Testing, testing, one, two, three…

Today I’m testing out the website to see if I’ve linked it correctly to my author page on Facebook. I’ve been running around like a headless chicken trying to get the blog tour organized, so I’ve missed a week of posting, and I have nothing prepared. So I’m gonna use the author interview questions I filled out for my publisher, Vagabondage Press. A ready-made post ripe for maniacal internet experimentation. [insert insane chortling here]

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Okay, here goes:

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I used to write poems and stories from the moment, it feels like, that I was taught to read and write. I know I loved hearing stories read to me. When I was very young, my father put a chapbook together of poems I had written, and several years later when I was older, I went around another neighborhood (not my own) peddling the book for $1.00. I wore a cap that said, “Write On,” and went door to door, and I think I even got a few pity sales. Mostly I got confused smiles and strange looks from people. On a side note, it was summer, and at this point I’d been in gymnastics for several years and I was somewhat muscular for a 13-year-old. So they may have thought a weird boy was either selling them something or casing their houses for a robbery later. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-to-late teens that I realized that maybe I could actually write as an occupation.

Why do you write?

I guess I began reading obsessively and then writing as a way to escape, like a  lot of people do, for whatever reason. I was a mixed race child adopted by a black family and extremely shy and self-scrutinizing because of it. Later, the escape factor began to morph into something else; a love of words and sentence rhythm and images and ideas and philosophies. Finding creative ways to address the burden of being sentient but basically having no answers for anything, consciously or unconsciously, became an all-consuming goal.

 Is being a writer/poet anything like you imagined it would be?

Definitely not. In high school when we had to read “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” which Carson McCullers wrote at 23, I figured I could get published earlier than that. I wrote four novels in high school and had gotten lots of positive attention from teachers for my writing. Little did I know that when people said, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day,” that that was serious advice not to be taken lightly. So although I won a writing contest at UCLA when I was 19, I didn’t officially get published until my 30s, when I seriously started writing and submitting. Writing definitely takes a lot of consistent work and dedication and lots of alone time. I don’t mind the alone time. But it’s definitely a challenge finding “writing time.” Writing Time is like a real, separate thing, another dimension you have to enter and fearlessly occupy. You can’t go in there to window shop and twiddle your thumbs. You have to go in, tie yourself down, work, and then leave when the work is done.

What do you think makes a good story?

In my opinion, virtually any topic can make a good story. I think it all depends on the way it’s handled. For me, a story about someone going to the store to get ingredients to make dinner that night can be amazing if it’s written a certain way. So the actual words themselves are like a character in the story that makes or breaks the tale for me.

What’s your favorite genre to read?

I lean toward sci-fi/fantasy. I especially love time travel novels or something strange happening to the whole world and how characters handle it. End of the world stories are good except for the depressing part of the world coming to an end. But I enjoy seeing ordinary people being thrown into extraordinary circumstances and what happens to them. Probably because I know I wouldn’t make it past a few weeks if the world ended. I’m not a fighter, and I don’t think I could survive without Ibuprofen.

Who is your favorite author or poet?

It’s almost impossible to say there’s one favorite. But if I had to put one in the forefront, it would be T.C. Boyle and his short stories. I learned how to lighten up from Mr. Boyle and laugh a lot more, and I think his comical short stories are genius.

What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer?

Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” really left an impression on me, along with stories like “The Outsiders”, “Lord of the Flies,” “Bless the Beasts and the Children,” and “The House of Stairs.” All of these involved kids in some kind of dire circumstances and heavy emotional outcomes. I enjoyed the Judy Blumes and E.L. Konigsburgs of the world too but was definitely fascinated by darker topics. I mean, who can forget the descent into chaos and what happened to poor Piggy in Lord of the Flies?

What books or stories have most influenced you as a person?

I think all the above books influenced me as a person since there was some message or warning at the core of each that I received on some level, at least. Self-sacrifice, even if misguided or by accident, seemed to be a running theme behind many stories. An awareness of underdogs and their struggle for a rightful spot in the world resonated with me, probably because I thought of myself as an underdog who had been initially abandoned. As a kid, I absorbed the fact emotionally, later intellectually, that people are more or less one step away from reverting to animalistic behavior at any given moment. Me included, of course. Like I said, if everything came to an end, I’d probably be shoving old ladies aside in Costco while I tossed all the pain meds I could find into my backpack.

Where/how do you find the most inspiration?

Usually reading sparks inspiration; a thought or idea pushed to the surface from the story starts to take on its own life. Movies can be very inspirational, especially ones with beautiful cinematography or emotionally charged like “There Will Be Blood,” “Deliverance,” “Map of the Human Heart,” or “Apocalypse Now.”

What does your family think of your writing?

They’ve always been positive and supportive. But realistic. My mother suggested to me as a young adult that I should write romances to make money, then once I had money I could write what I wanted. At the time, I looked at her like she was completely insane, thinking nothing could be further beneath me than writing “romance.” When I look back now, naturally, I think that was sound advice. My father always says he’s going to win the lotto so I can quit my job and just write all day. I try not to read into that like he’s saying, “Hopefully, if you have more time to concentrate, you’ll get better at it.”
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

I know that Laura Ingalls Wilder talked about how she’d take care of the homestead, cook and clean, raise the kids, chase the chickens, put everyone to bed, and then maybe at 1:00 or 2:00  in the morning sit with a candle and do her writing. So I feel like a complete wuss saying that I generally have trouble finding the time to write with any kind of consistency. And forget writing with a pencil by candlelight. Or whatever Laura used. I need a computer and a bright light source. When I do write, though, if I’m just starting or at a point where I have to figure concepts or plot out, I isolate myself at home in the bedroom. Once it’s flowing and going well, I can take the laptop and write in the library for hours.
Do you have any writing quirks or rituals?

When I’m writing in the bedroom, I turn on a sound machine with white noise. It blocks out anything that’s happening around me so that I won’t be distracted. There’s a woman who lives behind us who enjoys walking around her apartment building for exercise while having loud conversations on her cell phone. If I hear her walking past my bedroom window, shouting into her phone, I have to close the window and turn up the white noise to full throttle. Her phone is so loud that I can hear the other person talking. That kind of thing drives me crazy. But in the other writing phase where everything’s working out, I could write on Mars during an asteroid storm and as long as I had enough oxygen, I’d get a lot of writing done.

 Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Following the maxim of  “less is more” can be challenging. Usually in rewrites I’m able to par down the unnecessary or redundant stuff.  But no Hemingway am I. I wrote a few stories where I tried to use more short, declarative sentences, and I enjoyed the process. More specifically, in the past, I had trouble writing male characters believably. I definitely think time and experience helped me outgrow that and now I believe I write male characters like they’re actually male and not some weird male/female hybrid or undefined asexual type.
What are your current projects?

I have a few short stories brewing, and in the meantime I’m mapping out the sequels for Day For Night. Although Day For Night is a standalone novel, there’s more to it, and I have to finish it. It’s like a compulsion.

 What are you planning for future projects?

I plan to novelize a sci-fi screenplay and hopefully after that turn it into a graphic novel. I won’t be doing the drawings, though. I can draw, but not that well, unfortunately. This is a fanciful hope for the unforeseen future, though.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Yeah. Try not to let the world suck you into its sticky, gooey center and trap you like a fly in a web. Extricate yourself somehow, and write. Find the time and do it. I personally don’t know about every day, but I know others do it. Every day sounds fantastic. More often than not sounds good too. Definitely don’t let it fall by the wayside if at all possible. Don’t let years slip through your fingers. You’ll regret it later. Hold on to writing like it’s your only child and don’t let it go.

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Heaven and Hell

 

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So here’s the thing about adoption and being adopted: it’s a mixed bag.

I was adopted when I was a year and a month old. I’ll elaborate on why over a year went by before I was snatched up by someone in another post, ’cause that’s a whole different arena.

Anyway, once you’re taken in by a family, if the people who adopted you clue you in early on, you basically go through most of your life with two opposing thoughts:

Boy, was I lucky that someone wanted me bad enough to bring me into their life.

Boy, was I unlucky that it had to come to that.

How does one hold “luck” in one hand and “unlucky” in the other and somehow have them coalesce into a coherent, balanced philosophy?

And is it even possible, since they’re completely opposite ideas?

The way I see it, life on this plane of existence consists of duality anyway. Good and bad, light and dark, hot and cold and variations of the same. I feel like I spend my days always fighting to return to that elusive center between opposing elements and extreme interpretations. It’s the Goldilocks zone. And I spend my time discovering, losing, searching for and rediscovering that space, that feeling, that moment that’s “just right.”

Some people call it “being in the moment,” and it’s a lot harder to do than it sounds. But I find that when I spend any time “being in the moment,” that nothing else can invade that space. Because in this moment, right now, this Goldilocks zone that feels “just right”, there is no past and no future. There is just “now.” If I manage to drag anything in there with me, it by necessity undergoes a transformation in order to conform to the laws of “just right.” In the null space, opposing concepts and worrisome ideas sort of blend together into an acceptable amalgamation.

In the “just right” space all disparate philosophies and/or perceptions become, over time…just right. Unlucky becomes lucky, lucky becomes unlucky. I am both and I am neither, aren’t I? And they’re one in the same. In the “just right” space, even Yin and Yang cease to exist and/or become interchangeable, as do all dualities, strong emotions, strong opinions, perceptions and projections. Two sides of the same thing become one thing, because even in a world of duality, duality is just a word and everything in the end is simply one thing. So if I’m lucky and unlucky at the same time, I can neither feel sorry for myself nor be happy for myself. It’s like that expression people have when they sort of give up trying to explain something that’s too complicated or maybe even isn’t worth over-thinking: It is what it is. In the Goldilocks zone, everything just is what it is.

The next goal, of course: attempting to stay in the “just right” zone longer than randomly and briefly, which is next to impossible without intense concentration and practice and, I would even say, training. But in the end, of course I’m glad I was adopted. And if I may fall back into the world of duality for a moment, I would even consider myself one of the lucky ones. Luckier than many. My gratitude is deeper than words can describe or measure.

Maybe Freud would say I’ve found a way to “neutralize” my anxiety. In a very shallow, surface way,  that may be true. But if it’s real and not just denial or suppression or rationalization and it succeeds in a truly profound and meaningful way, down to the cellular level…well, I’d like to see if Freud has a better answer.

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They Live! (in short stories first)

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I’m fascinated by the idea sometimes of writing a short story that gets made into a movie. Imagine working on something for a couple of weeks, a month max. You’re pretty happy with it. A magazine accepts it for publication. Then one thing leads to another and eventually you’re sitting in Mann’s Chinese Theater one day eating popcorn and watching your characters come alive on-screen. How mind-blowing would that be? How insanely jealous would the average screenwriter who’s been slaving away at spec screenplays for years with no response from anyone be?

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“Eight O’clock in the Morning,” written by Ray Nelson in 1963 http://www.whale.to/b/eight_o.html was only six pages long, but somehow John Carpenter beefed the story up enough make “They Live,” out of it in the ‘80s.  It starred Keith David and Rowdy Roddy Piper who, sadly, recently passed away, and it turned out to be a pretty amusing telling of the tale. It contains one of the longest fistfights in history—Keith David and Rowdy Roddy throwing each other around in an alleyway for at least a solid five minutes straight. But the underlying message involves great commentary on the “dream-like and hypnotized” state the general populace occupies in their daily lives.

 

A more famous movie was “Brokeback Mountain,” and this was based on Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/10/13/brokeback-mountain

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I saw the movie first then discovered the short story a while later. I was immediately drawn in by her stark, bitter, vivid language. The beautiful and painful way she described the plight of these two cowboys. She became one of my favorite authors overnight. The topic of homosexual love between a couple of very masculine cowboys isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But Annie Proulx’s writing is deeply feeling and revelatory, sometimes so brittle and sharp with awareness that one is left vulnerable and raw from the emotional poking and prodding.

 

I don’t know how many know about the movie “Secretary”, but I definitely don’t think anyone is aware that it was based on a short story of the same name by Mary Gaitskill from her collection “Bad Behavior.” http://phendog.livejournal.com/220420.html

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Ms. Gaitskill is one of my favorite short story writers ever, up there with T.C. Boyle. I once had a friend comment that I “used too many adjectives” in a short story I wrote. But, boy, if that’s true, then don’t ever pick up one of Mary’s books. Adjectives galore, separated by commas. The stories are long and involved psychological treatises on the human psyche and state of existence in general. “Secretary” is definitely one of the weirder ones involving a little S&M between a young woman and her demanding boss, and I was amazed when it was made into a movie with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, because it’s such a bizarre and taboo subject! Ms. Gaitskill felt the movie was a Disney version, but honestly, they had to lighten it up somehow, since the topic was already so dark.

 

I’m willing to bet everyone in the world has seen this movie and has no idea, as I did, that it was based on a short story. “The Greatest Gift” was written by Phillip Van Doren Stern in 1943. http://kbancroft.weebly.com/uploads/2/8/3/7/2837022/the_greatest_gift.pdf

Unable to find a publisher, Philip Van Doren Stern printed several hundred copies of the story and used them as Christmas cards. And the rest is history. Frank Capra said he had been looking for this story all his life, and A Wonderful Life was born.

This story is extremely short also, like Eight O’clock in the Morning, and written in a similar, simple style, even though they were written 20 years apart. It’s always heartening to hear rejection stories about authors who found another way to be heard; Van Doren Stern was just a 1940s version of someone on the internet today like the authors of “Wool” and “The Martian,” except that he used real paper to distribute his goods instead of electronic paper. Kudos!

 

Several more (and some may surprise you) include:

Daphne Du Maurier – “The Birds”

Truman Capote – “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (Note: Truman Capote stated that although Holly Golightly accepts meals, gifts, and money from men, she is not a prostitute but an American geisha).

Fitzgerald—“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” I don’t know about you, but I never would have thought this of Fitzgerald. To me Fitzgerald=The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon. Not a sci-fi/fantasy story about aging backwards. So weird!

Phillip K. Dick – We can Remember it for You Wholesale,” which became “Total Recall.”  He also wrote “The Minority Report.”

William Gibson—“Johnny Mnemonic.”

I haven’t read any of these last ones I listed.  I hope to get to them someday. But, you know…too many books. Not enough time….