Friday, July 13, 2012

Shadow Show: All New Stories In Celebration of Ray Bradbury

I first learned about Ray Bradbury in the library of St. Michael's Elementary School in Greenville, Pennsylvania when I was in the 4th grade.  The Library was small and stocked with a lot of books that just weren't that interesting to me.  Then I came across a hardcover edition of S is For SpaceI'm positive that the book wouldn’t have been on those shelves if it had nearly as an evocative title as some of the stories within:  "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," "Time in Thy Flight", "Come into my Cellar", and "The Million Year Picnic."

The years since then have come and gone, and the great man is dead.  But his progeny are scattered across the world, writing in a way that's only possible because Ray Bradbury did it first.  Shadow Show: All New Stories In Celebration of Ray Bradbury collects original short stories inspired by the works of Ray Bradbury from authors like Neil Gaiman, Dan Chaon, Kelly Link, Joe Hill, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Dave Eggers.  Chaon and Hill, in particular, knock it out of the park with their stories about werewolves and sea monsters, respectively.  The line-up of all star authors doesn't disappoint (with the exception of Eggers, who seems to have mailed this one in) with their stories. 

But what will probably stick with me the most isn't the fiction.  It's the author notes (again, with the exception of Eggers, who I normally love).  They showcase not only Ray Bradbury's influence on today's crop of A-list writers.  They showcase a kind and generous man who went out of his way to engage with his fans, even if they were children.  Take Dan Chaon's note, for instance.  He wrote Bradbury a letter when he was in grade school and along with it sent some stories he had written.  Bradbury not only wrote back, but read the stories and provided critiques.  This correspondence continued until Chaon was in college.  His story, "Little America" is an outgrowth of one of those grade school stories that Chaon sent off.

I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to Ray Bradbury than Shadow Show.  In the opening to S is For Space, Bradbury wrote:

                        Jules Verne was my father.
                        H.G. Wells was my wise uncle.
                        Edgar Allen Poe was the batwinged cousin we kept high in the back attic room.
                        Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were my brothers and friends.
                        There you have my ancestry.

In Shadow Show, we have—in a single volume—a representation of Bradbury's children, and what an amazing family it is.  Bradbury recognizes this in his introduction, but this observation is more poignant now that he's gone.

If there's a part of you that ever wondered what it would be like to get a tattoo that moved, or what your best friend's father is hiding in his basement, or how you might use a phone that could put you in touch with the past, or what society might look like if it started regulating appearance, then pick up Shadow Show.  It's more than worth your time.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Interview with Stephen Graham Jones

Last year, I came across Stephen Graham Jones' short fiction collection The Ones That Got Away.  I knew I'd found something special almost immediately—a writer who had the same sensibilities I did, who grew up reading the same stuff.  I was lucky enough to get to spend fifteen or so minutes talking to Stephen a few weeks ago.  He has a new book—Growing Up Dead In Texas—currently available.  My review of that is forthcoming, but in the meantime, take a look at what Stephen had to say about writing his latest work, how the X-Men may have influenced his writing style, and what we can expect from him in the future.

Q:            You've written about how you're a little bit uncomfortable with the notion of nonfiction.  Can you explain that?

SGJ:            I've always kind of wondered how nonfiction was possible.  The nonfiction I read, I always think that it's still being manipulated in some way. For me, it's all fiction.

Q:            Growing Up Dead In Texas, while it's billed as a novel, it's sometimes referred to as a memoir.  But does it occupy some place in between?

SGJ:            Yeah, really all of my stuff, it's all just me pulling stuff out of my head that really happened and changing the names a little bit.  With Growing Up Dead In Texas, I didn't change the names.  Well, I didn't change my name.  I wouldn't call it a memoir.  It's got memoir flavors to it I guess.  It's got a lot of my own life in it, but it's more made up.

Q:            You've said that in order to properly mythologize a place, you need distance.  Can you talk a little bit about that and what you mean by that?

SGJ:            When I was in Texas, when I was living in Lubbock—it's like when you're living in a place you can't see if from the proper distance.  You can't contextualize it.  For me, I was too much in it to write about it, if that makes any sense.  So I had to finally leave to get it in the proper scope.

Q:            Now that Growing Up Dead In Texas is out there, has anybody come up to you and said "Hey, I recognize myself."

SGJ:            My dad came through town and I gave him an advance copy of it.  He read it in like 12 hours.  He's a really quick reader and he recognized some of the stories because they're stories he told me.  So far he's the only person who's tangentially in the book.  He's not the dad in the book, but a lot of his stories are there.  I let my wife read it as well, and she knows all the stories in the book and she kept asking me "Is this this person?"  Sometimes it would be and sometimes it would be someone I made up.

Q:            Do you think this book is going to reach a different audience than your prior works?

SGJ:            My book just previous to this is Zombie Bakeoff which is about wrestlers vs. soccer moms, so that's a totally different sort of thing.  Since 2005, I've been doing largely horror.  Ledfeather is the one standout that's not horror.  And even though this is the only one with DEAD in the title, it's not horror.  I always like to work against expectations.

Q:            Are you going to return to the horror genre?

SGJ:            Definitely.  I should be signing a contract for another horror novel soon.  I've also got a different horror novel which I also need to get published.  I've got another one that's very, very disturbing.  I don't know if anyone will ever publish that.  I've got a book of shorts coming out from Lazy Fascist.  I think horror's where I'll always come back to.  Growing Up Dead In Texas is supposed to be the first of three books for MP publishing.  And they understand I'm going to keep writing genre books, but what they want from me is nongenre books.  Growing Up Dead In Texas is the first one I've turned it.  I'm guessing the second one will come out next year.  I have no idea about the third one.

Q:            How did you become such a literary badass?  You have all these things in the hopper.  You have novels just sitting around waiting to be published.  And it's all high quality stuff.  It's not like you just churn things out like a mill.  Where do you find the time?  Can you take me through a day with you?

SGJ:            Most days I fight to find time to write.  There's teaching.  I've got a family.  I'm always out exercising and doing stuff.  The question of how do you write so much – it never made sense to me.  I don't understand not writing and not writing quickly.  Instead of sitting down for a three hour period where I can write, I take five minutes from every hour.  I love it when I have an afternoon free and I can write for four or five hours.  That's a dream.  A lot of writers say they write when they first wake up and I can't imagine doing that.  I'm way too jittery.  I have so much energy, I have to go exercise or do something.  I love to write in the afternoon or deep into the night

Q:            Your writing has a very conversational tone.  Is that on purpose or is it something you work at?

SGJ:            That's completely natural.  I remember in the sixth grade I was deep into these X-Men  comics when Rogue first came onto the team.  I had to write a journal entry for English class.  A series of journal entries.  I forgot to do it until the very last day.  I was really infected with how Rogue's diction was done.  All these phonetic pronunciations trying to capture that Mississippi accent. I'm sure it was all very insulting in various ways, but I remember I did that for my whole journal and I got in so much trouble.  The teachers hated it.  I had to translate it all into something more respectable.  And I never forgot that.  How much I hated it.  And I expect when I write now I'm getting back at my English teachers.  I try to have an easy tone where people don't have to crack my prose to get to the story. 

Q:            Are there any writers out there that you'd like to recommend?  Any up and comers we should be aware of?

SGJ:            I should really have a list of people I keep handy.But I guess I do. Kris Saknussemm. Jeremy Robert Johnson.

Growing Up Dead In Texas is currently available.  And if you get a chance, pick up some of Stephen's prior works.  I doubt you'll be disappointed.

John Hornor Jacobs' This Dark Earth

John Hornor Jacobs' This Dark Earth is quick, brutal read that's required reading for any zombie fiction fan.  But at the same time, it's a thoughtful and insightful work that examines the human drive to keep some semblance of order in the face of society's collapse (and its competing drive to revert to barbarism). 

Jacobs essentially does the impossible here.  He takes a tired, worn out, and—let's face it—boring genre and injects new life into by, well, I'm not sure how the hell he does it.  I'd say it was the tight plotting or the solid cast of characters, but it's something more than that.  Maybe the best way to explain it is that Jacobs injects a heart and a soul into the book through Knock Out, a giant of a trucker whose actions put an exclamation point on everything that's worth saving about humanity.

There are just some characters who are fully formed the minute they step into the story, and Knock Out is one of them.  And his actions throughout the novel—even when they're in the background—will break your heart. 

And, lest I go too mushy on you, there is a crap-load of zombie stomping going on.  Jacobs has put a lot of thought into the practicalities of a zombie apocalypse—from the long-term effects of nuclear strikes on the survivors to fortifying and colonizing a bridge for zombie defense (genius!)—This Dark Earth is one step ahead of other zombie fiction.   

I was slightly down on Southern Gods—Jacobs' prior novel—because I felt that the end didn't live up to the promise of the first 3/4s of the novel.  I've got no such issues with This Dark Earth.

This book is absolutely worth your time and your money. 

This Dark Earth is available today.

Friday, May 11, 2012

China Mieville's Railsea

China Mieville's Railsea has all the trappings of successful YA novel—a young, likeable protagonist in Sham Ap Soorap, a detailed and fantastic world, imaginative and unique monsters, and a quest for a faraway and mythical land. But, as usual, Mieville is up to something more than a fluffy YA tale meant to be consumed by masses of junior high students who cut their teeth on Harry Potter and Hunger Games. In fact, Mieville probably alienates his target audience on the first few pages with his decision to replace the word 'and' with an ampersand—a decision that's cleverly explained two hundred or so pages in. If that doesn't turn off your average seventh grader, Mieville's refusal to allow his readers to get their bearings in his world probably will.

I spent about 25 pages wondering what the hell was going on. There was talk of meat islands. Trains that seemed to function more as sailing vessels. Weird names (Sham Ap Soorap, Captain Abacat Naphi). References to Moby Dick. Giant, mutated moles. It's enough to make your head spin.

 I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did. Mieville—as always—rewards his readers' patience. The titular railsea is an ocean of dry earth where giant burrowing animals roam like Great Whites. It's covered by a complex and seemingly endless rail system that allows crews to hunt these giant burrowing animals much like Ahab hunted Moby Dick.

 When Sham discovers mysterious photographs that suggest the rail system actually ends—an unthinkable thought—he sets forth on an adventure to discover what's at the end of the line. Throughout the ensuing adventure, Mieville inserts small paragraphs that address the reader directly and provide tidbits of useful background information or speculate on the nature of narrative. Heady stuff for YA readers.

 What's at the end of the line is one part remarkable and one part disappointing. This is typical Mieville, and I'm now convinced he does it on purpose as some sort of commentary on reader expectations. One thing's for sure: China Mieville is one of the most imaginative writers out there. The man probably has more amazing ideas before his morning coffee is warm than I do in a whole year.

 After reading Railsea, I had the distinct impression that this novel was Mieville taking something of a break—a 400+ page, wildly inventive, never obvious, rollicking break. And what he achieves on break is what most writers strive a lifetime to create.

Railsea comes out on May 15. But don't buy it for the average middle schooler—chances are that it will be met with disappointment. Buy it for yourself.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Laird Barron's The Croning

Laird Barron's TheCroning is filled with creeping dread.  It comes out in little pieces and little moments, through little cracks in reality.  As the novel progresses, those cracks get incrementally bigger and bigger until Barron finally pulls the veil (mostly) back and reveals what's trying to wriggle through.

And, my God, is it ever unpleasant.

The Croning is the story of Donald and his wife Michelle.  Donald is in his twilight years, looking back on an adventurous marriage with the larger-than-life Michelle, a tireless anthropologist.  But Don soon discovers that his memories have been tampered with.  Bits and pieces here.  Whole chunks there.  Along the way, we're treated to shadowy government agents, glimpses of some cosmic horror, a strange encounter in a stockroom, a terribly unsettling Asian woman married to Don's son, and geographic abnormalities in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest.  At the center of it all is Michelle and the increasingly likely possibility of her involvement in an obscure cult.

The Croning feels a lot like Barron's short fiction.  The formal prose.  The layered reality.  But it's also different in that—for the first time—we get to see Barron's talent at creating a detailed and mostly real world for his characters.  Fully fleshed out lives.  Complex relationships.  Meaningful interactions.  With The Croning, Barron proves he isn't a one trick pony.  Sure, he can dole out the cosmic horror with the best of them.  But he can also create compelling characters and honest relationships.  I never had any real reason to doubt he couldn't do that, but his short fiction never really afforded him the opportunity to do so on this scale.

Speaking of Barron's short stories, The Croning is overtly connected to several: "Mysterium Tremendum", "Occultation", "The Forest", and "The Men From Porlock".  If I'm not mistaken, I think The Broadsword Hotel is mentioned, and there's probably some connection to Blackwood's Baby (which I haven't yet read).  And that's just off the top of my head.  It makes me wonder what a wholesale rereading of Barron's work to date would reveal.

If you're looking for some of the finest horror fiction to be published in recent memory, look no further than The Croning, coming on from Night Shade Books on May 1, 2012.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Interview with Frank Wheeler, Jr.

Frank Wheeler, Jr. was nice enough to give me a few minutes of his time to talk about his upcoming novel The Wowzer and hint at some things to come.  I'm pretty sure the thing everyone's going to be talking about when this sucker hits the shelves is Frank's masterful use of dialect throughout the narrative.  In fact, it's so masterful, I half-thought that Frank may have simply dictated The Wowzer and had someone transcribe it.  I wasn't surprised when I picked up the phone and the voice on the other end of the line was well-spoken, even a little professorial.  But, to be perfectly honest, there was a little piece of me that was disappointed that Jerry and Frank weren't the same person.  Then I remembered Jerry's penchant for the violent, and I decided it was better this way. 

But it did make me wonder how he arrived at the voice for Jerry and how difficult it was to get it on the page.  Turns out, it was a process beginning with Jerry's appearance as an ancillary character in a prior novel.

This voice just stuck in my brain.  I kept increasing his part and adding to it.  After I finished that book, I wanted to develop the character more, so I wrote this short story which was what became The Wowzer.  I started writing the short story in the same way—just in plain third person.  It didn't work.  I wrote five or six pages, and I stopped and went back and said 'OK, third person doesn't work, let's try first person.'  And it didn't work.  And I went back again, went through past tense and present tense and tried all these things.  And finally, I knew what need to happen.  It needed to be in dialect—it needed to sound like speech.  I had already done some of the research on dialect, so I went back and got the books I used and I tried to make it as close to the system of dialect that Vance Randolph had used in his book Down in the Holler: A Gallery ofOzark Folk SpeechI wouldn't put anything on the page that I couldn't hear my relatives saying.  It had to sound like something that would come from them.  I wanted Jerry to sound like he could sound like someone related to me.

Not only is Jerry's voice razor-sharp, so is the setting.  I've never been to the Ozarks, but I imagine it to be a slightly refracted version of the world I live in.  Lots of things are the same, but there are differences at the edges that are jarring when you notice them.  Like idea of the Wowzer itself—a giant panther-like creature that slaughters people who go too far into woods.  It's the exact type of story I would have heard as a child, except that I didn't.  That regionality—that peculiarity—seems especially appropriate to this type of story where the setting itself is something of a character.  It's that little quirk that most people wouldn't even notice. 

I know that there were Wowzer stories in Missouri.  There were some in Texas.  There were some in Oklahoma.  So there are little pockets throughout that collection of states  . . . some people have heard them and others just haven't.

When you have a book like The Wowzer, it almost begs for a sequel.  Turns out, Frank's had begin work on the next story long before The Wowzer was even published.

I'm about two thirds the way through a sequel to The Wowzer.  Same characters, same dialect.  I ended up putting it down for a while to write a different novel.  Now that I'm finishing that up, I'd like to come back and finish the sequel.

Finding time to write and figuring out how to write is a difficult thing, especially when you have obligations.  The most valuable piece of advice I have got about writing was that I had natural access to an inner jackass most writers couldn't even approach, and that I should listen to that jackass whenever he speaks.  The most valuable piece of advice Frank's ever gotten is a bit more useful:

You can't see your work.  Right after you first write it.  Not objectively.  You need to involve others in the process.  This was for a poetry class I took.  Other people's perspectives are essential to the process of writing.  I've always been a storyteller, and when I was 18 or 19 I started to make serious efforts at trying to develop into a writer who could someday publish something.  But I was very resistant to other people's feedback, and I think when I started to allow other people to critique me and then take it seriously, that was thing that allowed me to progress.  Not being sentimental about it.

My last question to Frank was who would play Jerry in the movie version.  Both of us struggled to come up with an actor who would fit.  Names like Matt Damon and Matthew McConaughey were tossed back and forth.  It wasn't until after the call that I remembered a little show called Friday Night Lights and a character named Tim Riggins, played by the unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch.  He's about the right age.  We know he can do the accent, though he'd have to make it a bit heavier.  And then another name came to me.  Michael Fassbender.  Thoughts?

Anyway, it was great to talk with Frank and get a little insight into The Wowzer and his writing process.  Don't forget to go buy a copy or three on May 1.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Frank Wheeler, Jr.'s The Wowzer

I got some advice a long time ago.  It came in two parts:  (1) just because a guy talks with an English accent doesn't mean he's smarter than you and (2) just because a guy talks with a southern accent doesn't mean he's dumber than you.

As I read Frank Wheeler, Jr.'s The Wowzer, the first thing that came to mind was that second part.  I'd advise you to keep that in mind too when you read it (and you should read it, if for no other reason than to tell people you were a fan of The Wowzer before it was cool—before it got turned into a TV series or a movie).  The novel is narrated by Jerry, an Arkansas sheriff's deputy with a foot in the drug underworld.  And Jerry doesn't much care if you're not used to the way he talks or the fact that he drops the 'd' from the word 'and'.  It may be a bit jarring at first, but won't be long before you hear that drawl in your head.  I swear it's almost like I was listening to an audiobook instead of reading it.  Wheeler pulls of a mean trick with this narration in dialect.  Lots of writers try it, few succeed.  The only ones that immediately jump to mind are Burgess and Welsh.  Good company to be in, I think.

Jerry's got some problems.  His girlfriend's learned that his activities aren't always on the right side of the law.  The local drug underworld seems to be bursting at the seams with rogue activity.  And someone is trying to kill him.  Jerry, however, has some things going for him.  He's usually the smartest guy in the room, even though no one usually realizes it.  He's a good shot.  And he's a psychopath that doesn't feel much remorse when he has to, say, chop someone's head off in the middle of a gun fight and use it to scare the crap out of the dope fiends trying to kill him. 

Yeah, this book was basically tailor-made for me.

It will be simply astounding to me if The Wowzer isn't on some Year's Best-type lists come January 2013.  I'll be even more surprised if Wheeler doesn't have to beat off the Hollywood types with a stick for the rights to this book. 

Here's to a happy release day for The Wowzer on May 1, 2012.