Write. Rewrite. Fail. Learn. Do it again.
No amount of posting memes about how shouldn’t you be writing or hashtagging your twitter updates will substitute.
There’s the secret. Go ahead.
Because a couple asked about it.
It’s not really in order. Deal.
THE ROAD WARRIOR/MAD MAX
Immediate and visceral impact on fourteen or fifteen year old me. Semi-alien desert vistas, V-8s being operated with no sense of safety or human restraint, punks on motorbikes and evil cops in leather and everything good in the world hinges on a sole burnout case and his big black interceptor. I can’t even begin to relate the kind of psychic damage that movie wrought on my teenage brain. The film conveyed speed in a way that I’d never seen before and maybe never will again. Some stuff works best on you when you haven’t crafted a defense for it, when you don’t even know what’s coming.
A mix of game and compulsive “what if” future history projection. This game from Steve Jackson Games was all about electric cars in a post-oil future America that was part ROLLERBALL and part DEATH RACE, all of it grounded in a pretty detailed future history with its own continuity and most importantly, a real sense of place. Like all game systems and worlds, eventually it figures out what it is and becomes less exciting for it, but those early days of trying to figure out how to squeeze in just one more space’s worth of weapons or another ten points of armor before the chassis bottomed out were pretty special.
Not so much for the content, but the way it was presented. That prose sang like nothing else I’d read at age nineteen or twenty. Yeah, I came to it late. But you have to remember, I was reading more comics than novels at that time. Gibson’s prose set the standard for me, making that world live and breathe even if it was only a millimeter thin.
The jukebox at Roy’s has THE TRINITY SESSIONS on it, I know that much for sure. And like everybody else, I was introduced to them by way of their cover of “Sweet Jane” which of all people, my dad brought home with him one day. Their mix of country and gospel and rock and probably the barest recording I’d heard at the time was something pretty amazing. And though they’re Canadian, a lot of the hurt and the emotion in those songs in particular had a place all the way in the California desert.
The Frank’s trilogy especially, that being SWORDFISHTROMBONES, RAIN DOGS, and FRANK’S WILD YEARS were albums that I spent a lot of time listening to from 1987 on, when a friend of mine pressed FRANK’S into my hands and said “You need to hear this” and was he ever right. Waits’ imagined/remembered past blended with all kinds of off-kilter instrumentation and unique lyrical approach really unscrewed my head and put it back differently. You don’t have to scratch real hard to see me try and capture some of that in the language of BLUE HIGHWAY.
Well yeah, I named a place “Fascination Street”. Really, that’s the Balboa Pier and peninsula in Orange County, but turned into something a lot more seductive and dangerous. Only the danger is all play. So yeah, DISINTEGRATION was an album that got a lot of play when the earliest draft of BLUE HIGHWAY was being hammered out. But geez, that bassline on “Fascination Street”, that drive and the sort of desperate howl that Smith puts into the vocals, that’s the sort of thing I was shooting for and never really was satisfied in hitting.
Michael Mann hangs heavy on all this. My dad sat me down and had me watch THIEF with him on cable and I bet I wasn’t fifteen yet. The whole thing was dreamlike, but so grounded in the little details that it couldn’t possibly be, right? Clean shots, simple, nothing hugely fancy because the whole thing was being shot like Mann wasn’t a household name. If I’m trying to really copy anything with my visuals, it’s this, the uncomplicated and often austere beauty that Mann and his crew found in urban environments.
Rice, CA. – http://www.airfields-freeman.com/CA/Airfields_CA_SanBernardino_SE.htm
In 1986, I went with a bunch of my friends to Rice, California, out in the Mojave. Yes, it’s on Highway 62, you can see it just south of Blythe and not too far west of the Arizona border. There’s a lot that’s been left out there, whether by mistake or by design. Some if it is the bones of history, like the Iron Mountain Proving Grounds that were set up to simulate North African desert conditions for WWII. And some of it is just the scrabbled-out airstrips that were left behind and now get used by drugrunners or college kids out for kicks. Not that I’d ever know anyone who’d just drag old furniture out there to set it on fire and watch it burn. No siree.
I was born in Riverside, just like that Beat Farmers song. It’s another place, particularly back then, where the recent past dragged out for several decades. In a lot of ways, now that I look at it from today, it held onto the fifties and sixties. Not so long ago, there were still orange orchards and mid-century bungalows, as opposed to Xeroxed tract houses. Last time I was there, to see an uncle off to the great beyond, there had been a lot of modernization (which usually means big tracts and cheap construction) but the old parts still hung around. Though it was unsettling to drive past a former orange grove and seeing all the trees ripped out, root structures like a flock of twisted Lovecraftian sea creatures left to dry in the sun.
Life in Orange County http://blog.hoddick.com/2011/07/05/southern-california-aerial-photography-an-aerial-view-of-los-angeles-and-orange-county/
Orange County is a pretty weird place. Where once was bean fields (and still a stubborn family growing tomatoes near Main and Sunflower, in the shadow of the Costa Mesa Performing Arts Center), now stand monuments to industry and finance. That gleaming new airport, John Wayne International? Yeah, I remember when it was a single terminal building that was basically a couple of double-wides put together and you had to walk out on the tarmac to get to your plane. Originally bucolic, if not pastoral, Orange County was ever the playground of the well-heeled. Go to Costa Mesa and just a few blocks from Norm’s (which typifies déclassé dining), you get a Lamborghini dealership. North County isn’t South County and never the twain shall meet. And yet, I call that place home, when you dig down to the deepest part of my sun-bleached California soul. Not that it feels like home much anymore, though.
When I’d started writing BLUE HIGHWAY, there was no noir revival. About the closest thing to that was the Black Lizard Library of Willeford and Thompson and the like. Chandler was still on the literary scrapheap, though pieces of him had been bubbling up and around the margins for some time. My dad handed me a copy of THE BIG SLEEP and I never looked back. The way he used language was nothing short of astonishing to me. The way he bridged both “high” and “low” culture (dig the scare quotes, something I’d picked up since my film and postmodernism classes where I realized that the border between the two was basically imaginary) and showed the corruption running in and out of the haves and have-nots, as revealed by Marlowe tracking the threads of crime? Yeah, big influence. Perhaps inescapably big.
THE END OF HISTORY AND THE LAST MAN
By Francis Fukayama, which is an expanded version of his 1989 paper “The End of History” in which he, apparently with a straight face, argued that the triumph of Western Liberal Democracy was going to become the final form of human government. This tract was going around the office where I worked not long after I finished my college studies and I could only look at and laugh. Sure, the wall had just come down and Russia was on its way to imploding (it hadn’t yet) so hey, maybe this guy was right. And people ate it up. Meanwhile I thought about the carcasses of whales beached on the shore and busily being eaten and nibbled on by a thousand crabs and seagulls and other decomposers, with only scraps of flesh attached to bleaching bones.
THE GLASS HAMMER/DR. ADDER
Before there was a thing called ‘cyberpunk,’ K.W. Jeter, a friend of Philip K. Dick (who was then a resident of Orange County – connecting the dots yet?) DR. ADDER hit all the cyberpunk buttons long before that was a word on anyone’s tongue. I remember reading the illustrated (with art by Matt Howarth) copy of DR. ADDER that my mom had gotten and…wow. Mind. Expanded. Also punker than fuck. THE GLASS HAMMER, which I ended up reading just after BLUE HIGHWAY was finished (but it was on my radar before then) was much more a Gnostic romp through authority and reality television and cars with guns trying to outrun remote-controlled-drones in a near-collapse Los Angeles, written in the early 80s. Ahead of its time is an understatement.
And who wasn’t? Not that BLUE HIGHWAY is a direct lift, but the idea of the world being cobbled together by the scraps discarded by the wealthy, glommed onto the old structures to keep them limping along, that’s a big part of what I tried to being into my own work. Note that Scott didn’t go into great detail showing how it was all done, either. He just presented the world and let you put it together in your head.
One of the things my mom used to do was a lot of 35mm photography, and she had prints of her work made and put up in the house. Cheaper than buying “real” art. And what she took pictures of is long gone now, mostly the rolling hills around South County that used to be green a couple months a year and gold the rest of the time. Sometimes beaches, sometimes macro photography of various knickknacks and things around the house. So I come by it honestly. But that attention to detail never went away.
Dad’s reporting for the LA TIMES
My dad covered border issues since the early seventies, long before it became a hot-button issue for just about anyone. But he was also threatened by a west coast mobster for the stories he wrote (a threat which his attorney most explicitly relayed was the heat of the moment and surely his client didn’t mean anything like that.) He pointed out to me a lot of what other people overlooked, and that’s how the world really works.
STREETS OF FIRE
Probably an unusual one, right? Gotta admit, though, that it’s approach as movie-as-music-video was a compelling one. So was its setting of somewhere maybe in the fifties and maybe not. It’s heavily romanticized, and the gauze on its lens shows, but is also part of what makes it so much fun. Of course, I tend more to the romanticized seventies instead of the fifties as a rule, but whatever works.
One of the Sub Pop bands that never got a break like they should have. The Walkabouts were neither retro nor futuristic, neither punk nor country but somewhere in between. They wrote scrappy songs about outsiders and beauty and put it all to a beat, making things distinctly American, which is weird since they’ve had their greatest success overseas. Start with SEE BEAUTIFUL RATTLESNAKE GARDENS, but even their most recent work like ACETELYNE and TRAVELS IN THE DUSTLANDS still pack a real bite.
Stan Ridgway/Wall of Voodoo/Drywall
Ridgway’s THE BIG HEAT could pretty easily be an unofficial soundtrack to BLUE HIGHWAY, or parts of it. There’s a lot more to Wall of Voodoo than “Mexican Radio” would have you believe (but then that’s often true with most one-hit wonders). It’s part science fiction, almost a Burroghsian take on border life but also part realist, particularly true on DARK CONTINENT, their first album. Ridgway (who was the leader of WoV until he left in 1985) always had a fondness for the weird, the strange flyers stapled to telephone poles and the stories crammed into the back of the newspapers, and that sort of weirdness was something that I always found attractive and tried to bring back with me. Oh, and the album recorded under the name DRYWALL? It’s his love letter to Los Angeles (recorded with longtime collaborator Pietra Wexstun and Ivan Knight), and it has to be heard to be believed.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
I’ve already talked at great length about this movie, which is probably near the top of the list for me, if not the occupier of slots 1-5. Lean and mean, explains as little as it has to and stops there. Plissken isn’t a role model, and in a lot of ways became the role model for amoral bad good guys, but there’s a lot more to him than that. Immaculate design and aesthetic born of the seventies, projected onto an imaginary future. The blueprint for the kind of thing that I wanted to do.
Muscle cars in general and vehicular lawlessness
I’m old enough to remember that 1973 cars were the cars that people used to drive around. That muscle cars used to rule the highway and weren’t just relegated to showrooms or movie screens as they are now. But that’s at the far edges of my memory. Mostly I remember K cars and the new econoboxes that came around the eighties. Still, though, those uncivilized dinosaurs still lurk out there, ready to roar past you and leave you in the dust at one hundred and ten per.
70s SF dystopias
The world wasn’t ever going to end. But it was going to get a lot worse. But we were still going to be around. The design in those always stuck with me, too. Mostly because it was cobbled together out of whatever was laying around and within reach at the time. Sometimes you got really inspired re-utilization of real-world locations (think DEATH RACE 2000 and the later PLANET OF THE APES movies.) And this got me looking at places and thinking about how they could be repurposed in ways perhaps not intended. But still fun. Mostly, however, I clung to the idea of beating the apocalypse, since I’d lived in an age which had done just that, given the end of the Cold War.
Nascent Internet, pre-Gopher
You have to understand, it was not always as it is now. There were times that it was innocent, or at least unknowing.
I’ve only attended science fiction shows as a fan. Let’s just get that out of the way. But I figured I should try and change that since I’m actually writing the stuff now. And by ‘the stuff’ I’m using an entirely humorous way to refer to my work. At least I didn’t call it content, right?
So after Westercon this year, I did a little research into upcoming shows that were mostly local and got in touch with the folks at Convolution, and they were kind enough to offer me a guest membership and slot me on a couple of panels. Including one that I was probably even qualified to speak on. I just had to get there, right? Not too hard. Emeryville isn’t all that far away.
No problem. Only the car that I was supposed to drive down with on Saturday morning decided to start running hot and eating oil so I got to drive back home then switch cars then get on the road about half an hour late.
Guess how late I was to the first panel of my sci-fi writing career. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Yeah, on a panel with Richard Kadrey and a few other folks and I’m the guy walking in a half-hour late, talking to myself and generally being a nuisance. And if you ask me what the panel was about, I couldn’t even tell you. Sure, the name of the panel was “Nightmare Landscapes” or something like that, but it ended up being on writing. Which is fine, I’m happy to talk about writing, though I’m not exactly sure how useful it’ll be.
Though I did get to point out the example of ROLLING THUNDER as a kind of film to pay attention to, even though on paper it’s a piece of Roger Corman-produced junk, right? Yeah. Quality is where it is, to coin a new tautology. Read the classics, learn from them, but you can pick up useful lessons from junk too. Particularly quality junk.
Aside from that, I honestly can’t remember much of the content. Brain on fire sort of moment. Not meaning to gush, but Kadrey’s piece in STORMING THE REALITY STUDIO was something that struck me back in the day and I really dug the Sandman Slim stuff of his that I’ve read, which I’m way behind on. By he by, the aforementioned STORMING THE REALITY STUDIO is a collection of cyberpunk-era science fiction/speculation/commentary put together by Larry McCaffery, who I actually audited classes from after I’d gotten out of college. (Yes I’m a weirdo I know, auditing classes that I didn’t need to take.) So yeah, being on the same panel as him was one of those cool/weird things that you get to do sometimes.
So a little bit about the venue, since I didn’t really cover that, mostly because I was in a hurry to even make it on time which didn’t happen. The hotel was a fully-enclosed Ballardian paradise: grand atrium festooned with colorful and broad-leafed tropical plants, all-too-accommodating mezzanine with coffee consumption zones, meeting rooms and a calculatedly-comfortable sports pub. You have to understand, my relationship with the modern world is a pretty uneasy one, particularly when it comes to big establishments making themselves seem like, well, something they’re not. It’s a big hotel, yet it’s dressed up like one of the spaceships in SILENT RUNNING, a little island of green foliage enmeshed in steel and glass in the open expanse of…Millbrae. Or Emeryville, which is right on the border.
But yes, comfortable, clean, well-kept. Which is what folks seem to want in a convention. I wouldn’t mind a little more scruff around the edges. But then I was the guy who couldn’t get there on time, either.
Took a little time to get the lay of the place and then headed up to the Koffee Klatsch with Richard Kadrey. At least I think it’s spelled like that. I guess these are a more common thing at shows now; remember seeing them set up at WorldCon in Reno, which I attended maybe two years ago. These are nice, informal sit down sessions with folks who you might not ordinarily get a chance to, ask all kinds of questions, and just hang out. Which is the best parts of shows like this, and honestly, I don’t usually make it to the bar scene at night because I’m old and have been running pretty hard on a draft that’s due too soon and staring down the barrels of Christmas. For those of you who haven’t figured it out, I’m Mr. Mom, so I take care of the kids when I’m not writing and I’m the guy who makes holidays happen. That and I’m a relative lightweight, so two drinks and I’m looking for a comfy space under the table for a nap.
Of course, hanging out and talking old computers and process and the mysteries of the next Sandman Slim book went and made me late for my second panel, that being designing magic systems for fiction. Short form: serve the story. That’s my view anyways. There are other folks who will go into great detail and put a great deal of thought into this sort of thing. There’s advantages to both schools. Students of the former (like me) will often find themselves painted into a corner when it comes time to deliver, so you gotta pay attention to that.
There’s no one correct way to do things. Which is an important lesson to take away. Different authors have different concerns, all of which come through in their work. So find what works for you and use that, okay? I will say, however, that I got a chance to rep for both the ROLEMASTER magic system as a fairly involved and flexible ruleset for looking at magic (only one of thousands), and the IDIOT’S GUIDE TO ALCHEMY as a more practical examination of the esoteric sciences. Of course, with that, I had my Amateur Magican’s card taken away from me and ripped into tiny little pieces. I’m okay with that.
Then off to the dealer’s room, where I made off with the following:
You can get a pretty good idea of my age and my tastes out of that. And there’s plenty I could have taken with me, but ended up leaving behind.
Most of the dealer’s room was taken up with various steampunk/crafting, a lot of which was beautifully put-together, but not my sort of thing. But then I’ve always been a guy who just likes the fiction and movies and doesn’t feel to dress up for it. That’s someone else’s thing. Room for all kind of obsessions in science fiction. Mine just happen to be paper-based.
Around mid-late afternoon I figured out that I was basically falling over, gave it some thought and realized that I hadn’t eaten since seven thirty. Paid too much for a pub meal that I was grateful to get or I probably wouldn’t be alive to write this right now. Then made my way to my last panel, that being on the state of the comics market today. Interesting cross-section of folks on the panel, from print (me) to webcomics to commentary to a rep from Image comics looking at the bigger publisher’s side of things, which Image most certainly is now.
Yes, there was a fair amount of grouching about the Big Two. This is no big surprise. Honestly, I’m almost burned out talking about comics now since I’ve been doing it for about ten years now, some of those years on a pretty heavy burn. So yeah, comics. I dig comics, but the business makes me pretty sad.
Dinner in the city with a friend, Jeff Lester, he of Airport Books, pop archaeologist and the man responsible for bringing EJ Ehlers back into print with EROTIC VAMPIRE BANK HEIST, the 1974 novel which has been lost in time until now. Oh, it delivers exactly what the title implies and boy is it ever not a YA title.
Back to the hotel room to do my stare at the TV decompression act and stay awake until I give up and toss and turn because I can’t sleep anywhere but my own bed. Watched a local horror show and geez were the hosts ever not good, and you got to see entirely too much of them. Boo. Bedtime.
Next morning started with breakfast at Peter’s Cafe in Millbrae, which I’ve known for almost ten years now, mostly from staying with friends in San Bruno when attending APE in San Francisco, back long enough ago that it was being held in February, not October. Wandered around town a bit, mostly taking pictures of the old movie theatre marquee which has long since been repurposed into the marquee for a gray-painted strip-mall. But dig that typeface.
Stopped in on a panel on zombies, and sorta crashed the speaker’s podium, since the panel was sparsely-attended on both the presenter and audience side. Some good discussion on why zombies work (and why they don’t) with a bigger look at the apocalypse in fiction and horror in general. Even some stuff which I didn’t know, which when it comes to zombies in pop culture is pretty rare. Like did you know that there was a zombie smurf story? Yep. Peyo did one in 1963 (LAST MAN ON EARTH was 1964 and I AM LEGEND was written in 1958 if memory serves). Funny, huh? I’ve linked up to that on my tumblr (at http://highway62.tumblr.com if you’re so inclined). And yeah, it all comes back to Matheson, though Romero indisputably turned it from straight horror to horror/social fiction in his films.
Then it was off to my last panel for the day, this being the Independent Authors panel, which was pretty broad, covering everything from self-publishing to work-for-hire to the submissions process. When you come down to it, most authors are independent authors, responsible for the lion’s share of their own publicity, marketing, outreach and such. Even when you’re being published by another entity, you want to make sure that your book has the best chance for success, so you’re doing a lot of that lifting on your own.
And, like I said, I’m always happy to talk writing per se. The marketing thing, I’m a lot less comfortable with for the simple reason that I don’t do a particularly good job of it, and I am not a role model in that regard. Unless you want a role model for awkward and reluctant self-promotion, having to drag myself kicking and screaming over the finish line (or even off the start line). But the writing? Sure. Happy to talk about that, though I don’t know how useful it is. Writing’s one of those weird things that you do what works for you, if you’re persistent enough to stick with it and actually even *find* what works for you. Even if you do that, there’s no guarantee that anyone will end up reading it. “The worry isn’t selling out, it’s that you go to sell out and nobody cares” to paraphrase Spinrad.
But that’s another discussion, right?
Finished the panel, spoke with some folks, made another pass of the dealer’s room, traded a copy of BLUE HIGHWAY (my latest novel, doncha know?) for a stuffed nyan cat for my daughter (only because I didn’t find anything kaiju to bring back home for her). My son got some SIMPSONS comics and like I said, I ended up with an armful of popcult debris, which is some of my favorite stuff in the world.
All in all, a good show. Not a huge show, and that’s fine. I’ve had a lifetime of those with big comics/popcult shows as it is (and that doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon, if I can get THE LAND WILL KNOW/STRANGEWAYS 3 finished, that is.) Got the word out about some books, passed around some knowledge/experience, got a book signed. That’s about all I ask for.
Sometime I’ll revisit the question of science fiction/comics fandom and why the two seem so different, both in form and execution. And why I never quite feel like I mesh particularly well with either at times. This isn’t to say that there isn’t stuff to like. There’s plenty, a lot of unrestrained imagination if you know which rocks to turn over. But there are differing sets of expectation and obsession in both, which makes me wonder why, since they’re ostensibly based in the same sorts of thing.
But I’ll save that for later. I’m still trying to shake this deadline and I’ve just made this week’s quota (and next week is short due to the Veteran’s Day holiday and who the hell knows how Thanksgiving is going to shake out for the work schedule?) so I got this report dashed off.
Thanks again to the Convolution 2013 organizers for the invite and the show itself. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for next year’s show.
Convolution 2013 went well, though I took almost no photographs worth keeping thanks to the low light. The blurring went all wrong. Sometimes it just doesn’t come together.
Though the show did pretty well. Okay, a couple hiccups, but those were dealt with in the best way possible. Solid programming and a laid-back vibe (which always helps.) I’ll get a fuller report up in a bit.
Oh, and I finally got my copy of STORMING THE REALITY STUDIO signed by Richard Kadrey, so that’s a bonus. He’s also a significantly more affable guy than you first might vibe off him (particularly if tattoos scare you — they don’t me).
Last of John Coulthart’s art for a bit. Just look at his depiction of R’lyeh above. Stunning stuff.
If you’re at all interested in his work, check out his main website (which sometimes features work NSFW or prudes) over here: Etalier Coulthart. If you’re at all interested in the esoteric and how it intersects with the popular arts, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
More of John Coulthart’s adaptation of “Call of Cthulhu”, which not only envisions the alien vistas of Lovecraft’s R’lyeh, but the more mundane packaging and commercial products of the era, mixing the two in a way that Lovecraft himself never thought to.
Looking at this work, I’m still astonished at the sheer number of hours involved in tracing all these out in precise Rapidograph lines. All the same, none of this feels particularly over-rendered or choosing to sacrifice impact or design just to squeeze in superfluous detail.
More of John Coulthart’s lovely and chilling Rapidograph work in his adaptation of “Call of Cthulhu”.
I had the good fortune of interviewing Mr. Coulthart for Robot 6 a few years ago and I’m always happy to link to that. Give it a read.
A little of John Coulthart’s adaptation of “Call of Cthulhu”
THE STARRY WISDOM contains contributions from several comics folk, most notably among them the two shimmering lights in the firmament of the magickal side of comics creation: Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Unsurprisingly, the two represent polar opposites of magick as much as they did with their work in comics; Moore favoring the esoteric and Morrison going exoteric (which is my linguistic approximation of Morrison’s freer school of thought.) Moore’s “The Courtyard” would go on to a three-issue adaptation in comics form and then spin off NEONOMICON which I rapidly lost patience with. Morrison played with Lovecraftian tropes in his comics work for most of his career. Moore did some, mostly in the bounds of his SWAMP THING run, though mining that vein pretty hard in the later LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN work.
But then the book also contains contributions by JG Ballard and WS Burroughs and Michael Gira. Oh and Rick Grimes, long before zombies ruled the pop culture earth.