Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts

07 October 2019

West of Hollywood


Libby Cudmore
Libby Cudmore
In this world, you have to ask for what you want.

In some cases, you have to pick a lock and break in.

When I heard that Brian Thornton was putting together a pair of crime-themed anthologies based on the music of Steely Dan, I knew I had to be part of it. It didn’t matter that the slate was already full.

Over the past several years I have positioned myself as the Queen of the Dandom, a mighty figure in the realm of Steely Dan Twitter, and as the author of the critically-acclaimed mixtape murder mystery, this was the project I had been waiting for.

I emailed Brian this:


Hi Brian,

I just saw your article about your Steely Dan anthology and I think it is the GREATEST IDEA EVER IN THE HISTORY OF ALL IDEAS. I was wondering… room for one more? I am a huge huge HUGE Steely Dan fan (I've seen them six times; am wearing my "The Dan Who Knew Too Much" tour shirt as I write this) and I know I could write you an amazing story… plus I'm quick!

Please and thank you!


Brian told me he liked my enthusiasm and my Dan credentials (since then, I have seen them another four times, bringing the grand total to 10 shows, plus The Nightflyers / Dukes of September) and although he initially told me he couldn’t make any promises.

I told him that if not this one, I’d love to collaborate on another. A few days later, he responded with this:


All that aside, I value passion, especially when it comes to music, and doubly so when it comes to GREAT music. I have no doubt that this collection will be the stronger for your participation.

So congratulations, kid. You’re in! I’ll make it work.


I was ECSTATIC. If the first lesson is shoot your shot, the second is to always be gracious and forward-thinking. Being a jerk gets you nowhere.

Settling on a song was the difficult part. So many of the good ones were taken – including “The Second Arrangement” – but I wanted to go with something a little off-beat. I’ve found a lot of fans underrate Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go, so my initial thought was to write a stalker story around “Lunch With Gina.”

A Beast without a Name
But the story wasn’t coming together, and with the deadline clock ticking down, I switched over to “West of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature. There’s a cold undercurrent of broken passion there that fascinated me, something wild that had since crumbled to dust. I based it around a pair of con artists and former lovers who reunite for one job in the Hollywood Hills.

As soon as I settled on the concept, the story came together in almost one draft. I like to think it was guided by the spirit of the late Walter Becker.

But never one to keep all the good stuff for myself, I was also able to recommend that Brian bring in my friend/fellow Steely Dan fanatic Matthew Quinn Martin in, and he wrote a devastatingly good story based on “Pretzel Logic.” Both stories will appear in the second volume, titled A Beast Without A Name, available from Down & Out Books on Oct. 28.

Libby Cudmore
It never hurts to ask for what you want. Be prepared for a no, which makes celebrating that YES even better. I am forever grateful to Brian for making space for me in this anthology, and I’m really looking forward to sharing “West of Hollywood” with all of you when it comes out.

05 September 2019

Holy Bastard: Pope Stephen VII & the Cadaver Synod


by Brian Thornton
Read, — how there was a ghastly Trial once Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes
— Robert Burns, The Ring and the Book

This week's foray into historical bastardry concerns the Papacy and a pope “convicted” of terrible crimes nearly a year after his death!

The late 9th and early 10th centuries marked a period of widespread political chaos in Italy dubbed the “Iron Age” of the Papacy. For example, no less than twenty-five men served as pope between the years 872 and 972. During this time the Papacy came to be viewed as the ultimate “plum job” by Rome’s wealthy families, many of whom vied with each other to see one of their number don the shoes of the fisherman and in turn dispense ridiculous amounts of patronage amongst his kinsmen.


Feuds developed, blood was spilled. A pope was poisoned, and the reigns of his successors became successively shorter (many of them also meeting violent ends). In the midst of all of this chaos, where a pope would change canon law by this or that decree, only to have his reforms overturned by an antagonistic successor, one pope took matters even further.

He ordered a predecessor’s corpse dug up and put on trial.
Funny, he doesn't look crazy…

Enter Pope Stephen VII, who reigned as pontiff from May of 896 to August of 897.

These days people (Catholic or not) tend to view the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church as a benevolent, invariably elderly man dressed in clean white robes, apolitical, a living symbol of the Church’s stances on things such as social justice and mercy.

This was not always the case.

The Papacy has been around for millennia; it is one of the oldest institutions in the Christian Church. It stands to reason that a position like this one, which has been occupied by any number of different men over the course of its existence, has been occupied by the occasional loose screw. In the case of the Papacy, one could make the case that the law of averages has been stood on its head, and the office has seen enough loose screws, screaming rivets and outright nuts to fill a toolbox.

One such loose screw was Stephen VII, a churchman so off his rocker that he was given to toasting the health of the Devil and blaspheming against God. Add in the fact that Stephen was politically beholden to the family that ruled the nearby Duchy of Spoleto, and things start to get interesting.

During the Middle Ages the idea went that if a Pope was Christ’s vicar on Earth, he ought to have actual territory to rule like any secular feudal lord. This usually included the city of Rome and varying amounts of adjacent territory.

Since the Papacy at the time was scrambling for money and troops of its own, a succession of popes (including Stephen VII and many others) made outside alliances with powerful Italian families bent on adding the prestige of the Papacy to their own names. The Popes of this period usually accomplished this end by offering to legitimize the rule of the ally in question with a formal papal coronation (literally having the Pope himself place the ruler’s crown on his blessed head) in exchange for military aid and protection.

One pope who had done this was a predecessor of Stephen’s named Formosus, whose reign lasted five years (891-896). During that time Formosus (whose name in Latin means, “good looking”) had crowned the young Duke of Spoleto Holy Roman Emperor, then turned around and offered the same crown to Arnulf, King of Germany.

Am I saying Jude Law would play him in the movie?
No. But I'm not NOT saying it..

Arnulf had answered Formosus’ invitation by invading Italy and taking Rome, where Formosus promptly crowned him Holy Roman Emperor as well. Needless to say, this caused an uproar in Spoleto, especially with Angiltrude, Queen of Italy, Duchess of Spoleto, and erstwhile Holy Roman Empress, mother of the underaged Duke of Spoleto (who, lest we forget, had already been crowned Holy Roman Emperor himself).

Struck by a sudden mysterious paralysis, Arnulf withdrew from Italy, leaving Formosus to pick up the pieces. Formosus responded by dying shortly afterward, to be initially succeeded by a couple of popes with ridiculously short reigns (one of them only lasted two weeks as pontiff!), and eventually by Stephen VII, the certifiably crazy political pawn of Spoleto’s ruling family.

About six months into his reign, Stephen had Formosus dug up and propped up in a chair in the Vatican, where he was then placed on trial (called, appropriately enough, the Synodus Horrenda in Medieval Church Latin, and known in English today as the far tamer "Cadaver Synod") with Pope Stephen himself sitting as judge. Formosus (or rather his corpse) was accused of (among other things) being ambitious enough to actually want to be pope (the nerve!).

No one is sure of Stephen’s reasons for putting on this, the ultimate show trial, but historians speculate that he was feeling pressure from Angiltrude and her supporters to delegitimize Formosus’ reign (thereby also wiping out Arnulf’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor) and suffering from some well-documented psychosis.

The trial lasted for weeks, during which time Stephen would frequently interrupt his own papal prosecutor in order to rant at Formosus’ moldering corpse, calling it all manner of names, accusing it of murder, blasphemy and several other crimes with which it was not actually charged. How the corpse responded is not recorded.

The Lateran Palace today. The "trial?" took place here.

The trial’s outcome was a foregone conclusion. The corpse was stripped of its expensive papal vestments, the first three fingers of its right hand (the three with which a pope blesses his subjects) were cut off, and the body was briefly reburied, this time in an unmarked grave in a graveyard reserved for foreigners. Within a couple of days it had been dug up yet again and tossed in to the Tiber River, only to be pulled out by a monk loyal to the dead pope’s memory.

This “Cadaver Synod” resulted in riots throughout Rome which eventually cost Stephen first his papal throne and eventually his life. He was strangled in prison less than six months after “condemning” the dead Formosus (once again, Formosus’ reaction, if any, to this news is not recorded).

A fitting end for one crazy bastard.

11 July 2019

The Long Overdue Revenge of the Customer Service Representative


by Brian Thornton

Aloha from Maui!

Every time I've driven past the signs for Kihei in the past week, I've thought of old pal and fellow Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, and his better half, Kiti. (And they know why!).

As I sail toward the end of the first real vacation my family has taken in years, my thoughts have been on an amazing and amusing thing that happened to me during the final week of the school year a couple of weeks back.

One of my students (hard-working, charismatic, a real leader, just a fine young lady) informed me that her mother works for the credit union where I and my family do most of our banking. "Oh," I think to myself, "Small world."

Turns out there was more.

"My mom finally remembered where she recognized your name from," this amazing kid went on.

"From the credit union?" I said, still not quite getting it.

"Yep. She sees your name quite a bit there."

These are vacation pics and having nothing to do with this post: that's the island of Kaho'olawe across the bay.
Casting back in my memory to try to recall whether I had any recent NSF fees (Hey–no judgement. Most of us have been there at one time or another, after all.), I asked, "What does your mom do at XXXX Credit Union (Not its real name)?"

"She's Quality Control for Customer Service."

This information sends my thoughts in a new direction. Have I complained about the service I've received lately? Nope. Does that mean someone's complained about me? Is that even a thing customer service folks even do?

I asked myself this last question because a few decades back, I was one of those people working in a variety of entry-level customer service jobs. It was some of the hardest and least rewarding work I've ever done. I worked in food, in hospitality, in transportation, all while working my way through college so that I could embark on a different–yet–not–all–that–different type of customer service: teaching.


Back in those days (and we're talking the early '90s here) one customer complaint could mean the end of your employment (I didn't have a union job until I started teaching, everywhere I worked was a one-counseling session and you're fired kind of place.). I know this because at least once I got fired because of a customer complaint.

Well, that and the fact that the guy who fired me (someone who really put the "ass" in "assistant manager.") was a real piece of work.

But that's another story.

These and other memories were washing over me during my conversation with that awesome student of mine. So I said: "Quality Control, huh? She fields complaints, things like that?"

"Yep," Awesome Kid (not her real name, but it might as well be) said.

"Does she like her job?"

"She does. And she likes you."

I cudgel my brain trying to recall whether I've ever met Awesome Kid's mom. Nope. I'm pretty sure I'd remember. She didn't come to conferences, and I didn't see her at Open House. So that surprises me.

"She likes me?" I ask, all intelligence and awareness, now.

"Yes. You're one of the highest-rated customers they have."

I blink at her, not comprehending. "They rate customers?"

She nods. "And the customer service reps all really love you. You get high marks all the time and you're near the top of their list."

And just like that, with this small kindness, Awesome Kid made my year.

The island of Lana'i (left) and the West Maui Mountains (right) framing a spectacular sunset

My early experiences with the downside of customer service (being the one to catch the irate call, or get someone's order wrong, or commit one of thousand small errors) have informed my interactions with the people who work in those positions ever since my own days in customer service, lo those many moons ago.

In the years since I've striven to be patient, to be polite. To be courteous and respectful, even when I'm pretty pissed off about something.

Because, nine times out of ten, it's not the fault of the person I'm talking to. They're there because they picked up the phone, took the chat request, what-have- you.

I've never forgotten what it's like to be on the other end of that call, and I hope I never do.

So it did my heart good to know that customer service reps are getting a chance to rate their interactions with clients: getting a voice in how that back-and-forth went. Because, hey, it's a hard job. And it usually doesn't pay all that well.

Plus, I gotta admit, I like that someone on the other end of that phone call notices how I try to treat them well.

After all, Couldn't we, each and every one of us, use a little more humanity in our daily interactions?

This is why I've been tipping people left, right and center (something I do religiously anyway) over the last week, and will until we head for home.

Like I said before, it's a tough job, and people don't get paid a whole lot to do it.

And that's all I've got for this go-round. I hope you're all having a wonderful and productive July.

Mahalo, and see you in two weeks!




21 March 2019

"That's Fertile Ground": The Glen Erik Hamilton Interview


One of Seattle's favorite prodigal sons is in town this week on his way to Left Coast Crime in Vancouver. and graciously made time with me for an interview. (And for those of you who have never made it to Left Coast, what are you waiting for? Or maybe you're one of those people who doesn't want to TOO MUCH FUN at any one time–in which case you should defimitely STAY AWAY!).

All Glen Erik Hamilton has done so far in his writing career has been to win Anthony, Macavity and Strand Critics Choice Awards for his debut novel Past Crimes, in addition to receiving Edgar, Barry and Nero nominations!

This friend of the blog is a seriously righteous dude. But don't just take my word for it: he's appearing at the University of Washington Bookstore (directions here) next Wednesday, March 27th, beginning at 7 PM, to discuss his newest book, Mercy River. Stop in and say hello!

And on that note, on to the interview!

I've heard it said that the great film director John Ford worked hard to make the setting for any of his films, "another character in the story." (Regular readers of this blog–both of them!–will recall my own thoughts about setting as character getting an airing like a million internet years ago, here.) You set the Van Shaw books in and around Seattle (with side trips around the PNW), and as a resident of the region, I have to say that Seattle as another character in the books comes through loud and clear. What led you to write a series set in the Emerald City?

Moving away from it.  In our first couple of years living in Southern Cal, I would return home to Seattle for visits, and every time I was astounded by how much had changed in just a few months.  It was finally seeing the forest instead of the (mossy, needle-dropping) trees.  I liked the idea of a character returning after years away, and all those changes to the city coming as a surprise and reflecting his personal transformation while he'd been gone. 

Plus, Seattle is a great town to inspire crime fiction.  Shipping, international travel and immigration, technology, biotech, loads of old money and new, and a national border just hours away.  That's fertile ground.

Great points, all. Was there any particular reason you chose Irish immigrants and their descendants for this narrative? I mean, Seattle isn't exactly famous for its Irish connections.

I wanted Van and the man who raised him to have a remove between them despite their blood connection.  That's part of the reason I made Dono Van's grandfather rather than his father -- for a deeper generational gap -- and giving Dono a radically different childhood offered even more possibilities.  Plus, we have a good friend who is a speech therapist in Galway in both the English and Irish languages.  The notion of Van and Dono communicating in Irish when they wanted privacy was too much fun to pass up.

As for how Dono wound up in Seattle rather than in eastern cities with larger Irish communities -- we'll get into THAT history in another book...

Of course Van Shaw is a literary creation, and not a real person. How much of you is in Van, though? How alike/different are the two of you?

Setting aside the obvious differences in age, toughness, military skills, and readiness with a snappy comeback -- Vans aces me on every front -- there's a lot of my personality in Van.  We're both sardonic, we prefer to stay a little outside of polite society (or at least prefer to think of ourselves that way), we tend to be abrupt and obstinate when pushed, and neither of us can stand bullies of any sort.  The one advantage I have over Mr. Shaw is the wisdom of experience.  Van didn't have the benefit of loving friends and family, and he's still figuring out how to be a whole person.  My mantra for Van is that he's an expert at surviving, but not so great at living.

Sounds like you just laid out Van's arc Trying to find his place in the world, build a family, or at least a group where he feels he belongs. Is that close?

That's right.  Without consciously intending to, Van has become part of an patchwork family, a foundation I'm building on right now in Book Five.  Finding his place -- his purpose -- is harder.  He's really good at crime, at violence, at getting himself into tough situations while trying to protect others.  None of those traits endear him to society.  Or often to himself, when he's forced to bend his own hard-won principles.

Van's facial scarring (and at least in the first book his still mending left arm/hand) play a very big role in how the rest of the characters see/react to him. Can you walk us through your decision to use that facial scar as part of his character?

There were a few useful outcomes, some of which I only realized after the fact.  It started from my wanting Van to suffer a significant wound early in his Army career, and for him to have made the decision to move past that and continue in the regiment.  I didn't want that injury to permanently reduce his physical abilities or require frequent care.  And then I hit on the idea of an injury that's more socially impactful than physically.  It makes Van more obtrusive, and adds to his already intimidating presence, which is not always in his best interest.

And although he's largely recovered from it, the damage done to Van's face when he was twenty years old was a significant psychological blow to him.  He believed it made him hideous and that any hope of a normal life was destroyed.  I've only glanced toward that topic in previous books, but it's something I'll explore in some detail in the next adventure.

Yep. Facial scars are a very effective way of "otherizing" a character. And with our all-volunteer military, Americans have by and large been shielded from the evidence of the physical costs paid by some of its military personnel and the psychological costs paid by all who serve. So it can be all the more jarring to people when they come into sudden contact with evidence (like Van's scars) of said cost.

Is that why Van has stayed in the military (at least up until the action of the first book)? Looking to belong? I recall him mentioning that he makes a difference there.

Yes.  Van had intended to make a full career in the Army, having found a place where his abilities were both accepted and needed.  It was home.  Fate had other plans.  And in any event: serving in Special Operations, especially the uncompromising Rangers, is a little like being a professional athlete.  It's a young man's game.  At twenty-eight with about nine years in the Regiment at the start of the series, Van was probably facing the downslope of his active deployments.

And what was researching the army ranger angle like? Can you take us through that?

I sort of backed into having Van be a Ranger.  I wanted him to be far from home for a long time -- not just moving away, but really gone -- and the military seemed a logical route for a tough young guy with no prospects or money.  I was talking with a friend who had served in the Special Forces for many years about different branches of SpecOps, and he described the Rangers as (in polite terms) "knocking down doors and blowing stuff up".  That sounded exactly like what Van would be drawn to at age eighteen. 

I'm not a veteran, so I started by reading whatever I could get my hands on -- a shout-out to Dick Couch's excellent book Sua Sponte, about the selection process of the Rangers -- and by interviewing active and former members of the 75th Regiment.  The more I learned about the Rangers, the more I knew it was the right choice for Van.  They are shock troops, raiders, going anywhere in the world within eighteen hours to accomplish a specific objective.  Mercy River gave me a chance to go deeper into Van's own journey into the Regiment and the mindset of that brotherhood.

You make your home in Southern California these days. What are the challenges of writing about a place you now live a thousand miles away from?

The biggest challenges are the small ones -- remembering what a particular street is like, getting the proper feel for the current incarnation of neighborhoods, all that stuff where Seattle Times and Google Maps aren't going to be of help.  I sometimes scout new places when I'm in town with an idea toward using them later.  I also keep a list as I'm writing of Things-to-check-next-time-I'm-in-town.  In a pinch, I've sent out friends to photograph locations or FaceTime with me while they do the legwork.  The twenty-first century offers some advantages to the writer.

For the new book Mercy River, my daughter and I took a long weekend to drive around central Oregon and look at volcanic rock fields and ghost towns.  If all location scouting was that much fun, I'd never get around to actually writing the books.

Was it tough taking Van out of Seattle? I mean, this is the fourth novel, right? Seems like sooner or later he's going to have to expand outward. It also sounds like you're far from done having him travel beyond the Emerald City.

It's fun, and I think important, to flex new writing muscles with every book.  I could have placed Mercy River and the gathering of Ranger veterans in a real town in Oregon, but after three books set within easy driving distance of Seattle, it was a treat to create the town and the fictional Griffon County from scratch.  Plus, there's the advantage of making up whatever geography and jurisdictions is required to make the best story.  Van will continue to stretch his legs and visit new places.  At least enough to keep the dust off his passport.

What are the easiest things for you to write? 

Easy is a relative term, as every writer knows.  But I usually find that writing from Van's perspective as a child comes out pretty well-baked on the first drafts.  And scenes where he's exercising his skills in burglary and other illicit objectives.  I'm sure a shrink could have a field day analyzing why those two aspects of Van's mindset come naturally to me.

How about the hardest?

The hardest scenes in fiction are the hardest in life: when Van's figuring out the right thing to do, or say, or feel.  Sometimes I don't even know how I feel about a situation until I let Van wrestle with it.  I push him out there to do the emotional heavy lifting.

And there's a hybrid answer to your question:  Action scenes.  I love writing action sequences, and sometimes they even have the proper gut-punch feel I'm aiming for on the first attempt.  But to get them right, I probably make at least a dozen more passes depending on the complexity and length of the set piece.  Considering geography, character blocking, reaction times, perspectives and moods, sensory impact, and all the rest. The faster the scene, the longer it takes.

Yeah, writing action is a blast. And having your character in his own head can take quite a bit of layering of the writing.

But what about writing the likes of Van's grandfather Dono and cronies such as Hollis and Jimmy Corco? I'd think they'd all be a hell of a lot of fun to write.

Hollis's voice in particular comes easy.  If there's one character who sits down at the table with me and hands me his dialogue wholesale, it's Hollis.  He's a gregarious fellow.  And Jimmy C. is so sour, I just think of the meanest thing someone might say at a particular moment and half the time that's Jimmy's take on it too.

Okay, last question: can you give us a hint what's next on the horizon for Van Shaw and Company?


Van’s mother Moira died when he was only six years old, so his memories of her are very limited.  His grandfather closed himself off from the pain of losing Moira, and subsequently never shared much about her with Van as he grew up.  Neither of them ever learned who Van’s father was.  It’s high time that Van discovers more about his family, perhaps more than he’d truly like to know. 

And that wraps it. Thanks to Glen Erik Hamilton for taking the time to sit for this interview! And if you're in the Seattle area, consider dropping by the U Bookstore to say hello and talk thriller stuff with him next Wednesday, March 27th!

And for those of you planning to attend Left Coast (including you, Glen!) see you in Vancouver!


Prodigal Son & Thriller Writer With Hometown In View

04 September 2018

Prolific Slacker


When Brian Thornton described one project for which he wrote an average of 1,425 words/day (“La Joie de l’Écriture,” my heart palpitated with anxiety. That’s almost 2.5 times greater than my production rate during the best year for which I have records.

In 2009 I wrote 216,310 words, an average of 593 words/day. In 2017, my worst recorded year, I produced only 130,600 words, an average of 387 words/day. Neither average comes close to Brian’s assertion that “most of the working writers” he knows “cite a thousand words per day as a healthy goal.” My writing production isn’t healthy; it’s anemic.

That’s because I’m a slacker, never producing near as many words on any given day as I know I’m capable of producing. I allow myself to get sidetracked—by research, by other story ideas, by Twitter tweets, by Facebook posts, by blog posts, by new online forms of solitaire—and I look up later to discover I’ve only produced a paragraph or two.

And yet, I wrote 75 short stories in 2009 and 32 in 2017, so even my least productive year resulted in a significant number of completed works.

SKEWED NUMBERS

Maybe the way I track word counts skews my numbers. I don’t track words as I produce them; I only count the words in completed, submission-ready manuscripts.

In any given year I produce an ungodly number of partial manuscripts, stories I’ll finish one of these days, if I live long enough.

I set the stories aside for a variety of reasons. Some are beginnings without endings. Some are story doughnuts, missing the all-important middle that gets readers from beginning to end. Some are rough outlines. Some are stories beyond my current ability to write. Many, though, are stories without markets. For example, I continue generating story ideas for confessions, even though the last two confession magazines ceased publication more than a year ago.

SETTING GOALS

As a short-story writer (and, likely, as with any other kind of writer), what matters most are finished manuscripts, so I’ve never set writing goals that involve number of words or number of pages or amount of time spent at the keyboard.

My annual goals, ever since setting them many years ago, are 52 acceptances and 52 new stories each year, or an average of one of each per week. Reprints carry the same weight as originals when counting acceptances, so the six reprints I placed a few weeks ago brought my total acceptances for the year to 32, which put me exactly on schedule as I write this. My production of new stories this year to date totals a paltry 13.

I have several stories near completion, but even were I to complete them all before month end, I would remain behind schedule. There are several reasons for the reduction in output, some of them, perhaps, the subjects of future posts, but the net result is that I am unlikely to meet my writing goals this year.

As a prolific slacker, I don’t chide myself for failing to meet my productivity goals nor do I allow myself to slip into a woe-is-me funk that further erodes my productivity. Instead, I do my best to deal with the things that sap my creativity or keep me away from the keyboard. Then, like now, when I am at the keyboard, I spend a little less time playing solitaire and a little more time stringing words together.

I may never join the ranks of the thousand-words-a-day working writers Brian cited—heck, this post won’t even reach a thousand words!—but I’ve found that my slacker’s approach allows me to produce an ever-growing body of work.

So, no matter how you set your goals—by the word, by the page, by the manuscript, or by the length of time at the keyboard—realize that you may not always meet those goals.

Whether you do or you don’t, the most important thing you can do is to keep pressing forward. As my youngest son recently said, you don’t fail until you quit.

Released at the end of August, Blood Work (Down & Out Books), edited by Rick Ollerman, celebrates the life of Mystery Writers of America Raven Award-winning Gary Shulze, long-time owner of the legendary Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis. Gary left an indelible mark on the crime fiction community across the world before he passed away in 2016 due to complications from leukemia. The anthology includes my story “Backlit.”

If you’ll be at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg this week, stop in on “This Ain’t Your Mama’s Orange Juice—Writing Pulp,” a panel in which I’ll join Frank De Blase, Kate Pilarcik, and moderator Steven Torres. We’ll start squeezing oranges at 4:00 p.m., Saturday, September 8.

And I’ll be speaking about “Short Stories: From Concept to Sale, How This Form Can Satisfy,” at the noon MWA-Southwest luncheon, September 15, at Carraba’s, 1399 South Voss, Houston, Texas.

03 May 2018

The Fine Art of M.S.U.


No, this is not a guided tour of the fine arts program at Michigan State University. or of the art school at Montana State University. And it sure ain't a discussion of the pros and cons of attending the fine arts program at Minot State University.

Today I'm talking about the Fine Art of Making Shit Up.

Recently I've been enjoying the RCN series of novels by science fiction author David Drake. Drake, a fan of the Aubrey/Maturin nautical adventure novels of the late Patrick O'Brian, has based this series on O'Brian's work, setting it in a far future where the space-faring navy of the planetary "Republic of Cinnabar" (A thinly veiled avatar for late 18th/early 19th century Great Britain) finds itself locked in a life or death struggle with a cosmic avatar of Bonapartist France called "The Alliance of Free Stars" (which, it turns out, is neither an "alliance," nor "free." Discuss!).

It's all great fun.

One of the things I enjoy most about Drake's work in this series is his tapping the existing record of past human history and using it as source material for the dramatic twists and turns his narratives take.

And Drake is sanguine about the limitations under which he operates. Writing in the forward for Some Golden Harbor, he addresses the existence of the English and metric measuring systems whole cloth in a far future on which two millennia of human development ought to have worked to make them unrecognizable to our 21st century eyes:

"The scattered human societies I postulate for this series would have many systems of weights and measures. Rather that try to duplicate that reality and thereby confuse readers without advancing my story, I've simply put Cinnabar on the English system while the Alliance is metric. I don't believe either system will be in use two millennia from now, but regardless: my business is storytelling, not prediction."

I like that last line especially. my business is storytelling, not prediction.

This is a sentiment he has expressed elsewhere in slightly different form. In an author's note for an earlier work in the series (When the Tide Rises), he writes: "I write to entertain readers, not to advance a personal or political philosophy (I don't have a political philosophy); nonetheless, my fiction is almost always based on historical models."

Note the use of the word "almost" in that final sentence.

Boy, do I connect with that sentiment.

But I don't write futuristic fiction.

I write historical fiction.

And there's this strain of thought concerning historical fiction these days that flies in the face of what I've quoted above.

We historical fiction writers are supposed to make it realistic. Believable. Authentic.

I hear that in nearly every conversation where two or more historical fiction writers are part of of the back-and-forth.

And I think it's nonsense.

I'm not saying that historical fiction should not be realistic, believable and authentic.

I'm saying that "realistic" is not the same thing as "real." That "believable" is not the same thing as "true." That reading "authentic" is not the same thing as the actuality of "authenticity."

I have fellow travelers among the historical mystery writers I know and love. I've heard it said many times and more succinctly than what I managed above: "We're writing historical fiction, not history."

I have a Master's degree in history. I understand and practice historical analysis on a daily basis in my day gig (I teach history). I have also written and published in the field.

The two are not the same thing.

I hear you saying, "No kidding, Brian!"

Bear with me.

There are fans out there who will hold a fiction writer's feet to the fire over getting a detail about the workings of the brake system of a Pullman car wrong (I know this from experience). For some people it seems almost a point of perverse pride to try to catch out an author making a mistake.

And I can see their point.

Mostly.

When you're reading fiction you don't want to read something that's going to take you out of the story. For example, I was reading a historical mystery set in ancient Rome by an author who shall remain nameless (I will say that the author in question has advanced degrees in ancient history, and has taught classics at the university level for a number of years).

This author had an annoying habit of writing ancient Romans speaking Latin as if they were speaking cockney slang. When one character told another not to "get your knickers in a twist," it did jar me out of the story.

Much easier to take is an author  such as the late, great Philip Kerr, who wrote early 20th century German characters using translations of German slang: a gun was a "lighter," for example. A cigarette, a "nail." And so on.

But was Kerr being "authentic," or was he just a damned good writer with the uncanny ability to make what he was writing feel "authentic"?

I have no idea. I don't speak enough German to fact check him.

But with historical fiction, it is all about feel. You paint a portrait. You do your level best to evoke a certain lost time and place, while hopefully not neglecting the unchanging nature of the human condition, regardless of time period.

I have read historical authors whose prose reads like the pages of a Sears catalogue: laying out historically accurate inventories of this sitting room, or that dining room.

Frankly, this type of writing always calls to mind the writing of thriller master Tom Clancy to me. Remember Tom Clancy?

The guy who camped out in the Library of the Congress and researched and researched until he could write with authority on a host of military/espionage fronts, including discussing over the course of many pages in books such as his breakthrough novel The Hunt For Red October the technical details of Russian torpedoes and American antisubmarine warfare.

That kind of writing is: Accurate. Real. Authentic.

And it absolutely bores the crap out of me.

Give me a story which evokes an age: and populates it with memorable characters who don't step on their feet, historically speaking, and I will read that before I read another tech-manual-cum-thriller every single time.

The bottom line is that people who write that sort of thing are good writers. They excel at "Making Shit Up."

By the way: that guy Clancy? In The Hunt For Red October, he hung his hat on the accuracy of what he wrote. Made a career out of it. Good for him.

And yet...

In that book, he discusses the American navy's use of an auxiliary submarine rescue ship called the U.S.S. Pigeon during the hunt for the titular Russian sub.

One problem with that.

The Hunt For Red October takes place in the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.S.S. Pigeon was homeported out of San Diego, and served exclusively in the Pacific, along the West Coast of the United States.

How do I know?

The Pigeon was my first ship when I was in the navy back in the 1980s. In fact, I was serving onboard her when I read about her in The Hunt For Red October.

See? It only takes getting one thing wrong.

Better to write the best damned story you can  and not sweat every single detail.

That's the real art of making shit up!

That sure ain't the Atlantic she's sailing through!

05 April 2018

R.I.P. Philip Kerr


(I planned to write today's blog post about the good time had-by all appearances by ALL-at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Reno a couple of weeks back-thereby following up on my previous post about how to get the most out of your crime fiction conference experience. I will write that post in two weeks. I am moved instead to write this week of the passing of one of my heroes.)


On Friday, March 23rd, I got the word from an old friend that a mutual old friend had died. Crime writer and freelance editor Jim Thomsen texted me that Phillip Kerr died of cancer that day, aged just 62.

I suppose that in the strictest sense Mr. Kerr and I were not actually friends. I never met him in
person. The closest I got was trying and failing to find him in the green room before the Edgars the year he was nominated in the Best Novel category for his book The Lady from Zagreb.

And yet, I do consider him a friend. In much the same way that one girl in the movie Ten Things I Hate About You says of William Shakespeare, "We're in a relationship," I think of Phillip Kerr as an unwitting mentor, whose works have both delighted and provoked me.

And more, they made me want to work harder at the craft, to whet the edge of my facility with the written word, to forge characters who breathed and sweated and threatened and quailed and laughed and hated and fairly jumped off the page.

Philip Ballantyne Kerr was, by most accounts, a study in contradictions. Scottish-born, but no lover of Scotland, the child of devout Baptist parents who, by his own admission knew early on in life that "Jesus and I weren't going to get along," and a man who trained as a lawyer, yet despised the notion of practicing law.

An outsider by temperament, Kerr was bullied by other kids in school–and even teachers–in part because of his dark complexion. He later poured these experiences, and the feelings of isolation which attended them, into his fiction.

The result, in part, was Bernie Gunther.

Kerr's most famous creation, Gunther was, like Kerr himself, a study in contradictions: a former kriminalinspektor on the Berlin police department's famed Murder Squad, Gunther was a decorated veteran of World War I who lost his first wife in the flu epidemic which came hard on the heels of that war. A cop whose career thrived during the Weimar Republic, and who resigned from the police soon after the Nazis swept into power in 1933.

And yet Gunther eventually finds himself coerced into working for the Nazis. The reason they tolerate him (even as they disparage him as a "Jew-loving Bolshevik," among other things) is because they need someone with Gunther's talents. As Kerr has none other than the villainous Reinhard Heydrich put it to Gunther: Nazis are good at cracking skulls and shooting people. Any thug can do that. But when you need a good detective...

It's an effective set-up. But what Philip Kerr wrote was so much more than superb historical crime fiction. Like all great literary stylists, he was able to move fiction into the realm of great art: not so much literature as a brilliant expression of the universality of the human condition. Kerr possessed a knack for helping his readers understand, even sympathize, with people whose experiences seemed on the surface so vastly different from those of the reader.

Kerr proved especially adept at channeling the zeitgeist of early 20th century Germany, painting a portrait of these people (many of them fictional doppelgängers of actual historical figures) which was by turns scathing and sympathetic, unblinking, hard-edged, and in the end, fair. And in his Gunther novels he would return again and again to one of the questions which has haunted the world in the years since Hitler shot himself in his Berlin bunker: Why did the German people allow Hitler and his gang of thugs to rise unchecked in the first place?

Kerr's narrator Gunther is a brooder, so he is the perfect vessel for this and other existential questions posed to and about the people and the time. In the prologue to Kerr's latest book, Greeks Bearing Gifts, Kerr has his protagonist attempt–not for the first time–to answer this question:


But how is one ever to explain what happened? It was a question I used to see in the eyes of some of the American guests at the Grand Hotel in Cap Ferrat where, until recently, I was a concierge, when they realized I was German: How was it possible that your people could murder so many others? Well, it's like this: When you walk through a big fish market you appreciate just how alien and various life can be; it's hard to imagine how some of the fantastic, sinister, slipper-looking creatures you see laid out on the slab could even exist, and sometimes when I contemplate my fellow man, I have much the same feeling.

Myself, I'm a bit like an oyster. Years ago–in January 1933, to be exact–a piece of grit got into my shell and started to rub me the wrong way. But if there is a pearl inside me I think it's probably a black one. Frankly, I did a few things during the war of which I feel less than proud. This is not unusual. That's what war's about. It makes all of us who take part in it feel like we're criminals and that we've done something bad. Apart from the real criminals, of course; no way has ever been invented to make them feel bad about anything. With one exception, perhaps: the hangman at Landsberg. When he's given the chance, he can provoke a crisis of conscience in almost anyone.


The question haunts Gunther throughout the series, and since Kerr mastered the art of the non-linear plot thread beginning with 2011's Field Gray, he was able to revisit this central theme of his Gunther novels in a variety of inventive ways.

Kerr was a prolific writer by any stretch of the imagination. He wrote other series (including a recent triad of thrillers centered around a soccer team–soccer apparently being his favorite sport), a variety of standalone thrillers, even an acclaimed series of children's books!

I confess I haven't read any of the non-Gunther books yet. Now, unfortunately, it seems I'll have an opportunity to catch up on the rest of this remarkable writer's canon. And I have been looking forward to delving into his series of children's books with my son once he's old enough (they're middle reader books, a la Harry Potter, and my son is five, so I've got some time).

With this entry I have done my best to pay homage to a powerful artist whose work has had a galvanizing effect on my own. As with trying to capture the essence of all wondrous things, the effort strikes me as a bit like trying to describe an eclipse to a blind man: you're doomed to only do justice to one half of the experience.

All that said, my life is the richer for having known Philip Kerr in the context of his fiction. And isn't that really all we can ask of great art?

Thanks, Philip. And may you rest in peace, my friend.

11 January 2018

The Anthology: An Announcement


Over my previous three turns in the Sleuthsayers rotation I have discussed my experiences with anthologies. You can find those entries here (the story of how submitting to an anthology which never published kick-started my professional writing career), here (my first experience collecting and editing an anthology: a non-fiction gig that I did for hire), and here (my second, and much better, experience collecting and editing an anthology- crime fiction this time!).

This week's entry will be the final one in this series, and kicks off with an anthology-related announcement. Here it is:

Just last month I signed on with Eric Campbell of Florida's own Down & Out Books to collect and edit an anthology of crime fiction inspired by the music of Steely Dan!

I am over the moon about this project. More on it below.

First, here's a little bit about how it came about, and the role that Sleuthsayers played in it. As with so many good things, this anthology had its roots in tragedy. In other words, this all started with a death.

Back in September, guitarist, bassist, songwriter and arranger Walter Becker, died at his home in Maui, after a long illness. He was 68. Becker was one half of Steely Dan.

Walter Becker (left) on-stage with his Steely Dan partner, keyboardist and vocalist Donald Fagen

I wrote about his death here at Sleuthsayers (you can read this entry here).  I went on at some length about Becker's output with Steely Dan, and how the themes they explored in their music (and in their lyrics) were so frequently outright noirish. And I closed with this observation:

"I've often said that the music of Steely Dan would lend itself to a themed anthology of the type recently collected by Joe Clifford and centered around the music of Johnny Cash. I've even worked up my own short story based on 'Show Biz Kids,' from their Katy Lied album.

"I'm positive I'm not the only one so influenced by these masters of the bleak, jazz-tinged pop hook.

"What say you all? Anyone else written something Steely Dan-inspired?

"And lastly, adios, Walter. And vaya con dios."

I thought that would be the end of it.

And then my wife, who is my first reader and perennial wisest counsel, asked me, "Why don't you do it?" Turns out she soon had company.  Several friends asked the same thing after reading that piece.

So I took a while to think about it, all the while moving on with a couple of other things I've been working on. Included along these on-going projects was the expansion of a short story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine a decade ago into a novella-length piece of crime fiction.

Turns out there is a bit of a Sleuthsayers connection to this one as well. Friend and fellow crime fictioneer S.W. Lauden, no stranger to fiction influenced by edgy music (he's a refugee from SoCal's punk/hardcore scene), who agreed to be interviewed about his Anthony nomination and resurgence of the novella (you can read his interview here) had graciously introduced me to his publisher, Eric Campbell (who also agreed to be interviewed regarding the resurgence of the novella, and whose interview can be read here).

When I mentioned my nearly-completed novella to Eric, he asked to see it, and then offered to publish it (so I guess this is a double announcement! More on the novella in a future blog post, I promise.). It was while we were talking about the novella that my idea for a Steely Dan-influenced crime fiction anthology came up. Eric expressed interest in that as well, so I went looking for contributors.

I confess I was nervous about this part of the process. After all, I have a lot of friends in the writing community, many of them music aficionados. But it's one thing to like a certain type of music and another to write something inspired by it.

I needn't have worried. The idea sold itself.

So let me wrap this entry by announcing our proposed line-up of heavy-hitters. This anthology, entitled The Hangman Isn't Hangin': Stories Inspired by the Music of Steely Dan, to be released in mid-2019, will feature the writing of David Corbett, Simon Wood, Cornelia Read, Bill Fitzhugh, Sean Chercover, Steve Brewer, Reed Farrel Coleman, Aaron Erickson, Stacy Robinson, R Narvaez, Sam Wiebe, Nick Feldman, Pearce Hansen, R.T. Lawton, Michael Jacobs, Peter Spiegelman, Jim Thomsen, and Yours Truly.

I could not be more pleased and proud to be associated with this project, to be working with this fantastic group of writers. It is going to be so much fun!


14 December 2017

How Not to Collect and Edit an Anthology


by Brian Thornton

Two weeks ago I related the story of how an anthology which never got off the ground helped launch my fiction writing career. Since my initial foray into Anthology World I have gone on from my role of "contributor" to that of "collector/editor."

Twice.

Although both projects involved the experience of collecting and editing the content for an anthology of short pieces, the two experiences could not have been more different. And not just because one anthology was nonfiction in nature and the other involved crime fiction.

In this week's entry, I'm going to deal with the first anthology, the one which taught me several valuable lessons about what not to do when editing an anthology.

My initial crack at editing an anthology came about in large part because of my day gig (I'm a teacher). This was also the case with the first book, I published, 101 Things You Didn't Know About Lincoln. In the case of the Lincoln book, I earned my MA partially in 19th century American history, and knew a fair bit about Lincoln. I'd networked with the acquisitions editor (we're both crime fiction writers), and she knew I was a trained historian. So she approached me about writing that book.

It turned out to be a terrific first experience, so when she approached me the following year about collecting and editing an anthology of "uplifting true stories about inspiring teachers," I thought, "What the heck?" The money was good, and I negotiated a healthy lead-time on the project in order to help ensure I'd have plenty of time to see the project through to completion.

It didn't turn out that way.

I beat the bushes looking for teachers/former students with great stories to tell, posted calls to submit all over the web. And I got a pretty fair number of responses.

What I hadn't taken into consideration was the fact that most of these people were not, in the strictest sense, writers.

There were several natural-born storytellers in the lot. Their work I barely touched. In a couple of cases I accepted the story as was. No suggested edits. Both of those writers were a pleasure to read from start to finish and are still friends to this day.

Then there were the rest of them.

I spent months going back and forth with several members of the original group of contributors whose work I'd agreed to publish. Some of them just couldn't polish their story enough to make the final cut. (And not for lack of trying!).

Part of the problem was that although I served as the collection editor, I didn't have final approval on the content. That lay with the editorial team at my publisher. I would accept changes to several of the stories in need of rewriting, and pass them along to my publisher's editorial team, only to receive them back with requests for more changes.

On top of that, I was also tasked with handling all contractual correspondence with contributors. This was before the days of e-signatures. I had to print up each individual contract, get it sent out in duplicate, ride herd on some of the contributors who were tardy getting their contracts back to me, all while teaching a full load, working on the anthology, and doing research for a different writing project I had negotiated with a different editor (same publisher), to commence just as soon as I wrapped up the anthology.

It...just..seemed...to...drag...on....

In fact there's one guy who sent back his signed contract copies, but who never got paid by the publisher because he moved without leaving a forwarding address. And then he never responded to any of the many follow-up emails I sent to him after his check and contributor's copies of the anthology came back to the publisher marked "Return to Sender."

when I eventually sent off the final draft of all thirty-three entries and had them all individually accepted by the publisher, I was pretty gassed. And not for nothing, but I was also a solid month behind on my next writing project.

And that second editor? Neither as professional nor as easy to work with as my friend who steered me toward writing the Lincoln book. Turned out I'd been spoiled in my initial foray into writing nonfiction for fun and profit.

The result? I wound  up writing eighty thousand words in eight weeks on a ridiculously tight deadline on that next project. And I did it during the months of September and October: the first two months of the school year. Not exactly a couple of months when teachers have a whole lot of extra time on their hands.

But hey, I got paid, and this was before I met my wife/got married/bought a house/had a kid, so it was more instructive than traumatic (at least in the long-term. Short-term? Well...).

Let me begin to wrap this object lesson up by pointing out that this all took place back in 2007. I like to think that I've put all of the following to good use in the years since.

So What did I learn?

1. That soliciting writing from amateurs opens you up to a whole lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.

2. That collecting and editing an anthology is a shit-ton of work, and if you're going to undertake it, you should make damned sure that it's on a subject near and dear to your heart, and that you've got something close to final approval on what the content looks like.

3. That creative control is worth taking less money for.

4. Don't work with a publisher who makes you do all of the contract wrangling in an age before DocuSign.

5. That part and parcel of being a good editor is being a good listener.

And on that note Happy Holidays to all who celebrate them. See you in two weeks when I'll talk about at least one time when I definitely put these lessons to good use: when collecting and editing West Coast Crime Wave a few years later, in 2011!

04 May 2017

My Husband, the Writer


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the sixth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Robyn Thornton
In honor of the fast-approaching International Family Day, I asked my wife, Robyn, to write something up for this week's blog entry. This is what she came up with. Thanks, Honey! One thing, though: see below–all the way at the bottom of this page–for pictures from our ACTUAL honeymoon, lest you think the ONLY honeymoon my wife got was getting to tag along while I pressed the flesh at B'con!
— Brian
On our first date, Brian brought me a signed copy of his Lincoln biography.  I thought it was one of the coolest gifts I had ever received.  We discovered that we had a lot of other common interests, but our love of all things related to books and the creation of them was certainly one of the first threads in our shared tapestry.  I soon learned how much dedication and headspace was needed to weave together those stories as I spent many weekends both in awe of Brian’s discipline and wrestling with my jealousy over the amount of time that he needed to focus.  It was difficult for me to understand in the beginning of our relationship, but his determination to persevere in chasing his passion for writing was inspiring.

When we knew that our relationship was getting more serious, his writing took a back seat to making sure I felt I was a priority.

For my birthday that year, Brian took me on a trip to Oregon.  As I slept in the hotel, Brian stayed up all night to finish a book deadline. He wanted to make sure I got a good night’s sleep, so he had set up his laptop on the sink in the bathroom.  I remember waking up several times in the night to see the light streaming from under the door.  His kindness and compassionate spirit were more reasons why I was falling in love with him.

So, when Brian and I got married, I thought I knew what to expect.

I was so wrong.

Brian worked hard to finish a book to take me on a mini-honeymoon to San Francisco (We took the
My husband, flashing his "convention smile."
real one in the UK the following Summer).  Bouchercon was in that city the week after we tied the knot, so our trip served a double purpose: both as a mini-honeymoon and for Brian to attend panels and to network.  It was there that I learned that it’s not just about what you write, but how you market. And then there’s the networking: one of the most important tools in a writer’s toolkit.  I’ll admit that the shop talk at the time was not as captivating as I now find it and we had to learn how to balance our leisure time with business objectives.   But I found myself wanting more of his time and it proved to be harder on both of us.

It was one of the first lessons we had to learn as a newlywed couple.  We planned a big wedding, got married, and bought a house, all in the same nine month period.

Brian continued to juggle his book projects with us moving in and getting settled.  I recall one Sunday night in particular that makes us laugh now.  I was assembling a couple of kitchen stools while Brian was frantically reviewing final edits (the “galleys” as he called them) on a book whose deadline was 9 AM the next morning.

I had asked him to take a break and tighten one bolt and when he refused, I said in frustration, “Fine, why don’t you just work on your stupid book!”

Boy, do I regret that now.

What I also now realize more than ever, is that it’s not easy.

It’s not easy juggling two full-time careers, a young son with boundless energy, taking care of the day-to-day responsibilities and finding time and headspace to write every day.  Brian’s been able to do this.  And he’s now inspired me to start writing too.

And I now understand the sacrifices that he made and what it takes to commit and stay on track.  I get how satisfying it is to be able to devise plots and character arcs and stories that just need to be told. And as you continue to work and rework and distill and then rework again, the elation of knowing that someday, there’ll be readers to enjoy and discover what you’ve created.  And there’s nothing like seeing Brian’s face after he’s completed his word count for the day and the joy that this accomplishment gives him.


For that, it makes it all worth it and I wouldn’t trade one moment.

(And now, UK honeymoon pics!)




30 June 2016

Kids These Days....


So, about my day gig.
I teach ancient history to eighth graders.

And like I tell them all the time, when I say, "Ancient history," I'm not talking about the 1990s.
For thirteen/fourteen year-olds, mired hopelessly in the present by a relentless combination of societal trends and biochemistry, there's not much discernible difference between the two eras.

It's a great job. But even great jobs have their stressors.

Like being assigned chaperone duty during the end-of-the-year dance.

Maybe you're familiar with what currently passes for "popular music" among fourteen year-olds these days. I gotta say, I don't much care for it. Then again, I'm fifty-one. And I can't imagine that most fifty-one year-olds in 1979 much cared for the stuff that I was listening to then.

And it's not as if I'm saying *I* had great taste in music as a fourteen year-old. If I were trying to make myself look good I'd try to sell you some line about how I only listened to jazz if it was Billie Holiday or Miles Davis, and thought the Police were smokin' and of course I bought Dire Straits' immortal "Makin' Movies" album, as well Zeppelin's "In Through The Out Door" when they both came out that year.

Well. No.

In 1979 I owned a Village People vinyl album ("Go West," with "YMCA" on it), and a number of Elvis Presley albums and 8-track tapes. I also listened to my dad's Eagles albums quite a bit. An uncle bought Supertramp's "Breakfast in America" for me, and I was hooked on a neighbor's copy of "Freedom at Point Zero" by Jefferson Starship, but really only because of the slammin' guitar solo Craig Chaquico played on its only hit single: "Jane." And I listened to a lot of yacht rock on the radio. I didn't know it was "yacht rock" back then. Would it have mattered?

But bear in mind we didn't have streaming music back then. And my allowance I spent mostly on comic books.

Ah, youth.

Anyway, my point is that someone my age back then may very well have cringed hard and long and as deeply if forced to listen to what *I* was listening to at eardrum-bursting decibels, and for the better part of two hours.

That was me on the second-to-the-last-day of school a week or so back.

Two hours.

Two hours of rapper after rapper (if it's not Eminem, Tupac, or the Beastie Boys, I must confess it all sounds the same to me) alternating with "singing" by Rihanna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, etc.
Thank God we got some relief in the form of the occasional Bruno Mars song. Bruno, he brings it.
And through it all, the kids were out there on the floor. Mostly girls, and mostly dancing with each other.

 One group of these kids in particular caught my attention. Three girls, all fourteen, all of whom I knew. All wearing what '80s pop-rock band Mr. Mister once referred to as the "Uniform of Youth."

Of course, the uniform continues to change, just as youth itself does.

But in embracing that change, does youth itself actually change? Bear with me while I quote someone a whole lot smarter than I on the matter:

"Kids today love luxury. They have terrible manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love to gab instead of getting off their butts and moving around."

The guy quoted (in translation) was Socrates, quoted by his pupil Plato, 2,400 years ago.

And some things never change.

Getting back to the three girls mentioned above, their "uniform of youth" was the one au courant in malls and school courtyards across the length and breadth of this country: too-tight jeans, short-sleeved or sleeveless t-shirts, tennis-shoes. They looked a whole lot like so many other girls their age, out there shaking it in ways that mothers the world over would not approve of.

In other words, they looked like thousands, hell, millions of American girls out there running around today, listening to watered down pablum foisted on them by a rapacious, corporate-bottom-line-dominated music industry as "good music", for which they pay entirely too much of their loving parents' money, and to which they will constantly shake way too much of what Nature gave them–even under the vigilant eyes of long-suffering school staff members.

Yep, American girls. From the soles of their sneakers to the hijabs covering their hair.

Oh, right. Did I mention that these girls were Muslims? Well, they are. One from Afghanistan. One from Turkmenistan, and one from Sudan. At least two of them are political refugees.

You see, I teach in one of the most diverse school districts in the nation. One of the main reasons for this ethnic diversity is that there is a refugee center in my district. The center helps acclimate newcomers to the United States and then assists in resettling them; some in my district, some across the country.

So in this campaign season, when I hear some orange-skinned buffoon talking trash about Muslims, stirring up some of my fellow Americans with talk of the dangerous "foreign" *other*, it rarely squares with the reality I've witnessed first-hand getting to know Muslim families and the children they have sent to my school to get an education: something the kids tend to take for granted (because, you know, they're kids, and hey, kids don't change). Something for which their parents have sacrificed in ways that I, a native-born American descendant of a myriad of immigrant families, can scarcely imagine.

(And it ought to go without saying that this truth holds for the countless *Latino* families I've known over the years as well.)

I'm not saying they're saints. I'm saying they're people. And they're here out of choice. Whether we like that or whether we don't, they're raising their kids *here*. And guess what? These kids get more American every day. Regardless of where their birth certificate says they're from.

Just something to think about, as we kick into the final leg of this excruciating election season.
Oh, come on. You didn't think this piece was gonna be just me grousing about kids having lousy taste in music, did ya?

(And they do, but that's really beside the point.)

Blessed Eid.