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

The Next Big Thing blog tour

Posted on by Alex in authors, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, dragon, Eddie LaCrosse, fantasy literature, fiction, film noir, King Arthur, movies, novel, release date, Robert B. Parker, Shakespeare, Tor Books, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | 3 Comments

My friend from the Heroic Fiction League on Facebook, Violette Malan, graciously invited me to participate in The Next Big Thing blog series. Each author answers the same set of questions, and passes them on to five more authors, who post their answers the following week and pass them on to five more authors, and so forth.

You’ll find Violette’s answers here, and my list of invited contributors at the bottom of this post. My answers begin right here.

What is your working title of your book?

It’s currently called He Drank, and Saw the Spider. I’m batting .500 in my initial titles making it to print (for example, Wake of the Bloody Angel was originally called The Two Eddies), so we’ll see how this one does. This time, my title is both a line from the book, and also a shout-out to the source material.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It was inspired by The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s last and most complex plays. It’s a genre-bending story of betrayal and reconciliation, and a real head-scratcher the first time you read or watch it. It’s best known for one of its stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

My initial idea was, “What if Eddie was dropped into the Autolycus role in the plot?” The final book is considerably different, but that was the inspiration.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s sword-and-sorcery, but crossed with a healthy dollop of pulp detective fiction; “sword noir,” I guess. One reviewer called it, “Sam Spade with a sword.”

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’ve said elsewhere on this blog that the ideal casting for Eddie LaCrosse is Alien-era Tom Skerritt.

But otherwise, I prefer not to lock down the images of the characters. Each reader will have his or her own ideas, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. I’ll worry about it when an actual movie deal happens.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

As a young mercenary, Eddie LaCrosse saves an abandoned baby from a bear; sixteen years later, now a private sword jockey, he has to save her again, this time from a complex plot involving magic, murder and an insane king.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be published by Tor in 2014.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About eight months. A lot of that was research, reading up on Shakespeare, rereading his plays and internalizing a lot of Shakespearean scholarship. It may seem simple to take a plot or character from Shakespeare, but to do it justice you also have to understand what that character means, and how he or she functions in the play. For example, there’s a character loosely based on Caliban from The Tempest; Caliban has been used to represent everything from Irish bog people to a half-human fish monster to the plight of third-world citizens under Western occupation. If you’re going to put someone like him in your book, you have to decide what he represents for you, and how that affects the story and the other characters.

This is the same approach I’ve used for my other Eddie LaCrosse novels. Burn Me Deadly, for example, is about dragons, so I researched what people thought of them back when it was believed they really existed. Dragons were never simply animals, they were embodiments of beliefs and supernatural powers. If I wanted my dragons to carry that same weight of “believability,” I had to decide what they embodied in the world of my characters.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

My Eddie LaCrosse novels are always compared to Glenn Cook’s “Garrett, P.I.” novels and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. The influences I’m most conscious of are two Bobs: Robert E. Howard and Robert B. Parker.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

One of the consistencies of my Eddie LaCrosse series is that each book embraces a set of existing tropes; Dark Jenny, for example, is Arthurian at heart. In this one, I wanted to put Eddie into a Shakespearean story, so I looked for the best one to drop him into. I chose The Winter’s Tale because there’s a mystery at its heart.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s a fun and funny story. Eddie’s girlfriend Liz once again plays a major role, the first time since Burn Me Deadly. There’s action, suspense, magic and romance. There’s a mad king, a sorceress, and sheep. Lots of sheep.

Thanks to Violette for including me in this blog trail.  Now, here are my five awesome and talented writer friends who will be posting their answers next week.

Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere.

Kelly Barnhill, author of Iron Hearted Violet

Jen K. Blom, author of Possum Summer

Matt Forbeck, author of Amortals and Carpathia

Kelly McCullough (pending), author of Bared Blade and WebMage

Fatherhood, Spenser style: Early Autumn

Posted on by Alex in fatherhood, novel, Robert B. Parker, Spenser, writing | 3 Comments


Since the death of Robert B. Parker in January 2010, I’ve been re-reading his Spenser novels. The earliest ones, written in the 1970s and 80s, staked out his moral as well as physical territory, revolving around ideas of traditional masculinity in conflict with the modern world. And in 1981′s Early Autumn, Spenser demonstrates how his code is built and applied in the life of a clueless teenage boy. It’s a book of its time in the particulars of setting, plot and society, but it touches on universal ideas that may be more applicable than ever.

Paul Giacomin is a chess piece between his divorced parents. Private eye Spenser is hired by his mother to retrieve him from his father, but it’s not from maternal affection, merely the latest skirmish in their ongoing, selfish power struggle. The fifteen-year-old has literally, as they say in the South, had no raising:

“The kid’s never been taught how to act,” I said. “He doesn’t know anything. He’s got no pride. He’s got nothing he’s good at.”
(p. 98 of the Dell paperback reissue).

To protect Paul, Spenser hides him in an isolated cabin. Over the course of several weeks he teaches Paul carpentry, weight lifting, boxing and most crucially, self-reliance:

“…that’s why, kid, before you go back, you are going to have to get autonomous.”

“Huh?”

“Autonomous. Dependent on yourself. Not influenced unduly by things outside yourself. You’re not old enough. It’s too early to ask a kid like you to be autonomous. But you got no choice. Your parents are no help to you. If anything, they hurt. You can’t depend on them. They got you to where you are. They won’t get better. You have to.”
(p. 123 of the Dell paperback reissue).

The extended middle section demonstrates just how Paul gets autonomous. In a lot of ways it’s idyllic: Paul, who would be called a slacker if Parker was writing now, responds to Spenser’s tough love and blooms (or whatever the male equivalent is) under it. The construction of the cabin, which prefigured Life as a House by two decades, becomes a metaphor for the construction of Paul’s self-esteem. And in one of the book’s more clever twists, Paul’s nascent autonomy leads him to his dream career: ballet. Which does not involve coming out as gay, which there’s no indication he is. And which Spenser, the most “he” of he-men, fully supports.

The book’s weakness is the same as the recent “Young Spenser” novel Chasing the Bear, which I reviewed here: there’s no real challenge to Spenser’s ability to do what he says he’ll do. He knows how to handle every difficulty he encounters, which is both a bit of a cheat dramatically, and also part of the thematic point. It would be hard to demonstrate self-reliance if the circumstances didn’t allow it, and without that demonstration, Early Autumn would be merely The Celestine Prophecy for wayward youth.

And Paul puts up little resistance. He’s apathetic and aimless, but not really rebellious. In re-reading the book, I was struck by two contradictory thoughts. First was how much Paul seemed to resemble the kids I see in the mall, limp-bodied and pale, unengaged in the world except through a screen. Apparently, if Parker was writing about them in 1981, they’ve been around a while. Second was the desire to see Spenser confront a real rebel, someone determined not to be “saved.” Yet that story would’ve been a cliche’.

As proof of Spenser’s success, Paul Giacomin becomes a recurring minor character in the later novels, especially Pastime, where we first learn about Spenser’s own childhood. But Early Autumn remains a unique book in the series, and not just for the elaborate carpentry skills Spenser never again displays. It’s the first and only time this poster boy for autonomy steps deliberately into the role of parent. He’s good at it, of course; then again, he has the luxury of choosing his child, something real parents can’t do.

Or real children, for that matter. As someone who was essentially abandoned by the elder male figures in my childhood, I wonder how I would’ve responded to such a strong masculine presence dedicated to my self-improvement. Truthfully, I think I would’ve resisted far harder than Paul Giacomin. And I wonder what contemporary teen boys, in a world of pedophile priests and other sexual predators, would make of a grown man who takes a boy alone into the woods for weeks at a time. Would Spenser even think of such an idea today?

"The work is play for mortal stakes"*

Posted on by Alex in Robert B. Parker, Spenser, writers, writing | 1 Comment

In 1988, I lived in Huntsville, Alabama working for Olan Mills Portrait Studios as a traveling photographer, a job with slightly less dignity than scraping up road kill. I also wrote novels on big yellow legal pads, that I subsequently typed up when I had the chance (on a typewriter, even). My stuff was terrible; I had no sense of my own style, so I mimicked those of books I read (it’s a wonder I survived my Joe Lansdale Drive-In period). I had not yet discovered my own voice.

Luckily, thanks to the Huntsville Public Library, I took a chance on my first Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker, Pale Kings and Princes.

I knew the characters from the TV show Spenser for Hire, so I had no trouble jumping into this, the fourteenth book in the series. The plot was self-contained and dealt with drugs, the hot topic of the 80s. But I was unprepared for my response to Parker’s literary language: here were moral dilemmas with no easy solutions, characters sketched in vivid detail, relationships that felt real and literary jokes I got. I knew almost at once that this was the sort of writing I wanted to do.

I can even quote the passage where I felt The Big Click in my head telling me I’d found my personal literary touchstone:

The Wheaton Street Directory was the size of a phone book with a green cover plastered with ads for local establishments. At the bottom was printed A Public Service Publication of the Central Argus. It consisted of an alphabetical listing of the streets, each address and the name of the person who lived at that address. People who go to great trouble to keep their phones unlisted never think to keep themselves out of the street directory.

I started with Acorn Street and went down the list looking at the names listed opposite the numbers. In the best of all possible worlds there was no reason they couldn’t live on Acorn Street. There was no reason to think I’d have to go through the whole book. Early in the afternoon, about one-fifteen, I found the name Esteva on Water Street.

(Pale Kings and Princes, p. 63 of the hardcover first edition)

I don’t know why this particular passage struck such a chord, but it prompted a major sea change in how I wrote that reached its first fruition in the late 90s with my Firefly Witch short stories (see an example here). In them I developed my first unique narrator, figured out how to write humor that worked instead of groaned, and embraced the serious emotions I’d previously skirted.

I also became a total fan of Robert B. Parker, who passed away on Jan. 18.

There will be many far more eloquent tributes to the man and his work, from authors much more accomplished than me. There’s even at least one other author who named his son Spenser, as I did. But on the occasion of Parker’s passing I wanted to honor his influence, and to remind everyone that while the art may stick around, the artists who touch us are not infinite resources. Take a moment to look them up online and send them an e-mail; you may get a personal response, a form letter, or no reply at all. But if they, like Parker, sit down at their desk one morning and don’t get up, you’ll be glad you did.

(the author’s “RBP” signature on my copy of his western novel Appaloosa.)

*from Robert Frost’s poem, “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Quoted in at least two Spenser novels (Mortal Stakes and Rough Weather).