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

Location, location, location

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, Girls with Games of Blood, Memphis, writers, writing | 1 Comment

“Memphis is in a very lucky position on the map.”
–Steve Cropper

Memphis

 

Facebook friend and fan Paula Cassidy recently asked me, “What’s the most difficult thing about using Memphis as a setting for some of your books?”

6327336For those unfamiliar with them, I wrote two vampire novels set in 1975 Memphis, Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood (I hope to one day complete the trilogy with Blood Will Rise Again, but that’s another topic). Here’s a blog post I wrote about recreating the specific time period. But now I want to talk about geography, both actual and creative.

I was twelve years old in ’75, and visited Memphis many times, so I had some first-hand knowledge. But I was in my 40s and lived in Wisconsin when I wrote these books. Prior to writing them, the last time I was in the River City was in 2003, for a single night, to attend a Kate Campbell concert. And, of course, the city has changed quite a bit since I was twelve. The advent of Mud Island, the Pyramid, the revamped Beale Street, the closing of Libertyland, all were major alterations to the city I remembered. So it fell to research to add the flesh to the skeleton of my memories.

GirlscoverA lot of things can be found online, but there are simply some facts that Wikipedia doesn’t cover, and for that you need an expert. Luckily I found Theresa R. Simpson, the  Memphis contact for About.com. She tracked down obscure information for me about the city at the time of my story, including particularly geography and history. If the books are accurate, it’s in large part thanks to her; anything that’s wrong, I take full responsibility for.

I learned something interesting about a story’s physical location through that whole process, and it’s informed my subsequent writing. It’s fine to use a real location, but unless you’re prepared to be taken to task by someone who knows the area better than you (and there’s always someone), it’s often better to create your own space. Show your inspirations if you need to: after all, everyone knows Metropolis is New York and Gotham City is Chicago, but it doesn’t stop us from enjoying stories of Superman and Batman. But with a fictional locale, you can tweak the geography to reflect the themes and events of the story in a way you can’t with a real place.

It’s actually two sides of how you approach telling a story. In one, you create characters who can live in a pre-existing world; in the other, you create an appropriate world for your characters. Both approaches are completely valid, but I find that my best work comes when I create the geography as well as the wildlife living in it.

Thanks to Paula Cassidy for asking her question.

 

 

The Dickens, I Say

Posted on by Alex in authors, eBook sale, family, fantasy literature, Memphis, movies, novel, originality, tv, writers, writing | Leave a comment

The most famous Christmas story, besides the Biblical one, is without a doubt A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens distilled the holiday spirit down to its essence with his tale of the miserly Scrooge who reforms his ways just in time for Christmas dinner. I love reading the actual story at Christmas, and watching my favorite* film version:

Yet take a step back from the many versions of this story, as well as the gargantuan list of other media (TV, radio, movies) that use it as a template and look at it from a fresh perspective, and Dickens’ accomplishment becomes that much more amazing.

The first edition of Dickens’ masterpiece

I mean, think about it: it’s a horror story, with genuinely scary ghosts (I defy anyone to not get a shudder from the Ghost of Christmas Future), a protagonist who advocates imprisoning children for debt, and its most sympathetic character (Tiny Tim) dies for lack of health insurance (okay, maybe not exactly that, but I stand by the analogy). Who puts all this in a Christmas tale?

A genius, that’s who.

Whatever his inspiration (and I’ve never researched it to find out), Dickens understood something basic about storytelling: the importance of balance. If his ultimate aim was to tell a heartwarming story for the holidays, he knew he had to even that out by adding dark, sometimes twisted elements that would balance the sweetness.

(You know who else understands this? David Lynch. In his best work–Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, even Twin Peaks–he balances the genuine affection the characters feel for one another with horrific violence and bleakness. But if there was only one element without the other, his films would be just like everyone else’s.)

How important is balance in a holiday story? Watch any Lifetime or Hallmark Christmas movie and see how insipid it is when it’s all sweetness and warmth. Without the darkness, there’s nothing to make the light stand out.

Nothing says Christmas like…AHHHHHHH!

When I set out to write “A Ghost and a Chance,” one of the stories in my holiday collection Time of the Season, I had a simple conceit: I wanted to drop my own Victorian/Edwardian Spiritualist character, Sir Francis Colby, into Dickens’ tale. Since I wrote about Colby in a faux Victorian voice, I thought it would be fun to use actual text from Dickens, and see if I could hide the seams between that and my own stuff. And it was fun. But it also made me recognize just what a gigantic accomplishment Dickens had managed. He gave us both a classic Christmas tale, and a legitimate horror story. He combined two genres that shouldn’t work together at all, and made them both complement and enlarge each other.

And it takes a genius to do something like that.

Want to see if you can spot the Dickens in my story? You can find it, along with two other holiday tales, here for only $2.99!

*Not saying it’s the best, just that it’s my favorite. I grew up watching it on WREG-TV out of Memphis.

The apocryphal soundtracks to some of my books

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, Burn Me Deadly, Firefly Witch, Memphis, music, novel, pirates, Uncategorized, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writing | Leave a comment

It’s no secret that music is a big part of many of my novels, from inspiring the titles to influencing the plots to being part of the story itself. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Recently my friends at Facebook’s Heroic Fiction League, Nathan Long and John R. Fultz, posted “playlists” of YouTube videos, songs that either their heroes would like, or that captured the mood of their books.

My playlist is a little different.  This is the music I wish would play when a reader first opens some of my books.

For my most recent novel, the Eddie LaCrosse pirate tale Wake of the Bloody Angel, I’d love it if readers were blasted with this upon cracking the covers:

 

 

For another Eddie LaCrosse tale, Burn Me Deadly, if you consider chapter one as a “teaser,” this would the perfect music to play between chapters one and two:

 

 

For Blood Groove, my tale of an Old World vampire unleashed in the Seventies, I’d begin with this under chapter one:

 

 

Then, at the moment you finished chapter one:

 

 

And finally, the theme for my Firefly Witch e-book chapbooks, the tune the main characters Ry and Tanna would call “their song” and that, in a perfect world, would play whenever you called it up on your e-reader of choice:

 

 

(I know, it’s the Atlanta Rhythm Section version and not the original Classics IV, but technically this is the first version I ever heard, and about half the Atlanta Rhythm Section was made up of former members of the Classics IV, so it’s not as heretical as it might seem.)

Any suggestions for some of my other books?

 

By Request: the Music I Grew Up With

Posted on by Alex in alcohol, heroes, Hum and the Shiver, Kenny Rogers, Memphis, Michael McDonald, music, pop culture, Tufa, writers, writing | Leave a comment

After reading The Hum and the Shiver, musician Andrew Brasfield asked me, “What kind of music did you grow up on?” Given that music is such a big part of the Tufa mythology, and that almost every one of my other books has at least some musical element or inspiration, it seemed a valid question.

Being from the rural south, I learned a lot of music at church. I realized just how much, and how embedded it was, when I brought the family back to my little country church for Easter this past year, and didn’t need to reference the hymnal even once during the service. The songs were simple, unquestioning statements of belief, with no room for doubt. At church camp, though, the songs were different: I still remember how spooky it was to sing Larry Norman’s post-Rapture classic “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” sitting around a bonfire, which couldn’t help but put you in mind of hell.

“Only visiting this planet” to remind us we’re all going to HELL!

Then there was the secular stuff, from two main sources: WHBQ AM out of Memphis, and Rock 104 FM out of Jackson. The former was one of those classic radio stations that played everything that was popular regardless of genre: you might actually hear Kenny Rogers, Parliament and Paul McCartney, in that order. We listened to that station in the morning before school (and on the way if you had a portable radio), so it formed a common basis for social interaction. The flip side, so to speak, was Rock 104, which we listened to at night. Here I learned about genuine rock, the heroes (and villains) you never heard on AM pop radio. Which led to the Great Divide: Led Zepplin vs. Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Cover of Led Zeppelin IV, aka “ZOSO,” aka “We’re too stoned to name our album.”

 

Zeppelin was hard rock, which meant drugs, British men who dressed like women (i.e., 70s-era Robert Plant) and essentially songs you sat slack-jawed and listened to on headphones, possibly while under the influence of illicit substances. Skynyrd were your pals, long-haired to be sure but not effeminate at all. When you listened to them, you wanted to drink beer and do rebel yells (the cliche about requesting “Free Bird” did not arise in a vacuum). It was a divide that you could not straddle*: you were in one camp or the other. I was, proudly and unapologetically, a Skynyrd fan. That meant I could also like Springsteen, Bob Seger, Molly Hatchet and the pre-Michael McDonald Doobie Brothers.

The last true Skynyrd album.

That, then, is the musical foundation of my life. My tastes have broadened significantly since then (some would say softened), and now I’d like to think I can enjoy any good song of any genre. I’ll never again have that same enthusiasm of discovery, though, as I did the first time I heard “That Smell” or “Rosalita.” You only get that once, and that’s only if you’re lucky. Thankfully, I was.

*Now, ironically, both bands are grouped together as “classic rock,” and if the stars align you might hear “Stairway to Heaven” immediately after “Free Bird.”

How to help Tennessee

Posted on by Alex in disaster, Flooding, Memphis, Nashville, tennessee | Leave a comment

I’m from Tennessee, as are both sides of my family. I’m familiar with a lot of the places that are now flooded. Memphis, Nashville, Smyrna, I-24, I-40…these are places I could almost navigate in my sleep. It’s a region that gave the world an awful lot of cool things.

And with the horrible damage likely to be revealed as the waters recede, I wanted to pass on information on how you (and me) can help.

Keep up to date at the Middle Tennessee Red Cross Chapter. Information on where to send donations or, if you’re close enough, volunteer will be posted (for those who don’t know the geography of the region, Nashville is in the middle of the state where Interstates 40, 65 and 24 meet).

Text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation on your mobile phone.

Call (615) 250-4300 to make a donation by phone.

Mail a check to the Nashville Area Red Cross at 2201 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville, TN 37203.

If you can spare it, please do. If you can’t, please send good thoughts.