"They Didn't Have Pictures, Just Memories..."

dateline.jpg

Earlier today, I went rifling through old photo albums, searching for an image I could see so clearly in my mind: a picture of me at ten years old, on the first or last day of school, standing alongside Betsy O’Dell, a young woman with straw-blond hair and a broad, infectious smile, my fifth-grade teacher. Such pictures were a ritual, every year, Mom and her camera: Mrs. Bond, first grade, Andy in his ringed knee socks; Mrs. Paley, second grade, Andy in his striped shirt. Beaming out, always, from his parents’ inconsequential record of a boy and his teachers. Seven, eight, nine years old, each picture like the one before it, until they apparently stopped in 1988, and here, in the last one I could find, is Andy, posed in the waning days of the spring semester with Mrs. Taylor, fourth-grade Citizenship Award dangling from his neck. Hands clasped, bearing it all with a tight grin. One summer away from the first shades of the person he would become.

pictures_teachers.jpg

I’m told that Besty Avant Jordan (Mrs. O’Dell to me) died of an aneurysm on Monday, July 8. My wife came out of the house with the phone, where I was cutting branches in the summer heat. She said it was Dad, said he had bad news he wanted to tell me. The day was bright, clear, not a cloud in the sky. I doubt many people get bad-news calls when their fifth-grade teacher from thirty years past leaves the earth. I imagine more than a few got calls on July 8, when Betsy O’Dell left. I don’t know how she touched others’ lives, but I’d like to tell you exactly how she touched mine.

Three years ago, on September 23, 2016, after announcing on Facebook that I would be traveling from Georgia to Arkansas to read from my soon-to-be published novel at my college alma mater, Betsy Jordan sent me the following via Facebook Messenger.

message1.jpg

For whatever reason, chalk it up to some mischievous Internet god, I missed her message and didn’t see it until months later. Which was fine, I guess, because I don’t think she actually made the reading. I dropped her an apologetic note for failing to respond. She answered:

message2.jpg

It’s no small thing that Betsy O’Dell carried that expectation of me. It was, after all, in her class that I felt, for the very first time, what it meant to be a writer. The first and greatest seismic event in my creative life, I suppose. In fact, it would not be overstating things to say I don’t remember ever having had the desire to be a writer before her class. I’m sure it was there, some spark in the back of my mind, struggling to catch, to kindle between aimless doodles on notebook paper. But in her class the fire caught.

My favorite part of every day came first thing in the morning, when we were given twenty minutes of quiet time to journal. Her only requirement: we had to write. That was all. No restrictions. And, at the end of the allotted time, we could volunteer to share what we’d written with the class. That meant standing at the front of the room and reading our work aloud, a prospect I found terrifying. One day, a spiky-haired, mullet-sporting kid named Kyle Carter, who sat in front of me, turned around and snatched my Dateline Five Subject Theme Book and silently read what I’d written (I don’t remember if he was being a bully or was just genuinely curious). I sat quietly while he read, and when he turned around in his desk and handed the notebook back, he said, “This is good. You should read it.” I shook my head, said no thanks. So, again, he snatched the Dateline and shot his hand up when Mrs. O’Dell asked for volunteers. This is what he read:

first_page.jpg

Granted, it wasn’t Shakespeare, my tale of a talking worm who wore a hat, drove a worm-mobile, and got into adventures, but Kyle Carter read it so badly, so falteringly, that I was mortified. Each stammer, each stumble was a knife twisting in me. But a funny thing happened: the story hooked the class. The next day, Mrs. O’Dell looked to me to continue the story, and I knew then that I had to get up, had to read it myself, if only because she set that expectation of me. So I did, and when I looked up from the very last of the next few pages, I saw, for the first time, a rapt audience waiting eagerly for my next words. Of course, they were ten-year-olds, and the passage I’d just read ended with four centipedes kidnapping Willy’s wife, but I’ve never forgotten that feeling. I’ve carried it with me every step and misstep of the way, these last thirty years: the certainty that someone somewhere will listen, if what you say—and maybe how you say it—is worth their time. In this, Betsy O’Dell gave me the time and the silence and the encouragement to discover a new truth about myself.

I never found a picture of the two of us, though I’m sure there’s a class photograph somewhere, in some old annual I don’t have on hand anymore, that would feature me, Mrs. O’Dell, and the smiling faces of every single student who sat in the classroom listening to me read over the next few months in the fall of 1988. I remember them all, and I remember her, smiling from behind her desk. Maybe I thought I’d gotten too old for pictures with the teacher, I don’t know. Maybe I whinged about it to Mom and she said whatever. Maybe it just didn’t happen because sometimes we forget or time just gets away from us or the Internet gods don’t want us to reconnect. I wrote forty pages of Willy’s story, before the end. It spanned the whole of his life with Martina. Eleven chapters total. Here is the final paragraph:

End.jpg

To this day, I don’t know why they didn’t have pictures.

The Dead Don't Lie: Jim Jarmusch Makes a (Terrible) Zombie Movie

deaddontdie.jpg

If you believe Jim Jarmusch — and he’s certainly earned my trust over the years with great films like Dead Man, Only Lovers Left Alive, Down by Law, etc. — he made a deliberately awkward movie in The Dead Don’t Die. A movie with “crude acting … cheap special effects … and … a deliberate awkwardness in its style,” he tells Hillary Weston of the Criterion Channel blog. That awkwardness, he says, “becomes an asset because it underscores the awkwardness of the situation within the movie,” a movie he considers both an homage to and an extension of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It’s a good interview, and worth your time, especially if you hated The Dead Don’t Die, as I did. The interview reminds us all that a filmmaker’s vision, however well-articulated, sometimes mismatches drastically with the final product, so much so, maybe, that even the director thinks he made exactly the movie he wanted to make.

Is The Dead Don’t Die awkward? Yes. Is the acting crude? Sort of (sometimes it’s not really acting at all; it’s just Steve Buscemi saying lines wasted on his range and talent). Is it cheaply made? Sure. Was Night of the Living Dead all of those things, too, minus Steven Buscemi? I guess. But there’s more to a horror film than its limitations; the best horror films transcend their limitations and touch the sublime.

The Dead Don’t Die does not touch the sublime, not in the slightest, though, to be fair, it seems Jarmusch isn’t really reaching for it. In fact, he seems to suggest he’s simply following in Romero’s footsteps in the interview linked above. “Romero certainly used the zombie metaphor,” he says, “but I think he was probably less aware of the social consciousness woven into Night of the Living Dead than you might think from seeing it.” I’m skeptical of that, given the ending of Romero’s classic film, in a which a black hero who has survived the night is gunned down by callous white crackers. After all, only six months prior to the film’s release, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. I don’t know, maybe Jimbo is a fan of Romero, as he says, but whereas The Dead Don’t Die suggests we’d all be better off decapitated, Night of the Living Dead, in its final moments, reminds us not of what we deserve, but of everything we’ve lost. It’s the difference, to co-opt Mark Twain, between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Adding insult to injury here is a lazy script full of cynicism and condescension, contemptuous of its audience. When the fourth walls break or the jokes deliberately don’t land, or the voice-over metaphors explain to you, the cinema-lover, how stupid you are for having a Nintendo, it’s easy to forget that movies are magic. That stories are (or should be) about us.

In the end, the movie a director makes tells one truth or another, any way you slice it. Here, too, the dead don’t lie: Jim Jarmusch may like the movie he’s made, but he doesn’t much care for you or me. He’d drive right by the hardware store on a road to nowhere.

On Writing that (Really) Shitty First Draft

george-michael-banana-stand-1024x750.jpg

From Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott:

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled…. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do — you can either type, or kill yourself."

So.

Back in February, I sat down to face the long dark of finishing a first draft of a novel that’s both historical and complex in terms of its multiplicity of characters and ethnicities, and I was terrified. Terrified of failure, terrified of being exposed for the fraud I am. Terrified of making a culturally insensitive blunder. (Which makes me wonder how many of us, as writers, live in a constant state of terror when it comes to our work?) How, I thought, can I push through this? Keep my head down, as one Bluth might say to another, and power through? The short answer is that I got it done, and I’m still terrified of all those things. The long answer is…well, longer.

After all, the first book, we assume, is always a fluke, you’ll never manage to do that again. The second book you don’t even remember how you summoned the strength to start, much less finish, unless it had something to do with the desperate desire to prove you could do it again, and do it a little better maybe. The third book, now, that’s a new ball of wax entirely. Now, you have a publisher willing to contract a book before it’s even written! How cool is that? Not half as cool, you figure, as the no-longer-private nature of your failure if you can’t pull this hat trick off for a third time.

So, in the hopes of learning something about my process, of establishing some efficient design workflow to make it all feel smooth and professional, I decided to conduct a little research on myself.

The goal was simple: to complete a shitty first draft in about 2 months. I had roughly 20,000 words on the page already, thanks to steady writing last fall before edits/revisions came down from my editor on book 2, which is out next February. So we’re talking 60,000 more words through March and April et voila: 1 complete draft. Fears of never finishing that second contracted novel and being forever shamed allayed. Whew.

As brief as I can be, here’s what I learned about How I Write by examining how I wrote the terrible, no-good, very-bad rough draft of my third novel.

  • First, I kept a chapter-by-chapter journal of my word count to track my daily productivity. It turns out, I’m best when I can lay down about 1,000 to 1,500 words a day. Anything more than that, I start writing stage directions. People start nodding their heads and looking left and right. Anything less, I’m not really trying, my heart’s not in it, the cat’s trying to play fetch with me, the day at work sucked, etc.

  • In order to be productive and steadily progressing toward the end (which means daily seat time), I must work from an outline. I must know the final destination of my characters, even if I don’t know all the whys and wherefores of how they get there, emotionally. Maybe it’ll all change later, but I have to end up somewhere in order to really finish. This means index cards, three acts, sequences and scenes, and positive and negative turns in each scene to create an emotional connection with the reader (which sounds kind of cyborgy, but it’s not).

  • Things I neglect in a first draft: deep character work; nuance of characters’ speech; period details; names of animals, in this case horses; what people wear, if the year is 1875, which it is; set-ups and payoffs; was it a knife or a cudgel, who cares, make it whatever it needs to be in the moment and fix it later. Stuff like that.

  • I really like the anticipation of revision, even though I may not always like revision. I make notes to myself, here and there, to go add this or fix that later, in the hope that I’ll actually salvage something good or even great from this mess.

  • I read about one book before I begin that’s situated in my time and place and use it to set the mood and tone. In this case, it was Robert Olmstead’s great novel Savage Country.

  • I really dig finishing. It’s a hell of a sweet feeling.

So, while I know all of this may not be terribly interesting news to anyone but me, I do think it’s insightful for all of us to take a look at what we do from time to time and try to figure out how we do it best, and when we do it worst. One of the things Anne Lamott suggests is that shitty first drafts have great value, that they’re the equivalent of imagining, of playing, of dreaming, before the hard work of analysis begins.

Do I believe I can do this again? Of course. Do I expect to fail when I try? Absolutely. But I’ll keep at it. Because, you know, it’s either type or…well, it’s just type.

DE PALMA

De Palma.png

2015 / Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow

“Holy Mackerel!” the great director exclaims. And keeps exclaiming, one of his favorite expressions, in a movie about Brian DePalma’s favorite things. Here is a filmmaker full of charm and vitality and, at times, maybe, just like his favorite exclamation, slightly out of touch with the moment. But that’s okay: we live in a world in which art is often cast aside in favor of corporate mandates, fashionable culture, and marketability. Over the course of a storied and laudable career, DePalma stayed true to himself, mostly, and acknowledges that, when he didn’t, yeah, it was a mistake. But it was also fun. And this is perhaps the most charming thing of all: a director known for having a sleazy, violent eye, is really just an exuberant kid at play, with a prodigious talent and intellect to bolster his efforts. What a great way to spend an evening.

5_long.jpg


Aquaman

“I grew up in a lighthouse. I kill fish. I’m Aquaman.”

“I grew up in a lighthouse. I kill fish. I’m Aquaman.”

2018 / Written by, like, 6 people / Directed by James Wan

It’s my belief, friends, that there are three audiences for a theoretical Aquaman movie, the first being die-hard DC fans who want to see it, the second being everyone else who isn’t a DC fan at all, and the third being folks like me, who’ve always thought the character was, at once, a goofy and delightful guy. Ben Affleck’s Batman pretty much sums up all the promise and reticence in Justice League: “I hear you can talk to fish…” Well, hey. That’s your sweet spot for an Aquaman movie!

Unfortunately, when Arthur Curry talks to fish in James Wan’s Aquaman, they bash their heads against glass or follow our hero to their doom in nonsensical battles in a villain’s nonsensical plot to enlist kingdoms to his cause by conquering them first. In other words, it seems like Aquaman kind of actually hates fish. Which is a problem in your movie about a self-proclaimed protector of the seas. (Indeed, everyone hates fish in this movie; Atlantis uses sea turtles as beasts of burden, one of the most dispiriting visuals ever—at least until the movie tops itself when Amber Heard rides an endangered Orca into battle.)

I don’t know. Look, it seems, at times, the filmmakers and actors truly believe they’re making a fun movie. LikeThor or Guardians of the Galaxy or even Splash, but those are all far superior movies in that they understand the inherent humor of their main characters and premise and have good actors in the principle roles. Don’t get me wrong: Momoa’s fine, but, like the writers, like the director, the guy doesn’t get what makes a character like Aquaman funny. I kept wondering how a kid who grew up in a lighthouse turned out to be this guy.

Other stuff—lazy stuff—bugged me. Would a Sicilian grandmother sit idly by while Americans trashed her living room? Nope. She’d take a broom to those jackasses (or a gun). Would the king of an undersea kingdom who hates the surface really make a deal with a surface-dwelling bad guy to torpedo his own lands? Are all underwater kings just kind of dumb? Is “Mother?” really the right line, when “Mom?” would be so much funnier?

Aside from all that, at the end of the day, it’s got its moments—Lovecraftian fish-monsters among them—but they’re all undercut by a bloated script, terrible dialogue, whole reels of exposition, and Amber Heard. Oh yeah, and this: why the hell would Aquaman need to go somewhere on a boat? Isn’t he, you know, Aquaman?

2_long.jpg

HOW-WEIRD, THE DUCK

From  the Lucasfilm website : somebody there still loves this guy…

From the Lucasfilm website: somebody there still loves this guy…

Let’s talk about Howard the Duck.

In an online survey, I recently posited HTD as one of those guilty-pleasure flicks, something from your childhood you know is bad but you can’t help watching (and loving, because, let’s face it, you loved it when you were eight). Well, the other day, in Target, I happened across a Blu-Ray of Howard and realized I’d made my assertion without having actually seen the movie in a dozen or so years. So, on a whim, I bought it. And watched it. And you know what? I was wrong. It’s not so-bad-it’s-good.

It’s just plain good, hands down.

Here’s the thing: we live in a post-Guardians, post-Thor world, where talking raccoons from outer space and grim, hammer-wielding gods fight side by side to the mellow rhythms of Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights.” For better or worse, Marvel has ascended to the throne and rules over American moviegoers with a mostly benevolent (yet often forgettable) hand. And while much is made in the Blu-Ray supplements about George Lucas’s belief in Howard the Duck, something we might have all rolled our eyes at ten years ago, when Disney had yet to purchase Star Wars and fully course-correct the storytelling missteps of Uncle George’s prequels, this much is true: time and hindsight have a way of cooling tempers and revealing a wiser, steadier hand at work. No, there still isn’t much cinematic worth to be found in Attack of the Clones, but no one can ever accuse George Lucas of not having the long game in mind. A born iconoclast in sheep’s plaid, he broke onto the scene with a nostalgia-fueled space fantasy in the seventies, when the realism of Coppola and Scorsese ruled the mean streets of American cinema. “Just wait 25 years,” he told Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who made Howard the Duck in 1986 and were savaged by the critics. Indeed, by 2011, somewhere in Hollywood, a talking raccoon with a machine gun and a Brooklyn accent was in development.

Guardians  concept art from 2010…

Guardians concept art from 2010…

James Gunn, of course, would take issue with the comparison. As a fan of Howard’s Marvel comic, he famously hates the movie, but his reasons have never made much sense to me (creepy eyelids?). The first name I thought of when re-watching Howard was, in fact, James Gunn. It seems to me the stellar Guardians franchise owes a small debt to Howard the Duck. A joke about a black light aboard the Milano, for instance, would be perfectly at home in a movie in which a space duck gets work at a hot-tub brothel in Cleveland. Which is to say: Uncle George was right. Howard the Duck was ahead of its time—by almost exactly 25 years.

Still, being prescient about what audiences will or won’t accept doesn’t equal greatness, so what makes Howard the Duck good, in my estimation?

For one thing, production value. A budget of thirty-eight million dollars is all on the screen, from the glorious stop-motion work of Phil Tippett to the incredible sound design of Ben Burtt. Also, there’s Howard’s expressive animatronic head, the pun-laden posters on his wall. His show-stopping opening flight through outer space. It’s one of Lucas’s favorite chestnuts, writ successful: special effects in service of story.

Second, the music: John Barry, of James Bond fame, is the composer, and his signature warmth and grandeur are present in the key themes. Also, the much-maligned punk rock soundtrack is actually pretty catchy. And give Lea Thompson props: she sings it all.

A comic-book color palette that’s so eighties..

A comic-book color palette that’s so eighties..

Third, the actors: they commit. Ed Gale’s performance as Howard is precise and delightful, and Lea Thompson is great. Every moment she’s on screen, she sells the idea that a girl could fall in love with a duck. Sure, Tim Robbins is still figuring himself out, but it’s fun to watch a character spring onto the screen in such a screwball fashion, then evolve into a dependable human sidekick (it’s a nifty twist on a moment, early in the film, when Philsy espouses his theory of duck evolution to Howard). And, of course, there’s the immensely gifted Jeffrey Jones, finding warmth and humanity in a scientist-turned-alien, perfectly at ease as both the helper character and the villain.

Finally, the script: it’s sharp and funny, tender and, yes, kind. And, of course, it’s weird. Very weird. But very human, too, which is something that often goes unsaid. Its characterization of Howard as a sarcastic hero with a warm heart is appealing, in particular his devotion to Beverly, but Katz and Huyck never let us forget: he’s an alien among us. And he has only one goal throughout the story—to get home. When he’s forced to make a choice between that goal and saving the human race, well, it’s an honestly earned moment. We believe in Howard’s fondness for us as a species, which is certainly an altogether ironic fact given audiences’ rejection of the character.

“This world didn’t treat you very nice…”

“This world didn’t treat you very nice…”

Ultimately, it’s not a perfect film, not by a long shot. It’s repetitive in its fight scenes between Howard and various thugs, and these are the moments when the limitations of costume and concept are on full display. Still, everyone’s working so hard to sell it, and it comes across as a genuine labor of delight and love. I can’t imagine how difficult this move was to make, or the heartbreak Katz and Huyck and Thompson and Gale must have felt when the world wasn’t ready for it. But they made it boldly, with a confidence that still shines. And George was there, too, believing in it just as much—and ignoring the critics, wise, aloof genius that he is.

For too long, I think, the arguments surrounding the picture have all related to taste and sexual hang-ups, the tensions we feel when seeing a tiny, duck-sized condom or the suggestion that a sex scene between a woman and a duck is about to take place. People missed the humor in these moments, maybe, I don’t know. As a kid, I found it fascinating, the idea that a duck even had sex appeal, whatever “sex appeal” was to eight-year-old me. Maybe it just meant Lea Thompson liked you, I don’t know. But it’s long past time we stop talking about the weird sex stuff as a flaw in the movie, or calling a duck with libido a pervert.

“Negativity is like a psychic boomerang…”

“Negativity is like a psychic boomerang…”

In 1986, audiences seemed to react to Howard the Duck as the movie equivalent of Joe Roma’s Cajun Sushi House: something on the menu for everyone, but no one’s got the stomach for it. We’re a more sophisticated audience these days, I think. So here’s hoping Howard the Duck gets taken off the standard rotation of “worst movies ever made” and held up for the truly ground-breaking, ahead-of-its-time fantasy-comedy-epic-sci-fi-action duck-woman romance it was.

Last Year's Best in Books, Movies, Intentions, Etc.

2017. The hits.

Let's start with the unexpected: documentaries. My picks for best of the year:

Electric Boogaloo and The Toys That Made Us go hand in hand, if you're in the mood for stories about mavericks who broke the rules and had great success doing so. Kedi is an amazing testament to humanity, of all things. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond and David Bowie: The Last Five Years make for an exceptional double-feature about the power of art, how it shapes the life of the artist from start to finish. Best watch them on separate nights, though. They'll both make you weep.

All of the above I saw on some streaming service, be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, or HBO NOW. Same goes for the TV below, my top 6 (because I couldn't stop at 5):

We saw the return of Twin Peaks, a limited series event that blew our minds, defied all expectations, and broke our hearts. As a third season to Twin Peaks, it's an utter failure. As an 18-hour experimental film, it's a smashing success. Dark had me from the get-go, turned compulsive after the first episode. Stranger Things 2 didn't disappoint -- except that one episode (you know the one). And, hey, have you heard of Maria Bamford? If you haven't, put your ear to the ground for Lady Dynamite. Master of None: Season 2 proved a comedy for romantic cinephiles, and Game of Thrones: Season 7 showed us the chilling meaning of "A Song of Ice and Fire."

Movies. Best I saw:

No, Golden Globes, Get Out is not a comedy. What it is is the best thriller to come out of Hollywood in a very long time. It's also a horror film. The Shape of Water is achingly beautiful moviemaking. The Last Jedi isn't perfect, but it's great, nevertheless. Rian Johnson is the breath of fresh air the saga needed. The scariest movie I saw in 2017 was on Netflix: The Blackcoat's Daughter. Wonder Woman left us all believing that superheroes might be super again. And the sweetest moment of the year in any movie goes to the most successful horror film of all time, when Beverly Marsh opens Ben Hanscom's yearbook and finds the signature pages blank.

Speaking of horror, let's talk books. Nonfiction first:

Skal's biography of Bram Stoker is about as intimate as such a book can get, the highlight being Stoker's letters to Walt Whitman, a friendship that was forged in words. Grady Hendrix and Will Errickson have reignited an old hobby with Paperbacks from Hell: my paperback collection grew considerably this year. And At Home with Monsters has served as a true inspiration, offering up Guillermo Del Toro's very personal answers to the perennial question, "Does horror matter?" (Spoiler: of course it does.)

Here are a few great fiction writers who would agree with me.

I don't read novellas often, but Mapping the Interior was a one-sitting blaze. This is a remarkable book by Stephen Graham Jones. Philip Fracassi's Behold the Void came in the mail as a friendly thank-you from the author, and I couldn't put it down. And while Michael Wehunt's Greener Pastures may not have been published in 2017, that's when I read it, and it remains the single greatest collection of modern literary horror I think I've read. The Changeling is a powerful novel about family and monsters, as is Kevin Catalano's Where the Sun Shines Out, though his stories have no need of supernatural creatures. Kevin's monsters are the plain old human kind, and plenty scary. Finally, I discovered Jeremy Robert Johnson's fiction because I've been paying attention to the people I should be reading. In the River is mythic, poetic, and utterly terrifying.

Last of all, a brief note about best intentions for 2017:

These are just a few of the books I didn't get around to, and the only reason for that is, well, what a busy a year it's been. Still, I'm making these my priorities, and 2018 will see them read, among others not pictured, including those I've yet to buy that I don't have room for. You know how it is, right?

2017: A Year for Rare Things

In our backyard, the day of the solar eclipse...

In our backyard, the day of the solar eclipse...

2018 dawned cold in Georgia. But it's warm in the house, or so says Penny, our outdoor cat who came in last night and won't leave, even with the ginger cat Fred's outrage at this barefoot hillbilly who eats food off the floor. Hissing and spitting aside, it's a relatively quiet first-of-the-year morning in the Davidson/O'Leary-Davidson household. Time appropriate, I guess, with coffee, to think back on a year that's been anything but quiet.

I started keeping a journal, back in August, when I realized I would forget more than I would remember about my first year as a published writer. Here's a snippet from my very first entry, 8.15:

It's an easy thing to dream. It's harder to be awake and working. The best thing about writing, maybe, is that the two enterprises seamlessly become one. Going back to the day job after a summer of dreaming seems like trading the finest, most productive sleep for a fretful night without rest or comfort. I sit here thinking of the hills of Colorado, how far they seemed from ticking clocks and the worries of the week. I think of Sam Shepard's letters to Johnny Dark, how he longed for the smell of horses, the act of being near them. Sam's dead now, left us this month.
The hills of Colorado, taken from the driver's seat - July

The hills of Colorado, taken from the driver's seat - July

Since April, when the ARCs of In the Valley of the Sun first came in the mail, Crystal and I have travelled over 10,000 miles (roughly 8,000 were by car) in service of promoting the novel. We've crossed and re-crossed, passed through, or touched upon a corner of every state in the southeast and southwest, not to mention a few other regions that encompass California, Colorado -- even Kansas (brrr, Kansas). We've stood upon the shores of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. We've watched marmots scavenge on the tundra in the Rocky Mountains. We've spent nights in famous hotels haunted by the likes of Jack Torrance, seen the scaffolding that should have hanged Tom Chaney, and had our rental car washed in Walter White's front business.

Crystal in the Rockies

Crystal in the Rockies

In Tennessee, in August, I gave a signed copy of In the Valley of the Sun to Max Allan Collins, who wrote Road to Perdition. My journal entry from 8.26 notes:

What a strange thing, to give my book to a man who wrote many of the movie tie-in novels I read as a boy. A man I never even contemplated meeting, let along engaging at a professional level. He signed my Dick Tracy novelization. I was thrilled.

The previous month, in Denver, I signed a few books alongside Stephen Graham Jones and saw my novel shelved within reaching distance of Stephen King's The Gunslinger.

At Tattered Cover in Denver - July

At Tattered Cover in Denver - July

"Jones is very tall," I wrote in my journal. "A woman asked him to fetch a magazine from a shelf, as if he were a store employee. He graciously did so."

Then, about the reading itself:

It all feels very strange, sometimes, the workaday realization of a thing you've held in your heart and mind since you were able to tell a story -- even the simplest one. There is no manual. No rule book. No handy guide.

Indeed, each reading I gave this year was different, each signing a lesson in how to act and interact and be the writer your book says you are (the best sales and receptions were, by far, at colleges). One venue forgot to order books to sell at the event. Another forgot I was even coming. But it all worked out, as we say, and what a trip it's been. Publishing a horror novel in 2017 has been the gift that keeps on giving -- so many kind words, so many new books to read in 2018 by writers I met in 2017, so many new friends (and hey, for a guy pushing forty, one new friend a year would be a treasure; in 2017, I made so many I've lost count).

At E. Shavers in Savannah, with my new friend Eliot the Cat - October

At E. Shavers in Savannah, with my new friend Eliot the Cat - October

When I think back on the last six months, how seismically my life shifted, I can't help feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude -- not only for the new but also for the old. For every one thing that's changed, ten things have stayed the same. Crystal and I go to work, we feed the cats, we scoop litter boxes, we get the brakes fixed on the car. We buy Star Wars toys like the marks we are. We have fun visiting thrift stores and rescuing the odd, forgotten item.

Crystal finds a treasure at a Goodwill in South Carolina...

Crystal finds a treasure at a Goodwill in South Carolina...

2018 will mark our tenth year together, still very much "nerds in love" (which remains, for my money, the most accurate description of two newlyweds ever soaped onto a car outside a church; thanks for that, Peter Gareis).

But what about everyone else? The rest of the world? Of 2017, in one of my earliest journal entries, I wrote:

The world's a strange, often uncomfortable place for nuance in 2017. Everybody's angry. Everybody's writing poems and essays and tweets about it all. Op-eds and rants and some genuinely good journalism decried as "fake." I hurt to see America hoodwinked by a sociopath. Hell of a year to publish your first novel.... It has been a year for rare things.

Among those rare things, in September, Hurricane Irma swept through Georgia and took out power for about three days (to say nothing of the devastation it wrought elsewhere). Crystal and I put food in ice chests, lived out of those, took cold showers, and played Scrabble in the dark. On one of those days, Merricat (one of our outdoor kitties) went walking across the backyard with a furry baby squirrel in her mouth. We made her drop it, saw it was alive, and -- because Bob Ross remains a personal hero of mine -- took it in and kept it in a Converse shoebox overnight. It was in shock. By the morning, it was feisty and ready to be released. We let it go into a tree, and we haven't seen it since. There are a lot of ways I've imagined that squirrel's fate ending in dire circumstances, most of them having sharp claws and eagle eyes. But what I choose to believe is the story in which its mother comes for it in the low branch where we left it, that she takes it back up into the nest it fell from. It's a story I tell myself, one among many, to help soften the blows of 2017.

And this, maybe, is the ultimate value of stories, as Tim O'Brien is famous for saying: they save us. Not from the truth, but because they are truth. They show us our place in everything, remind us how to be, correct us when we fail. They lend structure and meaning to the chaos of our lives. To the random chance of it all.

The next morning...

The next morning...

Or this story, from September 23, an odd moment of grace in a day we set out to see Flannery O'Connor's Georgia home and were bound for disappointment:

En route to Milledgeville today, on Highway 18, between Jeffersonville and Gordon, mile markers 10 and 11, a horse came wandering up the center of the highway, hot and frothing. No person in sight. Hills and curves and fast-moving traffic. We turned around, got ahead of him. Called to him, but he walked oblivious down the middle of the road, as if he had some destination in mind. We called 911, reported it, and managed to edge the horse with our truck into a field, whereupon the homeowners came out and said they knew the horse's owners, would call them. We drove on to Milledgeville. Andalusia was closed. The horse had a beautiful tail.

And so, a year for rare things.

Even though the world around us seems to have truly lost its sanity at times, I'm feeling optimistic about the future. The pendulum swings back, always. We've seen the first hints of America attempting some correction in the recent elections in Alabama and Virginia. For Crystal and me, 2018 promises more great things book-wise, writing-wise, nerd-wise. I'm sure it won't be without its troubles. I could have written so much more about those; we all have them. We all fight against the darkness. But that's the key: we fight. We don't give up.

Here's a bit to end on, I think, from 11.15:

I fumbled through a metaphor at dinner about life being like a river -- not my best moment. But the metaphor has a certain accuracy. Maybe it's not so much about some divine plan in a folder in some cabinet in the sky, but more a kind of natural current we're all pulled along by, influenced by eddies and rocks and streams that branch. We're all swept into a branch, from time to time. Eventually, we rejoin the river.

Here's to hoping, friends. Happy New Year.

Count Yorga, Vampire

"Its powers were many. It could see in the dark, which was no small ability in a world half-veiled from light."

"Its powers were many. It could see in the dark, which was no small ability in a world half-veiled from light."

Written and directed by Bob Kelljan. 1970.

Count Yorga, Vampire has all the hallmarks of an exploitation picture aping a Hammer film, but it never feels uninspired. What's more, it even has things to say about men, women, science, etc. None of what it says is particularly new or original, but there's an energy to the movie that suggests it wasn't just a copycat production, at least not for its writer-director. The standout character is Erica, played by Judy Lang, who balances the outlandish (eating a kitten) with the cool. (Lang's bio on IMDB is shockingly short.) The good folks at Twilight Time, that red-headed stepchild to Criterion, are doing their part.

3_long.jpg