Today is the eleventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. I thought it would be appropriate to interview a first responder—in this case, someone who has worked in fire and emergency services for thirty-two years, both here in the U.S. and in New Zealand.
His name is Mark Chubb and he has served as a fire chief, emergency manager, engineer, inspector, and investigator in addition to his time on the frontlines as a firefighter. Mark is a member of the affiliated research faculty of the Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, and is a weekly contributor to HLSwatch.com.
He also assisted me in the writing of the fire-related sections of Done for a Dime, and by some sad, strange quirk of fate also happens to be my nephew.
I wanted to hear Mark’s opinions both about the attacks and where we find ourselves in public safety services eleven years later. Here’s what he had to say.
You were overseas in New Zealand on 9/11. How did New Zealanders react to the news? Was there a common sense of shock and vulnerability?
Because of the time difference, most New Zealanders learned about the attacks when they woke up on September 12th. By then, the Twin Towers had already collapsed and television news was presenting images of dazed and distressed New Yorkers fleeing Manhattan on foot, which I can only describe as post-apocalyptic.
New Zealanders like others around the world found these images not only shocking but deeply disturbing.
As you might imagine, my wife and I felt particularly vulnerable as we watched these images. She was born in the city and still had family there. Some were near Ground Zero when the attacks occurred. I had many friends in the area, some of whom responded to the World Trade Center and others who were emailing and texting their observations.
When we left the house we were taken by surprise as friends, neighbors, and total strangers embraced us. My wife stopped for breakfast while taking the kids to school. A lady near her, hearing her American accent approached and asked, “Are you alright?” She had been holding it together pretty well until then, and simply broke down in tears.
Before leaving home, I erected an American flag at our front gate. By the time I got home, people had left flowers, candles, and notes beneath it, transforming the site into an ad hoc neighborhood shrine that grew day by day.
You knew some of the firefighters who died in the towers. Has that personal element had an effect on how you view the job now that you’ve returned to the US and are once again working in public safety here? How has it affected others you know?
Just before the attacks, I had been selected for promotion to a uniformed command position with the fire service in New Zealand. The attacks made me more aware than usual of the responsibility I was assuming not only for the welfare of my community but the safety of those I supervised.
As you said, I knew two of the 343 firefighters killed in the World Trade Center collapse. One was Battalion Chief Ray Downey who oversaw the fire department’s special operations command. The other was Firefighter Andrew Fredericks who was assigned to one of the special operations squads deployed early in the incident. Both of these men were not only highly skilled and passionate about what they did, but also more willing than most to share their experiences with others.
Andy was particularly articulate and wrote for a trade magazine for which I was also a contributor. Ray Downey was probably the quintessential New York City firefighter. He had worked in all the toughest assignments, and not only enjoyed the work but shunned the rewards. His promotions, especially his last one, were practically forced upon him.
Even today, I think about the sacrifices made by Andy and Ray and so many others. To some extent, I take consolation in the thought that they died doing something they were passionate about. They truly put the welfare of others ahead of their own safety.
On the other hand, I wonder why others in responsible positions did not take the firefighters’ safety more seriously and withdraw everyone before the second tower collapsed. I don’t think anyone realistically expected the first tower’s collapse, but after it occurred the second one coming down was all but inevitable.
It’s hard to know what the incident commanders knew. They too paid the ultimate price that day. But in the aftermath we know everyone who could be saved had already evacuated by the time the towers fell. The civilian loss of life on floors below the levels of aircraft impact were minimal. Those above the impact never stood a chance of getting out alive.
I think this incident still haunts anyone close to it or to the people who were there. The lesson I took from the attacks and the fire service response to them was the importance of keeping my head and heart connected when I’m making high-stakes, time-critical decisions that affect others’ lives.
What were some of the differences you saw in firefighting and public safety in general once you were back here in the states — was it a sea change or pretty much the same as before only more so?
I think the fire and emergency services have become self-absorbed and even opportunistic since 9/11. Some of these changes were already in process before I left the U.S. in 1999, but I think 9/11 accelerated the trend quite a bit.
After Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway and Timothy McVeigh’s attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, firefighters were pleading their case before Congress for more federal financial assistance.
The argument went something like, “Hey, the cops get $11 billion per year in federal assistance. Don’t count on us to go into a subway filled with nerve agent if you don’t give us the money to equip and protect ourselves.”
The professionalization and militarization of public safety services has left those who provide these services more and more disconnected from the communities they serve. These days many cops and firefighters live well outside the communities where they work. As a result, public safety is now a service procured from others instead of something the community organizes to provide for itself.
You’ve been among a group of insiders in the public administration domain who’ve tried to sound the alarm that salary and benefit packages for public safety employees have to be sustainable to be realistic. This obviously isn’t popular, especially in a post-9/11 world. With three California cities filing for bankruptcy largely due to the burden of their public safety contracts — one of them my hometown — this is hardly an abstract matter. How do you see this scenario playing out, and how do you see fire and police services transitioning in the era of austerity many see coming?
I have been pretty outspoken about the salaries and benefits paid to public safety employees, and I do consider the current situation in many communities both unrealistic and unsustainable.
Before I address the problems I see, I need to make it clear that I am a firm believer that government jobs should pay not just a market wage but also a living wage.
The question about what constitutes a living wage is the subject of some controversy, but most citizens would agree that a living wage is one that pays enough for someone to live and raise a family in the community where they work.
Market-based wages are another question entirely, though, especially when it comes to public safety employees. Unlike many other government jobs, police and fire service are monopoly enterprises. It’s hard to find truly comparable jobs in the private sector to draw comparisons with.
When I started my career in the early 1980s, most cities were coming out of a period of very hard times. The response from many cities was to make public safety services more innovative and productive. Paramedic programs started in this era. Firefighters acquired new skills in rescue and hazardous materials response.
Starting about the same time, the incidence of fires dropped dramatically. Most of the decline seems to have occurred not because of but rather in spite of fire service efforts (or lack of effort for that matter).
As a consequence, a fire department’s main job these days has little to do with fires. In most cases, fires account for 2-5% of all emergency calls. Medical emergencies account for 70-85%. The rest of the calls are minor accidents, investigations, and false alarms.
Even with the sharp increase in medical responses, most fire departments have seen overall activity levels drop, at least on a per capita basis.
Meanwhile, it has become clear, at least to those who have studied the matter closely, that investments in staffing to reduce response times make very little difference. Building and staffing a fire station with career firefighters for something like $1.6-2.0 million per year rarely results in equivalent savings to the community in terms of life and property, productivity, insurance premiums and so on.
Do you see a possible silver lining in the cutting back of fire and police services, in the demand for greater citizen engagement with their own safety?
Yes, I do. Bankruptcy is unappealing to say the least. But it forces the kind of reckoning I think is inevitable.
For starters, it opens the eyes of the community and its public employees to their shared plight. The lack of common cause is a big part of the problem today, and bankruptcy puts everyone in the same boat.
Clearly, the expectations of citizens in bankrupt cities have changed. They take a more active interest in defining what needs to be done and deciding how and how well it should be done.
Disasters affect individuals as members of a community. None of us has the capacity to confront the challenges of recovery alone. If we didn’t need help, it wouldn’t be a disaster.
Creating conditions that give us confidence in the community, not just in the public servants we pay to protect us, makes it more rather than less likely that we will come through together when the chips are down.
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Anyone who wishes to comment, in any way they wish, please feel free.
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Igor Stravinsky. His use of a major seventh chord in this beautiful arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner earned the wrath of the Boston Police in 1944, who warned him he could incur a $100 fine for any “rearrangement of the national anthem in whole or in part.” The incident soon established itself as a myth, in which Stravinsky was supposedly arrested for playing the music. (The mug shot you see on the YouTube video is a hoax.)
Call a player “Sycamore Flynn” or “Melbourne Trench” and something begins to happen. He shrinks or grows, stretches out or puts on muscle. Sprays singles to all fields or belts them over the wall.
—Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.,
J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
No, this isn’t about outing sock puppets. After the heated debate of yesterday on the issue of fake internet reviews, I thought a little cooling off—a palette cleanser, if you will—was in order.
(Actually, I’d already written the damn thing and I didn’t have time to whip up another.)
So, gentle readers, let’s turn our beautiful minds to the subject of character names—even though I’m sure some crank out there will read this and think what I’m secretly doing is giving everyone various ways to create pseudonyms for sock puppet villainy.
I’d rather shoot myself, frankly.
Anyhoo, here goes:
My favorite character name of all time comes from Richard Price’s Clockers: Buddha Hat.
No, he’s not a Zen milliner. He’s a drug enforcer. A bit counter-intuitive? Oh yeah. Ergo, perfect.
Best name I discovered in real life I couldn’t use because, well, a real person already owned it (and not a terribly nice person): Seth Booky.
Most writers will tell you choosing a name is one of the most crucial parts of a character’s depiction. Get the name right, so many other things just seem to fall into place. Get it wrong, everything else is a struggle.
Once you know the character’s name, once you can picture her vividly enough to know that a certain name suits her—or better yet, is intrinsic to her—you’re pretty much home free.
It’s sometimes said we grow into our faces, coming to resemble our real selves as we reach our prime. I wonder if we don’t also grow into our names: George Clooney. Hillary Clinton. Art Garfunkel.
A name can often substitute for a physical description if chosen wisely—think of the names from the TV series The Wire: Jimmy McNulty, Stringer Bell, Omar Little, “Proposition Joe” Stewart, Snoop Pearson, Bunny Colvin, Cutty Wise, Bunk Moreland, Bubbles.
And returning to Richard Price (who wrote for The Wire), there’s a man with a true knack for picture-ready names: Rocco Klein, Strike Dunham, André the Giant, Shorty Jeeter, Lorenzo Council, Little Dap Williams.
Other memorable character names:
Chili Palmer (Get Shorty)
Baby Suggs (Beloved)
Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Ed Punch and Al Catalog (The Shipping News)
Ree Dolly (Winter’s Bone)
Madeline Dare (A Field of Darkness)
Rooster Cogburn (True Grit)
Jenny Petherbridge (Nightwood)
That said, there’s an intriguing challenge in a seemingly lackluster name—Jim Williams, Jane Smith, John Harris. Such names, by denying you a unique visual image, force you to remember that the character can’t be confined to such an image. He’s more than that. And he’s going to change, even as his name doesn’t.
But where do I get really good names, I hear you cry.
There is of course every author’s friend, the Random Name Generator, which has the eminently useful “obscurity factor” for increasingly oddball names. (Anything over 5 puts you pretty much in Dickens territory).
And, as they say, so on. Just Google “random name generator” and stand back.
But I invariably find the best sources are those that give you names people really use. A computer can crank out nearly infinite possibilities, but the fact a loving mother actually said—Yep, that’s my baby’s name—makes a subtle, sneaky difference. At least it does for me.
Which is why I’ve sought out real-life sources for interesting names. And what I’ve discovered, quite by accident, is that sports provides some of the strongest or most unique names for both men and women available.
Don’t believe me?
Brandi Chastain. Serena Williams. Dakota Stone.
Jake Stoneburner. Pudge Cotton. Philander Moore (I’m not making that up.)
That’s a mere sample. Let me share with you a few more names of athletes I just found too intriguing not to tuck away for further use. (A gift from me to you.)
Note: You seldom want to steal a name wholesale, so consider this list a set of parts, with interchangeable first and last names.
Carolina Duer (great name for an assassin)
Christina Hammer (yes, she’s a boxer)
Ann Marie Saccurato
Okay, these are a little more offbeat. I gathered them from an article titled
Now, I realize many of those names are “too weird not to be real,” and thus problematic as character names, which have to be believable in a way real names don’t. Reality always has the upper hand in weirdness, because it doesn’t have to make sense.
But for secondary characters or just a walk on the wiggy side, this just might point you in a useful direction.
Oh, and one last thing: If you read an online review by Barkevious Mingo, it’s not me. I promise.
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So, Murderateros — what are some of your favorite character names?
What are your favorite sources for names?
Have you grown into your name? Your face?
Do any of the names I’ve listed above suggest characters to you? Describe them for us.
Using mix-and-match, what character names have you been able to create from the above lists?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Bond. James Bond. Meet the Beatles:
WARNING: This is a great way to waste time. Seriously.
Check out the chart below. Pick one word from each column, and precede what you get with “Thou.”
Thou unmuzzled, rump-fed puttock!
(Feels good to get it out, doesn’t it?)
Don’t you wish you trash-talked like this? Don’t you wish everybody did?
Now, after you’ve limbered up a bit, gotten a few combinations under your belt, gotten so they glide effortlessly off your velvet/acid tongue, you may want to try something bold—like come up with insults for the Murderati member you love (read: despise) most!
Post it in the Comment thread and we’ll all try to guess who you mean!
Or, if you’re lazy (and who isn’t, really?), or just overwhelmed by your go-getter/jetsetter/bedwetter lifestyle, you may prefer to let the help do it for you!
Just match the Murderatero of your choice to one of these pre-selected barbs, chosen judiciously by our trained, conscientious, and dedicated staff.
It’s fun! It’s easy! It’s insulting!
Match One From This ListWith One From This List
Thou fawning, fen-sucked barnacle! Pari Noskin Taichert
The class deals with the importance of knowing your subgenre in order to better understand reader expectations so you can not only meet those expectations but exceed them.
I also stress the need to create characters with sufficient depth and complexity so your story has a chance to achieve not just popular but critical success.
There is still room for four more students in the class, so if you’re interested, sign up now.
I realize I seem to be harping on the same theme as two weeks ago – the potential for greatness in the crime genre. My apologies if I seem a bore. Two weeks back I was inspired by Don Winslow’s marvelous talk at the Book Passage Mystery Conference. This time I’m just restating my fundamental belief that this is a great genre that owes apologies to no one.
Either way, I find myself returning to a debate we often have in this particular corner of the literary world:
What does it mean to serve the genre, to respect the genre, and to transcend the genre?
I’m normally one of those people who finds the phrase “transcend the genre” more than a little patronizing. It’s so often used to describe the works of literary writers who go slumming in the Naked City to make a few bucks – and who often not only don’t “transcend” the genre, they fail to respect or even understand it.
Literary writers often think of genre conventions as mere formula, and automatically recoil. This is, to my mind, exactly the wrong way to look at it.
Rather, if you’re going to try your hand at a genre and not just wander in as some kind of snooty tourist, you need to know what makes the thing work, and why. Anything less simply reveals your arrogance and ignorance – and it’s been my experience that arrogance and ignorance all too often go neatly hand in glove.
But by saying we need to serve or respect the genre, I’m not saying that we can’t expand our usual understanding of what a crime story can do.
One thing I’ll emphasize in the class: The difference between a good crime story and a great one often lies in seeing in its subtlest, most far-reaching or most profound terms the underlying thematic premise of the particular subgenre you choose.
The detective genre, for example, is fundamentally about: How can we determine the truth?
This idea is as subtle and as vast as you care to make it. It’s no accident, for example, that Chinatown is based on the oldest detective story in the Western canon – Oedipus the King – or that it resonates with the same theme: the intrinsic danger in presuming the truth can be known.
And in Vertigo, Scottie Ferguson doesn’t just solve the crime and overcome his fear of heights, he tracks Freud’s understanding of male sexuality, from the pleasure principle (Babs) to romantic idealization (Madeline) to the reality principle (Judy) – with tragic results, as in Chinatown, due to a fundamental lack of knowledge.
At the heart of every detective story lies a mystery – something that baffles our usual understanding of things – and there is nothing confining the limits of that mystery except the reach of your own imagination.
The crime subgenre, which is more about the battle between police and criminals than about solving a mystery, fundamentally addresses the balance between individual freedom and social conformity.
A world run by criminals would be a Hobbesian state of nature, with no rules, the war of all against all, and ultimate power residing with those who possess money and weapons. A world run by the police would be – you guessed it – a police state, with everyone guilty of something, and paranoia and suspicion underlying every act.
Every society seeks a balance between these two polarities, and the crime story is a great vehicle for exploring what it would mean to move the goal posts in one direction or the other.
You can also ask fundamental questions such as what makes a given act a crime, or to whom do you owe your loyalty, and answer them in as ingenious a fashion as you please. Two great Boston crime writers, Dennis Lehane and Chuck Hogan, do this brilliantly in such books as Mystic River and Prince of Thieves.
Crime stories that feature the criminal as hero – like The Thomas Crowne Affair – often ask us to reconsider the value of the creative individual in a society defined by compromise, mediocrity, and conformity.
The criminal in such stories is often devoted to excellence – and risk – in a way that others in the society are not. In a very fundamental way, the criminal in such stories is a stand-in for the artist, whose role is every bit as challenging, enigmatic, potentially disturbing – even revolutionary. (It’s no great surprise that real revolutionaries are often described as terrorists or criminals by those hoping to trivialize their political aims.)
Other stories with criminal heroes, like The Winter of Frankie Machine,Goodfellas or In Bruges, achieve greatness by forcing the criminal hero to perform a moral accounting of his entire life.
The thriller, which combines elements of the detective story with the horror story, pits the seeker of the truth against relentless pressure and danger. It shares certain traits with the epic and myth, and like those ancient types of stories it can be expanded to show the individual hero, through great sacrifice and personal transformation, redeeming or redefining the society in which he or she lives.
In other words, the genre is perfectly capable of delivering big themes and great art, and it doesn’t need interlopers to pull it off.
This is something I’ll continue to hammer away at here, in my classes, and in my own work. I love the crime genre. I think more than any other form of story it represents our current mythology on how we live. And if you see it in that context, you can achieve something truly original and meaningful and profound.
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So, Murderateros – What crime stories do you think have that spark of greatness?
When was the last time you had to defend crime stories against the snoots?
What themes in the crime story affect you most deeply?
Note: I’ll be traveling again today, and won’t be able to check comments until this evening when I get home on the west coast. Don’t let that stop you from chiming in, though. This community is more than capable of having a rousing discussion without me as room monitor.
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I was visiting the east coast this week, and on Saturday had the chance to visit with former Murderati regular Cornelia Read and her beau, the actor Peter Riegert. Peter shared a clip from a former student, the beautiful and gifted and quite tall Storm Large (her real name, interestingly enough). It’s a number from her one-woman show and I can’t get it out of my head.
WARNING: This track has quite explicit language and a perspective on sex and womanhood some may find offensive. If you think you might fall into that camp, by all means skip it. But if you’re up for it, this is one of the wittiest, raunchiest, most wryly ironic and unapologetically non-PC performances you’re likely to see in quite some time. (Real catchy tune, too.)
Brief introductory note: I’m off to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference where I’m serving on the faculty in the novel workshop, so may not be able to respond to all comments promptly, especially in the afternoon. My apologies on that front, but I will check in when I can.
Among my many duties, I was asked to introduce Don Winslow.
Don’s a writer I greatly admire, and whose most recent novel, Kings of Cool, has just been published to coincide with the release of the film Savages, based of Don’s novel of the same name. (Kings of Cool is a prequel to Savages.)
I based my introduction on a bit of a rant I made on the online group RARA AVIS, which is a conversational watering hole for lovers of noir and hardboiled crime fiction. The most relevant part of that rant-cum-introduction was this:
In his fifteen novels and counting, Don Winslow has created something unlike anything else in contemporary fiction, especially Savages and Kings of Cool. They’re like poetry and screenplays mashed up into fiction, and for some unholy reason it works.
He’s distilled the essence of crime writing down into its molten core and fashioned something strangely recognizable and yet utterly new.
He’s also one of the few crime writers I can think of who will be remembered not just for his body of work, but for a genuine, honest-to-God classic: Power of the Dog. That’s an incredible accomplishment. Only the greats pull it off.
Don could have come up and pimped his book and movie, but he didn’t. He loves the Book Passage conference and has taught quite a bit himself, so instead he gave a truly memorable talk about the nature of crime fiction. For me, that talk was the true highlight of the conference in a weekend full of them.
He began by noting a question he once received in an interview: Do you believe you write in a literary ghetto?
Don responded: “Yes. And I love my neighborhood.”
But Don explained he takes an expansive view of the genre, tracing its roots not just to the obvious progenitors but to Aeschylus’s Oresteia, originally performed in 458 B.C.
In those three plays, we see the warrior king Agamemnon murdered by his wife, Elektra, for having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia so he could go off to the Trojan War; we see their son, Orestes, faced with the terrible dilemma of needing to avenge his father’s death (or face the wrath of Apollo), but this necessitates the killing of his mother (which will incur the wrath of the Erinyes, or Furies).
Orestes goes through with the killing, and is set upon by the Furies until Athena steps in and conducts a trial, dramatizing the movement in Greek civilization from blood vengeance to the primacy of the court. When the jury is split evenly, Athena casts the deciding vote, and Orestes is set free.
Move ahead two millenia to Elizabethan England, and in Shakespeare’s two-part Henry IV we see the template for the gangster classic The Godfather. In both, a son who declines the mantle of leadership that’s his birthright turns around through the course of the drama and rises to his true destiny, that of king, or godfather.
Young Prince Harry abandons the saloons and brothels where he cavorts with the pugnaciously libertine Falstaff, and ascends through battles with his father’s enemies to the position of king—where he closes all the saloons and brothels. When Falstaff approaches him, seeking a personal favor on the basis of their old acquaintance, Prince Harry, now King Henry IV says, “I know thee not, old man.” He adds that he knew such a man once in his dreams, but now that he has awakened, “I do despise my dream.”
Michael Corleone isn’t a libertine, he’s a war hero—with a schoolteacher fiancée, Kay. But he too disavows his father’s realm, until the old man’s attacked, and Michael rises to the challenge of defending his father against his enemies, and ascends to his father’s place as leader. When Kay asks him if what she’s heard Is true, he’s responsible for the death of his brother-in-law, Michael lies to her face, then enters the room where his leadership is acknowledged, and shuts the door in her face.
It’s the same story.
Don then traced the lineage to Don Quixote and the picaresque novel, with its focus not on knights and ladies but rogues and scoundrels, a tradition that continued in the eighteenth century novels of Fielding and Smollett—stories that dwelt realistically with the underclass, a milieu richly explored again in the novels of Dickens, especially Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.
If we expand our horizons in how we view the crime story, we needn’t be bothered with sniffy dismissals from our betters, because we understand that crime has always concerned itself with the defiant individual, the have-nots, and injustice.
He admitted that when he wrote Savages, stylistically so different from his other novels, he’d grown bored with his work, and feared readers had also. He decided to write the book he heard in his head.
He wrote the first 80 pages and handed it to his friend and collaborator and literary guardian angel, Shane Salerno, and said, “I’m not sure what I’ve got here. Either it’s great or I should pitch it and I can’t tell which.”
Shane read the pages and told him to put aside all his other projects and forge ahead with this one while he was still in this literary head space. He did, but remained terrified throughout that he might be committing a terrible blunder, or even professional suicide.
The rest, as they say, is history.
He exhorted the conferences participants to be daring, think big, embrace the larger canvas and, as he put it, “Write the story you’re afraid to write.”
He noted that you shouldn’t give up writing the book you think will get published, the one that publishers won’t reject out of hand, but nothing’s guaranteed, and how terrible to never have risen to the challenge to face the book you knew you had in you, but were too timid, too remiss, too cowed by the marketplace to get down in words.
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So Murderateros, what book are you afraid to write? Have you at least started it? Can you see yourself returning to it? Have you already written it? How’d it go?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I’m not going with music this week, but with a spoken-word performance by the late comedian Mike DeStefano produced through The Moth.
Note: Prepare to cry.
I made reference to this piece in my own talk at the conference on the importance of facing honestly your own personal wounds to enhance the depth, texture, and richness of your fiction.
(For a written version of Mike DeStefano’s talk, with some additional material, check out this piece from the New York Times).
For this Wildcard Tuesday I’ve invited webmaven extraordinaire Madeira “Maddee” James of Xuni.com to join us, and to explain a little of what she does, why, and what writers, especially those just beginning their careers, need to know about the importance of a stylish and informative web presence, and how to go about establishing one.
Maddee has created and manages the websites for an incredible list of clients, including some of the most prominent crime writers in the business—including several current Murderati (see below) and previous contributors Louise Ure, Ken Bruen, Cornelia Read, Brett Battles and Jonathan Hayes—not to mention Lee Child, Jan Burke, Barry Eisler, Jacqueline Winspear and a head-smacking host of others.
She’s also recently expanded into literary fiction, young adult, romance, and chick lit.
She’s a friend to authors everywhere, but especially us here at Murderati, so please welcome: Maddee James.
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David: What possessed you to get into the web design business?
Maddee:Well, first, first things first: Thanks so much for inviting me to Murderati. (Hi Gar! Hi Martyn/Tania! Hi J.T.! Hi Zoe! Hi Alex!)
Strangely enough, I was a geologist for many years — that’s what my degree is in – and that’s another whole story that has to do with my first roommate in college being a geology major, and her having the same name as I had at the time – and that’s another whole story about changing my name – sorry, what did you ask me?
The short answer is when I was a geologist, there came a time when earthquakes and mudslides gave California a break for a short while and we started running low on work. This was in the very early days of the internet when companies were just starting to have websites. So I suggested to my boss that I build a company website to fill my time… and I was hooked.
I am very happy to say, however, that my first attempt at web design can no longer be found on the internet.
David: Why did you decide to focus on writers — crime writers in particular? An evil plan? Happy accident? Buzzard luck?
Maddee:Another interesting story, actually. In 1998, in a strange twist of fate (yes that rhymed), I met a prolific crime writer at a dinner party, who had a question about geology, of all things. We started corresponding about whether it was possible to locate dead bodies underground using geophysical equipment, and that led to me offering to do a website for him, with all the huge amount of skill I had at the time. Not.
While it wasn’t a beautiful site, it was one of the very first author sites on the web, and as such, we got written up in PW about it. I put my quickly-thought-up company name at the bottom of his site… and started getting queries from other authors. And so it began.
While I started out doing sites primarily for crime writers, and they probably comprise the largest number of my clients, I pretty much do any kind of author site these days. I’ve been doing a lot of sites for YA authors recently, which I really enjoy. So it’s really fun that so many crime writers are getting into YA – merging my two design loves.
P.S. I’m going to start using the term “buzzard luck” – that is too cute!
David: Turning to your name, what in the world does xuni mean and how do you pronounce it?
Maddee:Doesn’t mean a thing, and it’s pronounced “zuni” like the Indian tribe. I’ve heard that it’s hard to get domain names with so few letters in them these days, but back then all I wanted was a name which was a four-letter word with either an x or a z in it…. and xuni happened to be available as a domain and sounded kind of cool. Incidentally, it’s apparently a pretty common name in China, so I get lots of offers to buy it… but I’ve been in business too long to give it up, even for a million dollars…
David: You have some excellent advice for authors relative to their websites on the FAQ page of the Xuni website. In particular, you note that though pre-published authors may want to build a website to show potential publishers they’re “serious,” it’s still the quality of the manuscript that sells a book. This is excellent advice, imho. How did you come to be so doggone smart about the book business, not just the website end of it?
Maddee:Thanks! I tried to make my FAQ page as clear and helpful as possible. I don’t know that I would call myself smart about the book business – for example I continue to be clueless about which imprint belongs to which publishing company (or does this change so much that most of us are clueless?), but I’ve been in this business a long time (14 years next month!) and of course time leads to experience. Plus I have a wide variety of clients, and I learn something from pretty much every one of them.
Speaking of pre-published authors, I had one query me just this week who wanted examples of other pre-published author sites. Which led me to realize I’ve done a LOT of them. I love to help authors new to the industry show their work in the most professional and creative light possible.
David: Your designs are visually stunning — clear, bold, interesting and personal—but you also have very keen intuition about your clients. You have an excellent sense of how an author’s site should not just look but feel. How do you do that? Do you come from a visual arts background? Do you read auras?
Maddee:Thank you! I really REALLY love what I do – and I think that shows in my work. I would say I am probably best known for two things: making an author site fit the author and their work… and a really good use of color. The way I usually manage to make the site reflect the author is by asking lots of questions upfront. Things like “what kind of “feel” do you want the site to have? I get answers like “elegant but eerie” and “romantic but scary” and interesting challenges like that. Making it happen is so much fun.
I’d also like to say at this point that though I was one of the first designers who worked specifically for authors, now, 14 years later, there are many author website designers out there. Google “author website design” and you’ll see what I mean. And the cool thing is that we all have pretty different styles, meaning authors have a lot of choices. I love that! You should definitely look at a ton of author sites to see what’s out there before you pick a designer. There’s more info about that on my FAQ page.
David: You believe in “branding” to the extent that you think writers should take some serious time to think about how they want to present themselves and their work to potential readers. This is another subtle, tricky issue — it deals with tone and personality and subject matter, almost like voice in prose.
Maddee:I do think branding is super important. And there are so many things that show that tone, personality and subject matter you mention – book covers, websites, bookmarks, social media pages, etc. I’m not a marketing person, so I stick to the design aspects of branding – websites, bookmarks, twitter backgrounds, etc. But I think talking through your image with someone experienced in author marketing before you do any design is really important.
A good example of this: I had an experienced author (I think he had written about 8 books) hire me to build a website. When I asked all my typical questions about “feel,” etc., he said he wanted the site to have a dark, serial killer type feel. Which I did. And he loved it. His agent and publisher, however, did NOT. They thought it branded him inappropriately as too much of a horror writer. And so we had to trash it. So figuring this out ahead of time is so, so important.
David: Has the proliferation of social network sites made having a website more important or less important?
Maddee:Well I’m a website designer, so of course my answer is going to be: Websites are more important than anything. But really, I do believe a good website is important for one simple reason: there is permanence to it. I love social media, and think it’s really incredible for authors. But Facebook posts and tweets, once they spin off the bottom of your page, are GONE. Your website is the place where a reader can always go to find out whatever they want to know (what books you’ve written, what they’re about, where to buy them, etc.). Plus the website should have links to all your social media sites. I kind of think of your website as your “author hub.”
David: You do basic search engine optimization (SEO) with every site you build, and offer more specialized SEO for those clients who want it. Could you explain this a little, and let folks know why this is so doggone important and why you’re so unique for doing it for your clients?
Maddee: It’s pretty simple: having your site listed near the top of the search engines when various keywords are put in is invaluable. However, I’m of the opinion that authors have it easier than, say, companies trying to sell odd objects, or illustrators/photographers who want to stand out from the pack. Why? Because how many people really type “good crime writer” into Google? I tend to think that doesn’t happen as much as someone going to Amazon or Goodreads to search for that kind of info. So while I think SEO is important, I don’t know that it’s the end-all.
I could be totally wrong though. In which case, feel free to ignore me.
David: Which client is your favorite?
Maddee: Um … You?
David: Which client do you want to stab in the eye?
Maddee: OMG. Definitely you.
Seriously: I have the most wonderful, talented clients ever. EVER. And I’ve loved working with you David – we’ve had a long haul!
I’ve had some clients for over a decade, and that’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? And the joy of working for myself is that I can choose whom I want to work with. So I say “yes” to the author queries I really want and “I am just too busy right now” to the ones I don’t.
David: Any news you’d like to report on the perfect children front?
Maddee: Can I just say that I am madly in love with them, and not just ‘cause they have the grace to have put up with a mother who is umbilically (is that a word?) attached to her laptop 24/7. News: Savannah is in college – yes it’s true I am super OLD — and Ry has two more years of high school and then I am… free. Except for the paying for college thing. And the continuing to give advice thing. And…
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So, Murderateros: Anything you’d like to ask the the Mighty Madeira, Webmaven Wunderkind?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I handed my bag of quarters over to Maddee, so thank her for this one (it’s funny, and be sure to play it all the way through):
Today’s post is largely just to pose a few questions and get a conversation going. So I’ll try to make my windup brief.
A week or so ago I treated myself to a summer movie, Searching for a Friend for the End of the World, the story for which is only too aptly captured in its title.
I enjoyed the picture quite a bit, partly because it’s cleverly written and charmingly acted and deftly directed, partly because I have a mild crush on Keira Knightley, but mostly because what the film got right, in a number of truly funny and poignant scenes, was the variety of ass-backward ways we deal with love in the face of the inevitability of death. I’m a hopeless romantic and the idea of true love in the face of total annihilation has a certain resonance for me. I cried. More than once.
Then over the weekend I noticed that Showtime was playing 28 Days Later, a film I also very much enjoy, for much different reasons, even though I’ve never seen the whole thing. I’d watched it from the midpoint to the end, and this weekend got to watch from the beginning to the midpoint. In my head, it all makes sense now. I think.
But these two films got me thinking about the end of the world as a story motif. Perhaps I’m wrong, but there seem to be a great many apocalyptic scenarios cropping up in the narrative ether these days, from all manner of zombie fare to games like Wasteland and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (based on a Harlan Ellison short story), to films such as I Am Legend and Melancholia and Children of Men to literary novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, José Saramago’s Blindness and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
Even comedians have gotten in on the act — what greater pratfall or punchline can there be than self-inflicted extinction:
Of course there’s a long tradition of such stories, reaching back to Gilgamesh and Genesis to the constanly recycled Book of Revelations, interpreted anew by each generation. In the modern era H.G. Wells rejuvenated the secular approach, kicking us along through two world wars to the nuclear era, which gave earth’s utter destruction a real shot in the arm.
One might have thought the tempo would have decreased after the end of the Cold War, but the opposite seems to be the case. Nuclear Armageddon just began sharing the stage with virulent pestilence, environmental devastation, alien invasion — or the old standby, man’s monstrous egotistical stupidity.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about such stories is they’re never really about the end per se. (Though the ones that are about the real end seem to stick with us longer.) Most such films are about the apparent end, and serve as cautionary tales. There but for fortune, they seem to say. Or: There but for the hero.
I’m going to propose a few theories for this, all of them utterly non-scientific. Then I’m going to ask folks to chime in with their thoughts on whether we are truly obsessing over the end of the world more than ever, and if so why. Or is this a theme as old as man, and we’re just churning out the most recent iterations.
Who knows, maybe it’s just in the air. Stories beget stories. The more we think about something the more we keep thinking about it. Picture it as a kind of narrative snowball. Rolling all the way to hell.
Regardless, here’s my top ten theories for why we’re now (more than ever?) obsessing about the apocalypse:
The American Dream is disintegrating into a Hobbesian “war of all against all,” a period of radical historical transformation, that we symbolically understand as “the end of the world.”
The Mayans were right.
The end really is nigh, and our animal brains or our intuition or the Collective Unconscious or whatever understands this, and is trying to alert our conscious selves so we can spiritually prepare for our collective demise.
The dogs are taking over.
In an era of relatively few wars, and relatively minor ones (to all but the combatants and affected civilians, obviously), plus a worldwide economic downturn no one seems to know how to solve, severely restricting a ravenous consumer culture, people need some form of violent outlet to expiate their guilt and shame for having been so consumed with self-gratification. The apocalypse, with its savage violence and moral message of good versus evil, serves the symbolic need for cataclysmic violence, cultural upheaval, and moral certainty.
The UrGod Demon Slavengorg has escaped the Tunnel of Doom, and now seeks revenge against the Sybarite Prince Ramalama and all those who have served him so blindly (read: us).
The planet’s climate is changing so dramatically that our bodies—and thus our unconscious minds—are trying to alert our habit-besotted brains that a real different tomorrow is right around the sweltering bend.
We’re constitutionally, psychologically, biologically and culturally ill-adapted to change, evolution be damned, and as we enter a period of rapid, devastating and unpredictable change — including the end of mainstream publishing as we know it — the uncertainty of our fate creates a profound anxiety that we relieve through creating nightmares we can control.
The Boomers are aging, and this is their way of processing their collective, generational demise.
The cats are taking over.
* * * * *
What do you think, ladies and gents?
Why can’t we seem to get enough of the end of the world?
What’s your theory?
Better yet, what’s your favorite end-of-the-word book or film or video game? Why?
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JukeBox Heroes of the Week: Who else, what else? (Incidentally — I used to think the lyrics went, “It’s the end of the world AND we know it. Quite a different message there.)
Last Friday, Alexandra posted a call to the barricades titled Two Books a Year, in which she referenced a recent and already infamous New York Times article noting that, in the era of ebooks, anything less than two books a year is slacking. (Note: The Times article singled out genre fiction for this rate of productivity.)
I decided to spare my response for today’s post, because I think it’s a very important topic, and one that deserves real consideration by everyone who writes.
I agree with Alex that to write well one must write often. Daily’s not a bad regimen — some might say it’s de rigueur. An ambitious word count is great if you can manage it: say, 1,000 words.
I don’t agree, however, that: “Successful writers write a LOT of books. Tons. Staggering numbers.”
This is no doubt true of many authors, but I know a great number of superb writers for whom this simply isn’t the case. Junot Diaz is one. It took him ten years to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I think it was time well spent, and do not mourn the nineteen other books that were hypothetically aborted by his not keeping up a two-book-per-year pace.
I tend to shy away from the phrase “successful writer” because I consider the term loaded. In a letter to H.G. Wells, William James famously remarked:
The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.
I could write a great deal more efficiently, and part of my modest output is due no doubt to an obsession with revision that is perhaps, well, obsessive. Charlie Stella, in our recent dialog here, referred to me as a “stone polisher.”
It may well be that this obsession with rewriting speaks not to artisitic excellence but a neurotic fear of being found imperfect. Shame has paralyzed artists far greater than me. On some level, however, I’ve accepted my imperfections and released my ambitious failures into the world. They’ve been four in number, fewer than I perhaps should have written in the same time period.
Am I therefore something less than a success?
I’m sure there are many who think so. And on some days, I’m one of them. Fortunately, those are just the bad days. (Or, as some folks call them: weekdays.)
There are writers who can crank out voluminous material without becoming stale, formulaic, or unintentional self-parodies. I marvel at Ed McBain’s output, for example, to name just one.
But there are others who focus not on overall output but on making each book a great book.
I was perhaps cursed early on in this regard by working with Tom Jenks, who among other notable accomplishments edited the unfinished Hemingway manuscript that became Garden of Eden, and who runs the online literary zine Narrative with his wife, the novelist Carol Edgarian (only two novels, both brilliant).
Tom asked a simple question: “If you’re going to write a book, why not make it a masterpiece?”
This question paralyzed another of Tom’s students, the thriller writer Andrew Gross, and it was only by putting this daunting measure aside that Andrew could write the books he knew he could write. And he is, by many measures, a success.
For whatever reason, I bought in to Tom’s point. And with each book, I’ve tried to write, if not a masterpiece, a book that at least tries to measure up to the greatest books about crime that I’ve read: The Long Goodbye, Cutter & Bone, Bellman & True, Nightmare Alley, Dog Soldiers, God’s Pocket, Clockers, The Long Firm, to name a scant few.
George Pelecanos, after reading The Devil’s Redhead, wrote: “Is this a classic? Maybe not, but I bet Corbett has one in him.”
I’ve tried to live up to that challenge with every book. Perhaps I’ve failed. It may well be that I cannot write a classic, and never will, and trying has simply slowed down my output to the point I’ve crippled my own chances for—pause for emphasis—success.
But I’ve put my heart and soul into each effort in a way I never could have if I were cranking them out at two per year. I simply don’t and can’t write well at that pace. I have and will continue to suffer the consequences.
I need time to sink into my material, to discover, as filmmaker Leslie Schwerin puts it, “The thing beneath the thing.” I need time to catch the clichés in what I at first blush thought was a stellar idea, whether it was a bit of dialog, a description, a premise, a plot turn, whatever.
Writers who do work at the faster clip are often known more for their entire output than a single book, though often a handful of books stand out among the others. (Dennis Lehane, when responding to questions about why he didn’t take the Kenzie-Gennaro series any further than he did, routinely said: “Have you every heard anyone say ‘The seventeenth book in the series was my favorite’?”)
In a recent Jonathan Franzen appearance I attended (you can find his remarks online here), he talked about how much Kafka influenced him, and why.
Basically, especially in The Trial (one of those non-genre crime books that has inspired not a few of us), Franzen admired Kafka’s commitment to teaching us “how to love ourselves even as we’re being merciless toward ourselves; how to remain humane in the face of the most awful truths about ourselves.” For Franzen, this engagement with the paradoxes of our existence, especially through examination of character, is what made the novel the great—and unique—art form it is.
Or, in Kafka’s own words:
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
To anyone who can write two such books a year, more power to them. I can’t.
I think pushing yourself to do more, to do better, is seldom if ever misbegotten. But each of us has to choose the path of our work as we see fit and as our talent provides, whether we embrace the cold hard truth of market forces or dismiss them as anti-art. (My guess is, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.)
Being creative requires a great deal of resilience, persevering in the face of considerable resistance, frustration, negativity, and criticism—some necessary, some inevitable, some even useful. How you withstand those countering forces while remaining true to the inspirational spark that guides you will, to my mind, go a long way toward defining your capacity for success—no matter how high or low your productivity.
* * * * *
How do you see yourself and your career—as a producer of a steady output of solid work, or someone striving for that touchstone effort that simply requires more time?
Which prolific writer astonishes you with the consistency of his or her greatness?
Which author with only a few books to his or her name do you admire?
What is more important to you, the writer’s complete oeuvre or the individual book?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Linda Thompson’s production has been limited by stage fright so severe it actually paralyzes her vocal chords. But she’s an artist I cherish, and I particularly love this song, “Katy Cruel” (also a favorite of our former comrade Cornelia Read):
First, they fascinate me, even though I consider most of them pretty disappointing. The potential is mind-blowing, if potentially Orwellian.
Second, I’m realizing I’ve got a lot to learn from the world of games, as writers play a bigger part in game design.
In particular, game designers are learning they neglect story at their peril, just as many writers are learning it’s almost career suicide to ignore the vast appeal of games.
The success of both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises point to J.K. Rowling’s and Suzanne Collins’s ingenious blending of mythic storytelling with video game techniques: specifically, the creation of an elaborate story world much like what you find in games, and a kind of score-keeping element. (Obviously, these aren’t the only two films that use game techniques as essential story elements. Remember Sucker Punch?)
Now, it’s no big secret that I have misgivings about the “mythic” slant on storytelling. I stand much more in the realm of Hemingway and the realist tradition, and I find a lot of so-called “mythic” storytelling with its insistence on “ancient archetypes” to be hokey, unconvincing, and cartoonish. It seems we’re now creating stories based on stories, and that’s never — never — a good sign.
That said: I’m not so dense I can’t tell which way the cultural wind is blowing. And as I said, the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series both employ conspicuously mythic elements: call it the world of sorcery in Harry Potter and the battles to the death of heroic saga in Hunger Games.
These series overcame the limitations of mimicry by translating these mythic stories into new, uniquely imagined places and times: a somewhat undefined present, as with Harry Potter, or the near future, as with Hunger Games. And it was by redefining the mythic contexts in modern terms that the writers did the psychological and emotional reimagining that brought these stories to life.
But it isn’t just the mythic storytelling that made these blockbusters unique. As I said, it was their use of video game elements as well. Specifically, they used the elaborate story worlds that games are known for – what used to be prosaically called setting – and they both employed elements of score-keeping.
First: an elaborate story world. Both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series create unique and fascinating worlds. Those worlds were created lovingly and in painstaking detail. But they were also established over multiple books. Not every novel can do that. Remember, attention spans are diminishing down to an eye blink. You have to make your point powerfully and make it quick or your audience will click on the next distraction.
Get too caught up in establishing your story world and you risk bogging your story down in minutiae at the expense of dramatic movement. Thinking in terms of a multi-book series can help you plan out what elements of the story world get provided to the reader when.
Obviously, this can also be done in a single-volume novel, but the point is: if the story world is elaborate, you have to plan out how you reveal it, and not just provide it in an information dump.
But however you get it out, if there’s one thing the recent blockbusters tell us, it’s that people have not lost their hunger for fully realized and lovingly imagined fictive worlds. The more richly you can imagine the world of your story, the better. If you end up having to insert it with almost surgical precision rather than slather it on like whitewash — that’s writing.
The other game element you find in both stories is score-keeping. Games are built around this, and it’s often a core experience of gameplay: Who wins?
The score-keeping element in Hunger Games is pretty obvious: only one of the contestants survives. The question is: Will it be the protagonist?
In Harry Potter, the score-keeping resides in the fact that, as Harry becomes increasingly adept at wizardry, he rises to successively higher levels of knowledge but also conflict — the more he learns, the more profoundly he’s tested. Just as in a game.
But with Harry we don’t just see a number tallying upward. We see his gravitas increasing as his concern for the world, his embrace of his role not just as wizard but as leader, becomes more profound, responsible, mature. In this regard, novels still provide a more meaningful and emotional richer experience. But clearly the various media are cross-pollinating.
It can be incredibly useful to take your storytelling skills and adapt them to other media. Each one has certain strengths, each has limitations, and solving story problems across different media automatically enhances your ability to look at your story more objectively, so that you can analyze it more critically.
There’s one last element of storytelling in games I’d like to address, because it points to a kind of frontier in narrative, and should provide a brand new world of storytelling opportunities for writers.
As I mentioned up top, designers are learning that players more and more frequently admit that the games they prefer have a distinct story element, and that without this element the game reduces to a mere sequence of challenges and decisions — which in narrative terms, amount to a series of disjointed scenes. There’s no rising action or dramatic tension. There’s just, to use Toynbee’s phrase, “One damn thing after another.”
Writing for games requires the writer, or “narrative designer” as some call themselves, to try as best she can to match up the gameplay (or ludic narrative) with the story narrative. The what and how — with the why.
This problem is easier to state than to solve. Even the best games suffer from what Clint Hocking has called ludonarrative dissonance — the inability of many games to match the playing experience with the narrative one.
The game he used as an example was Bioshock, which takes place in an underwater city designed as a kind of 1950s Ayn Rand objectivist utopia. Visually, the game is stunning.
Now, the writers hoped to have the game serve as both an example and a critique of the advantages and the limitations of Rand’s objectivist philosophy, which relies solely on rational self-interest. In particular, the designers hoped to demonstrate that the power achieved through rational self-interest is a trap, because power corrupts.
One problem: on the level of the game-playing, rational self-interest was exactly what the player normally needs in order to succeed — indeed, isn’t that what all single-player games are really about, the power gained from focused self-interest?
If the designers wanted to show how this self-involvement corrupts, they’d have to somehow show that by succeeding, you lose.
Not impossible, but a challenge. They didn’t do that, however. Instead, they required the player to go against his own game playing instincts — you could only succeed by helping another character named Atlas who’s goals are opposed to the game’s hero. You can only advance by undermining yourself. That wasn’t what the game’s theme was trying to establish, and so the narrative of the game and the mechanics of the gameplay were at odds.
This is now one of the major narrative problems facing game writers, and it’s an interesting one. They’re being encouraged and invited, finally, to make the writing an integral part of the design and not just something tacked on, like one more effect.
Up to now, reactions — that is, emotions — were often seen as just another bit of flash you built into the story world. More and more games are now trying to shape the story world so that the risks involved in decision-making have an emotional consequence, either through allegiances with other characters or by defining the stakes in some other dramatically significant way — not just in terms of score-keeping.
Evan Skolnick, the writer, noted that most games don’t have a first act, or they don’t have a representation of the world as it exists before the events of the story begin. The game begins with the inciting incident — the entrance of the first monster you’re obliged to kill, for example.
But with CIVIL WAR they decided to lay out the full stories of the two warring camps. Rather than have a player decide, “Okay, I’ll be the good guys this time, the bad guys next time,” he instead had to choose sides in a war in which each side had a perfectly logical and defensible reason for its cause. The game required the player to deal with the consequences of choosing which side he wanted to be on.
More and more, we’re going to see games with this kind of thematic and character complexity, and a need to make sure it doesn’t conflict with the gameplay experience. What that means is that there will be work for writers in the video game industry.
The bay area is a major hub of this effort, as are Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, and Montreal. It’s a very tight-knit world, jobs are often acquired on the basis of personal connections, and so networking is crucial. But if any of this interests you, you owe it to yourself to explore the matter a little further, and see if game design isn’t a place where your storytelling skills might not just be welcome, but necessary.
* * * * *
So, Murderateros — do you have a favorite video game? Does it have a truly unique story world? Does it have a narrative element that appeals to your desire for story?
Can you see yourself perhaps turning to game design as away to explore your storytelling skills?
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Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I can’t Listen to Massive Attack and not envision an alternative world — a story world for a novel or game not yet created — and not just because of how visually voluptuous their live shows are. And what better way to describe the gaming experience than with the title to this song —Bulletproof Love:
When trying to figure out how best to be entertaining with this Wildcard stint, I realized I couldn’t do better than to have a chat with Carmelo Pietro “Charlie” Stella, former mob knockaround, playwright, author of seven crime novels—his eighth, Rough Riders, is due out this July—and numerous short stories, father of three, opera lover, dog lover, drummer, blues afficionado (with a special fondness for Cream), power lifter, avid Bills fan, and most importantly (in his book) devoted husband to the singularly astonishing Ann Marie Cucci-Stella. (Rumor has it he wrote his first novel to impress her.)
He’s one of the most generous and self-effacing guys I know, in or out of the writing racket, and one of the funniest to boot. More to the point, he’s also one of the most talented. (For more about Charlie, his books and his world—and trust me, you’re going to want more, lots more—check out his website or his blog)
Johnny Porno is one of those books that just turns your head around, a gem of a novel, rich in detail and color with some of the absolute best dialog you will ever read.
Don’t take it from me, read what the Washington Post had to say:
Stella is a kind of obscene Ring Lardner, finding a lean, rancid poetry in his characters’ vernacular, and rendering it with flawless precision and humor.
Or this from Robert Wade, writing in the San Diego Union-Tribune:
Combine equal parts Mario Puzo and Elmore Leonard, throw in a dash of George V. Higgins and Donald E. Westlake, and who do you get? Charlie Stella, that’s who.
Turns out Charlie’s life has taken an interesting turn of late. Let’s have him tell you about it.
David: So I hear you’re back in school, getting an MFA. Excuse me for a second if I indulge in a bit of fantasy concerning your thesis: Johnny Porno Goes to College. What inspired this return to academe and how’s it going?
Charlie: Originally, it was more a pragmatic decision because the job I’ve been doing on and off for 30 years now, word processing, has been effectively outsourced. My wife is a word processing supervisor and she also saw the writing on the wall. Three years ago she went to school nights while working full-time and earned her RN degree. Her reward has been to work 2 jobs now (12 days on, 2 days off). I felt if there was a job left that couldn’t be outsourced other than RN, which I could never do, it was teaching.
I would need a master’s degree wherever I taught (whether high school or college) and although I’d probably take an even greater cut in salary than outsourcing has cost word processors (and would probably have to move to wherever I could find work), at least it would be rewarding work.
A few years back I worked 7 days a week for nearly two years and was rewarded with paying an extra $26K in taxes for my efforts (and I’m sure Wall Street appreciated my contribution, those cocksuckers). Both jobs I used to work have since been outsourced. It took six months to find another word processing job with a law firm in Jersey last year and they’ve just gone through some layoffs.
The way I feel about it now, regarding the MFA program, it has been one of the rare smart moves I’ve made this life. I couldn’t enjoy the program more. I was a playwright before a crime novelist and had always been fascinated with relationships of all kinds. The program reading lists alone have been worth the coin I’m spending for the degree. I’m reading writers I never would have read (from sheer ignorance of not knowing who they were/what they wrote). My world wasn’t as big as it should’ve been and now it’s at least somewhat bigger.
The mentors provide not only their literary knowledge and skills, they are a source of the always important inspiration I often need to stay focused. I may never write something deemed worthy enough to be published in the literary field, but that’s not why I’m there. Nor is it a second career priority these days. I enjoy learning. It has been a wonderful experience; something I won’t regret whether I can find a teaching job or not. I only wish the program was longer than 4 semesters.
I go into my third semester this June and if all goes well, I’ll graduate next June, after which I will immediately apply for an MA in American literature because I know that what I’ve been reading this last year is but the tip of the iceberg. These days I enjoy reading as much as writing and that’s been a blessing.
My first question to you: Okay, so I’m plowing through your very cool website the other night and I find this new project of yours, The Art of Character: Mastering the Craft of Characterization for Fiction, Film and TV. What prompted this foray into writing about writing?
David: Ironically enough, given all you just said: teaching. I’ve been giving classes the past couple of years on a number of writing-related topics, and character was my first online course (through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program).
Writing out the lectures gave me the initial raw material for a book, and I decided to expand on it. Turned out to be an amazing experience, similar to your MFA program. I had to read a variety of books I’d never read before, or had to re-read books I knew from the far too distant past, and analyze them and think about them in ways I’d never really done before.
Amazing how different the reading experience becomes now that you’re focused on the plumbing.
And I had to reverse engineer my own understanding of characterization, because I work pretty intuitively in my own fiction. I had to break down what I did naturally, without destroying my own work. I think I did okay.
And I didn’t want to write just another handbook on character. I wanted to write something that was written so readers would feel not just instructed but inspired. I took the style as seriously as I did for any of my novels, and the result has my editor at Penguin, Rebecca Hunt, really jazzed about the book. We’ll see how that turns out.
What books in particular that you’ve read in the MFA process have opened your eyes, or inspired you, or just knocked on the door of your imagination and demanded to be let in? Have any given you ideas for your own work?
Charlie: Pretty much the entire reading list, but those I found particularly interesting were new reads for me. Richard Bausch, Alice Munro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Frederick Busch and Jay McInerney. I’ve read several books beyond the requirements of these authors because their works just intrigued me no end.
Rereads of authors I’d already read (and will continue to read) include Andre Dubus, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce and probably my favorite, Richard Yates. I’ll be doing my intensive critical essay on Yates this semester, covering a huge portion of his collective works.
Regarding my own thesis, I floundered back and forth a few times (short story collection, novel and back again) and “think” I’ve settled on a second person fictional memoir born of the McInerney novel (Bright Lights, Big City). Although Richard Bausch is someone I prefer to read more than the rest (because he’s still so new to me), McInerney’s second person style is permitting me to handle some personal stuff from my youth I couldn’t approach writing first or third person.
My mentors are trying their best to get me out of my comfort zone and that’s been a challenge. I loved writing for theatre and dialogue-driven crime novels, but the program has me trying new things in new ways and it’s been the challenge it should be.
As regards the reading … it seems we get a little bit more with each reread of something we might’ve skirted over in the past or read so long ago we forget the inherent brilliance. I’m a notorious re-reader of novels (crime and literary), as well as plays. I appreciate the works I do reread all the more with each new approach. I’m always amazed at how I receive a particular book I read as recently as two years ago, never mind something I read ten or more years ago. I’m doing a lot of catching up because of a misspent youth.
Question: This is a great line from your answer above. “Amazing how different the reading experience becomes now that you’re focused on the plumbing.” You have 15 years of private investigative work behind you, including some very high profile cases. Empirical experience vs. knowledge of craft. I suspect both are optimal, but going forward do you see yourself adjusting away from experience and favoring the plumbing (or vice versa)?
David: First, what a great reading list — and a thesis on Yates. I’m jealous. The thing I miss most about writing + teaching + day job is time to read.
As for PI work—actually, I may be going back to it for the money, my day job as I write and teach. Alexandra Sokoloff, who blogs here every other Friday, has managed to make an honest buck with teaching and writing and I admire the hell out of her. But I don’t write quickly — I’m ridiculously slow, actually — and so the two-books-a-year pace that the ebook revolution seems to require has left me in the dust. I’m doing okay with the teaching but I’m hoping with the character book I can parlay what I know into a bit more swag. For now it’s hit or miss — for which I blame my (lack of) marketing skills.
As for the question — my PI work gives me a perspective that’s similar to a jounalist’s. I see what really goes on in the legal system and it ain’t “the whole truth” the court congratulates itself on welcoming. There’s also the seamy underbelly side of life that gets nowhere near a courtroom, the crazy lover shakedowns and one drug dealer stealing another’s rainy day fund. But that’s the material end of things. As you say, plumbing is craft, and teaching has made me even more aware of it. I read with much more of an eye toward “How did she do that?” than “What just happened?”
Now that I’ve put my own words down on the page and had to muddle my way through things, I see how much I still have to learn, and your mentors are right: The way to learn it is to try new things — new ways to say things, new character approaches, new voice perspectives.
Which gets me back to what you wrote in your last response. What really hit me is your decision to use the second person in your memoir. In my character book I joke that authors of writing manuals will forever be grateful to Jay McInerney for providing an example of extended second person narrative. Lorrie Moore’s Self Help is another one, and brilliant.
But it’s tricky. I think of it as stealth first person. There still needs to be a distinct narrative perspective or it’s just a catalog of observations tethered to an otherwise nameless “you.” And that narrator, revealed through what he chooses to say and how he says it, is in almost every particular an “I.”
But there is a distancing, a sort of heightened self-awareness, as though the narrator isn’t confessing or confiding so much as observing himself. Is this why you decided to use it—to provide that observational remove?
Oh, and I think that taking yourself out of your comfort zone takes incredible courage. You’ve written some of the best dialog I’ve ever read—I recommend you to my students who are having problems getting their dialog to sound both natural and interesting. To think that you’re not going to rely on it for this fictional memoir intrigues the living hell out of me. Can you talk about that a little more, or will that gum up the process?
Charlie: Right now it is so in an infant stage it couldn’t possibly gum up anything. I had tried several times to deal with family relationships writing plays. I could only get so far before the internal exposure was too much to handle.
At this point, I continue to spew from birth forward. I have no idea how far I’ll get; if I can get further than X amount and if I can keep it interesting. It has been such a dramatic twist in the style I’m familiar/comfortable with that I think I shocked my mentor a bit. She’s encouraged me to keep at it and I haven’t been able not to keep at it. I keep going over it (endless rewrites) but that’s part of what makes it fun as well as frustrating. Had I not read Bright Lights, Big City I never would have attempted this new project. I’ve since ordered a few second person stories/novels, including Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and, you named it … Lorrie Moore’s Self Help.
My project may be a 3-part novella or 3-part novel or a trilogy. Who knows? At this point, it’s all about getting it down and not freezing from fear of: “Oh, shit, I can’t let them know that.” I’m writing in memoir form now but will switch to fictional memoir to protect people, but it isn’t what most people might suspect. It isn’t about the mundane mob stuff, although what leads to that will play a part down the road. Right now I’m working on very personal stuff (some of it dark, some of it comical) and it starts at a very young age. I’m having fun and hope to make some kind of sense of it over the next year.
The weird thing is my best paragraphs thus far (at least the ones my mentor noted), were those I wrote like a dervish, just gut spilling, stream of conscious spewing without thinking too hard about how it read (although I do read my work aloud at some point and revise accordingly).
Here’s two of her favorites bits thus far, after a teacher called home to give me up to my old man:
You swallow hard and take another few left-right open hand combinations before this life’s lesson is over, and although he manages not to draw blood, your head is swimming pretty good when you finally get banished to your room to study.
This second paragraph occurs after me and my friends run a portable basketball backboard into a wall in the basement of a Catholic school and the priest (Ryan) lines us up for some comeuppance:
It’s maximum torque this time; the smack so loud and hard even Ryan takes a step back as DaVitto spins like a top, does a complete 360 and corkscrews down to one knee. His face is welted red where the Giant’s paw has struck. DaVitto is clearly dazed and tearing, but he won’t cry either, no way. You’ve all got street creds to earn; crying isn’t something you can do, at least not in public.
I just realized there’s a common theme here—smacks.
My question for you: Besides being a successful novelist and having such an incredibly diverse background, you’re also one of the most articulate bloggers on the scene. Seriously, dude, even here in your questions and responses, you’re as adroit as it gets. I don’t have the time sometimes (and it’s wrong of me) to spend too much time on my weekly blog posts. Yours are incredible. You say you write slow so I’ll assume you’re a stone polisher (making it right as you go rather than spewing and polishing later). What about the blogging? Do you spend time putting something together?
David: Thanks for the attaboy. I have to confess something: I cheat. Some of my blogs are pieces I’ve cobbled together for other purposes, articles I’ve written or oral pieces I’ve performed. But some just spill out. It’s an odd mix. (I’ll leave you guessing which are which.)
Like you, sometimes my best work comes when I turn the censor off and just go. But yeah, I tend to work and rework stuff. I seldom just plow ahead, even though I know that’s the best and sometimes only way. I think by the time I exit the stage I’ll finally have some idea of how to be a reasonably good writer. But like we’ve both said here over and over — there’s so much to learn. It’s exciting and humbling and challenging and strange.
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Okay, now we promised ourselves we wouldn’t just stick to lit. So I’m going to alert our readers to the fact that we’re both football geeks, and want to share a little pigskin love here as we wind up. If they don’t share the groove, they can pop on down to the Q&A section and the Jukebox Hero of the Week.
Your team is the Bills, and they’ve stocked up big on defense in the offseason. The Patriots have reloaded (as always) and the Jets have Tebow, the Fish have a whole new everything as they so often do, with the same crap results. I know you’re concerned about Fitzpatrick and his picks, but I think he’s a leader and has a cannon, he just needed to get his first year at the helm behind him. I think your guys have a real shot. You, eternal pessimist, seem to think not. You envy my Niners with Hardball Harbaugh and Alex Smith. Now, let me tell you, envying Alex Smith is something that would get you skewered on a lot of comment threads. What makes him so special, and what do you see in Iron Jim Harbaugh that makes you jealous—and how do you honestly see the Bills doing this year?
Charlie: I’m VERY old school … guys like Lombardi, Parcells, Coughlin and now the Harbaughs (both John and Jim) are the guys I want to go to war with. Old school DEFENSE first, run the ball down their throats second and mix it up third. I HATE gimmicks … and although the NFL has gone the route of MLB and ALWAYS enhances scoring (although they haven’t figured out how to make the field shorter for the offense just yet), I still believe it’s team like the Moonachie Giants and San Francisco 49ers (their new and much improved look) that are the ones to admire.
I think back to Super Bowl XXV (I was there with my 2nd wife) and it was devastating to watch the coaching clinic Parcells put on for Marv Levy (a nice guy/lousy coach who four times failed to get rings for what I believe was a dynasty team). I can see that entire game in my head over and over. The Bills that year started out like rockem-sockem robots, mauling people with defense and a running game, then went crazy with the no-huddle (no-win-super-bowl) offense … especially after wiping out a no-defense Oakland Raider team in the conference championship. It was the worst thing that could’ve happened, because the Giants had to go to war with your 49ers to get to the dance and they came ready (with a brilliant and obvious game plan—Hostetler watched the play clock run down and shortened the game just enough in the end to keep us out of Norwood’s range); we came cocky … and they won.
This year my Bills will be a better team, but so long as we stick with a gimmick offense, we’ll be a shit team. Even with a fairly weak schedule, we’ll be lucky to go 8-8. Keeping Stevie Johnson, as talented as he is, was a mistake. There’s no room in coach Stella’s world for assholes who take stupid penalties because they need to see themselves on ESPN. There’s enough talent out there to find a kid who wants to make it and will play with his head outside his ass. Fitz has to learn how to throw as if there ARE runners on base; that wind-up motion of his will kill us again if somebody doesn’t shorten his delivery.
So long as we beat the Cheatriots and Moonachie Yets once each, I’ll be a happy man … and the Yets have invited one boatload of trouble with Tebow. I almost feel bad for Sanchez.
Now I reverse it on you, my friend. What’s wrong with Alex Smith? Did you not notice how far they went? Did you not notice how Hostetler and Phil Simms won rings behind great defenses and a solid running game? Come on, man! You’ve got a GREAT team up there. One I admire more than the Montana and Young teams (because they’re hard-nosed rockem-sockem bad boys). Tell me what’s wrong with just missing against a genuine super bowl winner? Are you spoiled, sir?
David: Are you nuts, of course I’m spoiled. I started rooting for the Niners as soon as I hit the west coast in the late 1970s, when the had two wins per season and Walsh was still at Stanford. When he came over to the Niners I thought: This could get interesting. I just didn’t realize five Super Bowls interesting.
But in maligning them—I could almost hear you whispering that dreaded phrase, “finesse team”—you forget how dominant their defenses were. Ronnie Lott and Fred Dean and Hacksaw Reynolds and Ken Norton and Charles Haley were crucial to their success.
And Walsh, who rose up through the Steeler and Bengal organizations, believed in the running game, especially the trapping game: They won that first NFC championship with a drive that everyone remembers for The Catch, but most of the yardage was gained on quick-hitting inside traps with Lenvil Elliott and Ricky Patton—not exactly household names. (BTW: both Harbaughs are fruit of the Walsh coaching tree.)
And I didn’t say I had anything against Alex Smith—I just know a lot of other people do. I happen to think they’re insane.
I’m a huge maniac for underdogs, and I always cheered for Steve Young when he was catching a whirlwind of crap from the locals for displacing Montana. Smith has that same mental toughness. Maybe it’s a Mormon thing.
But the guy he really reminds me of is Jim Plunkett, another number one QB pick everyone gave up on who did, um, not so shabby at the end of his career. Smith just doesn’t have the mechanics, because he didn’t have the coaching Montana and Young had. He’s getting it now from Harbaugh and his crew, and this offseason Smith has reportedly improved immensely.
They also got him some weapons—Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, this rookie out of Illinois: A.J. Jenkins. The real steal though was LaMichael James in the second round: he’s small but he’s mighty. Trust me, they’re going to have a lot more weapons this year, the offense is going to be much more unpredictable, but still with an in-the-trenches mentality.
What I also like about Harbaugh is his ability to forge a team, and his emphasis on character and intelligence as well as talent in draft picks. This isn’t just a hard-nosed team, it’s a smart team. Most importantly, it’s a team. But the schedule’s a lot tougher, injuries are always a possibility, and the NFC West isn’t quite the sleepwalk it was last year. So: We shall see, said the blind man.
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So, Murderateros: Have you made any mid-life career changes like Charlie’s? What prompted the move? How’s it going?
Has anyone else recently matriculated through academe—what was it like, what were the demands, the rewards? Was it worth it?
Wanna talk some football? Opera? Politics? (Don’t get him started.)
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I handed the controls over to Charlie, who had this to say about his selection: “Every morning I send my wife an email: “Buon Giorno, Principessa!” It’s a line repeated several times from one of my favorite movies, la vita è bella. It’s the movie that provided the final link between us. Once I knew my wife cried over this movie, I knew she had soul and we were meant for each other … a very beautiful thing.”