hopping. My list of responsibilities is extensive enough to be written out instead of remaining in my head. The interactions I'm having with fellow writers sparkle and hum. I have ideas for books again. The feeling of dark dormancy, the heavy nadir of motivation, has lifted. 

Not gonna lie, I'm pretty sure my work with X-R-A-Y is the biggest part of the change. My book publicity machine having to start churning has helped, too, because it's forced me to take some action instead of staring at the wall, but X-R-A-Y has given me a purpose, a set of daily activities, I simply didn't have for most of last year. In joining the team there, it feels like I reached up very slowly and weakly for a handhold, and what I seized conveyed me out into the sun from a room I didn't even realize was dark. 

Which brings me to the carnival-barking portion of this post. I'm teaching the very first class X-R-A-Y is offering, ever, and you can sign up for it right now, if you'd like. It's on a Sunday afternoon next month. Payment slides from $75 down to $25, and if you as a writer are stuck in the mud (kinda the way I was last year, in fact), this is a great way to get unstuck. Hence the name of the workshop. 


Also, if you are headed to AWP, I hope to see you kind of generally, but I also hope to see you at one of the two readings I'll be attending. The first one, on Wednesday, I'll be a reader; the second one, I'll be handing out promo stuff for X-R-A-Y and probably myself too. 

reading at this one

attending this one

See you there. XOXO

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

On Lars von Trier and Leviathan

In grad school, I elected to write a literature paper about Paul Auster's Leviathan. I came to class ready to discuss the novel, certain I'd understood what Auster was getting at, only to learn of the existence of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and to hear how Auster was reflecting that pivotal work. I sat there for a while, listening, and then raised my hand and explained that I'd believed the leviathan of the title was a sea monster, i.e. the whale that swallowed Jonah, and that allegorically that monster was a national fear and despair lurking under the scrim of American life in the late 20th century. No matter how wrong the class lecture told me I was, I still thought this was a valid theory of the novel. The professor, bless her heart, encouraged me to write my final paper on this theory. And I did. 

In my reading, the leviathan is a societal force. It resembles a beast of the deep, in that it is invisible, massive, and dangerous. It is large enough to gulp its victims without even stretching its jaws. The leviathan, this societal force, is the loss of identity suffered by the Baby Boomers when they discovered their failure to make lasting change, and it’s their dawning realization of mortality.

(me, 2014) 

I was embarrassed that I'd missed the point Auster had built into the book, but as I researched and wrote the paper, I came to believe that my point of view - although informed by contemporary ideas and influences rather than those of a classical Western education - was valid, too. I wrote about Vietnam, the atomic bomb, and President Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech. I got an A, as I recall. 

*

Lars von Trier first caught my eye in the early aughts with Dancer in the Dark. Good God did I hate that movie. I was young, and obsessed with Björk, and utterly infuriated that the bad guy won and the good girl lost. And while I understood what von Trier was getting at by shooting lush, stationary musical numbers vs. stark, wobbly handheld real life, it didn't keep me from being annoyed by the handheld sections. 

Some years later, everyone went on and on about Melancholia, so I saw it. My favorite part was the tableaux that open the film: slomo textures and painterly colors, in weird scenarios, flawlessly composed. The whole wedding section, shot in handheld not-great DV, I could not make head or tail of; why would he shoot something so ugly and annoying and dragged-out when he could provably make such beautiful pictures? The third section was more comprehensible, but still puzzlingly long and odd. 

More years passed. In 2021, I noticed while browsing Kanopy that both volumes of Nymphomaniac were available, and I had a strong guess that they wouldn't be for long, so I watched them. Snap. Everything fell into place. I don't know if it's because I'd watched Funny Games (2007) and absolutely loved it, reframing my sense of what extremity in film does and how it works, or because I'd simply gotten older, but I found Nymphomaniac a profound work, and a necessary one. One of those films that stretches cinema beyond entertainment, that makes itself a text to pore over. And that it was an extreme film, a blasphemous film, was part of its intellectual intentions! Oh, this trolling Dane, how I suddenly admired him. 

Deciding to start fresh, I watched Breaking the Waves, von Trier's breakthrough and still probably his most well-regarded film. It opened up my understanding of his reputation, and confirmed what I thought he was up to, but I didn't connect to it as much. 

Yesterday I watched The House that Jack Built. This review warned me away from it, but that review is wrong, I believe, and falls exactly into the trap that von Trier has set for the viewer. 

VERGE: 
No. No, no, no! You're constantly trying to manipulate me. 
And with children, the most sensitive subject of all.


Don't let him manipulate you! I want to shout at Richard Brody. See past your emotional reflex and turn on your brain. 

The central juxtaposition of House is violent death as an art form. Jack says this himself, repeatedly, trying to convince Verge that his project is to make art from murder. Verge insists that art springs from love. (Verge is Virgil, the greatest poet of antiquity, and Jack is a serial killer. Who would seriously believe von Trier positions Jack to win the argument?) 

I recognized that the sacred (art) is the profane (violent death) in this film. I had previously hypothesized that Nymphomaniac intended to make a saint out of the title character: a saint of sex, someone for whom sex is an all-encompassing, glorified pursuit. (She even has a wound that refuses to heal!) The conversation between Joe and Seligman is a religious debate, about fishing and sex and God and love and life itself; it's a debate between extremes - the debauched and the pure - but what's pure and what's debauched shifts over the course of the film. In Dancer in the Dark, an absolute innocent commits a brutal murder (and the most luscious visuals exist in the mind of the blind woman). In Melancholia, Justine's depression debilitates her, but she is also voluntarily in thrall to it - in love with her own sorrow. In Breaking the Waves, God gives Bess a mandate to commit sin. 

I started to see von Trier's project as crashing together two abstract ideas that it would be blasphemous (literally or culturally) to consider in the same breath. Sex and death is an old, easy collision for film, but sex and saintliness? Innocence and violence? He's doing extreme cinema, but the characters' behavior - the sex and violence, in graphic detail - is a ruse. The extremity is in putting together ideas that have traditionally remained far apart, in considering them as reflections of each other. It's sort of Hegelian, and sort of deconstructionist, but (impishly and) productively so, in a way that doesn't leave the deconstructor with a vacant lot. 

Yet. 

As ever when I have ideas like this, where I think I've figured out what makes challenging art hang together, I remember Leviathan. Someone else has probably figured out the metronome of this art, and it's probably a more classical rhythm than I could recognize. Not knowing Hobbes, that day, will haunt me forever. 

Then again, I found support in the text and in other scholarly articles for my theory of Auster's novel. I argued that theory successfully, in my own small context. 


Photoshopped pic of Lars von Trier in a contorted position, his F U C K knuckle tattoo clearly visible
Lars von Trier in a promo photo for The House that Jack Built. Knuckle tattoo is not pshopped


At the end of all this thinking and developing, I don't want to look up the prevailing theory of von Trier's cinema. I don't want to learn that I'm either parroting an established idea or that I'm dead wrong. I'd rather hang out here, where I semi-privately think I have a good idea that helps me understand a challenging group of artworks. I don't want to be Pauline Kael, so idiosyncratic that she can't really be trusted. As a critic I try never to lead with my ego or my unique reactions - otherwise I'd gush about Gothic literature and melodramas, insist that Shutter Island is better than Goodfellas. I know better than to confuse those preferences with informed criticism. 

On whose authority am I right or wrong about Lars von Trier, anyway? Yours? His? Richard Brody's? Please. A consensus about art is fragile and temporary. I'd like to know about that consensus, and perhaps be informed by it, but being part of it doesn't sound appealing. 

So I shall declare that I loved The House that Jack Built, and that I think von Trier is much less of a troll than he is creating art via unusual variants on thesis/antithesis. There's some trolling, sure, but not the malignant kind. Around 2005, he said a film should be like a stone in your shoe, and no matter how hard I squint, I can't find a way to disagree with that sentiment. 

Friday, September 9, 2022

Desire Paths

Recently, I spent about a week writing a short story set in the imagined West. It integrated Lovecraft mythos (or, so as not to invoke the name of a hilariously antisemitic and inadequate prose stylist, cosmic horror). This mix of genres is known as "weird West." 

I've been wanting to write a Western for some years now. I'm (increasingly) in love with the genre, particularly with how its environment is quite precise but its manifestations are nigh infinite. That is, the imagined West is a desert place, usually but not always in America in the late 19th century, with saloons and fast guns and horses and leather. Within that, you have certain character types: villain, antihero, innocent, Othered enemy. You have big, vague forces: the Law, modernity, temptation, Mother Nature, money, grief, the shadowy past. But you can mix and match any number of other elements. Gender and race can be whatever. Technology can be anachronistic, if you want. (Neo-Westerns have an even more flexible set of characteristics!) Because no one really believes the imagined West is factual, it can be molded to the story you want to tell. That's why the weird West is such a fertile blend: Cthulhu slides into the setting with ease. 

While trying to overcome anxiety about the Casablanca novel (I have added a decent number of words to it over the past month, but I might have bitten off more than I'd like to chew with the historicity), I wrote this story, based on an idea of Matt's about two opposing characters who both accept supernatural favors on one particular night in a silver mining town. I had so much fun writing it, and I broke a bunch of my own rules of revision, including reading today's words today (you gotta let 'em sit!) and submitting the day after I finished a draft (YOU GOTTA LET IT SIT!). 

The submission was rejected almost immediately. This was part of the feedback, edited to keep from spoiling the story: 

"...the opening scenes lacked a bit of tension. I think if I had more insight earlier on into the narrative stakes (such as what [x] in first scene could mean, or what [y] could signal), there would have been a bit more of the urgency I needed." 

Let's be clear. I'm quoting and unpacking this NOT because I'm wounded about a rejection. It was such fun to write this story that I felt rewarded as soon as I finished the draft, and I submitted it with a higher proportion than usual of I-want-someone-else-to-love-reading-this and less than usual of I-want-to-be-published. And, by now, I virtually never care about story rejections, because that's a numbers/persistence game, not personal or meaningful. 

I'm unpacking this feedback because I find it remarkably self-contradictory. In writing this story, I surrounded x and y with enigma so as to keep the reader reading, which, as Donald Maass taught me, is what tension is. How can a scene lack tension when it has enigma? If I'd explained what x and y meant on the first two pages, why on earth would you keep reading? 

It's possible that the first few pages didn't move quickly enough. It's possible that the rejecter misspoke, and meant "lacked a bit of clarity," not tension. But, based on my experience of rejections over the past five years, I think it's more likely that the rejecter didn't know what they meant. I think it's likely that the rejecter didn't like or even notice the sentences (which is part of what I enjoyed most about the first two pages: polishing the sentences until they rambled and rolled like a bowlegged sheriff), and wanted the story to move faster, to jam plot in immediately. 

Sentences matter more than plot to me, but that's exactly why I haven't done very well with my genre fiction. It might not be the root of this rejection - I am not stupid enough to think this story is perfect, nor single-minded enough to think it's perfect for this market - but I suspect it is. 

This rejection is the latest in a whole catalog of occurrences that are making me rethink, altogether, what I want out of a writing career. It bookends the first item in the catalog: an agent rejection for my bad-film book, which I got sometime in 2021. The agent didn't think the book had major-press possibilities. The way she explained this to me, I got the message: she is an agent who makes big deals, not little deals, and she didn't think she could sell the book as a big enough package to make it worth her time. I respected this, but it also surprised me, because I know how many copies make a bestseller and I know the size of the bad film/cult film audience. But I'm not a major critic, I'm not cruel, and the book doesn't have little bite-sized essays, so you'd have to market it pretty carefully. 

Hmm. Okay. So, I used this feedback to rejigger my expectations and I queried smaller or specialty presses for the book. A year & many rejections later, I've finally contracted the book to a terrific indie press, Castle Bridge Media, and I'm thrilled to be working with them. But I really did think this book was going to go to a big press. The result isn't a disappointment, but it's a different path, an alteration in the trajectory I thought I was creating with my first two books. 

I thought the idea was to step up and step up until I had an agent and a comfortable contract/series of contracts. I thought I'd edit and write reviews until I had a book or film column. I never thought I'd make a living wage by writing alone, but I did think I'd be able to stop hustling, stop hanging my own slate and instead have people or objects (publicists, agents, my own recognizable name) to do that work for me. 

These are the ideas I'm rethinking altogether: the ladder, the progression, the comfort, the reliance on others. None of them have come to pass, even though I've jumped through many of the necessary hoops. 

My friend Dave Housley has been running Barrelhouse for many years, and he has published seven books. I don't think he has an agent at the moment, and he's never brought a book out with a major press (although he has with big indies). Writers of many types and sizes know and respect him as a community-builder and a good dude. He's held a day job unrelated to writing all this time, and I doubt anything about his life or work is going to change. I don't even know if he wants it to. He keeps writing and making what he wants, and plunging himself up to his elbows into writerly community and working, and he doesn't have to be a hotshot to do those things. 

I'm wondering if this is a preferable model for my writing. Should I stop thinking about remuneration more completely than I already have? Should I make things and trust that readers will show up somewhere along the line? Should I stop trying to build this thing like a city planner, and instead let my interests make desire paths wherever they want to go? 


I'm considering making my weird West story into a Kindle single type thing for 99 cents. That's where I'm at. I tried self-publishing in my 20s, with a (deliberate) ripoff of VC Andrews that I couldn't figure out how else to sell, and I failed at it and swore never to do it again. Now that I've got 15 years of experience on that writer, I'm thinking about breaking her oath. I don't want to submit this story for two years only to hear feedback that doesn't make sense, I don't want to trunk it until I finally have enough genre stories for a collection (...it'll be a while), I don't want to rely on others who don't understand my work to promote a story I can damn well promote myself. 

I want to put stuff into the world that I love, and help people discover it who will love it too. Doing that has been the goal all along, but it's always been complicated and ritualized and tediously reliant on gatekeepers. Now, it seems possible that I'm at a stage where for some parts of my work, I don't need or want to trade gatekeeping for greater prominence. I've watched a handful of acquaintances go through this and never thought it would be me. And, let's be clear, I could not have published Ceremonials or Plan 9 on my own, nor can I publish Junk Film or most of the manuscripts I'm shopping on my own. But this little weird West story? I think I can. And I think I might. 

I just need to let it sit a little longer. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

A Research Report

For the last six or seven weeks, I've been researching my next novel. I have not been quiet about the paths I've taken; on Twitter and Facebook I've been complaining, screenshotting paragraphs from books, and posting brief reviews of movies. I've also written about a few things I've learned. The actual book I'm writing isn't much of a secret among my writer friends, but I will be unspecific in this post. 

What I can be specific about is the time and place: Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Sweden, North Africa, London, and a bit of Lisbon and the former Czechoslovakia. This means I needed to learn a basic outline of events in World War II - more than I learned in high school, anyway - and, in much more detail, what daily life was like. What people wore, ate, read, listened to, talked about, did in those regions during those years. Were there refrigerators? Cars? Deodorant? Fashion magazines? The war impacts all this, of course, but even establishing a baseline for daily life, before any crisis began, was a challenge. 

(In this post, I am going to use not-the-obvious terms for the German government during the mid-twentieth century, for search engine reasons. I'm not denying or soft-pedaling anything; I am not a supporter of that government or its ideals!!!; I just don't want certain audiences who Google horrible shit for the wrong reasons to find this post.) 

I'm a poor researcher, I'll be the first to admit, but I did not want to commit anachronisms or be caught flat-footed, partway through a draft, without an activity for my characters to do or the right kind of food for them to eat. So I started finding books to read. 

Sweden, the Swastika, and Stalin by John Gilmour

This was the toughest one (soooooo drrryyyyyy), and possibly the most useful. It taught me the broad outlines of the war's progression and to expect huge differences between the nations in attitudes toward the war. That has served me well. For Sweden, the safety of the people was absolutely paramount, way above worry about how history would judge the leaders' actions, shows of strength, or sticking to a particular moral certainty. That priority was hard for me to get my head around. It was good I started there, though, because this book 

And the Show Went On by Alan Riding

was even more challenging (although in its particulars, a very good read). For France, national culture was paramount, above concern about how its populace would cope, and far, far above historical judgment. America's culture is so exportable and reproducible that it took a lot of squinting to figure this out as a priority. Also notable in France was how easily the elderly leaders capitulated, how their concessions and waiting-and-seeing contradicted what younger people wanted and believed (whether they were resistance-minded or not). I think these men, many of whom served in the prior war, believed this would pass, that the German threat simply was not worth digging trenches and making shells, again. Their nearness to sunset likely had a lot to do with this perspective. Food for thought in 2022 America. 


Round Up the Usual Suspects by Aljean Harmetz

This book was helpful for a bunch of reasons, but it was also fun to read because it was full of Jack Warner stories. For those who don't know, Jack Warner, who held absolute power at Warner Bros. for nearly half a century, is legendary for his monstrousness. He was a greedy, single-minded tyrant - but an unbiased one, treating everyone on earth equally terribly. Plus, he was almost always right, which makes him a prime-cut Hollywood monster. I also learned a handful of surprising (and sad) facts about refugees in Hollywood in the 1940s. The author kept returning to the differences in American film production between the 1940s and the 1990s (when the book was written), which I found bitter and needless. 


Liberty Lady by Pat DiGeorge

I was surprised at this book, which is self-published history, but was smoothly and tensely written, carefully researched, and fascinating in its own right even though it's about the author's parents. It gave me good information about Stockholm during the war. Self-published history is like Vogon poetry in reputation, but this is a strong book that I'd acquire if I were the editor of a history imprint. Which I never, ever will be. 

The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck

In my late teens and early 20s I was a Steinbeck fiend, and I'm pretty sure I read this book during that time and retained none of it. The reread was a pleasure. It's a beautiful piece of work, if a little sketchy (in the literary sense). Fun fact: even though it was written deliberately as propaganda, the Allies didn't like it for that purpose, because it "humanized" the enemy. Citizens of occupied nations, however, loved it, and took guerilla publishing measures to get it into as many hands as possible. They knew, because they lived under occupation, that a cartoon enemy is neither accurate nor helpful. 

(To be clear: what Steinbeck does in this book is one hundred percent different than what the New York Times has done with its humanizing bullshit. Steinbeck won a Nobel, and the NYT is bothsidesing itself directly into sympathy with the devil.) 

I'm nearly out of books I should read and it's almost time to write, so while I wait for a couple of interlibrary loans, I've switched to movies, in the hope that some of them will have reasonably accurate period details. 


Poster for Taking Sides (2001)

This one is off to the side a bit in some ways, but the moral philosophy underlying it is right within my concerns. It's got some memorable scenes and situations, but it's a little tedious; Skarsgård is at full power, but Keitel is flashing a LOW BATT light. It also tugs at a thread I noticed across my reading: the punishment meted out to anyone affiliated with the former German government after 1945 was extremely inconsistent, from country to country and from person to person. Frenchmen who wrote occasional pandering articles were shot right away; Germans who did cruel, racist things to fellow human beings walked free. So it went in all nations touched by the war. It's an impossible task, of course, trying to figure out who deserves what. None of us is God. 


Poster for The King's Choice (2016)

Poster for The Last Sentence (2012)

These two were frustrating but helpful. (Both star Jesper Christensen, a Dane of great renown, but this is sheer coincidence.) The one is about the King of Norway's actions when Germans invaded in the spring of 1940, and the other is about a famous Swedish journalist who publicly, bitchily denounced the German regime from 1933-1945. The King's Choice was shot in all handheld, which annoyed me to no end, yet the acting, the personal dilemmas, and the period details were tremendous. It was clearly influenced by Downfall, but the story didn't propel itself as urgently as Downfall's did. Not a waste of time, but not as good as it thought it was. 

The Last Sentence had Bergman intentions and Dreyer austerity, but without the brilliance or flawed human core of either. Also, the DP did not understand how to make a black and white movie vs. a color movie with a black and white filter. But the content had direct bearing on the book I'm writing, more than any other save the one below, so I'm glad I watched it. 

Poster for Sami Blood (2016)

So far this is the only movie for research I can recommend without an asterisk (i.e. "if you're interested in Sweden during WWII" or similar). It was stunning, and for an American audience, it's a very unusual story. It did have major elision problems, but I credit the filmmaker for attacking them with sheer will rather than logical writing. Also, the last third of it took place in the very city/decade where a large portion of my book is set, so yay for that. 

Here are some other books and movies on my list: 

French poster for The Conspirators (1944)
not great

Prague in Black by Chad Bryant
nicer to read than expected but that only goes so far

We Are at War by Simon Garfield
totally awesome

Poster for Pimpernel Smith (1942)
sentimental, propagandistic hogwash that I enjoyed a great deal

This six or seven weeks has been quite a journey for me. I did not know I'd find World War II so fascinating, but I really, really do, in a way that will remind you of your dad or granddad if you ever set me talking about it. It seems from a distance as if it was a simple war, with binary choices and obviously divined motives, but it's not that at all; the middle ground has been far more populous than I expected. Plus I've learned so many amazing one-off facts. Like, for instance, the reason the Blitz on London was halted? Because it didn't work. The intention was to destroy the RAF, various manufacturing hotspots, and the morale of the people. It accomplished none of these things. The RAF turned out to be more skilled, with more maneuverable planes, than expected; manufacturing merely spread out to other parts of the country instead of remaining centralized and thus easily bombable; and, apparently, nothing can destroy the morale of the British people. I find that completely amazing. 

I've also learned that the "neutral" powers made a lot of collaborationist compromises; the dictator of Portugal was...kind of...unobjectionable? as a dictator?; Ingrid Bergman was a workaholic; Coco Chanel was a spy for the wrong side; and Czechoslovakia was horribly wronged, but it gave almost as good as it got in the end. And lots more. 

I hope I won't have to make another report like this, and that I can just write the damned book instead. But there's still a book on fashion, a book on interwar Britain, a book of Swedish statistics, and a giant book of James Agee reviews (570 pp) containing only one of use to me, all of which are either in my office or headed my way. So...we'll see whether I get this thing going for real by September, or not.