“The Help” Could Use Some

Well, it’s late summer, and everyone is rushing to hate or defend “The Help”, a surprisingly inoffensive feel-good historic "dramady" that rivals “Steel Magnolias” and “Fried Green Tomatoes” as a realistic portrayal of life in the sixties south, both in terms of black/white relations and women.  (consider that carefully as you read on)  The mostly female ensemble cast is admirable, though Viola Davis’ stony stoicism, almost the opposite of her impassioned mother in “Doubt”, sometimes made me want to shake her out of her nearly Gandhian stillness in the face of persistent abuse, or at least get her to blink.  That the movie so seldom slips close to maudlin melodrama or social slapstick is to its credit.  Despite the current crop of kneejerk criticism being raised by concerned black groups and in op-editorials by those who don’t seem to have seen it, after watching it I have to say that it’s a well-crafted, even artful film, if mainstream milquetoast.

That said, it is a film that falls into the very specific category of guileless white people who grow up in a culture of oppression but don't see how bad it is until they befriend an oppressed minority (of any stripe) who opens their eyes.  That the black heroines of “The Help” actually survive that revelation is to the story’s credit.  The minority triggers of these stories are usually sacrificed for the sins of the hero’s society .

“Cry Freedom”, “The Long Walk Home”, and a host of other movies have told this story before, always from the same liberal white point of view in the end, and all get the same criticism from the same quarter of the black community.  Invariably, the biggest complaint is that white writers on the subject of black oppression get more publicity, bigger paychecks and better movie deals than black writers who do the same.  This ignores the fact of black writers like Alice Walker and "Sapphire", the author of “Push”, who wrote their own mainstream successful stories of embattled underdog black women rising to empower themselves, with the larger issue raised that they and others like them basically played into the same tropes that are protested in books and movies about blacks by white writers.

I was furious when “The Color Purple” came out with Walker's unrelenting portrayal of black men in it as either misogynistic and violent or too simple or emasculated to be so, and I won't even restart the “Precious”/"Push" debate held on both sides in the black community of artists and writers around me last year.  The truth seems to be that if you fit or play into the marketing plan of most mainstream publishers when it comes to minority-based stories, you will be published, and if you do it well enough to plug into an established market for them, you will be successful.

There is one violent black man I spotted in “The Help”, the husband of the second leading black maid, and he is never seen, only heard offstage as he attacks her.  There are only three references to him, that scene, one where the "good" though trashy outsider white woman who’s shunned by the others treats a wound he has given the maid, and the voice-over line describing how she has left him.  The absent father of Aibileen's idealized and sacrificed son is left unexplained.  With no mention in the movie of a husband, divorced or dead, her late son's Christlike aspect leaves us with few options but illegitimacy or virgin birth.

Onscreen we do see a minister who leads his flock with dignity and intelligence that rival Obama’s, and a kindly male co-worker at a restaurant who’s seen several times, both holding down a job and reading, and who even offers to walk one of the women home when they are all thrown off a bus after Medgar Evers' assassination, admittedly two more positive black male models than Walker gave me in “Color Purple”.

Is it a fully fleshed out portrayal of the real indignities and dangers faced by blacks, black women in particular, in the south at that time?  No.  It has no intention of doing or being that, I would think that much is obvious from the ads.  I haven’t read the book, and am not terribly interested in doing so, as I’m not a big fan of what I am sure is considered by the publisher to be a specific branch of “women’s fiction".  From what I hear of it, the movie is a watered down version of a stronger story in the book, but I doubt much stronger than what I saw.  A film that was relatively harmless, self-congratulatory in its liberal satisfaction that everything turned out okay, and aren’t we all happier now that black people can use the same toilets and schools, aren’t being lynched, and we have a black president?  ("Get it out quick before this Civil Rights thing blows over" urges Miss Stein, the pointedly New York Jewish editor supporting the young writer's efforts in "The Help", and the audience of Writer's Guild East members roared, as they were meant to...)

Symptomatic of the film’s vision of racial injustice is the big revelation (spoiler alert) late in the film is that the black heroine’s son didn't die in some terrible racist incident like being lynched for whistling at a white girl like Emmet Till, as we fear until then, but because of being hit by a truck at work while carting wood.  He dies after he’s taken to the “black hospital” instead of the white one, which can’t do anything for him.  (As the repeated iconographic photo of him is of a youthful black intellectual, one can only assume he was carrying two by fours on a construction site to earn enough to get the hell out of Mississippi.)  Sadly, the revelation only seems inspired to make viewers shake their heads in regret, sure that if they’d only had Obamacare then, he would have been all right.  In "The Help" the South's problem in the sixties was Jim Crow -- separate toilets, hospitals, and systems of legal justice, with blacks getting the short end of the stick on all.  Not a rigid, centuries old, institutionalized and literally dehumanizing social order that predated apartheid.

If there is any danger in films like this, it is that they give attentive audiences the impression that these are problems of the past.  Even “Precious” planted itself securely in the late eighties, the decade the book was set in, so modern audiences could distance themselves from the social horrors it portrayed.  That, and the tendency of films like this to want to have it both ways -- to parade the more lurid aspects of poor black life, wife-beating, prostitution, incest, rape, addiction, past viewers who shake their heads and crane their necks to catch every minute, while they play up the nobility of the embattled soul who rises above it all.  It is a salvation usually reached with outside help from someone who represents the mainstream audience these movies cater to, someone the studios obviously think white people need to care about those different from them -- either ethnically, as in “The Help”, or by social class, as in “Precious”, with the light-skinned minority teacher who is her sole supporter.  "One of the good ones", another familiar and essential part of the formula, the safely assimilated minority who acts as a translator/bridge between the two worlds.

At the end of both those films, as with many of them, the minority protagonist is left on her own, standing on the street , stripped of everything but her plucky spunk and her newly won conviction that she is somebody(while Skeeter, the white writer, generously splits her $600 advance with all the maids and heads to New York for an editorial job at Harper and Row, with Aibileen's blessing and a new wardrobe bought by a now accepting mother).  Aibileen's next five minutes or next five years are of no concern to the author or filmmaker, or the teary audience, any more than the plausibility of her expressed dream of becoming a writer (though she does know a junior editor at Harper and Row now) -- only that moment of epiphany as the music and camera soars.  What’s important is that for that last five minutes before you walk away, you believe in the dream made for you, that we can all face overwhelming odds and stand tall in the face of adversity, that no matter how much they take away, we can still be proud.  The audience can leave to face their own crises, minor in comparison, and feel as empowered as the inspiring figure they left behind on the big screen as the credits rolled.

Ultimately, the best critical response to the film has been the basic truth that if anyone wants their real story told, they have to get out there and tell it.  If you can’t do it yourself, find authors and writers who do and support them.  They’re out there, at least one for everybody.  As long as the only black writers and filmmakers who get millions from the black community are Tyler Perry and his ilk, that is all we will be given as mainstream fare.

If most of us like that (and I personally prefer Perry's plays to his movies because he leaves out the damn singing, the best part of his show, and the only reason to sit through the broad slapstick, cardboard characters, and morality play plots!) then the minority of us need to stop bitching when white artists get bigger budgets and more attention.

With the technical possibilities open today, no one can claim they can’t make a movie.  Use your friends, use their homes, shoot on digital, but before you do, go on Netflix, Hulu or your local video store and learn the damn language.  I spent three years in college film classes watching films to learn film-making, and now anyone can single frame through Hitchcock’ shower sequence or any other movie made before or after, for the price of a DVD rental.  Go on Kickstarter.com and raise funds, or join your local public access channel, take their training and use their equipment.

Don’t let Hollywood or anyone else tell you who you are.  If “The Help” offends you after you’ve seen it, tell your friends, then find the films or writers who tell your story and support them.  But don’t whine that one single movie doesn’t do the work that no one else has taken the time to do.  Whatever else the book is, it’s an audacious concept for a novel, and it begs the question, why didn’t someone really do that, decades ago, if not now?

Why is it only now that the movie is out that anyone seems to care about these women’s stories as they protest this one, when I see them being played out daily in New York, in my own Park Slope neighborhood, where Caribbean nannies herd adopted Asian babies around for white affluent parents who spend all of their time working for large sums of money, sure that they’re providing their children with everything?  Where nannies are sent to work at the Food Coop by the new affluent influx to the Slope with the excuse that “she’s one of the family” -- though one who’s sent away each night and paid every week -- where is the film of their story?

I’ve heard the complaints about “The Help” reviving the image of the ever-patient “mammy”, when she’s never left us.  Who is Oprah, but America’s Ultimate Mammy, offering unconditional love and heartfelt advice, along with a well-padded maternal hug?  Why can’t she keep the weight off?  Because she's blessed and cursed.   Consciously or unconsciously, she knows damn well that skinny Oprah can never be the warm cuddly fat black mammy America wants to tell them, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important” -- Aibileen's repeated mantra to make her lady's "churren" feel good about themselves and the core message of "The Oprah Show" for the last 25 years.  I am so glad for her that she is finally freed of having to personally act as the ultimate incarnation of that age-old icon.

We still have mammies spreading their chubby arms wide all across America, especially here in New York, and if the current debate about “The Help” is to be of any worth, then we have to stop complaining about what it doesn’t do historically, look around us to see its mirror in our current world, and deal with that better.

In the aftermath of the dismissal of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case, we have to consider the lives of the real modern day help with more scrutiny.  Whether his accuser is a brazen liar out for money who's prostituted herself in the past to customers in the hotel (and if so, why risk that steady gig for one big score?) or a hapless maid who was bullied into intercourse by a man with power over her, there are more important issues raised by “The Help” than historical accuracy.

It’s time to worry about the real working women of today and their plight now, not those of a bygone age, no matter how poignant or how much that past still haunts us.  A bill to protect the rights of 200,000 domestic workers, from nannies and maids to professional caregivers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women of color, has been fighting to be passed for five years now.  Five years.  You want to see a better more realistic movie about the rights of "The Help"?  Start there.

For more on the domestic workers bill, go to the links below:
Domestic Workers in New York Getting Closer to Having Their Own Bill of Rights
Why Is Legally Protecting Overworked Nannies So Difficult?
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The Leslie Effect

I sit in Holy Apostles and The Mediator Episcopal Church in Philadelphia where Leslie Esdaile Banks’ memorial is about to be held, the church she grew up in. When I walk in an hour early the front of the church is filled with women in white, ringed around the altar, singing to her memory, like a choir of angels. There are photos all around the room, revealing a Leslie I didn’t know -- Leslie the college student, the coquettish vamp, the wife, the mother, the sister, the woman with a full and rich life outside of her writing.

I met Leslie at Medgar Evers College, the year my first novel was turned in to our mutual editor at St. Martin’s. It was on one of the college’s famed literary weekends, and I had arrived too late to see my friend Tananarive Due and her husband Steven on the panel they were on. I got there as the panel with Leslie was starting and found a seat, sat back to see what she was like. My editor had told me she was giving “L.A. Banks” my book to read to see if she would do a blurb for the cover. I’d heard of her, knew of her work, but hadn’t had time to read any of her books yet. She soared high above me in the literary world, with dozens of books published to my modest one, though she was five years younger.

She was typical Leslie on the panel -- smart, funny, and most of all encouraging to the young writers who came up to the microphone to ask questions afterwards. One young black woman in particular broke into tears as she described how her professor had refused to let her use a work of vampire fiction as a class assignment, though the material was near and dear to her heart. Leslie’s response was to write it -- whether she could use it in class, whether she could get it published or not, she had to let it out and into the world. She went on to point out a growing market for vampire literature and black writers, and by the time she was done, the young woman had stopped crying and was nodding, revived, inspired, touched by what I can only call "The Leslie Effect".

I got a taste of it later that day when I went to the post event reception across the street to find Tananarive and Steven. Before I found them I saw Leslie talking to some people at a table and hovered nearby, waited for a chance to jump in and politely introduce myself. When the moment came, I stepped forward and smiled.

“Hi, my name is Terence, and we share an editor...”

“Monique? Isn’t she great?” and we launched into a discussion of why. By the time we ran out of steam and other topics, I felt like I’d known her forever. She assured me that she would make sure she got my book, and that she couldn’t wait to read it.

The next day Monique sent me a message that Leslie had sent an e-mail about me -- fortunately not “Keep that lunatic away!” -- and that she was looking forward to reading my manuscript. A few weeks later I was sent perhaps the kindest words I had ever heard about my work, a compliment that would be plastered across the front of my first published novel for the world to see, so she had to mean it. I sent her a profuse thank you in e-mail, and promised her a copy of the book when it came out. Her reply was that my writing was “fierce and passionate” and reading it had been a pleasure. I floated on that for weeks. It meant even more to me than the Publisher’s Weekly starred review that followed.

I stayed in touch with Leslie. We corresponded by e-mail, met at readings she did in New York at Hue-Man and for the New York Review of Science Fiction. It was there that Jim Freund, the host, pointed out that we had not one, but four black writers in the room who wrote vampire fiction, and the idea of having a black vamp night at NYRSF was born. My friend Linda Addison, who I’d met when we both were included in the Dark Dreams anthologies, was willing, as was Alaya Dawn Johnson, whose first published novel was the start of a fantasy trilogy, but whose second was a vampire novel. I insisted that without Leslie, there was no point. What contemporary black writer had a larger body of vampire fiction? She had opened the door and paved the way for us all. To my delight, she loved the idea, added her name to the roster and the event was on.

It took months for it to come to pass, conflicts with the performers’ schedules, the venue, my collaborator, Sheree Renee Thomas’ mother fell ill...one minute Alaya was going to be at a convention the day we settled on, the next day the venue had to reschedule us -- by the time everything was settled and I got to the Soho Gallery for Digital Art for the fateful night, loaded down with video equipment, I was frazzled and ready to collapse. At the last minute Sheree Renee Thomas, my co-curator, had to cancel coming up to stay home and care for her mom, so I was suddenly both a reader and the host for the evening. I had been nervous enough about attendance -- it was a second event that month for NYRSF, most regular attendees were either on their way to a convention or working. Despite my fears, Adrienne, the president of Leslie’s fan club and head of the Street Team that got out word about her appearances, had done her usual job, and the room was full of old familiar faces from NYRSF and a wonderful new crop of readers who were Leslie’s fans.

It ended up being exactly the right room for the evening, a mixed bag of races, writers and readers who enjoyed the night for everything we put into it. The night ended with Leslie’s reading from the first book in her vampire series, after she shared the wonder that was Leslie. As much as I always enjoyed listening to her read her work, what I loved most was Leslie talking about her work, and what she put into it. She always shared the joy of the writing experience itself, but also the fun she had in working reality into her fantasy, creating a full-bodied fictional world that let her make psychological, political and social points about ours.

The night ended as they always did, with dinner nearby, and me getting too little time to talk to Leslie as much as I wanted to, as much as everyone wanted to...as I put her in a cab to get back to her train on time, she promised as always that the conversation would continue, that one day we’d have time to trade literary war stories over red wine.

The last time I talked to her at length was over Christmas. I was out in Montauk during the worst blizzard in recent New York history, working on a new novel that scared the hell out of me (and still does) as she offered solace and seasonal cheer, despite my dark mood. I did my best to do the same for her. It had been the best of times and the worst of times for her that year as it had been for me, and we commiserated by e-mail and phone through the snow.

It seemed all too soon after that I heard the news that she was sick, an abrupt missive that swept through the community like a mystery -- what was wrong, was she okay, would she get better? But more important, what could we do, how could we help? Benefits to offset the costs of her medical care were mounted, e-mails flew across the country; by the time we all knew what was wrong, it was almost over. I spoke at a fundraiser at Hue-Man that was more of a rally, raising money but also energy for Leslie. We all left on a high, after sharing stories and laughter, the joy of Leslie. That Tuesday as I sat in an edit room at work and checked e-mail, I found out Leslie was gone.

I excused myself, went down the hall to a supply room and wept as much as I could allow myself to without losing it for the rest of the day. I locked that mental door for the rest of the week to get through the job, and booked my train tickets to Philly for the funeral Saturday as soon as a time and place were announced. The ceremony is as beautiful and heartfelt as the lady herself, a full house of love and sorrow, paying homage to her in a way only Leslie could have inspired. There were stories and songs from family and friends, and the most wonderful photos of her from childhood, high school and college, as bride, wife and mother, all the way through her meeting with President Barack Obama, when she introduced him at Arcadia University.

It was a life well lived, in all ways. I have yet to meet or talk to anyone who met Leslie and didn’t fall in love with her immediately. She was one of the most honest and loving people I’ve met on this planet, and to say she will be missed is a gross understatement. Her absence from this planet leaves a hole that can never be filled, only built around to define its length and breadth, like the Twin Towers memorial. We will remember her, not just for what she did in a remarkable life, but for all that she inspired. Her work will live on in various forms as her writing partner works on a film of the vampire books, as the comics continue, but it will also live on in the work of all of us she inspired with her generosity, her wit, her talent and most of all, her sheer energy. How can so much power be gone from the world? It’s not. It can’t be. It has only changed form, and we all have to do as Adrienne said in her ending comments from the podium at the service -- a call to all the writers touched by Leslie’s life and work. Share your talent and your love of your art. Be open and generous to those coming up behind you, and let those ahead know they are enjoyed and appreciated. Don’t wait until it’s too late -- if I have anything to be grateful for, it’s that I always made clear to Leslie how valued she was to me.

I now see Leslie as a guardian angel to us all, a new muse, floating free like Obi-Wan Kenobi after death, where she can spread her good will even wider. I sense her beside me from time to time, as I’m sure many of those who love her have, a soft hand on my shoulder like that of an angel from “Wings of Desire”. It comes when I feel most like I’ve lost her, and a gentle thought whispers, “Would I ever leave you?” with a laugh. She’s not gone, will never be forgotten, and more than that, lives on forever in all the lives she touched, changed and improved.

I remember that when I thanked her for her comments on my book, I told her she was the “Patti LaBelle of Horror”, every bit as beautiful, talented and generous, which made her laugh, that rich full laugh that infected everyone around her. It was only today that I found out that, like Patti, she LOVED to cook and have people over to eat, and that no one who came to her house ever left hungry or empty handed.

I wish I could have been to one of those house dinners or back yard barbecues people talked about so much today, though the post ceremony gathering in the rectory was pretty much how I would picture them. If there is anything I’m sure of, it’s that Jesus is chowing down like never before, and that all the angels have hot sauce staining their wings and a ziplock bag of BBQ leftovers under their arms. I miss Leslie, yes, but also know she is with us in a way she could never be before, and that it’s up to all of us to keep that part of her, the pure love expressed in the singular miracle of Leslie’s life, alive.

I am editing video of an interview with Leslie on the launch of her comic series at BEA last year, and her appearance at the “Beyond Blacula” event. The DVD will be made available as part of a continuing fundraising effort to offset the family’s bills for her medical care. Go to http://www.leslieesdailefund.info/index.html for information and/or to donate to the fund.

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Change of Heart

I was talking to a friend tonight about changes in my writing over the last ten years. I finally see myself as having changed from a wordsmith to a storyteller.  I used to start with how the story was told, reveled in the use of clever phrases to achieve effect, and spent hours fine-tuning phrases. Somewhere in re-writing my first novel from top to bottom, I started streamlining the language I used, and finding myself saying more with less, and letting the reader follow the story in something more like real time. There were times when I could afford to drop back into longer, more lyrical passages that allowed me to explore a character or setting in greater depth, but my basic style had become cleaner, leaner and even meaner when it had to be.

Knowing how to use words first gave me a broad palette to work from, and in my new mode, I find myself more sparing in its use than I was ten years ago. For now, leading with what is happening to whom and where is working for me better than, “What is the first line?” That’s still important, but it comes from my moment, not the other way around. I know that may change again, and welcome that. One of the things I loved most about Truman Capote was that even after enormous critical and commercial success he chose to reinvent himself as a writer and learn his art from the ground up again. It’s a view of art that allows for growth and renewal.

I enjoy the writer I am more than I used to, and look forward to what changes lie ahead. There was a quote I saw in the Times once and clipped out, but it was never attributed, about seeing writing as a great rock and that any effective work has to take the form of shattering it with the hammer of your mind...I had a copy of the quote over my desk for years, but it’s only now that I see how hard you have to break down everything you know to make everything new again.

I’m sure one day the rush I feel with the way I work now will subside and seem dull and commonplace -- that’s when I hope I have the courage to make a leap of faith again. What about you? What do you do to recharge your creative engine?

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Hunting the Snark

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

- Stephen King

I recently installed a daily quote widget on my iGoogle home page. Every day three random quotes from assorted people pop up, and how interesting they are varies from day to day. Today I found the quote above from Stephen King, and while I agree with much of what he has to say about writing on “About Writing”, on this one point I disagree with him.

I no longer use a bound thesaurus, though I think I still have one on the bookshelf someplace. Some years ago a friend turned me onto a program called the Visual Thesaurus, which displays the words as if they are floating in midair, connected by lines of meaning that place the word at the nexus of a series of slight variations. I agree with King that I seldom find the exact word that I’m looking for there, and am more often reminded of the occasional limitations of the English language.

What does happen is that as I click from word to word, and see the derivation of the word I stated with, or its precise definition on display beside it, I begin to think about what it is I am really trying to say. Sometimes I realize what that word means isn’t that at all, really, and I leap in a new direction that says what I‘m trying to say, only better.

The word you hunt for may not be the word you want, but I believe in the search. It breaks up the stream of thought that’s stopping you, opens you to increased possibilities. As you flip through a thesaurus of any kind, or pick up the dictionary, or click on a menu, you’re hunting the legendary Right Word, a creature very bit as mythical as Lewis Carroll’s Snark. You will find a lot of words on your journey, they will all have their appeal, and ultimately you will find the right way to say what you set out to say -- though probably not in the way you thought.

The search unearths new possibilities and meanings, and what you find will be the right word or combination of words. They will be right, not because the thesaurus gave them to you, or because you used a lot of different words for the same thing, but because you kept looking until you found the words that communicated your ideas clearly. I see the thesaurus not as the solution, but a beginning of the path to one.

That would be the one exception I would make to the King condemnation. The trick is to be sure you’ve found a Snark, and not its evil doppelganger, the Boojum, that vanishes when caught, along with its hunter, just as bad writing, no matter how many words are used, renders any author invisible.

(illustration by Henry Holiday from The Hunting of the Snark by eBooks@Adelaide ©2007)
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Life and Other Things Like It

I’m writing this while I sit in a sound mix at WNET/13. My editor’s down the hall building roll-ins to drop into the Pledge breaks we spent the last week editing and getting in shape for export and delivery to the PBS system on Monday. Film and TV production is a weird and interesting life -- I think moving around every two years for most of my Air Force brat childhood prepared me for a transient work life -- going from job to job freelance, being thrown on a plane or train and heading who knows where for a day, a week, or however long it took to get the job done. Then everyone back home to look for the next gig.

Writing is almost the opposite of this. I stay home, in one seat, going to a nearby restaurant or café with my laptop for a change of pace. To do anything for air, I need a production budget; I need a crew to shoot, then an editor and mixer for post-production, even if I pre-edit the pieces myself on my laptop of home computer. All I can have is what the station can afford to make the airdate. You need to learn to negotiate -- if you and the director or editor have a different view of what’s being shot or cut, you have to learn to express yourself in a way that gets it for you -- and you have to be right -- or when problems arise, you get the smirk of someone beside you who told you that wasn’t going to work. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but in the end, if everyone on your team is trying to get the job done, you make your deadline with something that does what you were sent out to accomplish. But you need people, you need facilities -- you need more than yourself.

When I sit down to my keyboard to work on my fiction, I can have anything I’m able to imagine and describe, anywhere, in any time, or even anyone. I’ve written chapters set in the Northern Africa of a thousand years ago, in contemporary New York and 14th century France, populated my novels with fictitious characters and mingled them with my versions of historic figures drawn from my research. There is total, complete freedom, something I don’t have anywhere else in my life. Is it any wonder I love to write? It’s the one place I know I can soar as high as I can take myself.

It isn’t always easy. Easy writing is seldom the best writing you do -- but it’s always a pleasure, albeit occasionally a twisted one, even when I’m wrestling with a story or characters to get them to move in the direction I want them to go. As with a TV crew, sometimes, you win, sometimes you lose -- but if you listen to what’s being said and why, sometimes you find yourself someplace better than you wanted to be in the first place.

For now, my life is still divided between my day job work and my life’s work. I hope one day to be able to sell enough books to life exclusively on earnings from my writing, but that’s a luxury a relative handful of fiction writers on the planet have. In the meantime, I’ve at least found a balance between the two that keeps me both eating and writing, even if not always as much of either as I may sometimes like.

As long as I keep writing, keep making time to write -- no one “finds” it any more than we “find” money -- I will be happy with my lot in life. Writing may not pay my bills by itself yet, but it does fill a need in me that nothing else does as well. A need for adventure, exploration, romance, mystery and occasionally even -- literary sex...how else do you think writers get new characters? (If characters in my first novel hadn’t hooked, up, I wouldn’t have half the characters in my second! And that one ends with two more babies on the way...) As long as writing fills my free time with all of that, it will always have a place in my life.

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Back to the Future

For the last six months I’ve been working on the third of the Vampire Testaments, PAST LIFE, which is set in 2028, twenty years in the future. In developing the world in which it takes place, I had to conjecture about what the world would be like in twenty years. I wasn’t writing a science fiction novel, per say, as the story continues my vampiric odyssey, rather than the future world, but I need to make my future world plausible.

I decided that I wasn’t trying to see into the future as much as decide what I wanted it to be like, then justify and explain the path that got us there. I looked back twenty years at the world of the nineties, and turned my gaze forward to consider what changes I wanted to make in the world. Most of what I saw had to do more with social changes and political and economic shifts, but I also found myself pushing what I see around me to the next level.

Half the fun in futuristic fiction is playing with the toys, coming up with devices, vehicles, appliances, and all the tech and biological advances that will change our lives. Half the fun of these prognostications is looking back at them from the realm of the imagined future, and seeing how close they were to where we are.

As I was working out my own futureworld, Rose Fox, an editor friend and running buddy from the KGB Fantastic Fiction and NYRSF readings, gave me a galley of a book to read that she’d worked on. A compilation of pieces from Popular Mechanics over the course of the 20th century, it’s filled with “The Wonderful Future that Never Was” as the title suggests.

It’s filled with articles and the maddeningly tantalizing color illustrations that accompanied them, visions of all the things we always wanted and still haven’t quite gotten. The much-desired flying car makes an appearance here, as do rocket packs and the domestic promise of clothes made of paper, plastic, asbestos, and homes that clean themselves or can be hosed down. There are some that we managed to get, like moving sidewalks (at least in airports), electronic devices to filter dust from the air, superfast computers...you have to see some of it to believe it.

Forget buying a copy before Christmas -- Amazon is already sold out and waiting for more -- but don’t give up. It’s like a colorful box of bon bons to leave lying about for friends to nibble at a piece at a time. More than anything, it illustrates the endless fascination of the human mind with what lies ahead, and the boundless imagination we devote to it. Seeing what worked, what didn’t, and understanding why from the real point of view of that imagined future is an education in how to imagine the future.

If this book teaches us anything it’s that the future is never what we expect it to be. It’s never as flashy, but it’s always surprising. In the case of the computer revolution and the rise of data transmission as a major commodity and resource, the greatest change is proving to be where it always is -- in ourselves. The world and our future change to reflect what we want from them, and as I build my own dark future for my novel, I’m enjoying and learning from the lessons of past future predictors, both their failures and successes.

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Magic Tricks

One day I went to get my hair cut in Los Angeles at a little place I’d found on La Cienega, across from a big newsstand. Either I was early or the barber was running late, but I ended up with a few minutes to kill. The only thing near the shop was a porn palace and an occult supply store. At the moment occult supplies seemed more appealing than the two and three-foot rubber latex dildoes on display through the open door, mysteriously standing on end, gently waving welcome as they swayed in the breeze.

The occult shop next door was a small storefront, worn glass-topped counters inside filled with the usual mixture of herbs, bones, fang and claw, silvery athame daggers, ceremonial bells, wall shelves filled with books on Wiccan witchcraft to Satanism, and everything magical in between. Two blonde young women stood at the counter talking to the owner or manager, in their early twenties, looked like out-of-towners rather than true practitioners, enchanted and a little scared by their dip into forbidden waters.

The man behind the counted took full advantage of their wide-eyed wonder to enjoy the attention. He was in his late fifties or early sixties, gray hair and bearded, he looked more like an aging hippie than a mystic sage, but good enough for the girls, who hung on his every word.

“There are five laws of magic,” he said as convincingly as Vincent Price at his best. “To want, to will, to know, to dare...and to keep silent.”

They sighed in awe as he explained what he meant by each. You had to want the result badly enough to act, you had to will it into being, you had to know how to do it, dare to do it and not blab to everyone what you’re doing every step of the way until what you want is a reality.

All in all, the rules of writing.

I’ve always considered writing to be like magic -- a mighty power capable of great transformation, but risky if misused. Other comparisons apply -- more than one witch or writer has been burned at the stake for their work; many have been damned by their peers or society for doing what they believed in. Neither is particularly rewarding, except in rare cases. Both are solitary, except when performed with others, in a coven or writing workshop.

Writing is also filled with obscure rituals and regulations that govern your performance. Are some of the rules of grammar any less mystifying that which night to gather ingredients of a spell? Is the sense of power in mastering their use any less exciting? I remember reading fairy tales as a child, then science fiction and fantasy, and as the words of my favorite tales unlocked mysteries about life and the universe to me in veiled metaphor, I felt no less empowered than the sorcerer’s apprentice opening his master’s book of spells and waving his magic wand.

Years later, I’ve found a whole new magic in writing, more from the perspective of the grizzled mage than apprentice, but with experience comes a whole new appreciation of the power of words and more importantly, of story. I have thought back on that day in L.A. many times over the years, reminded myself of the rules of magic as I hesitate to make the leap into a new book or story, or felt lost on the path once begun.

I reaffirm my purpose, my desire to do the thing, remind myself why I started in the first place, how I started it, and push myself to move forward until the way is smooth again. Complaining perhaps, working out ideas as I go on fellow writers or fiends, but refraining from doing what I did once -- telling the whole story to people before it is written down. Keep silent -- there is one true telling of any tale, and if you don’t capture it in its fullness before you present it to an audience, you risk losing the impetus, the energy to write it all out properly. So make it magic, make it whatever it takes to do it. If ritual helps you to write, do it. I put on soft music, light candles, wear loose comfy clothes and cut off the phone. It works for me to date my muse, for you it may be loud disco and flashing lights.

I recently told an aspiring writer that writing is like having a lover -- you get what you put into the relationship. And that is true of magic as well. Commit to the act, put your heart and soul into it, whether ethereal or aesthetic, or you’ll never make your mark on the world. No one ever accomplished anything by just wishing for it, not even magic.

If I've learned anything by now, it's that both take work, and it’s hard work and only hard work that brings rewards in anything.

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Haunted Hotel

Me and my little friend Tony outside the "Overlook"...

I recently visited a friend in Boulder, Colorado, before she moved back to Singapore.  While I was there I rented a car from a very fun local non-profit agency called eGo, and we made plans to drive an hour north to Estes Park.

When I told my hotel clerk where we were going, he said, “Oh, that’s where The Shining hotel is...”  I think I actually hopped a bit in glee when he told me that.

I’d never heard of the Stanley Hotel, much less that it was outside Boulder.  I must have heard the story of how Stephen King stayed there after “Carrie” was published, but didn’t remember the name of the hotel.  The parking lot attendant filled us in -- King was working on a new novel about a family trapped in an amusement park when he went to stay at the hotel, not sure how he could trap them there.  He was caught up in the tales of ghosts, reworked his story and a classic was born.

The hotel is impressive, spread over a generous portion of land.  It overlooks the town, and standing on the front porch you can see that King took liberties in setting it farther from civilization.  They’ve taken full advantage of its history, both before and after Stephen King.  There are ghost tours, copies of “The Shining’ and both movies in the gift shop, t-shirts and caps emblazoned with ghosts.  Yeah.  I bought one, and a little foam rubber glow in the dark ghost for my bookcase.

A shop clerk told us that there’s a guy who looks like Jack Nicholson who likes to hang out at the hotel waiting for people to ask him if he is...about the only thing they don’t have is dress-up mystery weekends with him chasing guests dressed as characters from the book through the hotel with an ax or roque mallet.

There is a big bar that doesn’t look quite as sinister as the one Lloyd served Jack at in Kubrick’s version, and a waterfall in back I don’t remember from the book either, but guests and tourists racing around the lobby and grounds all seem caught up in the magic of the place, no matter how manufactured.

Specificity of place is a boon to writers.   Starting your story in a real setting, no matter how much you may change it physically or geographically, or whether you rename it, gives your tale some of the reality of the original location.  You can picture hallways, floors, the relationship between rooms.   As your characters move through the world you make for them, it remains consistent, stable, more realistic.

A setting can also grow in significance, into a character as important as the people whose story you follow.   How many times have you heard people talk about a city as a character in a story, or a house?   I like to take pictures of places that suit my novels, buildings, neighborhoods, and put them up on the wall in front of where I am working along with photographs of faces that remind me of the characters.

World building is key in fiction, especially fantasy of any kind.  Remember as you work on your worlds that a day spent roaming plausible locations with a digital camera, and quick stop at a photo printer at your local pharmacy, and you have a wealth of research that costs you the price of bus fare and prints.  Need to see streets in other cities, or around the world, but can’t afford to get there?   Find photos.  Google street view works wonders, and found me the perfect place to set the opening chapter of "PAST LIFE: A Vampire Testament", at an isolated McDonald’s restaurant in the Cajon Pass outside of San Bernadino.

So build your worlds real enough to let your imagination run wild in them, but also know -- you don’t have to build them from scratch.   Reading isn’t the only form of research, and when it comes to creating a believable setting, a visit and a photo can be worth a thousand words or more.

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Viva Las Vegas!

I spent ten years living in Los Angeles, and somehow never managed to get to Las Vegas or Hawaii, the two biggest vacation destinations for people living in and passing through the City of the Angels.  Not once.

It wasn’t monetary.  There were years I did quite well in Hollywood and even drove a sporty dark blue-green Miata, the last resort of a disillusioned East Coast writer trying to convince himself he was happy there.  I could certainly afford to go to Vegas, I just didn’t have a circle of friends who were likely to pick up and go all Rat Pack for a weekend.  So when I was asked to go there for two days to shoot Pledge breaks for a Great Performances concert event for WNET/13, I said yes, and not just for the paycheck.

I’ve always been curious about Vegas.  Who hasn't?  I’ve seen the movies and TV shows, seen the way it gets tarted up for the cameras.  I’d heard how it‘s slipped from glittering glamour to family friendly.  I’d heard that there is the Strip, and then there's the rest of Vegas, which supports it, and heard that wasn't true, that Vegas was great place to raise a kid.  Who wouldn’t go?

Of course, the blessing and the curse of production is that you see only as much of any location as you are working on.  Fortunately the concert was being taped at the Mandalay Bay, one of the newer bigger classier joints.  It has the sleek comfort of a Ritz-Carlton hotel on steroids, the scale worthy of a Caesar, not to be confused with the one of the Palace down the street.

We arrived Thursday for the first day of shooting, doing an interview with David Foster, the composer/producer and center of the show.  He’s been in the business 40 years, has one of those craggy ageless faces that you can't help but feel reached a look it liked and just decided to stay there for the next sixty or seventy years.  The time we were to have with him kept compressing as rehearsals ran on, until we had a half hour window before he had to gulp down food in fifteen minutes and get back to the set.

He flew into the room from make-up, dropped into the chair and looked like he’d been sunning at poolside for the last six hours, rather than negotiating the performances and staging of countless star talents of at least two generations all day.  Christina and I had prepped earlier, wrote and arranged questions to get what we wanted as quickly as possible, and he answered them like they were having an intimate chat at the after party.  We got twenty minutes of gold, more than enough to cut together what we needed for the breaks, and he flew back to whatever food he could get before hitting the keys again.

He has this simple but amazing ability to be in a room fully, to give his full attention to whoever is in front of him at the time, which I have problems with, even on set.  Watching people at a certain high rung of success is fascinating when you see something that helps explain why they are where they are; his musical abilities aside, Foster has an easy seductive charm that explains the three ex-wives, and how he gets what he wants in the studio or on set, no matter how much he gives.  The next night I saw him work the same magic on the stadium audience as they patiently sat through retakes, technical delays and all the issues that arise doing a live show that’s also for TV.

The taping started around 8:15, and ran until 2am, long after I’d wrapped my humble three-man crew and returned to the hotel.  I was amazed when I heard the stadium audience had stayed for all of it, but then I remembered how Foster had been handling the night, the easy banter, jokes about cutting some catty comments out of the show, pulling people on stage from the crowd when there was a minute delay to let them sing for 30 seconds...it was like being at a big insider show biz party, where all the famous guests got up to clown around with the host and belt out your favorites of their old hits between jibes.

Ah, I thought...this is what the Rat Pack brought to Vegas.  This is what it was like to sit at a table in the sixties and hear Sammy, Frank and Dean kid each other between drinks and numbers, a part of the scene.  Like you belonged, no matter what town you came from or how crappy your life was.

Most of the trip was spent racing between our rooms and the stadium, shooting, preparing to shoot, or recovering from a shoot.  Before we started on Friday afternoon, Christina and I had time to run out to the Excalibur for the buffet lunch, which she said brought back memories of the Maryland College lunchroom.  We paid a fast visit to the Mandalay Bay Beach -- You have to see a beach in a desert.  The sand was white and plentiful, very tropical, and the water azure blue.  There was a wave generator that sent the water rushing at the fake shore every few seconds.  It was like something out of Westworld, total environment makeover.

We got to have a drink at the casino after we wrapped our shoot.   I bet one dollar in a slot machine and lost it immediately.  Looking around at $100 minimum Blackjack tables, I wasn’t tempted to go any further in my gambling career.  Christina put in one dollar, won five, and had the sense to stop, so she came back from Vegas able to honestly say she’d won five times what she gambled.

I didn’t get out at night to see the Strip in all its glory, but I can say that New York New York looks like Bizarro New York, the proportions all wrong so they can shove a hotel into it.  I forgot that the Liberace Museum is closing or I would have made a beeline for that, and bought as many souvenirs as I could have as Christmas gifts.  I saw a lot of people, many more on Friday than on Thursday, all walking around with the same kind of goofy grin you see on kids’ faces their first time at FAO Schwartz.

But for all the good-natured glitz and tacky faux glamour, there is still the dark underbelly...

The elevator doors opened as we were headed back to our rooms the second day, and there was a group of twenty something young people outside, male and female, dressed for a night on the town, one at each door of the six elevators.  The blonde girl outside our door looked at us in mock disappointment as we saw that we weren’t the only open doors.

“Aw!” she said with a pouty grin, “You made me lose my bet!”

There are slot machines at the airport, gambling machines mounted on the surface of the bars, so you can keep playing as the drinks drop your face down lower and lower for a better view of the screen, tables of all kinds to satisfy any urge to indulge, and it’s not enough.  They even lay odds on the elevators.

Thank God that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.  That's all that keeps us from walling it up like Montresor did in Poe’s A Cask of Amontillado.  It has to stay there, whatever it is.  If it ever gets out, we are all doomed.


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My mother wrote short stories, children’s books, and a few articles.   I know my grandmother did the same.  There has been a writing gene on my mother’s side of the family fighting to get out for some time. I have found its footprints in the typed and handwritten pages I used to find in my grandmother’s attic when I was a kid, among my mother’s effects.  I’d stumbled across the trail for years when I was young, but it never had any significance to me when I was growing up.
Writing had no real meaning for me then.  It was a form of communication, just words on paper that told you stuff, something else you had to learn in school.   As I learned to read stories, I began to appreciate that there were different kinds that affected me in different ways.  Sad stories, funny stories, scary stories...I started to pay attention to why they were different, then to how the writer did it.  Lessons learned over a lifetime led me to become the writer I am today.

But that seed was planted in my head by the women who encouraged me to love the written word as much as they did, who nurtured my own writing ability, even if they had abandoned their own ambitions ages ago.   I love them all the more for that, for not letting any regret or envy taint their appreciation of my growing joy at what they already knew.  As I look back on them, when they lived, what they had to do and sacrifice to make my life as it is now possible, I see that in addition to the social strictures of the day, there was one other thing that they lacked more than anything else that stopped them.


I found a rejection letter to my mother for a children’s book she had written, which I found with it.  It was a lovely story and when I read it to her in her assisted living apartment after I found it.  She didn’t remember writing it, was losing a lot of the past as well as her present by then... I read it to her and her friend across the hall, and felt tears well up in my eyes at the end, it was that moving.

It wasn’t just that it was my mother’s story, or that reading it aloud to her was releasing a lot of emotions in me, it was really a good well-written story.  Maybe not the best fairy tale ever written, but it had structure, good characters, and a little darkness in the style. But she gave up after one rejection letter.  If there had been others, they would have been there in the attic too.  I was sorry that she hadn’t had the faith in herself that I had in her, that neither her or my grandmother had been given the encouragement that they gave me to persevere.

Thirty agents rejected my first novel before I found the one who got it and thought it could work, and I won’t admit how many publishers.  In the end, my second novel, BLOOD PRESSURE, is coming out at the end of this month with another great review from Publishers Weekly to launch it.  Each rejection was a knife in my heart, but I rode it out for over a year, listened to people along the way, did rewrites, worked harder than I ever dreamed I could, and eventually got published.

This picture is of me as a baby on my grandmother’s lap.  She always made me that happy. She died of bone cancer when I was in high school, and it took me well into my twenties to realize how important she’d been to my life, my development as a creative artist, and my sensibilities.  I know how incredibly proud she would be to see what I have done now; as my mother was before she went to join her.  It is because of them that I am where I am, and they’re why I always encourage people who say they write and how hard it is to get anywhere with it to stick it out, to keep writing past the bad writing, past the rejections, to the work that makes them happiest, to the work others can see and get as much as they do.  The work they can get published, in any number of increasing ways these days.

Usually, I tell people not to pursue writing as a career unless it’s a passion for them, something they’d do every day whether they were paid or not.  If it is an addiction you can’t shake, you also have to learn to feed it on your own.   If someone had been there to tell my mother and grandmother that, who knows what legacy they would have left me?  Instead, it's left for me to spread the love of language and story they instilled in me, in their name.

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