So this has been mentioned to me in the past, and was the primary reason that the last incarnation of this blog was shut down. First Publishing rights. If I put up anything, some nit-pickers tend to think I've published it. Which I haven't. Because, I mean, really? Who reads this? I mean really?
So. Consider this a change in focus. If you would like to read what I'm writing, feel free to leave me a comment. From here on out, I'll only put up stuff I would never *seriously* try to get published. So what is this blog about? Let's figure that one out together, hows about.
Note now the slight transition from "reasonably intriguing showcase of one's writing" to "lame-ass blog"
So I’m apparently in the middle of writing a novel, which is exciting. And, though I am writing, and writing quite a bit, I don’t feel comfortable putting up even intermittent snippets—for me, getting critiques about the writing as I’m putting something together end up killing the process for me, as I discovered on my old blog. I’ve lost whole short stories (like my shotgun coffee shop/live painting story in 2009) because I just put stuff up before I’d gotten through a whole draft.
That said, I can share some other things. I find that, as a writer, I respond especially to music as I compose stories. The music affects a wide range of things—most noticeably my mood, and the overall emotional timbre of the piece. I’ve had short stories spun out of lyrics or concept albums—like my seven dreams piece, which was really rooted in Shearwater’s Palo Santo. For Americano—which I’d sum up succinctly as Faust in a coffee shop, replete with train stations through hell, strange guardian angels burrowing through basement walls, and a lot of tempo changes—I turned to both Amanda Palmer (specifically her persona, drunk in an empty auditorium singing radiohead covers) and other strong female singers, as well as Nick Drake, Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, Blonde Redhead’s spare euro-pop album Penny Sparkle, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, and, earlier in the process, Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”. Near the end of the process, and the novella, I found a tone in Boards of Canada’s album “The Campfire Headphase”, which sounds like you’re sixty years old on a salt-sanded beach.
Overall, after I’d smoothed out the kinks with the voice, I was left with a second draft that was, largely, controlled and sad and, for the most part, distant. I’d told a story that spun Eurydice on her head, made her a sex-crazed emotionally torn Faust, and left her, at the end, more or less in hell. It wasn’t an easy thing to write, and though I found a lot more hope in it than others, my impression from readers was that it was more or less depressing, and in their eyes, hopeless. This was not my intent, but the music sang, and the prose spoke, and the character ended where she would.
It’s my hope, as I move forward with this novel, that I find a different emotional core, a different voice. If Americano was Eurydice, then this one’s Orpheus. Doesn’t mean it’ll end happy, but I think it’ll end differently, if nothing else. It’s turning deeply personal, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes out of it. At the time of this writing, it’s at 26 pages and counting.
I’ve compiled a playlist for this album, too. It’s massive, and I’ve tried to keep it alternating between two extremes—every other song. What’s on it? I started with Patty Griffin and Over the Rhine, the National, M. Ward and Joni Mitchell—warm, soulful voices—and then I heaped artists like Aphex Twin, Radiohead (Kid A & King of Limbs style), Flying Lotus, the Knife, and Boards of Canada—distant beats, cold, quick sounds. Among others. Sigur Ros’s Untitled album looks to be a fair influence too, for different parts. It’s my hope, through my voice, if nothing else, that I can produce something warmer, though just as trying and emotionally resonant as Americano.
I’d like to close with a short letter one of my close friends sent me—some harsh criticism that I really took to heart. Posted without his permission, of course, as is my wont. I did read your book, and I found it to be further proof of your excellence as a writer. Indeed, Joe, you've quite surpassed the rest of us in that regard. I liked the hell scene and I thought your unctuous Mephistopheles -- Mr. Bean -- was the perfect tempter. I was not convinced, however, by the logic of the Faustian bargain. In order to sell her soul, Mary had to have one in the first place, and I found little evidence of that. She seemed too cool, detached, cynical. The sex she engaged in was horrible in its passionlessness -- it reminded of the encounter between the secretary and the "young man carbuncular" in the Wasteland. But maybe that was your point -- to show the blending of earth and hell, to rewrite the Faustian bargain as something easy and unconscious, rather than momentous and signed in blood. But this brings me to my primary concern: why is it, my dear Joe, that you refuse to allow your main characters souls? Real, living, human souls? The ghost, the little mermaid, the necrophile, now Mary -- I feel like it's becoming a problem. Really, I'm curious. Your newsletters are so full of color and life -- but your fiction is always gray and, well, dead-feeling. Beautiful, too, don't get me wrong. Dead things often have a kind of ethereal loveliness (and when you aren't being intentionally ugly -- with the vomit, urine, mechanical sex -- this story has it too). But seriously, what's the deal with that? Why do you think this has become your aesthetic?
It took us four hours to get out to Dondet. It’s an island resort for tourists with a sizeable village and loads of Beerlao. From the Kilometer 8 bus station, my friend Saleumsai and I left on a pickup truck stuffed with Lao people trying to get away for the new year. This was a pickup truck on the small side, blue, with a tin roof and three benches set in parallel rows in the truck bed. By the time we pulled out of the bus station, we had 35 breathing passengers, maybe four kids, and the top was loaded down with luggage. Over the course of the journey, I think ten more passengers were added, hanging off the poles on the back of the truck, and dropped off early. Newcomers were given special seating on the top of the roof, with no protection from the 42 C sunlight, though I imagine it was exciting.
What could/should have been an hour and a half trip (100 kilometres, about 50 miles) turned into a four hour study of human emotion. Tranquility gave way to discomfort, discomfort to irritation, to anger, to hatred, to jealousy, to despair, to confusion (where are we even going anyway?) and finally to resignation. I actually attempted to “go to my happy place” and imagine myself flying over the surface of the earth.
Oh, and every other kilometre, we found ourselves bombarded at homemade Pii Mai “checkpoints” where we were doused with water according to the whims of local children. Water balloon, hose, spray gun, bucket: anything goes at Lao New Year.
Believe it or not, I’m not jaded or angry. I knew—I was almost certain—that we’d be soaked, so I ziplocked everything, wore clothes I didn’t mind getting wet, and kept a stiff upper lip. What did grate on me, however, was our pitstops to various villages, sometimes several kilometres off the main road, and the long waits as passengers unloaded, came on board, or the myriad pauses to let the vendors swarm the truck with bagged chicken, sweets, drinks. As the heat thickened, the little boy across from us started to cry and was silenced by his older brother, who wore a cloth over his face to hide his diseased (or defective) eye.
I suppose the sole consolation for me was that, among my fellow passengers, all of whom have been raised in a society that prizes face above all else, I saw the same misery and frustration reflected, at least for brief moments. Misery loves company, eh?
Today was some kind of turning point. I sat on my plastic faux-leather couch with my friend Saleumsai, my feet at a rude angle against the wall, while he sat next to me holding a pirated copy of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. Bao Bao Ling, my 8 Bit NES knockoff game system, was on a cushion in front of us, and the house was hot as hell. I was in a weird haze quoting Monty Python, substituting in Bedak for Spam, and he kept turning the film cover over, examining the back. I don’t think either of us said anything coherent for a full hour. I finally figured out that opening up a window might lower the temperature a few degrees, and we settled back into coherence.
I don’t know what today means. But happy Pii Mai Lao. Everyone’s getting out their water guns and buckets so they can “bless” any hapless passers-by who are dumb enough to venture out on their motorbikes come Wednesday. My plans to go up to Luang Prabang with Saleumsai are shot, though we might make it out to a waterfall or something majestic. Who knows?
John Gardner recommends when we don’t have anything to say ourselves, it’s better to go and rewite something you read; he guarantees you won’t write it the same way. Very true. I took something one of my writer friends wrote and put my own spin on it. Here’s the first page or two.
She stands up, gathers the purse, her hand on the chair, thumb absent-mindedly rubbing in circles, her hair pulled up in sharp blonde ringlets, a few strays wisping out. She breathes twice—short breaths, clutches the purse leafs through it, two twenties now folded in her hand, takes his hand, coughs, walks. The restaurant is busy, a clink of glasses, smell of iced tea and a line of seventy-year-olds at the side of the room, half with thick glasses, their backs bent, their old sweaters, their lined faces, the years tugging at their once-young chins.
Christopher, she snaps her hands. The son under the counter pulls back his groping hand, full of peppermints, into the Sunday Best his mother has put on him: khakis for kids half his age, he’s short you see, she tells the newcomers after the service, it’s cheaper see, cause we don’t have to buy him new every season. The mother sighs, hands the cashier the check bills, and turns to watch her father, a swollen red-skinned man, of Indian descent, leaning on a dark-wood cane, the arm of his wife looped through his own, both of them as wrinkled as old fruits, and walking slow but with intent past the buffet lines. The old man sways as he passes the beets, then obvious disgust, an oddity considering the heap of beets he scarfed not twenty minutes before.
A thresher of a man, large-mouthed, small-souled, with a deep timbre and the sort of boots that deserve spurs, though there’s no use for them here in the deep swamps. The family walks out of the restaurant into the heat of the parking lot, the smell of tar rising in waves and painted yellow lines, the way it sucks at their feet as they make their way to the car. The old man’s mind is tarred, feathered, a cluck a cluck you’d think not by looking at him, so weathered and calm. Christopher, running in circles behind them. Christopher, stop, says the mother, says Marie, his mother. His eyes dull and he skips once in defiance, then turns his head down, shielding his eyes from the glare of the cement. Marie brushes a line of sweat, already formed, five steps from the door. Her dress tugs uncomfortably at her shoulders. She’s two sizes too large, ten years past fashion for this old dress worn like a uniform every Sunday, every Sunday like a good church girl, the way she was raised.
Dammit Ellen, her father says, as he falters briefly, the cane angled beneath him, his wasp-nest of a wife holding her thin hands on his back. He pushes her aside, I can do it, he says, lurches across, a short a long a short step, to the car, cusses as he opens the door, a yellow Georgia sun in an eyeblue sky above. Marie straightens her dress, the one she’s had since high school, the one she wore to prom, a faded floral print, roses maybe, potpourri, orange rinds, the smell of her parents’ house now. An inward resentment, hearing her father cuss in front of Christopher, smelling the old fabric, the old woman smell, of her spindly mother who, until last spring, had been the plumpest in the family, as the family slides into the 1987 station wagon.