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

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

The grubby heirs of Excalibur: swords in the world of Eddie LaCrosse

Posted on by Alex in Dark Jenny, Eddie LaCrosse, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare, Sword-Edged Blonde, swordfight, writers, writing | 4 Comments

My friend Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale (my review is here), asked me how the idea for naming Eddie LaCrosse’s swords came about. I thought this might be interesting to others as well.

First came the idea of writing the initial novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, as if it were a 40s detective novel. This was after years–well, actually decades–of trying to tell the story as a traditional epic fantasy, and having it just not work. So, once I’d committed to this new voice, I looked for other aspects of the story that could reflect this.

Swords in fantasy are crucial. They’re not just weapons, they’re symbols of divine right, of kingship, of power itself. Look at Excalibur, the most famous mythical sword: not only does it confer kingship on whoever draws it, but only the right person can retrieve it from the stone (I riffed on this in Eddie’s Arthurian adventure, Dark Jenny, where the analogous weapon is called Belacrux).

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Nigel Terry plundering the silverware in “Excalibur.”

 

There are plenty of others. Terry Brooks initiated his fantasy career with The Sword of Shannara. Bilbo Baggins (and later Frodo) wield a sword called Sting (originally part of a larger arsenal, but it went off on a solo career). And although none of the Jedi weapons have names, each one is an individual, crafted by its creator as a unique weapon specifically for them. (For even more examples, Wikipedia has a helpful list of fictional swords.)

The point is, swords stand large in fantasy, and I knew I had to acknowledge this. But if I was overlaying fantasy tropes with detective ones, I also knew I couldn’t treat my hero’s swords as legendary weapons. Philip Marlowe didn’t have a gun with a name; Lew Archer didn’t retrieve his pistol from a stone. Hell, even Sledge Hammer, whose love for his gun was far from platonic, didn’t call it by name.

Yet the obvious didn’t strike me until I found a clue in the most unlikely of places: a Leonardo DiCaprio film. Specifically, Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet.

In Act I, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play, to stop a brawl Benvolio says, “Put up your swords; you know not what you do.” In the film, as he says this, there’s a cut to a close-up of the weapons.

benvolio2

And there was my answer. Swords were analogous to guns in Eddie’s world, therefore Eddie would probably have more than one, of different makes and models, each suited for a particular situation.

(Sure, the obvious analogy would’ve been guns=crossbows, but if you’ve seen First Knight, you know how goofy that actually looks.)

So in The Sword-Edged Blonde, I wrote this:

I opened the sword cabinet and took out my old Fireblade Warrior three-footer, the one with the narrow dagger hidden in the hilt. I had bigger swords, but this one wouldn’t attract attention and, since I’d filed the distinctive Fireblade monogram off the blade, it looked a lot more fragile and decrepit than it really was.

And in the upcoming He Drank, and Saw the Spider, I wrote this:

Ajax shook his head, then indicated my sword. “Is that a real Cillian Skirmisher?”

“The hilt is,” I said, and slowly drew it. “The blade’s from a Kingkiller Mark IV.”

“Really? I’ve never seen one, only the Mark III. Even a king’s bodyguard can’t afford the Mark IV.”

I handed it to him across the fire, hilt first. “See what you think.”

Ajax took it and felt the balance. “Nice. But why’d you combine them? If I had a Mark IV, I’d be showing it off.”

“What’s the worst thing about a Skirmisher?”

“The way the blade snaps if it’s parried by anything heavier.” Then he grinned. “And when they see that hilt….”

“Makes people overconfident,” I said. “I like it when my opponents are that way.”

So that’s where the idea came from, and a couple of examples of how I use it. Hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of insight, and if there’s anything else you’d like to know about this or the worlds of any of my other books, feel free to drop me a line or leave a comment here or elsewhere.

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

The Best Thing Ever! (and a side order of WTF?)

Posted on by Alex in Battlestar Galactica, criticism, Dr. Who, Shakespeare, Tor.com | 1 Comment

Recently I read a review of the Doctor Who season premiere that suggested the show is essentially creating an entirely new nonlinear form of storytelling. With all respect I think this is excessive praise, much like the folks who claim Ron Moore reinvented SF television. But whether or not you agree with this idea, I’m more interested in the critical subtext that insists any currently-fashionable genre permutation must be the best thing ever!

I love Doctor Who, and I trust that the show will eventually explain most, if not all, of the nonlinear moments the series premier gave us. But this nonlinear (i.e., WTF) quality of the episode “The Impossible Astronaut” is certainly nothing unique in SF, especially British SF that makes it to America. The first season of Space: 1999 is my touchstone for WTF, and that was done thirty years ago. In fact, for many years, when SF was being produced for fans but not by them, the attitude was most definitely, “It doesn’t have to make sense! It’s science fiction, they’ll swallow anything.” (An example: the unapologetic interview with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., included on the special edition DVD of 1980′s Flash Gordon. Semple, a veteran of the Adam West Batman TV show and the 1976 King Kong remake, seems astounded and a little insulted that anyone would expect him to take a subject like Flash Gordon seriously.)

So what’s behind this desire to overpraise whatever is currently popular? The need to instantly comment on and review things in the internet age is part of it, since these reviews are often written in the full flush of ardor following a new book/movie/TV show. More to the point, in many online critical commentaries there’s a definite urge to preach to the choir, which means that the critics mirror rather than challenge the enthusiasms of their readers (which, after all, is how you keep readers coming back). And ironically in an era when the great works of the past are more accessible than they ever have been, there seems to be a real need to establish that the Next Big Thing is also the Best Thing Ever (witness the lavish praise heaped on the reboot of Star Trek).

And that’s the opposite of real, thoughtful criticism. One purpose of critical evaluation is to remind readers that the Next Big Thing may not, in fact, be the Best Thing Ever. For example, Elizabethans experienced Macbeth as the Next Big Thing, but calling it the Best Thing Ever looks foolish when you realize Shakespeare wrote Hamlet three years earlier.

So whatever the Next Big Thing is, perhaps we need to wait until we have some critical distance before claiming it’s also the Best Thing Ever.

Julius Caesar, fair and balanced

Posted on by Alex in Harold Bloom, Julius Caesar, Shakespeare | Leave a comment

One of my favorite books to pick up and read random sections from is Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom. He means the title literally: “Our ideas as to what makes the self authentically human owe more to Shakespeare than ought to be possible.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but no writer can deny the primacy of Shakespeare, and you ignore it at your peril.

In high school, everyone has to read Julius Caesar. It’s a perfect introduction to Shakespeare: narratively it’s a simple play, it has a speech second only to “To be or not to be…” in the public consciousness, and it features gang murder and ghosts. I remember reading it aloud in English class, and marveling at how the archaic-looking speech came to life when spoken. Then I got beat up for being a dweeb.

But Julius Caesar has a surprising timelessness. Consider the speeches of Brutus and Antony following the assassination of Caesar. Both face a crowd of panicky, easily-swayed citizens (described earlier as “you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things,” almost as if they sat home every night watching The Hills and Dancing with the Stars) who demand an explanation.

Brutus speaks first. He is calm, rational, and he lays out the reasons for killing Caesar in a logical fashion. He appeals to the citizenry to judge his actions for themselves (“…censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge.”). And then, in one of the dumbest moves ever (right up there with “Put on those gloves, O.J.”), he lets Caesar’s friend and acolyte Mark Antony address the crowd.

(Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in 1953′s Julius Caesar)

Antony, in observing the chaos when Caesar’s death is leaked, makes a key observation: “Passion, I see, is catching.” In his famous speech, he turns the crowd entirely against Brutus by appealing to their emotions, by producing bogus documents (“But here’s a parchment with the seal of Caesar; I found it in his closet, ’tis his will.”) and of course by claiming he isn’t trying to do exactly what he’s doing (“Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny.”). The result is civil war.

Not to belabor the point, but Antony would fit right in with the calculating, maniacal voices on the Right screaming about socialism and Gomorrah with virtually no interest in actual facts; Brutus, while he does have the courage to get his own hands bloody, is as effective a public speaker as Al Gore on the campaign trail. And the Roman citizens, as already noted, are just as content to have their opinions handed to them as many of us are.

So what, ultimately, does the 400-year-old Julius Caesar tell us?

About ourselves: that in the war between passion and intellect, passion always wins.

About Shakespeare: that Harold Bloom just might be right.

Bloomin’ Shakespeare, part 1

Posted on by Alex in Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Harold Bloom, Kim Stanley, Laurence Olivier, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare | 1 Comment

In the process of cleaning out my study for its current use as the boys’ playroom (already the scene of an epic Nerf-sword battle between the Squirrel Boy and me), I came across Harold Bloom’s ginormous Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. As only someone absolutely certain of himself could do, Bloom gives you the correct (i.e., his) interpretation of every single Shakespeare play, with specially large sections on Hamlet, King Lear and Henry IV (a.k.a. The Adventures of Falstaff). And in his case, the ego of such an undertaking seems backed up by some serious insights. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

The ones that stuck with me the most enhanced my appreciation of both my favorite Shakespeare play (Antony and Cleopatra) and the one that always set my teeth on edge (Romeo and Juliet). I’ll talk about A&C first.

Specifically, Bloom points out that Cleopatra is, in the vast emotional range she displays (tragic lover, mercurial friend, queen, spoiled brat, mature woman), the feminine equivalent of Hamlet and thus Shakespeare’s greatest female role, the more so for being, in his opinion, virtually unplayable. I’m not sure if he means that no actress is capable of it, or that simply because it’s a female role there can be no actress capable of it. Certainly it’s never attained the universal status of the Denmarkian Dynamo; perhaps it’s because we don’t allow actresses the same prestige as actors? I mean, even people who’ve never seen it know Olivier was “the best Hamlet ever.” But who recalls Kim Stanley, whose recent biography was called Female Brando in recognition of her enormous talent? Katherine Cornell played Cleopatra in what was probably the only successful American run of the play, back in the late 1940s; I can hear the voices now saying, “Katherine who?”

The late Charlton Heston often chastised fellow movie actors like Robert De Niro for not attempting the great roles on stage. He himself constantly returned to the “man-killer” stage parts like Macbeth throughout his career, a process he called “waltzing with the Old Gentleman.” Are there no actresses who see the gold in a part like Cleo? I mean, in a world where Ethan Hawke can make a passable Hamlet, surely someone like Charlize Theron should make a run at Cleopatra.

There are several film and video versions of the play, including one directed by and starring Mr. Heston as Mark Antony. My favorite, though surely not the best, is this one for its absurdist casting. While Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave make a perfectly adequate Antony and Cleopatra, it’s in the supporting cast that the head-scratching begins. Star Trek alumni Nichelle Nichols as Charmain and Walter Koenig as Pompey? General Hospital heartthrob Anthony Geary as Caesar? It has to be seen.

Next post, how Bloom helped make me able to stomach Romeo and Juliet.