Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts

17 February 2020

When They Say It's Not About Politics...


by Steve Liskow

My daughter gave me The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter's newest novel, for Christmas and I tore through it in about three days. Slaughter is one of my favorite writers, and the first half of the book felt like a freight train with no brakes careening down a steep hill. I turned pages quickly enough to leave a trail of smoke and risk uncountable paper cuts.

I seldom pay attention to online reviews, but when I finished this one, I looked on Amazon out of curiosity. Slaughter is one of several authors I read who gathers mixed reviews because she takes chances and doesn't adhere to the standard template. Sure enough, The Last Widow had 795 reviews, 63% five-star, and 9% one-star.

The one-star reviews often complained that Slaughter let her politics get in the way of the story. Well, a group of white nationalist kidnaps Sarah Linton, the female protagonist, as part of their deadly plot, and, given that premise, it's hard to be apolitical.

That's why I usually ignore online reviews.

In one way or another, MOST art is political because artists deal with important issues in life.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King as a reaction to the contemporary debate about predestination. His play takes the issue head-on, and his opinion is clear. Euripides leaves no doubt what he thinks of war in The Trojan Women. Nice people don't throw the child of a vanquished rival off the battlements and turn the surviving women into sex slaves.



Shakespeare's 37 (or 40, or 50, depending on whose count you believe) plays constantly involve politics.
Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear discuss, among other issues, who succeeds to the throne. Measure For Measure asks tough questions about women, love, sex, and relationships, and offers no easy answers (The main "good guy" has a creepy voyeuristic streak, too).
All the histories involve kings and, usually, war. Even comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night discuss the roles of women in society, and the misuse of power, still timely as the Me Too Movement and Roe vs Wade are still crucial issues.

Jane Austen and Emily Bronte present the situation of women in the 1800s, unable to vote, own property, or inherit. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bennet with five daughters who will starve if he can't marry them off to husbands who will support them. Wuthering Heights is built around the British Law of Entails, a devious way to control who inherits property if no sons succeed.

In America, Twain looks at slavery through bitter eyes in Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in our country's schools, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, which looks at the same issue from 80 years later...although we haven't advanced much. Uncle Tom's Cabin, far more racist than either of the others, was a blockbuster best-seller before the word existed.

Robert Penn Warren gives us All The King's Men, a fictionalized vision of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor who used graft and kickbacks left and right...and used the money to build highways and hospitals. Alan Drury won the Pulitzer in 1960 with Advise And Consent (102 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and later a film with Henry Fonda), and that's all about politics.

Other novels, off the top of my head: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (if you haven't read these, do so before the second of the three books appears next fall on HBO.)

I know almost nothing about painting, but even I can point to Picasso's Guernica.

Plays: Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods is about two arms negotiators meeting to talk during the Cold War. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (maybe my least favorite play of all time), All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and Death of a Salesman. Miller always looked at the shafting of the little guy by big business or bigger government. Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, which the Religious Reich should go see sometime.

Films: Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

The classic western High Noon asks if we deserve freedom and law if we won't fight to defend them.Many in that production were blacklisted because of their involvement, and I still don't understand why. What about The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck dodged a death threat after writing the novel, and the film, made on an 800K budget, still gives me chills when I listen to Henry Fonda deliver
Tom Joad's farewell speech in that flat monotone.

Beethoven first called Symphony #3 the "Bounaparte," but changed it to "Eroica" after Napoleon became Emperor.
Where would American folk music be without Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger, and the Weavers?  Or their descendants, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Doors ("The Unknown Soldier") and Country Joe & The Fish (I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag--remember "Gimme an 'F'?).

Politics should be separate from art. Yeah, right.

Maybe flavor should be separate from food, too.

This list barely unscrews the lid from the jar. What other works can you name?

10 February 2020

My Own Medical Thriller


by Steve Liskow

I don't write medical thrillers because I only like to do research up to a point, and the amount of research I'd need to write in that field is well beyond that point.

We all can name a few biggies, though. Robin Cook and Michael Palmer each wrote several. I first met Michael Crichton through The Andromeda Strain, and learned years later that he won the Edgar for A Case of Need, originally published under the pen name Jeffrey Hudson. Tess Gerritsen, also a doctor, wrote several thrillers before she unleashed the Rizzoli and Isles series.

I'm now involved in my own medical thriller without planning it at all. So far, it has a happy ending.

Two Sundays ago, I finished my workout at my health club and returned to my car. I had found a space ten feet from the entrance, and now I was sandwiched between two SUVs, each slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. Looking behind me was like looking through a soda straw.

The entrance driveway lay at about 7:00 to my space. The driveway is narrow, especially when cars park on both sides of it, so a sign proclaiming "One Way [right turn only]" guards the entrance. It was almost directly behind me. Another sign says "Do Not Enter" and stands to the left. This makes sure all traffic in that narrow driveway moves counterclockwise. Theoretically.

I eased out, looking to my left, where traffic should come from, and a driver who decided to turn around and take the short way back hit my car. Damage to both vehicles was minor--I have a broken taillight and a dented quarter panel--and I got the worst of it. We exchanged insurance information and notified the appropriate people, then went on our way.

Several hours later, my left arm felt heavy and weak. I've hosted a bad back since 1971, and this felt like the mild collision aggravated the long-standing problem. Oh well. Then my wife noticed I was having trouble using that hand to type at the PC and insisted that we go to the hospital.

The staff looked at my symptoms and medical history (both my mother and grandmother had strokes) and sent me for a CAT scan. Over the next several hours, I got lots of practice telling various doctors, nurses, interns, nurses, technicians and administrators my age (72), the month (January) and that we were in New Britain, Connecticut. I became expert at repeating "Today is a sunny day" and touching my index finger to my nose the other people's fingers in turn.

Every two hours, a nurse or tech asked me for an encore. I had to resist their pushing and pulling with my left hand, which was discernibly weaker. I had no indicators of being a stroke risk: I weigh 15 pound more than when I graduated from high school in 1965, I quit smoking about 15 years ago, my cholesterol level has pleased my primary-care physician for years, and I don't use cocaine. I average about half the "tolerable(?)" amount of alcohol allowed to men my age, and women are more prone to strokes anyway.

So what? The staff decided to treat the issue as a Transient ischemic attack (TIA), in which the blood supply to the brain is blocked for a short period of time and produces symptoms that resemble a strok. In my case, that was the weak arm.

My listening station for The Eagles
 By about 5 am the following morning--roughly 17 hours after the accident and ten hours after my arm first felt weak--I felt fine. But the night felt like I was a shooting scene with police scouring me for shell casings, blood spatter, footprints, and a partridge in a pear tree. I lost count of how many people asked me to answer those questions again and tested my arm and leg strength and coordination. They were like different detectives asking the same questions to see if my story changed.

By early afternoon, they also gave me an MRI, which is kind of cool if you're not claustrophobic. The kids running the machine both looked like former students. Truthfully, when you teach in the area for 33 years, everyone looks sort of like a former student. These two guys let me choose the music to listen to while they ran me through the tube. I picked the Eagles over Katy Perry, Adele, and someone else I'd never heard of.

Back in my room, I talked to two more doctors, three more nurses, had my sixteenth and seventeenth blood pressure checks, and told my age, location and the month again. Finally, the lead doctor told me he was pretty sure I did not have a TIA, but they wouldn't definitely say my troubles were related to the fender-bender, either.

The MRI and CAT scan ruled out a thrombotic stroke, but he wanted to be sure I didn't have an embolic stroke (a clot forming in the heart and traveling to the brain instead of originating in the brain itself) and ordered an echocardiogram, basically a heart sonogram. It was fun and the woman administering it was young, attractive, ultra-competent, and hilarious. She let em hear what my heart sounded like during the procedure, more of a gurgle than the lub-dub I expected. She also apologized for the coldness of the gel she spread on my chest and for having to rip the sensor contacts off my chest and taking all three chest hairs with them.
An echo-cardiogram (posed by model)

They finally discharged me about 24 hours after Barb drove me in. I spend the next month taking Plavix, Lipitor (They both sound like Superman villains, don't they?) and aspirin. They don't think I had a TIA, but they're taking no chances.

I still blame the minor accident. On the other hand, it was cool watching a bunch of people who really knew their stuff give me a first-hand tutorial on medical mystery research.

20 January 2020

Santa Noir


by Steve Liskow

Everybody has too many Christmas parties and get-togethers in December, so the Connecticut MWA members threw a procrastinator's bash on January 11 in Middletown. Middletown is, of course, in the middle of the State, home of Wesleyan University and several fine restaurants, so we gathered at Esca, three blocks from the college and on a main intersection.
Chris Knopf addresses the motley crew. He mostly obscures Mark Dressler.
Bill Curatolo and Mike Beil are at the upper right.

Chris Knopf and Jill Fletcher, who organized the event, suggested that in addition to the usual gift grab bag, drinks and meals and catching up on everyone's accomplishments for the year, people write a 200-word story on the theme of Santa Noir to share with their accomplices. Alas, loud hungry patrons mobbed the eatery on a Saturday evening, so we abandoned the readings. Some of our recent predictions on this blog have made the upcoming year look a little bleak, and I agree, so the stories seemed like a definite counterbalance.

Here are four of them.

Santa Claus and Me by Mark L. Dressler
Jill posted this graphic, which inspired Mark's tale

I stared at that red Santa Claus outfit for several minutes. The lifeless man inside sent an eerie feeling through me matching the bitter night chill. I knew I'd never see that costume again.

Year after year, it was a never-ending journey, make-believe to many, but I knew differently. This was the night it would finally end. No more toys, no more nagging kids, no more workshops with elves, no more agonizing trips to the ends of each continent...and no more reindeer slaves.

I took another glance at that red uniform before walking away. I had no idea who that homeless man inside it was, but his clothes fit me perfectly. It was time for me to find a new home because I couldn't go back to the North Pole. I'd cleanse myself of this long white beard in the morning and become a free man. My name would no longer be Kris Kringle.

(Mark Dressler has published two novels featuring Hartford cop Dan Shields.)

At Burke's Tavern in Woodside, Queens, December 24, 1969 by William O'Neill Curatolo

Recently discharged marine Luis Martinez, high bar champion of the 43rd Street playground, sits alone on the broad windowsill across from the end of the bar nursing his fourth beer. He looks in need of cheering up. It's possible, no, it's certain, that the only advantage of having left his right leg back in Vietnam is that he now never has to pay for a drink, ever, in any of the watering holes up and down the length of Greenpoint Avenue.

Burly cop Georgie Corrigan bursts through the barroom door, dressed as Santa Claus. "Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!" Santa Georgie moves along the bar clapping people hard on the back, and turns over to a couple of friends the bags of pot he took from a kid on his beat in Brooklyn a few hours ago. As he makes his way along the bar, he notices his old friend Luis, glassy eyed, staring off into space. Georgie sits down next to him and uses a burly arm to clamp him in a headlock. "Semper Fi, Jarhead!" and then, "Get up off your ass and onto those crutches. We're going outside to smoke a joint. Santa wants to see you smile."

(Bill Curatolo has published two novels.)

Santa By a Nose by Michael D. Beil

Christmas Eve at the Subway Inn, a dive bar that's a dead possum's throw from Bloomingdale's. Beside me is a bag with Isotoner gloves and a faux-cashmere scarf for the old lady. Three stools down is a schmoe in a Santa suit. The line of dead soldiers on the bar tells me the poor bastard is trying to forget how many brats had pissed their pants on his lap. For about a second, I consider sending a drink his way. But when he lifts his head, I realize he's the SOB I've been chasing for a week about a B&E in a bike shop on Second Avenue. No doubt about it. Eight million people in New York, but there's only one nose like that one. Fill it full of nickels and he could buy everybody in the place a drink.

I'm reaching into my coat pocket for my shield when a blast of frigid air blows in a tired dame in a coat that probably looked good during the Clinton administration, with three kiddies in tow.

"Daddy!"

I throw a twenty on the bar and nod to the bartender on the way out.

(Michael Beil was an Edgar finalist for Best Children's Novel for the first of five books in the Red Blazer Girls series.)

I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus by Steve Liskow

Detective Angel Noelle looked at the body, a fat man with a white beard and a red suit, underneath the mistletoe. Wrapped presents, grungy with fingerprint powder, lay under the tree.

"Your first, Noelle?" That was Detective Shepherd.

"Violent night," Angel said. "Got an ID yet?"

"We're waiting on fingerprints, but we've got a suspect and a witness."

Noelle turned to the woman in the green robe, the slit revealing black fishnets--previously hung by the chimney with care--and four-inch stilettos.

"I'm a dancer," she said. "All my son wanted for Christmas was his two front teeth..."

The small boy peeking from the stairs nodded.

"But instead, he brought..." The prancing vixen buried her face in her hands. "He deserved it..."

Noelle turned to the tech filling out the evidence label.  "What was the weapon?"

"Well, right now it looks like a fruitcake."

"Fruitcake?"

"Yeah, been re-gifted so many times it's hard as a Jersey barrier. The label on the can says, 'Do not sell after 2004.'"

Noelle looked at the body, deep in dreamless sleep.

"The contusions fit?" The open fire crackled in the fireplace.

"Yeah. Really roasted his chestnuts."

Outside, the black and whites rolled by.

(Steve Liskow practices piano about fifteen minutes a week.)


06 January 2020

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda...


Most of my titles come from songs, generally rock and blues, because I originally saw the PI who became Woody Guthrie as a wannabe guitarist. He and Megan Traine, a former session musician, would solve mysteries with a musical slant to them. The band in an early version of the first book was inspired by a few real bands I knew that never quite made it. Some people remember The Electric Prunes and their one big hit. More people remember the Buffalo Springfield, probably because Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina all went on to further success.

But do you remember Moby Grape?

Five solid gigging musicians joined forces in San Francisco late in 1966. Skip Spence wanted to play guitar with Jefferson Airplane, but they already had Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner, so Marty Balin turned him into a drummer. Spence played on the band's first LP and wrote several songs they didn't use. They replaced him with Spencer Dryden, whom they stole from The Peanut Butter Conspiracy (remember them?).

Peter Lewis, a skilled finger-picking guitarist, was the son of Loretta Young. He, Spence, and Jerry Miller created a three-way guitar whirlwind with zest to rival the Buffalo Springfield. Bob Mosley played bass and Don Stevenson played drums, but all five sang, and their harmonies will give you chills. All five composed, too.

Producer David Rubinson recorded their first album for Columbia over the course of FIVE OR SIX DAYS in March and April 1967. That's demos, arrangements, backing tracks, instrumental overlays, vocals, everything. They were live performers, so they only needed a few takes in a studio with then state-of-the-art 8-track machines.

Columbia released the album in June, about two weeks after the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and three months after the Airplane released Surrealistic Pillow (Which included a song by Spence). The songs ranged from acoustic folk-rock to country-tinged ballads to sparkly pop to blues to weird psychedelia, and every song was a gem.

The first LP cover shot,
with Stevenson's notorious
 finger later air-brushed out
Moby Grape had local fame and fortune, and now world-conquering success was only a tour away.

Then it all went to hell.

Jefferson Airplane had fired manager Matthew Katz (along with Skip Spence), and when he took over the Grape, he conned the members into signing a contract that gave HIM the right to the band name. The legal battles continued into the 21st century and blocked the release of many songs. It also prohibited the band from reunion performances under that name. Katz is why the Grape's set never appeared on the film or recorded versions of Monterey Pop, too. He demanded a million dollars for the rights...in 1967.

Columbia, still basically an "old people's label," dropped every ball they could in promoting the band and the album. The release party at the Avalon Ballroom had garish pink velvet press kits with teeny-bopper bios of the band and all the album's singles--more about THAT in a minute. Thousands of orchids were dropped from the ceiling, and dancers slipped on them and fell all over the dance floor. Columbia supplied 700 bottles of wine labeled "Moby Grape" for the dignitaries, but nobody thought to provide corkscrews. At the end of the evening, police busted three members of the band on their way home...with marijuana and three under-age girls in the car.

What could get worse? Glad you asked.

Columbia, in a fit of stupidity no one has yet explained, released five singles--ten songs from the 13-song album--on the same day. They were all in the press kits. DJs didn't know which songs to play and they cancelled each other out on the airwaves. Local fans thought the band was tying for the big bucks, which cost them their local San Francisco hippie base.

Columbia wanted a second LP to recoup the losses, and brought in a different producer to "shape the band up." Remember, Rubinson got the first album out of these guys in six days.

The band sank into drug use, and Skip Spence, who everyone admitted was a genius but always a bit strange, eventually went after Don Stevenson with a fire ax. He and Bob Mosley underwent treatment for schizophrenia. The other members drifted into marital problems, money problems, and music problems. Mosley was so distraught he quit the band and joined the Marines...in 1969!

Spence died in 1999, two days before his 53rd birthday. Stevenson no longer performs, but the other remaining members have appeared with Spence's son Omar under various names, including--wait for it--The Melvilles.

There are people who will tell you the first LP was one of the great debut albums in rock history. I'm one of them.

But don't take my word for it. Find it and listen to what might have been.

23 December 2019

Christmas (On-stage) in Connecticut


by Steve Liskow

Remember the old seasonal entertainment traditions around Christmas? Growing up, I always watched Perry Como's Christmas program on TV, and there were other holiday specials I came to take for granted, too. The Grinch still guarantees a green Christmas, and the Peanuts special a white one.

In Connecticut, and I assume elsewhere, local theaters bombard us with Christmas-themed productions, some funny, some traditional, some downright scary.

Leading the pack is the Hartford Stage Company's production of A Christmas Carol.
It stays faithful to Dickens with elaborate staging including flying ghosts, spectacular lighting effects and creepy sounds. Students from nearby Hartt College play supporting characters, and local children become the Cratchit family. In this, the production's 22nd season, the four-week run was sold out before the opening show. I only got to see it because my wife, who acted at Hartford Stage a few years ago, still gets comps to most shows. Naturally, we grabbed them.

A newer standby is TheaterWorks Christmas on the Rocks. Artistic director Rob Ruggiero invited local playwrights to create monologues in which well-known characters from various other works sit in a bar and discuss their lives since their moments in the spotlight. This year's production features Ted Lange, formerly known as Isaac, the bartender on The Love Boat, as the bartender. He listens to an older Tiny Tim, Charlie Brown, Zuzu from It's a Wonderful Life, and Clara from The Nutcracker, among others.
The production premiered in 2013 and has become a local tradition, gathering momentum and new characters each year.







Joe Mantello adapted The Santaland Diaries, originally an essay by David Sedaris in 1992, telling of his working as an elf in Macy's Santaland. At least three different productions are now running within driving distance of our condo.

And, of course, last but longest-running, a "radio" play production of It's a Wonderful Life, complete with the foley table for sound effects and old microphones the actors pretend to read into. My wife was in a production of this decades ago and, again, we can find several different versions less than a gas tank away.

Like Perry Como in a previous generation, all of these have come to mean Christmas in Connecticut, almost as clearly as mobbed shopping malls and neighbors singing carols after getting fortified with high-test eggnog.

Only two shopping days left, so remember that books are great gifts. There's a book out there for everyone, they can be re-read and shared, and they're easy to wrap. Just sayin'...

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Oh, and BSP for the holidays, "This Year's Model" won Honorable Mention for this year's Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by The Wolfe Pack and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I received the news ten days ago.

09 December 2019

The Book Review Jungle


by Steve Liskow

Years ago, publishers sent out about 6000 advanced reading copies (ARC) two or three months before a book's release. Those copies went to the reviewers at newspapers and magazines, and some radio or TV stations that promoted books they liked. I remember when I could open the New York Times and read a thoughtful review by the likes of John Updike or another literary icon. Today, authors still review, but not as frequently.

The prevailing wisdom was that good reviews sold books, which was why publishers produced and distributed so many ARCs. But as fewer and fewer publications have reviewers, you're pretty much on your own getting a review, and if you're indie or self-pubbed, good luck. I invite reviews in the back of my book (An idea I borrowed from another writer), but seldom get them.

Kirkus Review, a once-revered arbiter used by libraries to guide their purchasing, now will review your book for a price. They charge $425 for a review that may appear in 9 weeks, and $575 for a review with a 4-6-week turnaround. They seldom if ever star a review anymore, even for a well-known author, and your review may be buried by hundreds of others with no ranking. They don't guarantee a positive review, either (If they did, I wouldn't even mention them because they would be promoters, not reviewers). For that money, you might have better luck with a blind date through a hook-up site.

Michael Sauret (Google him and his article) discusses his fate with Kirkus and lists other alternatives. Some charge $125 for an 8-10-week return, and some go higher. Some are free, but I've never heard of them. The point is, you may not get what you think you're paying for.

The literary equivalent of Gresham's law has taken over, and bad reviewing has driven out the good. If you don't believe it, look at Amazon or Goodreads. People give a one-star review--sometimes without reading the book--and the entire review is something like "It was stupid/boring/dumb/wrong. I didn't like it."

Even a five-star review might have only a few sentences, and they may use buzzwords, too. "Thrilling, clever, couldn't put it down" seem to say it all.

Those aren't reviews. They're either a puff piece or a drive-by. A few years ago, a Publisher's Weekly article explained at great length why most Amazon reviews were useless. Nothing has changed. I used to review there, but after a couple of ugly clashes with trolls, I removed about 80 reviews from the site and now seldom read a review there for any reason except morbid curiosity.

I do occasionally review for an online site, though, and it reminds me that writing a serious positive review is much easier than writing a bad one. A good review almost writes itself. I give a brief plot overview that shows how well the story works, discuss the major characters to prove they're well-drawn, and mention a few details that make the book either unique or a good representative of its genre. My standard review is between 600 and 800 words.

Bad reviews...wow. Writing a review should be like teaching. Anyone can bash a kid's paper and give him a low grade. But if you're really a teacher, you have to show him WHY something is a weakness or bad choice. Then you have to show him how to make it better. That's hard. And it's why most reviews I read fail.



I have only written three or four very negative reviews over the last two years, and I remember all those books clearly. Why? Because I can write a glowing review after reading a book once, but I always read a book two or even three times before going low. I need to be sure I didn't misread or skip over an important point before I call a writer to task. Sometimes, I find that I did miss something, and it changes my outlook. If I don't find it, I've now read the book two or three times and I'm ticked off about wasting all that extra time.

If you read one of my negative reviews, it should be like the notes I wrote to students back in my classroom. This is what I see you did, this is why I think it's a bad choice, and this is how you can make it better. It's not an exact science, but praise is easy and seldom challenged, while criticism demands proof. It's like a courtroom.

Recently, I did a Highland fling all over a book, and one of my concerns was that it introduced a deus ex machina three pages from the end...which would lead to another book as a sequel. It was a cheat, but I couldn't reveal what it was because it would be a spoiler. Sometimes, you have to find a way around that, too. That review ran to nearly 1200 words because I needed to justify my disenchantment.

Do reviews really help anymore? I don't know. I don't think any of my books has more than four or five reviews, but they're mostly positive (Before writing this, I noticed that one negative review of my last book has actually been removed). Maybe they help, maybe they don't. In a good month, my royalties will fill my gas tank, so who knows.

I suspect that my bad review won't hurt the perennial  bestseller. If it does, maybe the RNC will buy thousands of copies to keep the book on the New York Times bestseller list anyway.


Me with one of my former students and her daughter at a workshop. Time flies quickly.

25 November 2019

Recycling


by Steve Liskow

One of the first short stories I wrote fifteen years ago featured Maxwell and Lowe, the Detroit homicide detectives who played supporting roles in the still unsold "Woody" Guthrie series. They investigated the death of a wealthy banker who died from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot. I called the story "Walking After Midnight," a Patsy Cline song. Several markets rejected it and I kept writing more stories because I was teaching myself to write short stories by...wait for it...writing short stories.

I sent out many other stories that got rejected, too, but eventually I sold enough to become an active member of MWA. In 2010, MWA called for submissions on a theme that "Walking" seemed to fit. I expanded it to make the theme more explicit and changed the title. It still didn't sell, so I cut some of that new thematic detail, changed the title again, and kept sending it out. The shot of my spreadsheet tells the story.

By the time the story sold, I had sold seven or eight other ones and was working on my sixth self-published novel. As "Dead Man's Hand," all that remained was the original premise, a blind man who still has a pistol permit and appears to shoot himself to death. I replaced Max and Lowe with different cops, and the POV shifted from the police to the son of the dead man, who didn't even exist in the first version.

Four other stories I sold in that period also changed titles. Two of them changed almost everything else, too. "Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009 as a 16,000-word novella, earned seven rejections as a 6700-word short story.

As I write this, eight of my 25 sold stories exist in at least two very different drafts. Sometimes I've cut them, but I usually change the characters or plot to make them better. My premise has only changed in one story, and that story still hasn't sold.

Last week, "Two Good Hands" appeared in Tough, and that story is unique. I added about 100 words after the first rejection because I decided the ending was too abrupt, but the other eleven rejections came with no other changes. I have a story knocking on doors now that is the only story I've never altered even though I'm running out of markets for it. That should tell me something, shouldn't it?

Where do all these versions live? I have a flash drive with a folder called "Stories, Unsold," and it has 34 drafts of 21 stories. They date back to 2004, and some of them are pretty awful, but I never throw anything away. One story exists in four different versions under two different titles.

That same flash drive has notes and outlines and early versions of several unsold novels. Blood On The Tracks earned 112 rejections between late 2003 and 2011. It went out as Death Sound Blues, Killing Me Softly (With His Song), The Cheater, and Alma Murder. The titles alone show how much it evolved. The first version was set in 1991, at Guthrie's 25th high school reunion. All that remains of that version is Megan Traine's name (Guthrie is the PI's fourth name, and he was a journalist in the first take) and the dead singer. That singer even went away in The Cheater and Alma Murder, which teetered dangerously close to Lifetime TV. I resurrected (?) the dead singer when I self-published the book in 2013.

My point is pretty simple. Never throw away ANYTHING. Someday, you will be able to  use the description of an intriguing place, a good line of dialogue, or a character you abandoned years ago. You will recognize that fact because now you've learned to write better and use stuff more effectively.

That flash drive still contains a gunfight I wrote in 2004 for a Woody Guthrie story that was never going to work. It also involved Blue Song Riley's boyfriend, and he never got to first base either. I recycled the idea and the mindset of that gunfight into Words of Love, the fifth Guthrie novel, which came out last week, too. (Last week was a good week.)

Postcards of the Hanging, published in 2014, had 44 rejections under that title, its fourth. I wrote  the first draft of my first novel in the early 1970s. Between then and 1982, it went out under three different titles with increasingly complex characters and subplots. Along the way, I learned how to write a bad novel more quickly and fix it later. The third version became my sixth-year project at Wesleyan in 1980, and that version is about 95% of what eventually saw print. I changed from chronological order to  flashbacks to make the book open with more energy. I also added about 12 pages of prologue and epilogue so agents understood that the book was NOT really a YA novel even though the main characters were in high school.

Six unsold novels. 34 drafts of 21 stories.

And people still ask me, "Where do you get your ideas?"

11 November 2019

Novellas, the New Frontier


by Steve Liskow

Ten years ago, I won the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack, AKA the Rex Stout Appreciation Society. Stout, who passed away in 1975, was a master of the novella and often produced a combination of novellas and short stories to fill out a Nero Wolfe book. The form is rare now, partly because it's too long for most magazines and too short to publish as a stand-alone book. There are few markets for them. Black Cat Mystery Magazine will look at a 15K-word MS, but reluctantly. The few other markets I know skew very literary.

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine co-sponsors the Black Orchid Award (Nero Wolfe supposedly raised orchids, a trait he picked up from his creator) and publishes the winning entry every year. The contest rules define a novella as between 15 and 20 thousand words. Other sources give different counts, but the point is that it's enough longer than a short story to need more meat or the bones will show through.

I never considered writing a novella until 2009. By then I had accumulated scores of rejections for several novels and a handful of short stories. I had sold three or four stories, too. But "Stranglehold" clocked in at almost 7000 words, longer than most markets would even look at. I ran out of places to send it. One of my writing friends commented that many characters showed up quickly and it was hard to keep everyone straight. I tried cutting characters, but discovered I really needed all of them. I tried cutting words and made the story unintelligible. It sat on a floppy disc (Remember those?) for about three years, out of sight, and pretty much out of mind.

Then I saw a post about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Could I expand that short story and introduce those many characters more gradually?

Over the next three days (That's not a typo), I added 9000 words. I added one short transition scene, but nothing felt like padding. I sent it out and guess what? I'd written a novella that needed four years for me to recognize it.

Several years later, I won the contest again with only the second novella I've ever written. That novella had the opposite problem, though. About two years after "Stranglehold," I wanted to use the same characters in a novel, but it wasn't going anywhere.

My novels usually have two or three subplots that are variations on the main theme, and here everything except one minor variation felt forced and artificial. I struggled off and on for several years, then decided to lean on that subplot and try to cut the mess down to another novella. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Ma" won in 2016.

With that wealth of experience, I think I know how a novella works now. That's probably the kiss of death, isn't it?

Don't think of a novella as either a short story or a novel. Treat it as a distinct little creature. My ideal short story uses four or five named characters and no more than the same number of scenes, preferably in few, maybe even ONE, location. Novels are at least fifty scenes with more people or places, and several subplots.

A novella has one subplot and more scenes, a few of which might even be backstory, and more characters than a short story. Without going back to actually count, I'm going to guess that both the novellas above have about a dozen scenes and about the same number of characters. I try to keep the cast as small as possible, but let myself write big and messy because it's easy to cut scenes later. It's also easy to spot characters who serve the same function and combine two or three of them...if you even need them at all.

My current WIP, an early plan for another novella, has one subplot and a cast of 12. I'll probably eliminate some of those characters, either by cutting them or killing them, but I don't know which yet because we're still in the first date stage. I never kill someone until the second date.

That's another difference. When I begin outlining a novel, I think I know the ending (Sometimes that changes) and my main worry is how the PI will figure it out. I discover that by writing the scenes, and I often go back to change or add something so it all works at the end.

When I write a short story, I usually know the conflict, gut the rest of the story grows and develops while I write and rewrite as I go along. More often than not, the "real" ending shows up on the third or fourth draft.

I knew the ending of "Stranglehold" because it was a finished short story. According to my spread sheet, it was only the seventh short story I submitted anywhere, and I first sent it out in January, 2005, only about 18 months after I returned to writing after a long hiatus. Four years later, I expanded it into the novella.

"Song" didn't exist except as several pages of incoherent notes and a partial outline that made no effing sense. When I finally figured out the main plot, the subplot grew out of the characters and I pounded out a first draft in a week or so. I had a general idea of the ending, but didn't know how Woody Guthrie would solve the mess until I actually wrote that scene for the first time. It was like driving down a dark road at night and seeing a hitch hiker appear in your headlights.

That seems to happen to me more and more now. My WIP doesn't even have headlights yet. I don't even see the double line down the middle of the pavement. I have a general idea and I think I know the characters, but I don't quite know where I'm going. It's more interesting than worrisome.

I now allow myself to write quickly and worry about nothing except getting words on paper. A few years ago, I couldn't have worked this way, but now I know that if I write absolute junk on Monday, by Tuesday, something better will show up. Maybe I'll figure it out during the night or on a cardio machine at the health club, but something better will appear.

The way to solve a writing problem is by writing. You can fix anything you can put on paper. You can't do anything until then. Well, maybe if you're Mozart...

I'm beginning to look at novellas and short stories more closely because I've written myself into a dead end in both my series. That perception may change, but my mind is beginning to work in smaller units now. I suspect that in the next year or so I will move to publishing more short stories in digital formats, and a novella or two would flesh out collections. Rex Stout did it, and maybe what's old is new again.

We'll see.

28 October 2019

Playing Fair, or the Death of Logic


by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, I was reading a novel I'm supposed to review, and I encountered a dialogue exchange that brought me to a screeching halt. The protagonist and his sidekick were talking abut a new discovery in the case, and the sidekick said, "Well, that proves that we've been right all along and X did Y."

I re-read the previous few pages three times because I thought I must have missed something, but no, the passage proved nothing of the kind. That conclusion couldn't possibly come from the information in the scene. It was the third or fourth time that happened in the book, and I'm going to mention it when I post the review. I see this problem and the ever-popular Deus ex Machina more and more in recent novels, and it bothers me.

 What bothers me even more is the frequency with which it's creeping into my own life. And maybe yours, too.

I try to keep my personal politics out of this column even though my leanings are no secret. Last month, a very conservative musician I've known for years made a comment and I disagreed. He brought up a point I'd never heard before and I asked for his source. He replied, "Clinton."

"No," I said. "You say that Clinton did A, but that's not your source. Where did you get the information?" Bad mistake. He went off on a rant that added more information that was so obviously false that I walked out of the open mic without playing. Back home, I browsed for two hours, looking for confirmation of his claim, and the closest I came was a site labelled by Media Bias as "A propaganda site that uses false or misleading data to promote a far-right agenda." The post in question used the key words from the musician's assertion, but didn't make the claim he repeated. And that post was over a year old.

This is the level of discourse we have reached. Large segments of the population no longer treat science, mathematics, history or other intellectual disciplines as valid, and it has damaged--if not eliminated--rational discussion.

When I was in high school, several friends were on the debate team, with an adviser who was respected throughout the region as an exemplary teacher. I didn't take the class because I was so shy, but I learned second-hand about reductio ad absurdum, begging the questions (Which does NOT mean "motivating or giving rise to the question"), ad hominem arguments, false premises, and many other specious rhetorical techniques. Years later, I presented those techniques in my composition classes as faulty was to support a thesis.

I even used to tell my kids that the best class I ever had in learning to support an argument was plane geometry. We used axioms to prove theorems and theorems to solve equations, and we could support every statement we made. We also learned how to build the sequence concisely and clearly.

All that is fading. Too many people now invent data or facts on the spot to win an argument that may not even be worth having. It has infected fiction writing, too. More and more, I see language used poorly by major writers, and they can't build a logical argument/plot to lead to the solution of their mystery. Rex Stout used to drive me crazy with Nero Wolfe's passionate love of inductive instead of deductive reasoning, but it was a supportable discipline. Now, far too often, I know you walk to school because the tissue paper is orange on Tuesday.

We need to go back to teaching rhetoric and insisting that our students say what they mean, mean what they say, and understand the difference. Dreyer's English, Garner's Modern American Usage, a good dictionary and a good grammar book should be on every writer's desk. When Humpty Dumpty said he used a word to mean what he wanted it to mean, it used to be a joke. Now it's a fact of life.

And it's dangerous. Ask Greta Thunberg.

14 October 2019

Writers Blocks Build Stories


Dennis Lehane is one of many successful crime writers who doesn't outline. He writes his novels on a legal pad (as did John Steinbeck) and types what he's produced into a computer at the end of the day (not like John Steinbeck). He says that when he gets stuck, rather than considering himself blocked, he knows he's made a wrong choice earlier in the manuscript and goes back through it to find what he did that shut down the action later on. When he finds the problem, he fixes it and surges ahead.

Many writers--lots of them practicing or formal journalists--point to the value of a regular deadline as motivation. The don't have time for writer's block and will produce on demand. I have written most of my life, but didn't sell my first story until I was 60. By then, I had several rejected novels and stories I could return to and play with if I couldn't find a "new" idea. Now that I've recycled most of those ideas that merited a second look, I find that I do get stuck sometimes.

Writer's Block actually comes in two versions. The one most non-writers mean is the lack of ideas to write about. Most of the writers I know agree that the people don't really lack ideas; they fail to recognize useful ones or set their sights too high. They have the seed of a good short story or poem, but they're looking for a blockbuster novel. Unfortunately, nobody, including publishers, can see these coming. Dan Brown wrote several mid-list novels before The Da Vinci Code caught his publisher and bookstores around the world by surprise.

The second version is the idea that doesn't work with your other ideas. Years ago, I interviewed several people to get the details right for what I thought would become the third Woody Guthrie novel...even though I hadn't sold the first one yet. Those notes sat on a floppy disc (remember those?) for several years until I thought the time was right. By then, the story had moved from Detroit to Connecticut and become a Zach Barnes story. Then it changed into a police procedural featuring Trash and Byrne. Six or seven years and several title changes later, I finally sat down to write.

Normally, when I write a first draft, I produce a scene or two daily, going faster as I get deeper into the book and know my way around better. My average scene is about 1600 words. Four weeks into this story, I only had about 50 pages, a quarter of my usual output, and none of it felt right. I put it away and tweaked a few other stories. When I came back, I saw something akin to Lehane's experience.

The story had two crucial premises that contradicted each other. Writer's Block, version 2.0.

The good news is that the time away also gave me a way to handle the problem. I recycled several of the characters, and the book turned into The Kids Are All Right, which was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

A few months later, I faced a similar situation. I was revising an early unsold Woody & Meg story from about 2004. A dozen years later, I understood why that premise didn't work and the book never sold, but I thought I'd learned enough to fix it.

After three days of pushing The Great Pyramid up a vertical slope, I finished page 4.

The notes, outline, character list, and pages went into seclusion on a flash drive. But, again, something else with a vaguely similar idea bubbled underneath. A week later, I recognized that bubble. I finished the first draft of a novella, 16,000 words in eight days. It became "Look What They've Done to My Song, Mom," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award.

Now I'm struggling with yet another idea that seems to be circling the drain.

I'm going to put it away for a few weeks...and hope history will repeat itself.

30 September 2019

End of the Long Strange Trip


by Steve Liskow

Last Tuesday, Robert Hunter died at age 78 with his family around him. Unless you were part of the counterculture of my generation, the name means nothing to you. But Thursday night, an entire room sang along when I performed one of Hunter's songs at an open mic--even though I didn't identify the song before I played it.

Hunter was the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead. He played several instruments himself, but wrote most of his songs in collaboration with Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir, and never performed with the band. I'd say he wrote most of the Dead's greatest hits, but they only had two legitimate hits 15 years apart. They released few singles and built their rep on long and often improvised concerts. They seldom performed with a set list and would segue from song to song by jamming. Some nights worked better than others.

Hunter's songs often feature a turn of phrase that sticks in you mind. "Truckin'" has the line about "What a long strange trip it's been," often quoted by people who don't know the source. That same song mentions a drug bust in which the band is "set up, like a bowling pin." In another of my personal favorites, "Sugar Magnolia," Hunter says of the woman in question "She comes skimming through rays of violet/ She can wade in a drop of dew."

 Hunter combined word play with concrete detail to tell stories. In "Cumberland Blues," his miner tells his beloved, "Gotta get down to the Cumberland Mine/ Make good money, five dollars a day." Because of his details, he could make his work sound like whatever time period worked best to convey his ideas. He once told of attending a Dead concert anonymously and having the man sitting next to him comment about how weird it would be if the guy who wrote "Cumberland Blues" a century before (!?!) could know now that the Grateful Dead were performing it that day.

Even though the Dead seldom showed up on radio ("Truckin'" and "Touch of Gray" are exceptions), many of their songs get play at open mics. A friend plays "Eyes of the World" regularly. Bluegrass bands often perform "Friend of the Devil," which originally featured a mandolin break in the acoustic recording. "Uncle John's Band" and "Sugaree" get lots of stage time, too. "Brown-eyed Woman," on my own set list. has a strong story-line and the comment about moonshine "The bottle was dusty, but the liquor was clean."

"China Doll," "Casey Jones," (Riding that train/ High on Cocaine) and "Operator" aren't rare, either.

When I played "Ripple" last week, with nature images that seem to combine the Romantic Poets and a Zen feel, the whole room joined in on "Let there be songs to fill the air" at the end of the second verse. More voices joined in from there until the "la da da da da..." fade out. They even dropped out so I could play the last line as a harmonized guitar riff.

Hunter's "Terrapin Station" Suite is an homage to story telling and creative vision. It's on the album or CD of the same name and has the invocation, "Inspiration, move me brightly."

Every writer knows about THAT. Or should.

16 September 2019

The Play's the Thing


by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, I saw an audition call for a production of a play I performed in years ago, a mystery called Wait Until Dark. It's a rarity, a good mystery play that began as a play instead of being adapted from either a book or a film. There are several good mysteries on film, but most of them began as films or novels. My wife Barbara, who still acts in five or six plays a year and impersonates an 1890s British maid at the Mark Twain House, and I spent the rest of the evening trying to think of other good mystery plays that aren't adaptations.

It's a short list, and I don't like several of them for crochety reasons of my own. Obviously, many of Shakespeare's plays involve crime or mysteries: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Caesar. I won't include them. Aeschylus gave us The Oresteia 2500 years ago, only a few years before Sophocles graced us with Oedipus The King, maybe the earliest detective story. I won't include those, either.

All those plays involve stage conventions we now consider "unrealistic" or "old-fashioned." The mystery form has conventions itself, and some of them are artificial, too. Red herrings, delaying a discovery, the impossible crime, and multiple suspects are pretty much standard procedure. Maybe that's why a script that leans heavily on staginess is effective for many of the plays I include below.

Investigating a mystery often involves moving from place to place, so a challenge in a mystery play is limiting scene/set changes that slow down the action. There are two ways to do this, one a staple of Shakespeare and the Greeks. That's the lack of a stage set at all. The audience has to imagine a different place for the action, often given the cue through dialogue ("What woods are these?"). The other is to construct a play that happens in one location. That's tough.

Barb and I have been involved in productions of most of these plays, which colors my judgment.

Book of Days by Lanford Wilson. Wilson passed away in 2011 after producing a body of work that equals Miller or Williams. He wrote roles for William Hurt, Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Judd Hirsch, among others. I directed this play about ten years ago, and Barb acted in it. In fact, I lost an actor less than a week before opening and had to step into his role myself. 


 If Raymond Chandler had written Our Town, the result might have been Book of Days. On a bare stage, 12 characters interact with each other and the audience to discuss how Walt, one of the small town's leading citizens, dies in a freak hunting accident. Apparently, a tree fell on him during a tornado and his shotgun went off. But there are inconsistencies, and by the play's end, the audience understands who killed Walt, how and why it was done, and that the killer will get away with it.
Book of Days, my wife at lower right, me 4th from right
The play uses a bare stage but has over 90 scenes in 17 locations. We used light changes and a few basic props to keep the story going, just like the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Agnes of God by John Pielmeier uses the same black box strategy and for the same reasons. The artificiality is effective because we don't KNOW exactly what happened even though we understand the broad outlines. On a set consisting of two chairs and a standing ashtray, a female psychiatrist tells of being called in to evaluate the competence of a young nun. Agnes is accused of killing a newborn baby she claims she bore after an immaculate conception. If she is ruled rational, she faces a trial for murder. Otherwise, she will go to an insane asylum. The only other character is the Mother Superior who accuses the psychiatrist of bias against the Catholic Church. Barbara was learning the lines for Agnes as we went on our honeymoon.

I've seen two other productions, and all three had problems. It's hard to strike a balance between the characters and the story, but some scenes--a hypnotized Agnes reliving the agony of giving birth, for example--will keep you awake at night. She's clearly crazy, but does that automatically mean she's lying?

The less said about the film starring Jane Fonda, the better. Why anyone thought that stripping the play of its theatricality and trying to present literal reality on film is a bigger mystery than the play itself.

Equus by Peter Schaeffer also uses several locations with only the barest of furniture, and for the same reasons. Schaeffer passed away in 2016 at age 90 after writing many other acclaimed works, including Amadeus, which is also sort of a mystery.

The play gives us another psychiatrist treating a young patient, this time a teen-aged boy accused of blinding several horses in the stable where he worked. My wife played the boy's mother and a mutual friend played the psychiatrist (Shrinks are big in mystery drama: at least one of the plays I left off this list also has one). Actors wearing elaborate wire-frame heads play the horses. The nightmare moment of the play comes on a completely dark stage when all the horses' eyes light up, little red pilot lights across the back of the stage...and advance to surround the boy. Unlike Agnes, this play answers all our questions. Lucky us.
Equus cast & crew. Horse's head at bottom

Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott appeared on Broadway in 1966, and Lee Remick earned a Tony nomination as the blind woman who knows killers will break into her apartment that night. She smashes all the light bulbs in the apartment so she can fight them on equal terms. Robert Duvall played the ringleader in that production, and I wish I had seen the moment when he shows Susie the one light she forgot to smash: the bulb in the refrigerator (In theater parlance, we refer to this as the "Oh &$%# Moment").

The film version, a year or two later, drags badly. It allows us to see outside, too, which removes the claustrophobic feel of being trapped in the apartment. Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston are excellent as the bad guys, but Audrey Hepburn's weepy and whiny blind girl is annoying. She's all wrong for the role. I played the Crenna role years ago, and now Jeffrey Hatcher has reworked the play and set it in the 1940s. The play has to be done in an older time period because a photographic dark room is vital, but I don't understand why someone felt it needed to be rewritten.

Death Trap by Ira Levin. Levin, who wrote many other works, including the novel that became the film Rosemary's Baby, saw this 1978 drama become the longest-running comedy-drama on Broadway. It was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play. Another very stagy work, it involves two playwrights, a newcomer and a seasoned pro, who work together on a project that won't make it to the stage. The play-within-a-play structure works, and the script abounds with dark humor and theater in-jokes, including using a crossbow as a weapon. Done well, it's wonderful. Don badly, it's...well, deadly. I saw a local production with the same friend who played the psychiatrist in Equus as one lead and a former student as the other. The excellent film starred Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon. Hard to go wrong there.

That's it. If the plays don't work, the fault, dear Brutus is not in our star actors, but in ourselves.


02 September 2019

Taking Stock


by Steve Liskow

When I was in kindergarten, we started school the day after Labor Day, and somewhere in the next few years, we backed off a day until Wednesday. when I was teaching, we retreated to the week before Labor Day. Now, most of the kids in Connecticut have been back anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.

For most of my life, the first day of school was my "real" New Year. After grad school, summer became sort of mental hibernation until early August when I practiced cursive writing on vertical surfaces again and thought about updating my reading lists. I still consider autumn a new beginning and tend to take stock of the year up to this point.

Other people have shared less than radiant news about how the writing landscape is becoming more barren and challenging. Climate change, indeed.

Me, too.

Over the last several years, I have conducted eight to ten writing workshops a year. This year, I have done five and have two more scheduled. But one slated for this coming weekend with three other writers needs several more people to sign up or it will be cancelled tomorrow. I've already had three events cancelled this year because of low attendance. My only previous cancellation was in 2010, and it was because of a blizzard.

I've published stories since 2006, but the bulk of my income (cue the laughter) has never come from sales. It has been from workshops and editing. I haven't had a new editing client in about 18 months, and I'm reading more and more work online that tells me I'm probably not the only editor who is increasingly idle.

I've published three stories this year, one of which sold last fall. True to my New Year's resolution (the real new year), I have submitted five others to various markets and will send two more out in the next few weeks. Four of the five submissions have been out five months and several would appear in anthologies, which means my fee would be a share of the royalties.

Four independent bookstores have opened in the state within the last two years--three of them in the last year--but they all favor traditional authors. The one that will carry self-pubbed and indie writers charges a fee for shelf space and takes a 45% consignment cut.

What is on the horizon?

Well, I will publish a novel around the end of this year when my beta readers and I agree that's it's ready. The cover is complete, but I have regretfully told my designer that even though I love his work--which is true--I can't afford to pay him after this book. I have no novel in any stage of development: research, outline, drafts. The last time that was true was 2003 before I retired from teaching.

Because of Draconian budget cuts, I have conducted only two workshops at a library since 2017. I used to sell a book for about every three attendees, but sold two books TOTAl at workshops in the last two years. Significantly--and more about this in a minute--my digital sales are climbing.

That upcoming novel is the last work I expect to publish on paper. If I write other novels, they will go directly to digital format. Maybe because of the new year's resolution, or maybe because my attention span is shrinking, I'm thinking much more in short story mode. But as deteriorating advertising revenue, rising print costs, and sagging subscription sales decimate the print markets, I look seriously at going straight to digital for short stories, too. I'll submit them to those vanishing markets, but the increasingly long wait for a response means I have time to find stock photos and learn to design covers...at a fraction of the cost of my designer.

I'm not a presence in bookstores, and while I may not make much on the digital sales, it costs nothing to upload material, so selling one or two copies puts me in the black. Now that's depressing.

It's easy to assign blame for this state of affairs, but it's pointless. Everything changes, and sometimes progress comes with unexpected costs. You can only figure out how to work with them.

At my health club a few days ago, a woman wore a tee shirt that captured the situation perfectly. It wasn't about writing, but it applies to almost every aspect of life that I can name.

Science doesn't care what you believe.

19 August 2019

Robert Johnson and the Hell Hound


Last Friday, August 16, was the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. It was also the 81st anniversary of the death of an even more important music figure. On the same date in 1938, Robert Johnson, often called the King of the Delta Blues, died after drinking a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The story could become a great true-crime book if I had the bent for the massive research necessary, but I don't. Johnson's saga has already fueled works in various genres anyway.

Born May 8, 1911, Johnson was the guitar hero around the Mississippi Delta, standing on a pinnacle with Charley Patton, Son House, and nobody else. He only recorded 29 songs over the course of two sessions, one in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 (22 tracks in two days) and a Dallas hotel room over a weekend the following June (20 more tracks). The recording logs say 17 more tracks were recorded, but nobody knows what happened to them. We have 42 surviving tracks, one or two takes of 29 iconic blues songs.

Columbia released a vinyl LP of 15 songs in 1961, and among the musicians who heard Johnson for the first time were Eric Clapton,
Eric Clapton, circa 1968
Keith Richards, Jimmy Page,
Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds
Brian Jones, and Mike Bloomfield.
Mike Bloomfield
That spark fanned the flame of the American blues revival and the British Invasion. An LP of the remaining songs appeared in 1970 and stoked the earlier frenzy. There have been three remastered CD sets of Johnson's work. The last two went platinum, the latter in less than a week.

What did Johnson give us? Well, Eric Clapton played "Ramblin' on my Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers after he left the Yardbirds. He still considers "Cross Road Blues" his trademark song since he recorded it live with Cream in 1968. That trio also covered "From Four Until Late." Elmore James had a 1951 hit with his slide version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Delaney and Bonnie and Johnnie Winter each recorded "Come on in My Kitchen." Led Zeppelin played "Traveling Riverside Blues" in their live sets. I first heard "Walkin' Blues" on a Paul Butterfield album (Mike Bloomfield played guitar), and the Grateful Dead often played it live. The Rolling Stones did a killer version of "Love in Vain," mostly when Mick Taylor was their slide maestro. The Charlatans covered "32-20" on an early LP, and I can't begin to count the artists who have performed "Sweet Home Chicago."

That's a pretty good showing for a man who died three months after turning 27.

We have only two existing photographs of Robert Johnson, and they both show him holding a guitar in his amazingly long fingers, which may account for his virtuosity.
Along with that skill, sometimes attributed to his selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, Johnson earned a reputation as a lover of both whiskey and women, not always single. He carried on publicly with ladies who wore another man's ring, and it caught up with him in July of 1937.

He and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards were performing at the Three Forks Store & Jook House when someone sent up a bottle of scotch for Robert. Edwards noticed that the seal was broken and knocked it out of his friend's hand with the warning "Don't never take a drink when the seal's broke."
The Jook joint where Johnson probably drank the poisoned
bottle of scotch, served by a jealous husband.

Johnson didn't listen. Another bottle appeared shortly and he drank heavily while playing. By late in the evening, he was very ill and showed symptoms of what was probably arsenic poisoning. He was making time with the wife of the man who owned the roadhouse, and since rats were around, so was poison. Johnson suffered for several days and contracted pneumonia, passing away on August 16.

This was in Greenwood, Mississippi. the local white sheriff didn't give two hoots about some dead colored singer, and while there were many witnesses and people who knew the situation, nobody ever followed up. Johnson's death certificate doesn't even give a cause of death.
Johnson's death certificate. Notice that the right side is blank except for the notation "No Doctor."

Months later, John Hammond wanted Johnson to play at his Spirituals to Swing concert (Dedicated to Bessie Smith, who had also died recently) at Carnegie Hall. He sent Don Law, who supervised Johnson's recording sessions, to find him. Law eventually learned of Johnson's death, but found another musician to take Johnson's slot in the show and revive his own flagging career: Big Bill Broonzy.

Johnson's playing was the stuff of legend, and his life and songs have inspired novels, plays and films. Elijah Wald explores Johnson and the Delta blues in Escaping the Delta, which points out that blues wasn't even recognized as a separate genre until the 1930s.

David Sheffield's "Love in Vain" is a short story told from the point of view of the coroner examining the body of a dead blues singer. I first found it in an anthology called, fittingly, Delta Blues.

Sherman Alexie's early novel Reservation Blues is a whimsical tale of a man who picks up a black hitchhiker in Idaho and finds a guitar in his back seat after dropping the guy off. Johnson was the hitchhiker who faked his death to cheat the devil out of his soul. He leaves the guitar behind so he can't be tracked, but the magic instrument enables a group of Indians to form a rock band. I assigned the book as a summer reading text one year and encouraged the students to track down Johnson's recordings. It turned out there were two guitarists in the class. Those young men will never be the same.

Thunder Knocking on the Door, a play by Keith Glover, premiered at Yale Rep in the 1990s with Johnson's music front and center. The script is good and the acting was fine, but the loudest applause went to the blues band that made the songs come to life.

Then there's the forgettable film Crossroads. The premise is that an old black harp player knew Johnson and learned a thirtieth song from him that he never recorded. The script and acting don't do it justice. The best part of the film, no surprise, is the soundtrack, created and performed by Ry Cooder and a host of surviving blues legends including Blind Sonny Terry on harp. Cooder and Albert King performed the title song live on TV at (I think) the Grammies that year.

My own novel Dark Gonna Catch Me Here takes its title from a line in "Cross Road Blues." The whole line is "Sun goin' down, dark goin' catch me here/ I ain't got no woman to love and feel my care." When I heard the line for the first time, my reaction was, "What a great image!" Then I thought it could be a title. My cover designer loved it too, and started working before I even wrote the book. He said, "You better go darker than usual, because I am."

I did. By now, the book has probably sold dozens of copies.

Johnson has been dead three times longer than he lived, and he's still fertile ground for musicians. The songs are haunting and evocative and push guitarists to try the impossible. And his archetypal existence and lifestyle continue to inspire legends and stories. Someday, maybe someone will write the work that does him justice.