Interview: the writers of Carmilla

  Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu's 1871 novella that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a seminal work of genre fiction.  It introduces the idea of the lesbian vampire, something that later writers would expand into its own genre (check out Hammer's The Vampire Lovers for a fairly faithful, if overtly sexed-up, version).  It's also surprisingly contemporary in its writing style.  So Read more

Movie Review: Mythica, A Quest for Heroes

Back in 2011, I stumbled on Arrowstorm Entertainment's Dawn of the Dragonslayer, a low-budget fantasy epic that had the look of a much more expensive film. But what really got my attention was the care given to the performances: leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener really dug into their characters, and director Anne Black gave them the time to Read more

Dramatics Interreptus

My younger son turns seven in about a month, and the other day I realized that I was about that age when I realized just how important stories were to me. My parents left me to stay with friends of the family for an afternoon; I have no memory why. But while I was there, I started watching the TV Read more

Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

Posted on by Alex in alcohol, biography, children, family, fatherhood, home, memoir, Parenting, tennessee, Uncategorized, west Tennessee | 4 Comments

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You’re Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank).

When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind me. We never hunted anything epic, like deer or bear; we went after squirrels, rabbits, and the occasional quail.  And, in the hot summer months, we went frog gigging.

This sport (and I used the term loosely) is how you acquire frog legs. You carry a long, six-to-eight-foot pole with a barbed trident on the end. You also use a flashlight, or ideally a miner’s light worn on your head, and creep around the edges of ponds, lakes or swamps in the dark.  The goal is to spot eye shine from bullfrogs.  When you do, you hold the light on it, to make it stay still. Then you stab it with the gig.

Frog Gig on Stick

The business end of a typical frog gig.

I was one of those weird kids who liked to catch frogs rather than kill them, and had no real taste for their meat.  It was fun, in a macabre way, to watch the disembodied legs jump around in the pan as they fried, but not so much fun that I wanted to go get those legs myself.

The other issue was that my father had to be the worst person in the world to try to teach you anything.  He had no patience, no concept of cause and effect, and no idea why once he’d explained something, it might need to be explained again.  And he was a drunk.  Not an overt one, but one of those sneaky drunks who hid his drinking from everyone.

So on those few instances when he’d insist that I go frog gigging with him, I was a nervous wreck.  His disappointment in me was never violent, but it was always withering, and heavy with the sadness that I, his only son, was such a failure.

My dad (far left) and me (second from right) at about the time of this story.

My dad (far right) and me (second from left) at about the time of this story.

I was twelve years old the night we went to a pond that seemed to be miles from where we left his old station wagon. We crawled through weeds, under fences, and across fields before finally reaching the tiny round pool, which was no more than forty feet across and perhaps six or seven feet deep. The deep thrump-thrump of bullfrogs told us we’d come to the right place.

We fired up our head-mounted lamps and split up, each of us taking a different direction around the pond. We had to walk right at the edge of the water, and shine the light ten or fifteen feet ahead, watching for the distinctive eye shine.  I heard the snick-THUNK! of my dad’s gig right away, while all I managed to do was startle every frog within range.  They leaped from the shallows and dove gracefully into the safer, deeper water.

Finally, though, I spotted one that was big enough, and transfixed by my light.  I crept through the weeds until I emerged onto a flat patch of mud, almost in range.

Then something moved in the corner of my eye, by my feet.  I tried to look down without moving the light off my quarry.  It wasn’t a frog, and it was the wrong shape for a turtle. My brain classified it at the same instant my head involuntarily turned and shone my light on it.

It was a snake. A fat, poisonous water moccasin.

A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, for obvious reasons.

A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, for obvious reasons.

I had no time to react, because it was already reacting.  It struck out and sank its fangs into my foot, right through my rubber wading boots.

I’m not a courageous person by nature, and I certainly wasn’t brave then.  My recently-descended testicles shot back up to their original spot, and my voice grew high and shrill as I screamed, “Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!”  I jumped in the air and tried to kick the snake away, but it was well and truly determined not to let go.

My dad ran over to me as fast as he could, saw the snake and quickly stomped on it.  Then he pushed me down on the bank, tore away my wading boot and ripped off my sock, exposing my foot.

My entirely bite-free foot.

We both stared at it, pasty white in the combined illumination of our lights.  I wiggled my toes.

Then my dad picked up my boot.  The snake hung from it, smashed and dead, fangs still caught harmlessly in the rubber seam where the sole attached.

We went home after that.  Dad had gotten enough frogs anyway, and I waited for my testicles to decide it was safe to come out again.  I’d like to say this marked some sort of change in our relationship, but it didn’t.  Since I don’t know how drunk he was that night, I have no real idea if he actually remembered it the next day.  And I’d like to think there was some sort of symbolic aspect to it, mirroring our relationship.  But truthfully, it was just one more instance of a man with too many problems and a son with no appreciable life skills failing, as always, to meaningfully connect.

Dad's Cross

This cross was put up in honor of my dad’s service to his church.

New Writer’s Day Video

Posted on by Alex in biography, fantasy literature, fiction, Firefly Witch, Pagan, Reunion, series, Seventies, short stories, tennessee, video trailer, witchcraft, writing | 1 Comment

It’s been a while since I posted here; life’s been a bit overwhelming. But now I’ve got something new to share.

Cunning Women Front Cover FINAL 1000 Pixels

Over the past weekend I attended a combined reunion of my old college newspaper staff and fraternity.  It gave me the chance to go around Martin, TN and shoot some video of the real locations that inspired those in my Firefly Witch stories.  I hope you enjoy this little three-minute tour.

 

 

Guest blog: Dale Short on his film Recovering Racist

Posted on by Alex in biography, filmmaking, fundraiser, guest blog, interview, movies, politics, video trailer | 1 Comment

I was honored to be the first contributor to this documentary Kickstarter project, and rather than attempt to convince you myself, I asked acclaimed author Dale Short, one of the people behind the film, to explain where the idea came from and how important it is.  And please check out the video trailer at the end of his article and consider making a contribution.

*****

Dale Short

Dale Short

We like to think of ourselves as rational people, in control of our destiny by judiciously making the decisions our daily lives consist of—each choice as clearly conspicuous as the pair of branching roads in the famous Robert Frost poem.

We can maintain this illusion pretty well until we start thinking back on how many of those significant branchings-off have struck us completely out of the blue, the results of pure chance that we never saw coming.

My own most recent example is a workshop I was asked to teach for an organization of professional writers/bloggers in the Birmingham, Ala. area. The topic was “Interviewing for Story,” and the group’s program chairman had a great idea: Why not invite a guinea pig…uh, guest…the members could interview afterward, to test our newfound skills?

Our guest was the pastor of a local church: a distinguished-looking white-haired gentleman in a business suit. His tone was friendly and approachable, and I settled in to hear whatever was par for the course, from someone of his profession and background.

That’s not what we got.

Rev. Lawton Higgs told us, in a matter-of-fact style, about a day in 1984 when a routine event changed his life: as new pastor of a large metropolitan church, he was always mindful of recruiting new members. One special focus of church growth was seeking out members of the community whose lives were “in transition”…a new neighborhood, a new job.

So when he saw a moving van at an apartment building near his church, he headed over to greet the newcomers. But mid-crosswalk he saw that the new family was black. His church was white. He stood there, emotionally torn.

Higgs “came face-to-face,” he recalls, “with my history, and my experience, and my struggles with all this ‘racial inclusiveness’ stuff, and my encounter with Martin King in seminary, and I was paralyzed there in the road.”

He says he realized that if he didn’t invite the new residents to church, “then God had no use for me and my ministry in Birmingham. I discovered that my beliefs were incompatible with God’s call to love one another.”

That was the day that the pastor became, as he puts it, “a recovering racist.” He’s since worked to found a multi-racial, multi-cultural church in a city still haunted by its civil rights past. He ministers to the homeless, and works daily as an advocate for the poor.

When our group of professional communicators had heard Higgs’ story, the auditorium was silent for a while. The old phrases “You could have heard a pin drop” and “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house” are sometimes overused nowadays, but in that instant they were unavoidable.

Before the day was out, another member of the writers’ group and I started formulating a plan to bring his story to a wider audience by writing and producing a documentary video about his experiences. With that in mind, we’ve just unveiled a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to bring the project to fruition.

Though Higgs’ life-change as a “recovering racist” is decades old, we’ve found that the story is very much a contemporary one as well. In “walking the walk” of his beliefs, he’s at times a lightning rod for opponents in the community whose views on race and politics are more in keeping with the region’s Jim Crow era.

At a juncture in America’s history when a bitter election campaign has brought to the forefront the deep veins of religious intolerance and racism in our culture, we’re confident that the story of “A Recovering Racist” will be instructive, inspirational, and challenging to everyone who cares about social justice and a spirit of reconciliation.

I invite you to watch our three-minute trailer, share it freely with friends, and consider becoming a supporter of our documentary video.

And if anybody asks how you came to find out about the project, tell them that pure chance sent you.

The Blurring of Lines

Posted on by Alex in anthology, biography, children, family, gender roles, Parenting, politics, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Recently, while reading the Janet Sternburg-edited collection The Writer on Her Work, I had an unexpected epiphany (I know, epiphanies are always unexpected, but work with me). It was the realization that my life in 2012 is almost exactly Anne Tyler’s in 1980.

 

Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist, contributed the book’s first essay, “Still Just Writing.” It begins with a list of all the real-world mundane events and responsibilities that keep her from writing when she wants to.  The parallels with my own life right now–I’m the stay-at-home parent (or is the term “primary caregiver”? I can never remember) for two small children, and I write between events such as school, martial arts practice, acting class, various playdates and so forth–are pretty strong.* And I’m not the only one of my male writer friends in this situation.

The C-in-C back when we were full-time co-workers.

In all the essays in the book, the role of women in society forms a strong undercurrent. Comments from famous male authors explaining why women can’t be great writers (imagine hearing that in a college classroom now) are related, and examples from the past (Honor Moore’s tale of her grandmother who gave up painting because it was “too intense” is really fascinating) show how creative women struggled against both society and their own sense of isolation. In 1980 these struggles continued, but all the writers in the book have reached a point where they understand their desire to write is both irresistible and entirely acceptable, society be damned.

Now, the big difference with the life Tyler describes is crucial: thirty years ago, her life was the norm. It was what society expected women to do. It’s neither normal now, nor unheard-of, for the man to be the primary caregiver while the woman works out of the home.  It is, in fact, a time when all the old roles described in Sternburg’s book are starting to twist and mutate.  And sadly but perhaps inevitably, it’s being driven by economics, not social justice.

In fact, particularly within the so-called “creative community” of contemporary (and internet-linked) writers, artists and musicians, the traditional roles that Sternburg’s book discusses have certainly lost their edges, if not broken down entirely. Men can no longer find jobs lucrative enough to support their families; two incomes are the standard. In my case, my last full-time non-writing job did not pay enough to cover putting my youngest son in day care when he was a newborn. So I gratefully took the chance to become a full-time stay-at-home father, as well as a full-time writer. Both, for me at least, have paid off more than ever anticipated.

But are these changes permanent? Unless there’s a total collapse, eventually the economic system will recover, and jobs will become both better and easier to get. What happens to all these nontraditional families then? When the soldiers came back from World War II, women didn’t necessarily want to leave the work force to give the men back their jobs. And from that, eventually (it’s a hugely simplified explanation, I know) came the first modern feminist movement. So when jobs are again available, will men want to give up raising their kids to return to the traditional workplace?

I don’t know. We’ll see. But in the meantime, The Writer on Her Work has me looking at myself and my family with a whole new appreciation.

*Of course I don’t have her talent. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

Horton Foote’s Beginnings: A Memoir

Posted on by Alex in biography, Horton Foote, memoir, writers | Leave a comment

Like pretty much everyone I know, I have a massive TBR (To Be Read) pile of books filled with probably awesome literature. Some I’ve started, and for whatever reason never quite returned to. Some I know I’ll have to make myself read one day. And some–often the unexpected ones–I pick up and literally can’t put down.

That’s the joy of reading that professional writers can lose track of. We have books we have to read for research, books written by friends, books that we’ve been asked to blurb…”reading for fun” often gets pushed way down the stack. And a lot of these books are fun to read, even if the reading is prompted by one of these ulterior motives. But there’s nothing like being captivated by something you didn’t expect to grab ahold of you so quick, and so tight. Horton Foote’s second volume of memoirs, Beginnings, did that for me.

Foote (1916-2009) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter. When Beginnings begins, he’s a 17-year-old just arrived in Pasadena to study acting. Before long he’s in New York, starting to write plays and begin his subsequent momentous career. He name-drops a lot of people you’ve probably heard of, and a few you haven’t, but what’s interesting is that he never presents anything remotely gossipy or aggrandizing about these people. They’re just the folks he met along the way, most of whom treat him kindly. There’s no backstage romance, no backstabbing, and not much back story: the book starts, tells its tale and ends. Heck, he even covers meeting his wife, courting her and their marriage in one paragraph. Simple, sure, but it’s the kind of simplicity that is as rare as spring in Wisconsin.

He also uses a lot of dialogue. This might seem odd in a memoir, because truthfully, who remembers that many actual conversations from years ago? Yet because he’s a playwright, and because he doesn’t present anything that sounds remotely “speech-y” or false, it becomes a non-issue. Most of the conversations simply convey information, the way they do in real life.

In fact, what makes Beginnings work so well is that Foote’s style is so minimal, and so realistic, that it’s virtually nonexistent. He does an extraordinary job of simply getting out of the way of the story, a lesson more authors (including yours truly) could probably stand to learn. If you’ve seen the 1983 Robert Duvall film Tender Mercies (source of one of those Oscars) you have an idea of what he does, and how well he does it.

Beginnings reads most of all like an elaborate “thank you” to the people who helped that young man from Texas make his way in show business. Its Texas-flavored graciousness is part of its considerable charm. I read a fair number of author biographies (most recently Low Road, about Donald Goines), and usually they seem to succeed despite their personalities, not because of them. Foote seems the opposite: he’s decent to everyone, and everyone is decent in return. It may not be entirely true, but I’d like to think it is.