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.

Batman and Me: On Tim Burton's BATMAN Turning 25

Tim Burton's Batman came along the summer I turned eleven and awoke my creative soul.

Looking back, of course, it also introduced me to consumerism, just as Star Wars had done for the first wave of my generation only ten years prior: I bought lobby cards, comic books, a novelization of the script, posters, action figures, rubber masks, rubber gauntlets. I had the breakfast cereal. The Batwing. The Batmobile. Bob the Goon. I asked Mom to order a copy of the Warner Bros. catalogue and checked off three pages of merchandise for Christmas that year. Pins. Playing cards. A laugh-box that, to my great disappointment, looked nothing like the Joker's in the movie. Mom also made me a homemade costume out of a gray sweatsuit, black fabric, and cardboard (for the ears). There's a picture of that somewhere, God help me. And, to this day, I still have a wooden fridge magnet I made myself at my grandmother's house with the bat-logo painted in acrylic. I was swept up in the rising tide of what the media called "Batmania." These days, we just call it fandom, which is, by turns, one of the great social movements of the twenty-first century or, more or less, a correct term for a marketing demographic.

Batman the movie brought with it a resurgence in the character's popularity. He was in demand, and he wasn't just for kids anymore. He was dark, he was brooding. He was Gothic. He was, in essence, Frank Miller's nightmarish vigilante, a hero of the modern psyche. I remember the first time I saw the leather-bound collection of Miller's Batman stories on display in the window of a Waldenbooks in 1988: The Complete Frank Miller Batman. Before this moment, as a kid, I had not paid much attention to anything called a "graphic novel." I doubt I even knew what a graphic novel was back then, but here was a beautiful, black, adult-looking thing with pages trimmed in silver, and when I priced one, I was thrilled. Sixty dollars! Serious stuff. Had I ever paid sixty dollars for anything at that point in my life? Moments later, I overhead two twenty-somethings talking about how great the book looked on their shelves at home, and that, I suppose, was how my epic Christmas list started. I couldn't pick the book up and flip through it because it was shrink-wrapped, and so the mystery of what lay inside was a tantalizing one. The reveal when I finally opened my copy was nothing short of a revelation: The Dark Knight Returns. Thirteen years later, I would place this book a reading list of influential fiction for my creative writing comps at Ole Miss. It was a book that taught me to take the fantastic seriously, to see the world not as a child sees it but as an adult, to look beyond the surface of a symbol and see the myriad complexities and contradictions at work within. I devoured it, read it and re-read it so many times the spine began to crack. There were other books that came along, among them Bob Kane's somewhat questionable autobiography Batman and Me, a book less interested in truth-telling, you might say, than myth-spinning. But it was filled with full-color panels of original 1930s storylines, and at the time, those weren't so easy to come by.

I began to draw around this time, too, at first just reproducing the character's various poses in the artwork that permeated the culture. Eventually, once my parents started paying for lessons, I came to art for its own sake, not to create color-pastel reproductions of Jack Nicholson's eyebrows and hairline but to make art as a fundamental expression of my own inner life. I never came to enjoy sketching as deeply as writing, which had come a few years earlier for me, but I did understand the connection between the two, the visual and the written: after all, Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and Frank Miller had also written their stories. So Tim Burton's Batman goes deep, I suppose, the whole phenomenon surrounding it, as well as the thrill of the film itself. Every year, as more and more Marvel movies come out, each more bombastic and labyrinthine than the last, each so determined to say something but clueless about what that something is, Batman grows more refined, more artful. Its chief pleasure stems from its timeless, mythic qualities: the city in decay, order out of chaos, the orphan hero. And beyond the superficial trappings of the merchandise I amassed and eventually lost or sold in so many garage sales, beyond its place as a touchstone of my childhood, it's a flashpoint of creativity: the moment when I understood the difference between standing on the outside of a display window looking in and wanting to make art for myself.

A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2014.

"Shark!" - Thoughts on JAWS Turning 35

"Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah, then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin and the hollerin they all come in and rip you to pieces."

"Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah, then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin and the hollerin they all come in and rip you to pieces."

Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. From the novel by Peter Benchley. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1975.

In the first ten minutes of JAWS, Mayor Vaughn strong-arms Chief Brody into keeping mum about a girl killed by "probable shark attack" in the waters off Amity Island. His oily reasoning runs so: "You yell barracuda, everybody says, 'Huh, what?' You yell shark...and we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

Lately, when I've told people that JAWS is -- and has always been -- my favorite movie, I've felt a lot like the guy yelling 'barracuda.' "Really?" people say, and cock their heads. "Huh." My wife tells me it's because people don't remember how good it is. They remember the movie, sure: the mechanical shark that sank to the ocean floor when the crew submerged it for the first time, the sharp decline in beach attendance in the summer of 1975, the famous line Brody utters upon first seeing the title character (everyone say it with me: "You're gonna need a bigger boat"). Lost in the fog of too few screenings, however, is what everyone's forgotten: like The Godfather or Star Wars or Casablanca or Gone With the Wind, JAWS remains one of the greatest of American movies.

I should point out how I intend the word "great" here: in the truest sense of the word, as in larger than others of its kind, remarkable, and important. Crystal and I were fortunate enough to happen upon a 35th anniversary screening at the Fox theater in Atlanta this past weekend. I'd never seen a theatrical print of the film before, so I suspected that to sit in the dark for two hours and see it projected wide and grainy and larger-than-life would be an experience akin to epiphany. It didn't disappoint.

Films like JAWS -- and there are so very few, perhaps not even one, when it comes down to it -- demand theatrical viewing if only because their scope cannot be contained. Spielberg utilizes a wide screen to its fullest potential, with foreground and background elements occupying extreme positions for maximum emotional effect: the chief's point-of-view shot past the head of a pestering city councilman, for example, his eyes -- and our eyes -- on a girl screaming in the water. Disparate images, the gulf between them emphasizing Brody's disconnection from the more mundane aspects of his job (why does a police chief have to get drunk and rail about the pressures of being a cop in crime-ridden New York when the simple political spaces one has to negotiate in small-town life seem so much less dangerous?). Nuances abound in this very large movie.

Something else: JAWS, like Star Wars, is a product of its director's youth and audacity. Spielberg hasn't really made great movies since the eighties. When asked by a college student whether studio support by way of millions of dollars in cash to fund his pictures might have hampered his artistic development, the late great Orson Welles famously replied: "No." Maybe that was true for Orson, a director who was never really less than successful even in abject failure. But for Spielberg the hunger kept him moving, much like the titular shark; sharks sink if they stop. Spielberg stopped being hungry sometime after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, his (and Lucas's) last movie born out of discontent, restlessness, and urgency.

I think I love JAWS most because it's virtually every arch-story the screen can hold: a stranger in a strange land ("Martin sits in his car on the ferry to the mainland..."), the ties of love and family ("Give us a kiss...because I need it"), a tale of friendship ("Why don't we have one more drink and sit down and cut that shark open?"), and a tale of pirates ("I'll never put on a life jacket again..."). It exploits the primal terror that lurks in all of us and somehow buoys the child in each of us.

I first saw the movie on television when I was six. There was a time -- I don't know if it's still the case, as I haven't subscribed to TV in almost a decade now -- when TBS ran JAWS once or twice a year. I recorded it and wore the tape out re-watching it. It wasn't until high school that I got my hands on the unedited film and saw, for the first time, a man's severed leg sinking to the bottom of the estuary, knotty and blossoming red. What violence it lacked the TV version famously made up for with scenes not in the theatrical release, like a little eccentricity of character, which serves to endear Quint (or is it to depict him as the madman he is?): he torments a young boy playing clarinet in a store.

JAWS is also a great movie, of course, because of what it did for the summer release schedule and the box office. Some might argue in this age of Michael Bay, well, that's no great legacy, but that would be unfair. Besides, in JAWS there is no blame to assign, only praise and fond memories. Cinematically speaking, it's a technical marvel and a milestone, a revolutionary work. A tough movie to make, and whenever I hear Spielberg weigh the challenges of making JAWS against the rewards -- "When I think of JAWS, I think of courage and stupidity," he has said -- I can't help feeling a surge of optimism regarding the infinite possibilities of popcorn movies.

JAWS is a great movie because it made me, a kid who hadn't seen very many movies yet, fall in love with the art form for reasons I couldn't articulate at six. I could only sit in front of the TV and gasp. It occurred to me, between similar gasps last weekend in the Fox, that had I been born a decade earlier, had I seen JAWS on the silver screen in the summer of 1975, my life might have turned out very differently. I might have been living in Hollywood today, trying my damnedest to direct movies. I like to think, though, that in the more intimate setting of my living room floor in 1984, from the moment the great white broke the water (and Quint's boat), I would forever be making movies -- and crying "Shark!" -- in my heart.