In Voice, FP Dorchak returns to many of the metaphysical themes he has explored throughout his other works, but he does so in a megaphysical, not to mention sexually explicit, way. The novel opens with protagonist Benjamin Becker on a plane bound for his hometown to deal with the dispersal of his father’s estate. Divorced and at a crossroads in his life, Benjamin has a head full of questions: “What was the meaning of life? Why ere we all put here to endure physical existence? Why did people have to die? Why was honesty so damned hard? Was true love ever obtainable if people continued to lust after seemingly greener pastures?” Though the novel grapples to some extent with all of these questions, the final question is its primary focus. To answer it, Dorchak has his protagonist fall for a flight attendant named Amanda and an apparently imaginary lover named Rebecca in rapid succession. That Benjamin is attracted to both concurrently only adds to his own confusion about the nature of love, and the fact that he attempts to bring Rebecca to life by projecting her personality into a mannequin doesn’t help matters. (Nor does his growing suspicion that Rebecca may not be as imaginary as he first thought.) What emerges from all of Benjamin’s turmoil is a bizarre and mind-bending meditation on love, being, and reincarnation that would feel right at home in an episode of the X-Files. Or maybe the XXX-Files.
Pretty much everything you need to know about digging into Tom Williams’s newest book is in the title: Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. For me, it’s one of the best titles in recent memory, and shows readers the humor Williams brings to the topic of race before they open the book.
Don’t mistake that humor for flippancy. The book is funny, but as a result of raw honesty about the situation.
And do not mistake that raw honesty for an oppressive read. Williams does not pull his punches, but nor does he ever pile on.
Yes, every story in Among the Wild Mulattos deals with race in America, but some do so more intensely than others, some with outlandish humor and others with a darker tone, creating an ebb and flow of emotion and intensity through the book.
Williams’s collection begins with “The Story of My Novel: Three Piece Combo With Drink,” a story about a writer—a bi-racial man—who can’t sell his writing in the traditional manner, and instead queries his favorite fast food chain. The chain publishes his novel, but changes it to make it a piece of propaganda for the company. The character then embarks on a hilarious, slapstick-style tour of franchises all around the country to promote what is only sort of his book. The heightened style Williams employs here adds to the humorous farce of it all.
However, the range of this collection is revealed when one contrasts “The Story of My Novel” with “Ethnic Studies,” a story about four men of different racial minorities recruited to stand in front of a college class and be, essentially, humiliated by the professors and their students’ ignorant questions. The professors, in a misguided and self-righteous attempt to broaden their students’ horizons, eventually become the butt of the jokes when the men brought into the class take control of the conversation.
“Ethnic Studies” is a funny story, especially at the end when the men parody their own stereotypes, which only makes the sheltered students more uncomfortable. But the style is more terse than many of the other stories, and the indignities the characters suffer are more brutal and overt. But, in the end, the humor is what Williams uses to balance things out, to restore a sense of justice to the story.
In constructing such a collection, Williams achieves a deft balance of poignancy, clarity, and humor. His work reminded me of a quote by Vonnegut:
“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
It would be natural and justified to write a tearful book about the frustrating and exhausting situation of race in contemporary America, but to write one with laughter is its own accomplishment, perhaps a more difficult one. And, the clean up from this reading experience is pretty easy.
Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales is available here.
Big thank you to Marc for letting me take over his blog today to talk about trope twisting, how to take something familiar and make it fresh again.
Trope Twisting: Something Familiar but Different by K.C. Tansley
After years of attending writing conferences, it has been drilled into my head that agents and editors want one thing: something familiar, but different.
Fantasy tropes—isolated castles, magic mirrors, ghosts, witches, curses, and spells—are incredibly familiar to readers, which means they have an understanding of what these things are. Because readers can immediately grasp and connect with these things, they can also border on boring.
Tropes, however, can be very useful. If I say castle, it stirs something inside you. It’s part of your symbolic memory. Ditto for magic mirror. You already have an idea of what that entails. It’s familiar. Your mind is comfortable with the concept and the meaning of it.
When I was building my story, I realized I had a bunch of tropes in it. Then I heard the advice from conferences running through my head: take the familiar and make it different.
So I set to work on trope twisting. It’s about taking a trope and adding your own twist to it. You have to take something familiar and find a way to make it feel fresh to the reader.
I had an isolated castle and the first thing people think is England or Europe. At least, that’s what I think of when I think castle. So I played the What If game. That’s where I ask what if and see where it takes me. So I asked myself, “What if I put the castle in New England?” That’s different. Yes, coastal New England. But which state? How about my home state? Connecticut.
That decision impacted the rest of the plot. Instead of time traveling to Victorian England, my characters went to Victorian New England. Something less common and less expected. Oh, I liked where this was headed.
I’ve always been fascinated by mirrors. I used to wonder what could happen if I stared at one long enough. What if my image wasn’t just a reflection? So, of course, my story included a magic mirror that acts as a portal. People falling or jumping through magic mirror portals is pretty common. How could I make this different? What if instead of falling through it, my heroine is yanked through it? Again, a slightly different take on things.
I kept going with this. Tweaking my world building to make it a little different than what you’d expect. Curses and spells are only cast by the living. But the dead, they can force the living to do their bidding. They can possess the living.
I had my own ideas about what happens when we die. I put my spin on what ghosts and spirits were. For me, death shatters souls. Ghosts are the big chunks that remain here and they seek reckonings. The largest part of the soul remains intact and it reincarnates. Spirits are tiny fragments of the ghost piece. They have no intentions, they simply recreate a moment.
Even my time travel had a twist, a body snatcher aspect to it that my publisher loved. It was something they felt made the book stand out.
So when you’re writing your story, look to the elements that have a universal appeal or meaning. Then find a way to put your own personal twist on them.
About The Book
In The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts, prep school junior Kat Preston accidentally time travels to 1886 Connecticut, where she must share a body with a rebellious Victorian lady, prevent a gruesome wedding night murder, disprove a deadly family curse, and find a way back to her own time.
K.C. Tansley lives with her warrior lapdog, Emerson, on a hill somewhere in Connecticut. She tends to believe in the unbelievables—spells, ghosts, time travel—and writes about them.
Never one to say no to a road trip, she’s climbed the Great Wall twice, hopped on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, and danced the night away in the dunes of Cape Hatteras. She loves the ocean and hates the sun, which makes for interesting beach days. The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts is the first book in her YA time-travel murder mystery series.
As Kourtney Heintz, she also writes award winning cross-genre fiction for adults.
Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/kourtneyheintzwriter
In Christmas Before Christianity, Lochlainn Seabrook presents a thoroughly researched examination of the “ingredients” that have, over centuries and millennia, contributed to our contemporary understanding of what many, right or wrong, consider the holiest day of the year. Early on, Seabrook discusses the paucity of historical evidence surrounding the figure of Jesus in order to subsequently demonstrate the ways in which the relative blank slate of his biography allowed early Christians to incorporate a myriad of other belief systems into what eventually came to be accepted as canon. Chief among these other systems, as the book’s subtitle suggests, was a firm belief that the sun was the center of all life. Indeed, the author points out that, in his words, “Jesus’ birth on December 25 specifically was not mentioned by any writer, scholar, or historian” during the time in which Jesus lived; what’s more, the date traditionally associated with the birth of Christ was not established until the year 534, “not because Jesus was born on that date, but rather because the Christian masses overwhelmingly identified Jesus with the Pagan Roman sun-god Mithras, as well as with other pre-Christian solar deities, all whose birthdays fell on December 25.” In addition to investigating the ways in which pre-Christian mythology fed into the story of the birth of Christ, Seabrook also examines the origins of the season’s accoutrements including the Christmas tree (a pagan fertility symbol originating in Egypt), the tale of the three wise men (an allusion to ancient astrology and the three stars that comprise Orion’s belt), and Santa Claus (an amalgam of Odin, Thor, and various maritime deities). Other topics Seabrook explores include the evolution of Christmas cards, plum pudding, Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, holly, and pantomime from their ancient forms to the ways in which we employ and enjoy them today. Altogether, a fascinating and meticulously detailed read for anyone curious about the origins of Christmas — or, for that matter, about the ways in which myths and legends evolve over time.
“Remember, my dear, religion makes murderers of saints.” – excerpt from Ken Wohlrob’s No Tears for Old Scratch
Ken Wohlrob’s writing has matured since Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners. The narrative voice in No Tears for Old Scratch is not only grittier with hard-hitting one liners, but the novel itself is laden with tension and conflict. Quirky is how one might describe his beautiful contemporary narratives with bouts of smart-ass dark humor. He sets each scene by trying to stimulate multiple senses at a time, depicting everything from the the scent and humidity of the atmosphere to the taste and grit in the air. All in all, he has great function in his form:
“A solitary woman sat in 9B…Yellow stains on the tips of her fingernails. Her salt-and-pepper hair was strung up in a wretched concoction that left strands hanging around her face like tentacles. Round glasses covered her eyes as she read an old book, scratching nervously at each page six times before she turned it with a single finger. OCD. A Catholic school graduate, no doubt. They did a hell of a job on this one.”
In No Tears for Old Scratch, we follow Biff, a melodramatic fedora-sporting Briton—with all his mentions of “wankers” and “bloody hells” and “piss offs” and “cunts,” he’s from across the pond—on his (homeless) holiday through Upstate New York. There, he stumbles upon a quaint community of people struggling with the usual stuff: poverty, divorce, and boredom, only they inhabit what they refer to as “the Holiest Town in America.” (The town is home to The Graveyard of the Innocent, which is a “monument to the unborn babies killed by abortions performed on teenage mothers in New York State every day.”)
Wohlrob’s developed the feel of small community well by illustrating a claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and people bump into each other at the library by day and strip club by night. Though the dichotomies are sometimes puzzling—Biff is well-spoken and mannered (in most ways), but is a thief, accomplice to abduction and murder (somewhat), and spouts existential ramblings and antagonizing insults—they work well for the storyline. While referring to someone as “madam,” he might rattle off a slew of offenses:
“Your child was trying to reorganize the very molecules of my seat by beating them into a pulp with his sneakers, I’d assumed that the Neanderthal who had squirted his seed inside you had long since jumped ship and left you a Miss with a pair of bastards.”
The middle section of Biff’s adventures is a tad dry, and there are times when I have no idea what the hell is going on. Random personalities are always coming and going, saying and doing nothing particularly interesting, and he frequently makes random mentions of an old man with rabbit teeth and the lifecycle of earthworms.
In the end though, he ties off most hanging ends, and stepping back, we see that Biff is a vagabond who blows into town looking for absolution in this small community, but disrupts the balance with his sociopathic demeanor, and ultimately gets what’s coming to him: a violent demise similar to The Lottery (sans the actual lotto), and after being such a haughty dick—accomplice to murder, stealing from a collection plate, punching a priest—I was almost rooting for the angry mob. As he goes down against the pavement, a few of Biff’s words sear in mind:
“I take no issue with the dead. It is the living whom I find so irksome.”
Suitably titled, No Tears for Old Scratch is a great read for this summer.
I interviewed Tony Rauch back in 2011 upon the publication of his short story collection, Eyeballs Growing All Over Me — Again. Now he’s out with a new collection, What If I Go Down on My Knees?, which finds the author moving forward with his craft and breaking strange new ground. I caught up with him recently, and we chatted about his new collection as well as his recent quest to find a new pair of blue jeans…
What have you been up to lately? Mostly sending emails for promotion of my new book “What if I got down on my knees?” a short story collection of romantic misadventures and entanglements. People can read more about it on this web page: https://trauch.wordpress.com/books/whatifigotdown/. The book has been getting some nice reviews, and more are pending. At this point in a book release, marketing takes up 80% of my writing time. This includes contacting potential reviewers and answering interviews. I enjoy the interviews because it’s nice to converse with people who are also interested in literature, and they ask some questions I had not thought about, so it gets me thinking on other levels. But sometimes I feel like I’ve become an emailer and sales person instead of someone interested in writing and exploring literary ideas. I guess that’s all part of it though. I’m also looking for new blue jeans.
The first story in What If I Go Down On My Knees? is about a man who runs a stampede of dogs through a town. What inspired this scenario? A sudden interest in being a part of a huge dog stampede. I was walking my dog and my sister’s dog and we were running and running and thought it would be really cool if the dogs had more friends and if there were more dogs with us. So I thought: how could that come about and where would we go? What context would that be plausible? So it was just me extrapolating an everyday event, sort of a wish.
The narrator of the story describes this running of dogs as a kind of art. Is there a parallel to be drawn between your own chosen art form, writing, and running dogs through churches, supermarkets, gas station, and alleys? Between running words through a reader’s mind and dogs through a town? There is no parallel for me. But maybe a reader may see it differently. It is for the reader to decide for themselves. I can only present the material, and hopefully that presentation is as clear as it can be. Writing is an art of the mind, where the dog stampede would be more of a visual art and thus have more limitations. A writer’s words can convey many stories and hopefully several possible interpretations of those stories. The art of the dog running, the herding and stampeding, is an act that can be seen in different ways by different people – as a poetic respite, as a disruption, etc. So that is the only connection I can see – like looking at clouds, different people may interpret the clouds as different things. I have been finding some jeans that may be suitable, to put your reader’s minds at ease. What concerns me is when literature tries to be perfect. A writer is reflecting a human reality, which by its nature is not perfect. So why write characters, dialog, and plots that are smooth and eloquent? In reality the way people speak and react to things is not always smooth and eloquent. To me, attempts at that come off as contrived. Though it does not bother me when other art forms – visual arts and music – strive to be smooth, in balance, well proportioned, mathematically perfect, etc. Because some of that is trying to be a reflection of nature, which at times is perfectly proportioned.
Your narrator mentions in passing that running a hundred dogs through an alley needs to be “done properly” in order to rise to the level of art. What are your own thoughts on the “proper” way to write? What makes good writing? What elevates writing to the level of art? And what should art do? Clarity of writing, but not necessarily of purpose and intent so as to leave room for the reader to assign their own interpretations and feelings into the situation. Imagination. Originality. Energy – a story should move quickly in a direction. Showing things in a different way, presenting new ideas or perspectives, another point of view. Art should attempt to assign life meaning and purpose, should attempt to explain why things happen, should aid in feeling empathy for others, should inform. Or it should be a respite from troubles and the daily sameness in taking us places we normally could not go. There is ‘meaning’ type art and ‘decorative’ type art. Both types are valid. Much like new dungarees have a function, but also must be decorative and comfortable.
Who are some writers who, in your opinion, rise to the level of creating art? Who inspires you? Who were you reading while you were working on What If I Go Down On My Knees? In general, that would be a long list, but for this book what I was looking at were short stories. Some of my favorites include:
- “for Esme – with love and squalor” by J.D. Salinger
- “winter dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- “the betrayed kingdom” by Richard Brautigan
- “murderers” by Leonard Michaels
- “our work and why we do it” and “the wound” by Donald Barthelme
- “from the floodlands” by Adrienne Clasky
- and sci-fi from the 40s, 50s, and 60s as it introduces ideas and possibilities.
To me these deal with realizations and change, with challenging readers to see the world in new and different ways, or expanding the short fiction format. What is life without the opportunities for future possibilities? Close yourself off and you die, open your aperture and you have many paths to explore. Hopefully, I am unique and different, but I’m probably an amalgamation of past experiences, formats, and themes that reached deeply into me for some reason I am unable to see at this time. At my best I am a combination of the favorites listed above, with myself mixed in.
And what if you do go down on your knees? I had not thought of that. Most of these stories are story starters as life is a continuum, sometimes with no clear beginning or ending. I guess if you have to beg for something, for someone to stay, then that is an indication that this someone means a great deal to you, or there is a void in your life. But you also have to let things go. This frees space for other things to arrive. But getting to that point where you are on your knees at least is getting yourself to see this need, so at the very least you are arriving at a point of departure, at a point of decision making, at a point of clarity in knowing that you need or want something, so maybe that’s not so bad, finding a hierarchy of needs and realizing a priority list is being arranged. You can decide what jeans to purchase. If you go to several large stores, you can find a variety and that will help decisions fall into place – to see what’s out there, what’s available. You just have to get out there and keep looking, keep going. Inspiration can come from real life occurrences, and sometimes those situations can be painful or confusing. Sometimes you don’t find those jeans that fit.
Word on the street is that Elvis Costello has a memoir due in October. For those who can’t wait, there’s Richard Crouse’s Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True, a meticulously researched account of Costello’s early years and the release of his first LP with independent label Stiff Records. Of particular interest with respect to this volume is Crouse’s attention to the milieu out of which both My Aim Is True and Costello himself emerged. Indeed, the sense one gets is that Costello’s identity congealed around the production and marketing of his first album in ways that few other acts ever did. “Elvis Costello,” the stage name adopted fairly late in the proceedings by singer-songwriter Declan McManus, emerges as somewhat of a construct, an amalgam of various mythical figures of rock’s colorful history — Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in particular. Crouse also does an excellent job of contextualizing the album in question. Not punk by any stretch of the imagination (Costello’s backing group for this project was an American country-rock band called Clover), My Aim Is True nonetheless appealed to the raw DIY aesthetic as well as the iconoclastic attitudes of the indie and punk movements of its time. Though relatively brief (and appropriately so, given its narrow focus), Elvis Is King presents a tight, thorough portrait of the musician as a young man that will appeal not only to die-hard Costello fans but rock historians in general.