Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Crunch of Serendipity

My nonfiction roots are all a-tingle with today's essay by Lee Wilson. Lee is a writer and journalist living in New York and has a degree in creative writing from NYU. He once conducted a "posthumous interview" with William Wordsworth and he has a pet cat named T.S. Eliot. The tentative title for his essay, which discusses the inner conflicts one feels when eating at Taco Bell, is "The Crunch of Serendipity." I personally think that's a great title, so I'm making him keep it for the purposes of Glass Cases. Enjoy!

The Crunch of Serendipity
By Lee Wilson

I’ve just discovered that I am a traitor to the progressive-liberal cause. It was a Saturday afternoon and I had felt like relaxing. This meant an hour or so of television, followed by an hour or so of video games, capped off with an hour or so of television. I decided that it was time to do something with the day; I was also hungry. The only possible solution was a trip to Taco Bell.

Taco Bell is disgusting food, but as far as disgusting food goes, it is damn good. In my opinion, if you can’t enjoy the fatty, greasy, grossness of food than you will never completely enjoy life. Besides, the taco supreme has tomatoes. Those are good for you. So I cross the border and return, sit in front of my computer, ready to eat and read.

A few years ago Taco Bell commercials featured Dick Vitale, the former coach of the University of Detroit, and later the Detroit Pistons, now a college basketball announcer for ESPN. He was promoting some new menu item, which I’m sure was merely a hybrid of several other items, in a move that only Taco Bell could pull off. The gist of these ads was that a family was driving, lost. Vitale would appear with the new Franken-Taco and deliver the tagline, “It’s serendipity baby!” (Vitale is known for saying “Baby!”)
 
I like the idea of serendipitous events. Just yesterday I was speaking with a friend of mine and we somehow got on the subject of smells. She told me that she is very interested in smells. She wants to write about them. Feeling for a moment like a creative writing professor I recommended she read Patrick Suskind’s "Perfume."
 
“But I don’ like perfume” she objected.
 
She is a very eager girl, though I did manage to explain something of the book, which seemed to placate her. She is also moving back to Tokyo tomorrow.
 
At home I have two bookcases. One contains books that I have read, the other contains books that I have not. I felt it was dishonest to anyone who might be perusing my shelves to have them intermingled. Thanks to a recent discarded book sale by my local library the “Unread” shelf has recently surpassed the “Read” shelf. For this reason I put myself on a strict book buying hiatus. No more new books, no matter how interesting one may appear, until the ratio of read to unread is measurably better.
 
I reminded myself of this when approaching the used book sellers who set up along West Fourth Street. I stopped to look anyway – an exercise in restraint, or a form of torture. And right there, the very first book face up on the table was an absolutely pristine copy of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, for only $5. Now maybe this book had been there for weeks and I only noticed today because the book had been brought up previously and there was now some context. But maybe it was a new arrival, so to speak.

Occurrences like this are the closest thing to Karma that I believe in, so I take them somewhat seriously. What I mean is that I was now required to buy this book by the gods of serendipity, here manifested as Dick Vitale, and deliver it to my soon departing companion. I could not do this exactly as she was not home, but I left it in an envelope on her stoop.

But as I browse various websites I come to one describing the plight of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of laborers who pick tomatoes which are sold to Yum! Brands, the corporate parent of Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut, among others. I am asked to sign a petition, and participate, or enforce, a boycott basically of all things Yummy. Refusing to do so basically means that I am supporting the heartless conglomerate over the oppressed proletariat. I am unsure how to handle this. 

I tear open a pack of “fire” hot sauce, and ooze it onto my taco. I take a bite and feel the crunch of tortilla shell, the softness of the sour cream slightly warmed by the meat. Lettuce hangs from my upper lip, and a red and clear emulsion of grease runs down my chin. Even revolutionaries have their limits, and mine stops just short of the border.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bologna is the New Vampire!

Today officially ends the 2010 Bologna Children's Book Fair and in case you have not been checking the #BBF10 page on Twitter as often as I have, here are two trends I've noticed that I think are worth discussing.

Trend, the 1st - Death to Vampire Romances!
Every year, agents, publishers, and writers try to come up with the new "it" trend that will finally put vampires back in their coffins (at least for a while). It's true, vampires have been "so five minutes ago" for a couple years now, and yet the industry just can't shake 'em. However, given the responses from Bologna this year, it looks as if publishers finally have had enough. Once the last Twilight movie is released, I think everyone will take a much-needed breather, and in the meantime, some of contenders as "New Reigning Supernatural Thingy" are werewolves, zombies. angels, clones, and mermaids.

Truthfully, I don't think anything is ever going to be the "new vampire" because no matter what comes next, vampires will find their way back. They will always be sexy, mysterious, and the most human-like for writers to show ranges of emotion and acceptance into society (or a high school). But I agree that writers and publishers need to give it a rest. Just not eternally. 

Now, you all know I love me some science fiction and fantasy, but personally, I'd love to see more realistic young adult fiction make a comeback. This overwhelming amount of YA fantasy, as huge as it is, is a relatively new concept. YA as its own genre in general is pretty new, and I remember the few books that were available to me as a YA-er had a huge impact on my life. They were about teens like me going through everyday situations at home and at school just like me. The supernatural is fun and can draw heavy parallels to real life, but there's something about reality that, in my humble opinion, just can't be beat.

Trend , the 2nd - Middle Grade is the new YA
Something else I was very excited to see come out of Bologna was that a lot of publishers are looking for middle grade fiction. I don't remember any book that called itself a middle grade when I was ten or twelve. Instead, I just went straight to the "Teen" or "Young Adult" section at my local Borders and called it a day. Looking back, some of those R.L. Stines could have been called MG, but that term just didn't exist yet. Neither did the word "tween."

Middle grade is not my favorite genre. Those tween, and slightly younger than tween, years are tricky and mysterious to me, so I tend to stay away. However, I am excited about this potential rise in MG because I think it is a very important genre. There are about 8 bazillion children's books to choose from and about the same amount of YA. Tween years don't get as much love, and with nothing to read that speaks to you, what do you read? (The answer: video games.)

Another reason I think MG is so important is that, even more than the YA crowd, the target audience for MG are of more impressionable ages. Young enough to still believe everything the adults tell them, but old enough to think that being around said adults is, like, the least cool thing in the world. Simultaneously independent and dependent, they are pre-pubescent children without the luxury of being young enough to act like a child. 

At twelve, I was an angsty little thing, wearing all black and pretending to be depressed. By fourteen, I was pretty much cured of this. Is it a coincidence that I was cured the very year I was old enough to read books written for me again? Think about it...

The point is, books matter. With each year of teenhood being different from the last, there need to be books written for all possible age groups. Otherwise the terrorists win.

Post-wrap up question: What trend, supernatural or otherwise, would you like to see take over MG & YA lit this year? 

By the way, Hemingway Heroine has a really great Bologna round-up that's worth checking out too!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Deviled by Don

Happy Wednesday! I hope you all have gotten over that episode of Lost last night and are ready for drama of a different kind - opera! - because that's what you're getting today from friend-of-the-blog, Gale Martin. She is sharing with us an excerpt from her novel, Deviled by Don, about a small-town production of Don Giovanni that goes horribly, and supernaturally, awry.

Gale's writing has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Sirens Magazine, Duck & Herring Company's Pocket Field Guide, and The Giggle Water Review. She was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a short story published in Greensilk Journal. You can also check out her blog, Opera-toonity (!), to read more about her research on classic opera used in Deviled by Don.

Deviled by Don
By Gale Martin

Chapter 1: The Claque

Late March, downtown Hankey, Pennsylvania. Morning has broken like a brown egg cracked into a rusty skillet. The main thoroughfare, Henry Avenue, is deserted. Its centerpiece and the primary setting is the Hankey Opera House—three stories tall, the only handsome building on a blighted street. The Hankey Opera Guild has assembled in the boardroom to interview applicants for a new general director.

A social climber, a retired physician, a hometown singer nearly-made-good, and one hospital auxiliary outcast—all the officers of Hankey’s lone theatrical guild hunkered over a conference table, finishing their evaluations forms. For what other reason would such a mismatched foursome meet early on a Saturday morning? No interest in yard sales, a round of best ball at Hankey Hills, or Belgian waffles at the Steel City Diner in the crumbling side of town now dubbed “Rust City.”

No, today the guild was meeting on important business. The right choice could mean their solvency. The wrong one, financial ruin.
 
Hankey socialite Deanna Lundquist chaired the guild. It was her responsibility to lead them out of their muddle to a sound employment decision before noon. A Continental breakfast might make them more decisive or more civil. Either would be an improvement over the chaos recently unleashed at guild meetings. On her way to the opera house, she stopped at the only decent coffee shop left in town and picked up a medium decaf, black, for Dr. Richard Rohrer; a tall café au lait with two sugars for Oriane Longenecker; a short espresso for her herself; and three almond bear claws. She didn’t know Vivian Pirelli—the new member—well enough to order her coffee or whether she even liked coffee. At their last breakfast meeting, Vivian refused a cherry Danish, downing a rainbow assortment of vitamin capsules instead. So, Deanna bought her a decaffeinated soy milk chai latte and a gluten-free bagel—scooped.
 
At every meeting, Deanna claimed the head of the table. Barely five-foot-two in flat feet, once she was ensconced in the power seat, her long torso disguised her petite frame. She’d take a few seconds to summon her inner tigress—beauty and ferocity in equal measure—before calling the claque to order.
 
Time to bring in the first candidate for grilling—Don Blank from Boston. Though she threatened them with one of her trademark savage glances, while Blank was still on the hook, Richard and Oriane were x’ing off the evaluation categories in record time, like it was a timed Olympic event. It had taken Deanna days to research and prepare that form; she’d been thorough to ensure they were hiring the best person for the job. 

“A vexatious list of considerations,” Richard had said, when she distributed the evaluations earlier. Not vexatious enough, as it turned out. She neglected to include a question about whether he preferred modern opera to classic opera—which he did. End of interview, end of act, curtain.
 
Blank had driven down from Boston last evening, a six-hour exercise in misery, fraught with bottlenecks around Hartford and New York City any night of the week, but especially on Fridays. Inside twenty-five minutes with them, he was headed back to Beantown.
 
It was Deanna’s duty to see the candidate out. She pulled the hallway door closed behind them and gestured to the elevator. “You’re excused, Mr. Blank. You won’t be hearing from us again.”
 
“I’ll have you know,” Blank said with a sneer, his six-foot-three frame dwarfing hers. “I’m a Boston Blank.”
 
“You’re a blank, all right,” Deanna said, with little choice but to stare straight into nostrils as hairy as if he’d stuffed a pair of fuzzy slippers up there.
 
She pointed to the exit. He snarled at her.
If they were kickboxing, she could take him. Because like a tigress, she had fast-twitch muscle. One cross power punch to the fuzzy slippers, and he’d be on his knees before he realized what had decked him.
 
He turned to leave but not without hurling a final lob. “You had a real chance to produce something fresh, something contemporary. Instead you chose an improbable, stupid tale! Gothic dreck. I hope it tanks.”
 
Seconds later, the door flew open, and Deanna blew back into the boardroom, first neatening her angled bob, then collecting, alphabetizing, and paper clipping everyone’s forms, giving herself time to process that she’d just dispatched their leading candidate for the job. Don Blank had looked glorious on paper—experience, education, references. Another zero putting himself out there as an opera champion.
 
While she strode to the double-hung windows, she asked herself why she hadn’t prescreened him? In one phone call, she would’ve learned that Blank was intent on producing a modern opera. It was the first thing out of his mouth during the tell-us-about-yourself portion of the interview.
 
Deanna watched the candidate lumber across Henry Avenue three stories below. “Blank’s mopping his face with his handkerchief. He’s turning around. He’s waving his fingers through the air, like he’s putting a hex on us. Now, he’s squeezing himself into a cherry-red sports car. Too small for a man of his heft,” Deanna said, providing both play-by-play and color analysis. Everyone else surely noticed it, she thought. It had to be said: 

“Why would someone with a plug of nose hair think he belonged in a car like that?”
 
“Excessive nose hair is common in middle aged men,” Richard said. A dermatologist, now retired, Richard was the only doctor on the guild and the self-proclaimed expert on all matters relating to human physiology. Richard played his M.D. card at every board meeting. That might have been the most annoying thing about him, other than being an egghead and wearing bolo ties. For the most part, the group bore his shortcomings in silence. Such long-suffering might have been teased out by his annual contribution of twenty-five thousand dollars and by the fact that he sported a head full of silver-white hair. Deanna found it hard to lay into a sixty-two-year-old man with hair that sublime, even a vexatious one like Richard. But she’d give it her best. She never should’ve brought up the nose hair. 

“Spare us the anatomy lesson, Richard. We’re finished talking about nose hair. Blank’s and everyone else’s,” Deanna said, though she herself hadn’t ceased thinking about it. Besides the nose hair, Blank must have real deficits—another nine tenths of an iceberg’s worth—to bring about the guild’s demise. She’d come too far in the last ten years to hand over operations to someone flouting propriety in manner and grooming, for whom the word modern rolled off the tongue like ping pong balls whooshing into a plastic tube during the nightly drawing of the Pennsylvania lottery.
 
She gripped the window ledge. “We’d have to fund-raise our fannies off for him,” she said, because the brunt of any campaign to raise money would be borne by her. She shifted her gaze one story down to the statue of the city founder, Henry Hankey, mounted atop the opera house marquee. Pigeons circled his outstretched arms like planes in holding patterns. “And for what? Modern opera?”
 
“Blank drove—such—such a long wa—ay,” Vivian said, because she suffered a few vocal tics, and because, in the short time Deanna had known her, she’d observed that Vivian always sided with the underdog. According to Richard, the latter was a character trait of those descended from Germanic tribes such as the Teutons.
 
Pirelli was Vivian’s last name by marriage. By birth, she was half Teutonic, specifically, a Frantz (rhymes with ants), and the sole heir to the Frantz Ketchup fortune though she’d yet to come into a nickel of it. Deanna also knew Vivian was divorced and not just because she no longer wore a wedding ring. She’d uncovered a lot she needed to know about Vivian Pirelli (and more!) from an online tabloid that included a photo of her wearing a shower cap, sucking on a Frantz pickle. Guido Pirelli or one of his Sicilian racecar-driving kin must have slipped the press that photo. A cousin on the Pirelli side was quoted anonymously saying, “Guido married a-Vivian for the money and got a-tired a waiting for her mother to a-croak.”
 
“He didn’t do his homework.” Deanna reseated herself, folding her arms in front of her. “Modern may fly in Boston, but Blank’s out of touch with Hankey, Pennsylvania.”
 
None of the other guild members had any grasp of the Boston opera scene, something they were no more likely to admit than Deanna was right about modern opera flopping in the Rust Belt. Yes, Nixon in China had been a critical success in the eighties, one of the few modern pieces even those with a limited appreciation of opera could name. But Blank’s insistence that Hankey mount an original show, Bush in Beijing, without the sponsorship of a famous patron or a go-ahead from the Kennedy Center would be sheer folly in the oughts. A modern opera with political overtones wouldn’t sell today—not in Louisville, not in Knoxville, and certainly not in Hankey, which was both smaller and more blue-collar than either of those towns. Bush in Beijing wasn’t all that fresh. If you’ve seen one opera that opens at the Beijing airport, you’ve seen them all.
 
None of the guild officers, not even Hankey’s resident conductor Maestro Jan Schantzenbach, a guild member ex officio, could sit through modern opera. Too dissonant and atonal. All that exoticism and alienation. Their taste trended along with most of Middle America’s. Call them provincial; they preferred to think of themselves as practical opera buffs. If tempted to credit their season selections to audience pandering, consider the offerings of the country’s most respected companies: Chicago’s Lyric, San Francisco, and the New York Met. They rarely gambled on modern opera, and Hankey couldn’t afford to either. “Bring on the fatal stabbings, the cross-dressers, the heroic fiber that turns to hubris faster than opera house patrons hit the restrooms at intermission,” Deanna had remarked when it was time to select this year’s slate.
 
“You’re not supposed to pluck nose hairs,” Vivian said because she showed an early tendency to resurrect subjects long after they’d been tabled. “It can be . . . lethal.”
 
“What about his sport coat?” Deanna said because she’d set aside further nose hair discussion five minutes ago. “It looked like he borrowed it from his teenage son.”
 
“I didn’t mind his ill-fitting jacket as much as his sweating,” Oriane said, her voice high-pitched and lilting, even at nine-thirty in the morning. Oriane—the little soprano who could—named for the shining ingénue in Bach’s Amadis de Gaule. She would have much preferred to be named Paris, like the city, like the Hilton. Paris did sound more alluring than Oriane, though no better with Longenecker. Fingers crossed, she wouldn’t be keeping Longenecker much longer. 

“Did you notice that water was, like, dripping from his palms?” Oriane began playing with her hands, as she was wont to do. This time she’d intertwined them, massaging the soft skin on the insides of her long fingers. “If he sweats that much in April, what’s going to happen during Riverboat Days in July?”
 
“I wouldn’t concern myself with his sweating. He could have hyperhidrosis,” Richard said. “An easily rectifiable condition.”
 
“Wh—what now?” Vivian said. “Blank was our last candidate.”
 
“No, we have one more,” Deanna said. “God help us if this one’s no better.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

Children of an Idle Brain

Happy Friday everyone!

Today's story is an excerpt from a novel called Children of an Idle Brain. The author, John W. Nealle, is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, and this story has definite elements of the screenwriting style. It's told in alternating points of view of three very different sisters. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and then go forth and enjoy your hopefully sunny weekends!

Children Of An Idle Brain
By John W. Nealle

Prologue: Chorus

Gretchen
We kill men. It's true. And I damn well won’t apologize for it. Would you believe me if I told you that we even steal their souls as well? Probably not. I find it hard to believe myself sometimes. I think it's a lot of fun, to be honest. Angie and Lydia take the fun out of it sometimes, though. I love them. I really do, but they can be so fucking anal sometimes, especially Lydia. Ever since Ursula (that was her stage name apparently, none of us knew her real name) left her, she has been a real pain in the ass and a real downer.

Angie misses mother too much. It's not that I don't miss her either, I just feel that, wherever she is, she would be happy if she knew we carried on with our mission. I can’t stand being reminded by all the time by Angie’s chronic mourning. You know, sometimes I can even picture mother in hell sipping on a vodka martini while Satan begs for her forgiveness. That's not to say that she is in hell. That's just how she was. Strong. Unforgiving. Unwilling. Undying. I strive to be like her. But this was before he came to her and destroyed her. Yes, I blame him for her death. He stripped her of her will, and we hated him for it. So, with the gift of our mother, we took matters into our own hands.

Angerona
Dear Mother,

I miss you so much. My scar burns every night and I think of all the sweet and bitter memories. Today I visited your resting place again. I say “resting place”, because “grave” and “burial” sound so damn depressing and final. I like to believe it’s just a place you hang out at whenever you’re tired of haunting the living. Visiting you there every month has become a ritual of mine. It has been three years so far. They say time heals, but I think revenge quickens it. I think about the look on his face when he realized that we had avenged you and it brings me pleasure, so much pleasure that I want to do it again to every male that reminds me of him. Mother if only you knew how sweet the gift is that you gave us. But I fear mother, I fear that it will become a curse. We can't help our evil intent. Mother you must know that I used that gift to seduce a rich man. The money from the trial is more than enough for us to live on. You would be proud, but I fear that none of us have control over it. It consumes us. I think Gretchen is the worse. She has become unstoppable. Her hatred and lust drives her so strongly, she becomes something other than human. And poor Lydia is darkened and divided. She loves and yet she is not loved. Mother I wish I knew how to stop or control that gift. What does it mean? What is really for?

Love Angie.

Lydia
I don't have much to say these days. I mostly daydream of the day Ursula will return to me, while trying to keep Gretchen from killing everyone and Angie from fits of madness. "I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled," so the poem goes. I feel like that somedays. I feel like a paradoxical love song. However, I am by no means physically old, I just have the soul of an older woman; something like Virginia Woolf in her late thirties. I must admit that I love our new house.

Thanks to Angie and the lawsuit, we live comfortably. We have an extra room just for my library, an extra room for Angie's art supplies, and a room for Gretchen's lovers. Speaking of Gretchen, she has been really irritating lately. Her harem of lovers is ridiculous. And she doesn't clean up very well afterward either. I constantly find blood stains in the hallways leading to her room, and on her bedroom door the next morning. I've tried telling her about it but she just gets angry or puts its off, knowing that she can tolerate a mess longer than I can. 

Then there is Angie, who is so quiet and so devoted to keeping mother’s gift pure. I worry about her much these days. She has continued to visit mother every month. Her fits have lessened the past few months. I saw some of her paintings yesterday. They were tragic, but at least hopeful. When mother died, all she painted were nightmarish scenes, like Goya's black paintings. Now she has added a bit more color and gracefulness to them. I also noticed that she has mother's diary. I catch her reading each night before she goes to bed. Sometimes I read it for myself when she is at school. I love reading the parts about her first love. It gives me hope that Ursula will return. The things we do for love.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More Than Just Whiskey & Luck

Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone! I know Wednesday is usually Story Time here, but I thought since it's the day of the Irish, I'd leave today open to talk about our favorite Irish writers. (Story Time will be moved to Friday!)

My favorite Irish writer is Roddy Doyle, who is probably most famous for writing The Commitments, which was turned into an equally awesome movie. But Roddy became one of my faves after I read A Star Called Henry, followed almost immediately by The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha. His writing is as beautiful, sad, and funny as his characters. Also, his name is very fun to say out loud.

Two other contemporary Irish novels worth checking out are Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson and The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien. Both are dark and funny, but in different ways. Eureka Street is a more satirical look at the religious and political conflicts that still exist in Ireland. The Third Policeman, however, is a bit more trippy as it takes you on a cyclical walk through what is basically Hell, but in Ireland. Also, if you're a Lost fan, you may remember seeing O'Brien's book on Desmond's nightstand. Not a coincidence! I suspect that Lost was heavily, heavily influenced by O'Brien mind-bending and oftentimes frustrating tale.

So before you go off to listen to U2, perfect your Michael Flatley jig, and then cry into your pint of Guinness after reading The Dead, tell me who your favorite Irish writers are. Then I'll let you go enjoy happy hour :)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Non-Literary Characters

A quick beginning note - there's a new writer's blog in town! Lisa Rusczyk, who you may remember from her appearance on Glass Cases, has a shiny new blog called Hazard Cat that is OPEN TO SUBMISSIONS! So go forth and submit! I promise I won't get jealous :) 

While this blog is generally for the literary-minded, I've been thinking lately about characters that are written for the screen, rather than the page. Specifically, for the small screen, because I think we'd be here until the end of time trying to pin down the greatest characters in film. Anyway, I like T.V. My appreciation for a good story and strong characters is not limited to novels; in fact, sometimes I prefer to sit down and witness some truly great television writing instead. (Likewise, sometimes I watch marathons of What Not to Wear, but that's a story for another time.)

I don't know if you all have been noticing this, but in recent years, the quality of T.V. shows has gone way up. Shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Lost, The West Wing, My So-Called Life, and Firefly are (and in some unfortunate cases, were) the equivalents of literary fiction. They have depth, complexity, character development, suspense, familiarity, and they do not shy away from heightened dialogue or ideas. Also, like with a novel, you cannot start in the middle.

Speaking more specifically to the characters themselves, I've been trying to figure out who I think are the greatest T.V. characters of all-time. I hate coming up with "greatest" lists because everything is so subjective, so I bring you my top five favorite characters (who I secretly consider the best):

5) Ted Baxter, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I know, this is before my time. But, in my opinion, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was way ahead of its time, so it all balances out. Without Ted Baxter, I don't think we'd have nearly the number of lovable oafs on T.V. as there are today. Since Ted may have been responsible for Phil Dunphy (Modern Family), then for that reason alone, he must be acknowledged.

4) George Constanza, Seinfeld. My love of George ended around season six or seven when I thought he became too cartoonishly evil, but the early years of George represented a perfect combination of New York neurosis and immaturity. He's not person you'd necessarily like in real life, but you love him from the safe distance behind the camera.

3) Milhouse Van Houten, The Simpsons. With The Simpsons, it's hard to pick just one. Sure, Homer might be considered the "best," but Milhouse, much like in his life in Springfield, is vastly underrated and under-appreciated. Inspiration for children of divorced parents and to anyone who's ever known the pain of unrequited romance (and friendship), Milhouse just wants to be loved. And he is, by me. "Everything's coming up Milhouse!" indeed.

2) The Mayor, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Yes, he was only on for one season and he wasn't a principal player. Choosing a "best" character from what I consider the "best" show is a bit like choosing my favorite child, but, to me, Mayor Richard Wilkins III was such an amazingly crafted character. The ultimate villain, an instrument of pure evil, and the square father figure who reminds you that good hygiene and manners never hurt anyone. Of Mr. Whedon's many (many!) brilliant characters, I am always most impressed by The Mayor.

1) Brian Krakow, My So-Called Life. Brian, Brian, Brian. Is there a better character in the history of television? He's the boy next door who you don't really want to end up with the girl after all. He's hardly the lovable nerd, but he can't be called totally manipulative either because half the time he's just too clueless. Brian is funny, sad, misunderstood, and real. He's just, in a word, perfect.

Honorable mentions: Liz Lemon, 30 Rock and Sue Sylvester, Glee. These women may be different in personality, but they have this in common: they are strong, funny, and driven, and there need to be more women on T.V. like them.

I notice a theme in my most beloved characters. They are all people who are a little bit sad, a little bit hard to like, and impossible not to love. Complexity and originality are the keys of creating strong, memorable characters. How do you approach building your characters in your own work? Are there certain T.V. characters you use as inspiration?

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Tale of Two Starlets


It was the best of publishing; it was the worst of publishing... 

This week we learned of two new celebrity book deals. Both deals involve former Disney starlets who became hot messes. The difference between the two is that one (Hilary Duff) just sort of went through a "Take that, Disney!" phase, whereas the other (Lindsay Lohan) is pretty much the reason the phrase "hot mess" exists. 

Now, everyone groans and rolls eyes when celebrities get book deals. And not without reason. To real writers, it's like a slap in the face, and being on the side of writers always, I have to agree with that sentiment. Celebrity memoirs are easy because even if the celebs can't write, someone will do it for them the way someone does everything else they're unable, and unwilling, to do in life. Publishers, meanwhile, pay big money for these literary equivalents of E! True Hollywood Stories because, somewhere out there, millions of people will buy them. It's gross, I know.

Lindsay's upcoming memoir is exactly why writers, and industry types, shudder in fits of disgust (and in the case of the industry: self-loathing). The life of Ms. Lohan can be summed up as thus: Talented. Beautiful. Cocaine. Rehab. Sort of Good Looking. No Panties. Anne Heche-style Lesbian. Rehab. Oh God, Why Do You Look Like That? 

And yet she feels America (nay, the world) needs to hear her story. Says Lindsay: "It's going to take a while, all my life experiences. I started writing it a year ago. There's a lot to put down, you know?" We know, Lindsay. Writing is hard.

I joined Team Lindsay when she was about six-years-old and on the underrated, and now deceased, daytime soap opera, Another World. I've been disappointed ever since, but Hilary Duff, meanwhile, just annoyed me. Sure, I wasn't young enough to really care about Lizzie McGuire by the time she came on the scene, but I still appreciated whatever Lindsay, and her awesome red hair, was doing. 

So, when I saw that Hilary Duff was signing with Simon & Schuster to publish a YA series, I thought it was a case of another bored celebrity thinking, "Oh hey, children's books are easy, right? I'll do that!" (I'm looking at you, Madonna!). Imagine my shock when I read that her upcoming series actually sounded pretty solid, and that she was working on a nonfiction book about children of divorced parents.

Says Hilary: "I've always loved the escape of a great book, especially one that features a strong, inspiring female character you feel you really understand." 

Wait. I have no snarky comeback to that.  She sounds intelligent, articulate, and excited about getting young people to read. How dare you pleasantly surprise me, Ms. Duff?

I like being proved wrong (sometimes) because I tend to be pretty steadfast in my opinions, and there is a lesson to be learned here: not all celebrity book deals are created equal. If you can call "celebrity books" a genre, then like any genre that gets tiresome after a while (cough:vampireszombiesJaneAusten:cough), there still can be a few that slip by and feel OK (cough:AbrahamLincolnVampireHunter:cough). 

Or put more simply: It is a far, far better thing that Hilary does, than Lindsay has ever done; it is a far, far better book that will be published than Lindsay has ever known.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Peanut

Call me a sucker for the dark side of youth, but today's story is filled with the sadness and complexity that I just can't get enough of. Hope you enjoy it too!

The author, Kenneth Goorabian is from Garden Grove, CA, which he describes as "just a stone's throw from the Magic Kingdom and his three granddaughters." He has written a collection of short horror stories, Devils’ Bluff, and is currently working on a picture book called Frankie’s World, a supernatural novel called Withershins, and various screenplays. 

Peanut
By Kenneth Goorabian

Peanut knew she was as close to being a teenager as she would probably ever be. Whenever she could stomach looking at herself in the mirror she'd still laugh and make strange faces, pretending the hairless, waif-thin being with the sunken pale blue eyes staring back at her was an alien from some distant planet, marooned on Earth by no fault of her own. But lately the game was wearing thin. It just made her cry, and as much as she'd fight it, the tears always came after; a river of tears that soaked the front of her gown and made her eyes all puffy and swollen, which made her look even worse.

With a uniform gun-metal gray sky as a backdrop, she sat at a desk by the window writing furiously in her journal. In her mind death was always no more than two steps behind and she refused to let it catch her before she finished her thoughts. Perhaps death was just waiting for her hand to slow down, she thought. Maybe this would be the last sentence, or even the last word to crawl from the tip of her pencil. In that case she was determined to make every word count. To die while writing some meaningless drivel would be the highest form of insult, wouldn’t it?

Death was not far from her thoughts as she scribbled a tiny, dark circle on the next page; nothing more, just a simple dot in a sea of white. It was her latest theory of what death was. Like a period at the end of a story. "THE END". If you questioned her she couldn't explain why; it just was.

Peanut stopped writing for a moment and tugged the dark knit cap down tighter over her smooth head. She only rarely took it off. It was a present from her mother. The softness of the cashmere felt good against her skin and it made her feel sort of pretty, although she wasn't sure if that was even possible given her circumstances.

One by one, as if by magic, the lights that rose from the snow covered parking lot like unwavering, leafless trees blinked on. Placing her fragile, almost translucent hand against the window, she closed her eyes and tried to imagine what the delicate, white snowflakes that seemed to battle one another to gently kiss the cool glass might feel like against her skin. Reluctant to break contact, she finally drew back her hand, held her breath, and counted as the perfect outline left behind by the warmth of her touch slowly faded into nothing. Nothing lasts, she thought. The tears came again. She didn't even try to stop them.

She stifled a yawn. It wasn't even dinner time and she was all ready getting tired. She knew the treatments were to blame. It was all she could do to get out of bed these days, and eating was nearly mission impossible. But eat she would, even if it ended up decorating the toilet bowl a half hour later looking to all appearances like something the cat yacked up. Anything was better than being drip fed with a bag of fluid. Anything.

The sound of the dinner carts clattering down the hallway searched her out. Gripping the edge of the desk, she gingerly stood up on legs as unsteady as a new born colt. Satisfied that the trembling sticks would accept her meager weight, she paused until the wavering room decided to cooperate. Smiling, she took a deep breath and shuffled to the bed, counting her steps as she went.

Peanut lay back on the bed, closed her eyes, and drifted off wondering if she would ever kiss a boy or drive a car. Or better yet, kiss a boy in a car. She decided these questions were better left for another day.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Now Why Didn't I Think of That?

I'm going to be honest. Today's blog post is basically  an excuse for me to talk more about how much I loved, and envied, my dear friend's (and soon-to-be-ex colleague) dramatic interpretation of analyzing a query letter. It is called Query Snark: A Play in One Act, and it reveals the ridiculousness of the querying process through the work of The Beatles. It's the combination of these two things that make me jealous I didn't think of it first, so all I can do now is share it with as many people as I can and reluctantly attribute its credit to her.

But, of course, it also got me thinking of what else I envy, creatively speaking. I don't mean in the sense that I wish I had the idea for The Da Vinci Code so I could make tons of money, though that would have been nice. For example, one of my favorite authors is Kelly Link. If I had to place her in a genre, I guess it would be "magical realism," but let's put labels aside for now. Kelly Link, to me, represents the perfect combination of wit, fantasy, pop culture, and an "under 40" appeal that still sounds wise beyond its years. She is how I would write if I had the talent; therefore, she tops my list of "Dah! If only I could've written that!"

What out there have you read (or watched) that made you say that? I know I went with an entire author, but that's only because I can't even count the number of lines, paragraphs, or even word choices that I've read and thought, simply, yes.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

From the Beach to the Desert


Come get lost, disillusioned, and saved in San Diego with me today. Today's story is the prologue of the novel, From the Beach to the Desert, by Dillon Mullenix. It's a subject matter many of us can relate to, but what struck me most was the sense of place. I love when a setting is so vivid that it becomes like a character itself, and Dillon, who spent his college years in San Diego, has been clearly influenced by his surroundings.

Dillon Mullenix is from Los Angeles and gave up a career in law to become a writer. He now resides "just above the heat of the lower desert, in a fortified double-wide, guarded by pit-bulls, marigolds, rotting corpses, and chicken wire." He has been published in various magazines and blogs, such as Common Ties, Vivid, Boho Chico, and Fourth Magazine, as well as in an anthology titled, Relationships and Other Stuff. 

From the Beach to the Desert
By Dillon Mullenix

On Sunday I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to puke and then I went back to bed.  I knew what was happening and I wasn’t nervous.  I waited for it to come and when it did I let it out into the toilet bowl … when I was done I rinsed my mouth out and went back to bed. “Are you alright?” Leila asked.  And I said I was fine.  I just had to pass the poison on.

It was 11:00 a.m. and the sun was high in the sky, unobstructed by the cloud formations in the distance, clouds that I could hardly see over the rooftops of the beach homes. Everyone was at work.  I was home alone, sitting outside in the sun smoking and drinking beer, thinking of Warner Springs, California, where I planned to move.  I had this idea of what a desert person was like based on TV stereotypes; Cowboys and Indians, freedom on the open range, little law, little government, a simpler life.  Isolated.  Individualistic. It described what I felt to be an achievable character goal, and a norm in the high desert’s culture.

At the time I knew I couldn’t just sit around San Diego forever biding my time.  It had been too long already.  Graduation had come and gone, my lease was up and my only viable option seemed to be “The Dub,” as I termed it.  I was ready to move.  I was excited and happy about it; although, I felt that in some primordial way what I was doing was wrong.  I was leaving Leila to the dogs.

The thought of staying for one more needless moment in San Diego made it impossible to wait for Leila.  I couldn’t take her with me, anyway.  That seemed an impractical thing to do.  It would have made everything I was trying to achieve by moving away from the city and all the habits I had formed there impossible.

Not having anything to do, but wait, I sat around in my apartment building in Ocean Beach, plotting my next move, writing poetry, and watching the ocean undulate with the predictable receding and advancing lunar sequences.

I spent several months like that, just sitting around, watching the surfers and the dogs playing in the sand by the jetty.  Occasionally, there was a storm and I saw fifty-foot behemoth waves crashing into the pier while rain lightly rapped at my black jacket.  It was a simple pier: concrete pillars supporting a wooden deck made of weather beaten planks.  Dogs weren’t allowed on the pier, but Oso and I used to go out anyhow, and gaze out at the foaming and churning waters coughing up below.

Those days were interjected by fierce arguments with my woman.  She and I had been living together since we met at a Halloween party back in the summer of ‘05.  I loved her as soon as I saw her.  She was wearing a sexy cowgirl getup that showed off her nice tits and good legs. That was three years ago, and the happiness has long since set into the dusk behind the edge of the ocean.

I guess, toward the end of my stay the fights and fiendish nights became more violent and more the norm of our relationship, and the long happy days in the warmth of the sun dwindled down to almost never.  At that point all we had was our high sessions and the sex holding us together.  I drank plenty, just sitting in a small dark room wasting away, watching muscles turn to fat and the dreams fade away.  She cried in the front room, and I listened silently from the gloom of the old white walled room we shared for so long.

Sometimes, I think of my guilt, all the addiction and temptation I had succumb to, it dysfunctioned us, causing irreparable damage, and not only to our relationship, but to her.  That’s what her friends thought anyway, and it wasn’t far from what our neighbors knew to be true. It wasn’t intentional.  The timing just wasn’t right for us.

There were other things that were going right, too. School had come to an end, leaving me with too much time to dwell on the idiosyncratic right-wing nature of San Diego, the part I didn’t like. I didn’t have homework, textbooks, or mid-terms or finals to hide what was all around me.
  
Until I moved to San Diego I had never been in trouble with the law, however, since moving here I had countless interactions with the local police. I got caught stealing a text book. Caught with drugs in the car.  Caught drunk in public. Caught pissing in public a few times. Caught for various traffic infractions. I was sent to jail a few times for some of those infractions.

The thing was I had been a model student all my life. I went to class, earned first-rate grades and maintained a level of civic responsibility.  I voted then, and engaged people in heated debates over politics and science, and, at the time, I was still under the belief that individual were powerful mechanisms in American government.
I don’t harbor that illusion anymore. In O.B. I dreamt of escaping all that surrounded me every night I closed my eyes, like an orphan dreams of adoption.  I was the epitome of an alienated youth.
      
At first I thought the city was changing, but I realized I was just getting tired of the way it had always been.  The office buildings, authority, density and gentrification, materialism, façades of cinderblock and steel, long hours without sleep, lights at night, no stars, the sad song of the ocean; I was sick of all of it, of seeing it, being a part of it, feeding into it, feuding with it.

Even in my sanctuary, in the hippie beach town of O.B., the cops had a definite presence. Everything had disintegrated into degeneracy. And I understood something then I had not believed before: Being yourself is illegal in America. I knew that all I had to do was leave and everything would be okay.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Less Equals More?


As many of you probably know, SMITH Magazine began a series called the Six-Word Memoir. The most famous six-word memoir is arguably Ernest Hemingway's, which is "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."

Over the weekend, The Huffington Post ran a story featuring some six-word memoirs, and, to his credit, James Frey's is pretty good. I have yet to perfect my memoir, and I have been thinking of one for over a year. I like the idea of setting limitations on myself to breed creativity, but I find I never can stay within my own lines. Now that I've joined Twitter, I can see the importance of brevity (well, sometimes) and appreciate a witty, informative tweet, knowing the person only had 140 characters with which to express his or her sentiment.

Given my penchant for direct, no frills writing, I'm actually surprised it took me so long to join Twitter and is taking me even longer to think of six words that encompass my life. OK, so when I put it that way it does sound pretty hard.

Do you ever place writing limitations in your own work just to see what happens? For fun, try to come up with a six-word memoir and post below. I'll start: "Born. Read Books. Here I Am."

Like I said, I haven't perfected it yet.