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
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
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
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
Since I now have another two-year-old, I'm back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I'm here to talk Read more
It’s been a while since I posted here; life’s been a bit overwhelming. But now I’ve got something new to share.
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.
Every writer has at least one weakness, something they don’t do as well as they’d like. They know it, and their readers know it. Raymond Chandler knew he didn’t do plots well, which is why the structures of his novels a) don’t bear up to scrutiny, and b) are often cribbed from his previous short stories. Of course, what he did do well, he did so well that no one minded what he couldn’t do. As critic Robin Wood famously said, “who cares who killed Owen Taylor?”*
My problem has always been writing on demand.
By that, I mean responding when someone says, “Write a story about dogs,” or, “Write a story set in Montana.” My own skills don’t work that way; I need time to puzzle over ideas and let them develop organically. I have no problem writing about dogs, or Montana, or even dogs in Montana. But I need time to work my way into it on my own.
Which is why, whenever I get asked to contribute to an anthology, I try to do it. Because the only way over these sticking points is through them.
When the editors of My Bloody Valentine said they needed a story a) of about 15,000 words, b) about love, and c) with the opening words, “Love hurts,” I was intrigued, and a little intimidated. When they told me how quickly they needed it, I was a lot intimidated.
Beyond the problems I mentioned above, there was a third issue: I’d never written anything that clocked in at 15,000 words. My short stories average between 3-7K words, and my novels at around 90K. 50K is novella territory, new ground for me. As Stephen King says, the novella is “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.”
But the folks doing the anthology were the same one who publish my “Firefly Witch” stories, so I felt I owed them an honest shot. And I decided that I’d make this a Firefly Witch story as well, so that at least I’d be working with characters I knew.
I thought about the stories I’d written about these characters, and what aspects of them I hadn’t explored so far. I realized I’d often mentioned that Tanna taught college, but hadn’t really shown her functioning as a teacher. With that as a starting point, I wrote about an investigation into a haunting that doesn’t go as planned, and as I wrote, the rest of the characters filled out the plot and gave me plenty of material to work with. It was a near thing–I think I hit the deadline on the day, and my word count was just…barely…15K, but it worked. The editors liked it and picked it for the anthology.
And you can read that story, “Tantrabobus,” along with seven other stories from a variety of writers and genres, in the ebook anthology My Bloody Valentine, available now from Story Vault. You can get it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. for only $2.99 for a limited time. And if you do pick it up, please leave an honest review at the site of your choice!
*for the record, it’s a plot point from The Big Sleep, and it’s never really clear. The only explanation that even works is that Taylor committed suicide, which makes about as much sense in context as it does right here.
First, a little personal history. My late brother hated hunting.
In the early 70s, after he returned from serving in Vietnam, he wrote an op-ed piece for the Springfield, MO newspaper criticizing hunting, specifically deer hunting. This caused some friction with my dad, who was a dedicated hunter, although of much smaller things (mostly squirrels, rabbits and geese). I’m not sure they ever worked it out, because it would’ve required honest communication, something at which my family did not excel.
I never became a real hunter. I went a few times as a boy, but much like fishing and driving, my father was terrible at teaching me things, and we usually ended up enraged at each other. For a long time I hated the sport, not from any moral perspective, but because I thought I was terrible at it.
Then, much later, I saw how hunting could be used as a great framework for stories. My favorite is H. Rider Haggard, particularly the classic King Solomon’s Mines. And yes, I enjoy Hemingway, especially The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but his posturing (which, once you become aware of it, is impossible to ignore) gets in the way for me. And in non-fiction, John Henry Patterson’s book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, made into the movie The Ghost and the Darkness, showed just how dramatic and novelistic a true story of hunting could be. These were stories, in fact, not about the act of hunting, but about people who happened to be hunters, much in the same way Rocky isn’t about boxing, but about a guy who happens to be a boxer.
Peter Hathaway Capstick.
The late Peter Hathaway Capstick wrote several wonderful non-fiction books about his experiences hunting all over the world. In Death in the Silent Places, he explains the rationale behind big-game hunting thus:
“The difference between shooting an elephant at one hundred yards through the chest and stalking a big tusker to within ten or so yards is the difference between simple animal assassination and real sport hunting. When you are within ten yards of a bull elephant, you, my friend, are in harm’s way. With the long shot, one kills an elephant in a sterile, riskless and, in my opinion, cowardly manner. At halitosis range, you enter into the most ancient nonbiological passion of humanity: self-testing. And on purpose, which is the most important aspect of the implied morality of the act.”
And that, really, is why I started writing about Linda Fontana and T.S. Bunch: I wanted to write about people who self-test, on purpose.
Linda is six feet tall, has the thickest Southern accent imaginable, and is known (behind her back) as “the Babe in the Woods.” Bunch is skinny, long-haired and possesses the greatest streak of luck anyone’s ever seen. They’ve been platonic friends since grade school, and travel the world hunting and guiding other hunters, in the tradition of Haggard and Hemingway, with a dollop of Capstick.
The first two stories, “Next-to-Last of the Tiger Men” and “Mack’s Last Rhino,” will be available from Amazon as part of their StoryFront imprint on December 18, and you can pre-order them here for 99 cents. I hope people like them, so I’ll be able to do more. Because I like Fontana and Bunch, and want to hang out with them for a long time.
Three new stories featuring Tanna Tully, a.k.a. Lady Firefly, have arrived just in time for the quintessential witches’ holiday, Halloween (or Samhain, if you want to be technical about it). Here’s a bit about The Book of Cunning Women.
In “The Mischief Shades,” she investigates a seemingly light-hearted haunting borne of a ghastly tragedy that hits surprisingly close to home; in “Tourist Trap,” a friend’s suicide attempt exposes something long buried in a local park; and in “The Book of Cunning Women,” an artifact that could change history has to be pried from the selfish grasp of a popular novelist in the heart of Southern Gothic country, New Orleans.
This collection is available on Kindle, and will soon be on Nook, Kobe and all the other usual platforms.
And if you like it, please leave an honest review at the site of your choice.
The Hurricane Sandy benefit anthology Triumph Over Tragedy is now available. It includes 41 stories for $6.99 (one of which, “Wrap,” is by me), so it’s basically only 18 cents a story. And all the proceeds go to the Red Cross for Hurricane Sandy relief.
It’s available for the Kindle here, and the Nook here.
How does one become an honorary Tufa, you may wonder?
The criteria is really pretty simple. You must have a song that you’ve written quoted (with your permission, of course) in a Tufa story.
So far, there are three honorary Tufas.
The first was Jennifer Goree. You can find out more about Jennifer and her connection to the Tufa here, but it’s safe to say she made a massive contribution, and she’s also been a staunch supporter. You can check out her music here.
Jennifer Goree, who composed the song “The Hum and the Shiver.”
Second, in order of appearance, is Andrew Brasfield. When I was thinking about a Tufa-themed story for my holiday collection, Time of the Season, I knew I needed a song that would be central to the plot: something that both captured the atmosphere, as well as becoming a literal presence in the story. I thought about using a traditional hymn, especially since the story features the young minister Craig Chess, but nothing really worked. So I reached out to Dale Short, Alabama author (you really should read his story collection Turbo’s Very Life) and host of Music from Home, and asked if he could recommend a song by a roots/folk/country indie artist that might work.
He recommended Andrew Brasfield, and pointed me toward his song, “Cold Wind.” It not only had the requisite atmosphere, but like The Hum and the Shiver before it, it provided the title. You can read an interview with Andrew and learn about the song and the story here.
And finally, we have Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, whose song “Wrought Iron Fences” is crucial to the story of the second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing. I first encountered Kate’s music way back in the early 2000s, when I was first researching what would eventually become the Tufa. I’d begun scouring the internet for examples of current roots/folk music, and came upon Kate’s website, where I won a CD. It was her first one, Lanterns on the Levee, and it’s as good a statement of purpose as any artist can make with a first album. Even the first track, “Mississippi and Me,” stakes out the territory she would explore in her subsequent work. But it was on her second CD, Moonpie Dreams, that I found two of my favorite songs of hers, “When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas” and, of course, “Wrought Iron Fences.”
Kate Campbell, who composed “Wrought Iron Fences”
Another artist prominently mentioned in Wisp of a Thing is Matraca Berg, one of the greatest contemporary songwriters in country music. Just check out the list of hits she’s written for other people. Unfortunately, she’s also a major-label recording artist, and therein lies one of the great rubs of contemporary music: many of the most famous songwriters, because they are contracted to major labels and music publishers, lack the legal standing to authorize the use of their own songs. You have to go through these other organizations, who do not grant permission lightly or cheaply. So unfortunately, Ms. Berg will remain a mentioned but not quoted presence.
The great Matraca Berg, songwriter extraordinaire
So that’s the list, so far. Hopefully you’ll check out the music by these great people, who are out there trying to do something meaningful and substantial in a world where popular music seems to consist of auto-tuned clones and divas. Because if you don’t support the cool stuff, you won’t have it for very long.
When I began planning Time of the Season, my holiday-themed e-book chapbook, I already had two of the stories. Both the title story and “A Ghost, and a Chance” had been around for a while. But I wanted to write something new, and I’d gotten such a good response from my novel, The Hum and the Shiver, that I decided to write a holiday story set in the that world. The Tufa stories all revolve around music, so I needed a song to form the center of this new one. So I asked around: did anyone know of an original winter or holiday song, one by an indie artist who could grant permission for me to use the lyrics in a story?
The first time I heard it, I knew it was the right song.
I contacted Andrew Brasfield, and happily, he agreed to let me quote from the lyrics in the story. This is a trickier proposition than it sounds, because a lot of musicians, particularly the ones played on mainstream radio, don’t actually own the rights to their own songs. Music publishers, record labels and other for-profit intermediaries have to also grant permission, and usually require payment to do so. Happily, there’s a whole world of great music being done by people like Andrew (and Jennifer Goree, and Laura Powers, and Jen Cass, and Kate Campbell) who not only own all their own rights, they’re delighted to have them included in a story or used in a book trailer.
Andrew also recorded a new version of the song at AudioCzar Productions, and played all the instruments himself (except for percussion). That version is available as a free download when you buy Time of the Season.
Andrew was also kind enough to answer a couple of questions about the song.
1) What inspired “Cold Wind”?
I used to work in television and was sent out west to Lander, Wyoming for a documentary shoot a few times over the course of 2010. On one of the final trips we set out early in the morning to catch some college students who were waking up for the last of their 21 day trip in the Wind River Range. It was really early in the morning and beautiful and I had some time to think while we were hiking. The wind was very cold and cut through me and I thought, the cold wind is an interesting image. So I came up with the first line then thought of other natural elements. Fire and water were classic images so and made verses to go with all of them. Somehow I remembered those lyrics and committed them to a small Holiday Inn Express notepad as soon as I got back to my room late that evening.
Side note: The cover photo for the song is actually a public domain photo of the Wind River Range that I manipulated a bit.
2) Your cousin Dale Short first told me about “Cold Wind,” and directed me toward the video. I had that same thing happen with the characters in the story: they learned the song from that same video. What’s the story behind the video?
There is no real story to be honest. I knew I wanted folks to hear some of my songs and while they can get a glimpse from the three songs I wrote on the first Motel Ice Machine CD, those aren’t the only songs I have in me and some of those are arranged differently from the way I usually do them. Also, I don’t have the cash to get into a studio whenever I write a new song so YouTube seemed like a more accessible medium. I’ll be certainly be adding more videos soon.
Dale still hasn’t given me all the details on how we are kin, but he is a good guy nonetheless and I appreciate what he does for local musicians through his radio show.
3) What did you think of the story that incorporates your song?
I really dug the way you wove it all together. I actually got chills when I read my lyrics in the story. I’m a big Tufa fan and having the Hyatt’s play my song in their living room is sort of surreal. I read The Hum and the Shiver shortly after it came out and was hooked. I’m (im)patiently waiting for Wisp of a Thing.
Andrew Brasfield is from a small town in Alabama where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His main axe is harmonica, which he wields in a few different bands including Motel Ice Machine and The Lefty Collins Band. He also plays a bit of guitar, bass and ukulele. He knows a handful of mandolin chords and has a few piano tricks. You can find out more about him here.
Elizabeth Montgomery in an early episode of “Bewitched.”
Witchcraft has an iffy history in film and television. When I first started doing my Firefly Witch stories, one thing I reacted against was the standard image of the pop-culture witch. Leaving aside the blatant “wicked witch” portrayals, it’s still hard to find anything remotely accurate, let alone sympathetic. It’s not impossible, though.
One of the earliest films about witchcraft, which unfortunately took the devil-worship position, is the unique Swedish/Danish film Haxan. Retitled Witchcraft Through the Agesin English, this one-of-a-kind 1922 silent film depicts witchcraft the way history describes it, then explains how witches were tortured by the Inquisition. It’s impossible not to be horrified by the treatment of the unfortunate women, and to feel sympathy for them. It’s not really a narrative film, yet it’s not a documentary, either. An indication of its strangeness is that the best-known version in English was narrated by William S. Burroughs.
In 1942, Veronica Lake played the witch Jennifer in the romantic comedy I Married a Witch. In the 1958 movie Bell, Book and Candle, Kim Novack plays Gillian, desperately in love with James Stewart. On TV in the 60s, Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery) dominated Bewitched(okay, Agnes Moorehead dominated it, but still…). All these characters, though, labored under the kind of strictures common at the time: Gillian and Jennifer lost their magical powers when they fell in love, and Samantha had promised not to use hers to help her husband’s career.* At the time, witches had to be de-powered to allow the “natural order” to assert itself.
Kim Novak in “Bell, Book and Candle”
These comedies also embraced the common trope that one is “born” a witch; that somehow, the special powers are inherited rather than learned or earned. It’s even possible to read it as saying witches are not actually human, but a different species. But the idea of “innate powers” is a thread that runs through most witchcraft movies, with a couple of notable exception.
In the 70s, one of the most accurate depictions of genuine witchcraft appeared in the seldom-seen George Romero film, “Jack’s Wife (1972). Also released under the more exploitative titles Season of the Witch and Hungry Wives, it’s about a woman who’s drawn into witchcraft as a remedy for the ennui of her suburban life. It’s a blatantly feminist film, and treats the main character’s involvement with magic as empowering. It’s also very much of its time, which means it gets a little arty-for-art’s sake at times.
Jan White in “Jack’s Wife,” enmeshed in the symbolism.
The other notable exception, the character of Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brought the idea that witchcraft was a learned skill into the popular imagination. Unfortunately, it’s also depicted as something addictive, and an entire story arc was devoted to its detrimental effects on Willow.
The rise of feminism and the idea that women were, I don’t know, actual people capable of doing something other than supporting men changed depictions of witchcraft. The Witches of Eastwick (1987), a pretty dire film from a critical standpoint, did at least show that women supporting each other could defeat even the Devil Himself. The Craft(1997) starts with the idea that outcasts working together can be strong, but then degenerates into standard horror.
My favorite positive depiction of witchcraft is 1998′s Practical Magic. Based (extremely loosely) on Alice Hoffman’s novel, it shows two sets of sisters, younger (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) and older (Dianne Weist and Stockard Channing), using their powers to protect their family. I confess that I have a total crush on Sandra Bullock’s character (not, I hasten to add, on Ms. Bullock herself).
Sandra Bullock in “Practical Magic.”
Together, these movies and TV shows present a very distorted view of witchcraft filtered through society’s concerns. That’s fine as far as it goes–witchcraft can be used as a metaphor, just as anything else can be–but to me, it never captured the true (okay, wait for it…) magic of Wicca/Paganism/the Craft. It was never shown as joyous, rarely as empowering, and certainly never as the religion it truly is. When I began writing my Firefly Witch stories, I wanted to put as much of that back as I could and still tell interesting, dramatic horror/fantasy stories.
If you’d like to check them out and decide for yourself how well I did it, go here. And if I’ve missed an important example, please tell me in the comments.
*I reference this show in my short story “The Darren Stevens Club,” in the first Firefly Witch collection.