Find out Updates on THE RETURN
Below: Benjamin Gaskell, Cinematographer, and Writer/Director Matthew Szewczyk
Find out Updates on THE RETURN
Below: Benjamin Gaskell, Cinematographer, and Writer/Director Matthew Szewczyk
NINETY-FOUR YEARS YOUNG and she had the audience at GATSBY BOOKS hanging on every word. Mia Elkovsky Phoebus showed us the character, intellect, and energy that so fascinated Tennessee Williams way back in 1940. The event was the release of Mia’s latest book, WALKING THE DUNES WITH TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, a poetic memoir of the Provincetown glory days so often mentioned in Tennessee’s biographies.
When I say the audience hung on every work, I’m not exaggerating. Mia’s rich, resonent voice filled the shop easily and she poured operatic emotion into her reading. Sean Moore, the owner of Gatsby’s and a poet himself, called the work “remarkable,” and instantly invited Mia to come back early in 2016.
Sean mentioned that a sample copy left at the store a week ago for him to look at had sold before he could open the cover!
Special guests included authors Treacy Colbert, who read two poems dedicated to TW, and dance-romance author Tonya Plank. Dr. Vicki Harvey read from WTDWTW, and had audience members closing their eyes to listen as Mia’s elegant words poured forth.
Please friend Mia on Facebook.
The university freedom-of-speech wars exploding on campuses will, given time, affect books and writers. Stand-up comics were the first to feel chilling effects on speech. Comedian Chris Rock quit playing colleges because, in his opinion, students are too constricted, “in their social views… they can’t take a joke.”
Although it may not have affected you yet, dear writer, it’s coming.
Jonathan Haidt is my favorite social scientist, and he recently gave this entertaining talk about Strengthen University and Coddle University. Below the video is a link to South Park’s hilarious view of “safe spaces” that are popping up in universities—places where students don’t have to hear any ideas that conflict with their own.
Love it or hate it, this trend may affect your writing in the future.
Greg Salem was a long way from the beach. Thin streams of sweat raced from his short blonde curls and down his neck. The tips of the tattoos that covered his back and chest were poking up just above his collar, like the tentacles of a giant squid. His hands shook as he forced a clip into the Glock. It was almost impossible to concentrate over the sound of the woman shrieking, but the sickening silence that followed was worse. Greg tensed and waited for the shooting to start.
His partner was a rookie, so new to the force that they’d only met that day. The third partner he’d had in as many months. The last one left the force to become a private security guard for some Hollywood starlet. Greg didn’t keep in touch with any of them.
The rookie was pressed against the hallway wall making ridiculous hand signals that he must have memorized at the academy. Greg winced. Some part of him still hated taking orders from cops, even though he’d been one himself for a decade.
The sleeve of his partner’s nylon jacket made a soft scratching sound as he motioned. The high-pitched ringing in Greg’s left ear was drowning it out. Tinnitus was a dubious badge of honor from years touring the punk rock circuit. It only got worse when his heart raced.
Greg swung into the hall, lifted his foot and kicked hard with the sole of his boot. The door split away from the jamb, spraying splinters. His partner slipped into the apartment ahead of him, waving his gun from side to side. A bedroom door slammed shut on the far side of the living room. The woman began shrieking again, louder this time, like a caged animal. Greg followed his partner deeper inside.
They split up, Greg securing the kitchen while his partner checked the closets. The coast was clear leaving only the bedroom. The two officers edged toward the door slowly. Tense moments ticked by. The shrieking was replaced by muffled sobbing. His partner checked the doorknob. Unlocked.
Greg turned the knob and let the door creak open. The officers waited for any signs of movement. There was only stillness and a faint humming sound. They traded looks, silently daring each other to go first.
Greg always thought of his brother Tim in situations like this, when everything was on the line and there was only one person in the world to rely on. Whatever was waiting for them inside that room, he knew it wasn’t going to be his brother. He closed his eyes and tried to clear his thoughts before pivoting inside.
A middle-aged woman sat tied to a chair, tears streaming down her round cheeks. Balled up socks were lodged in her mouth and held in place with a pair of nylons tied around the back of her head. She watched the two men with terror in her eyes. Her panties were down around her ankles and she was shifting in her seat in a vain attempt to dge the hem of her skirt forward. An oscillating fan was behind her, mindlessly scanning the room and ruffling the curtains around the open window.
His partner untied her while Greg made sure the room was clear. The woman collapsed into his partner’s arms, never taking her eyes off Greg’s Glock.
“No more guns, please…”
Greg was turning back to check on her when he saw something move outside of the window. He spun around with his gun leveled. The suspect dropped to the street from a drainpipe that ran vertically along the corner of the building. Greg ran out the apartment door, taking the stairs two at a time. He looked up at the bedroom window to get his bearings and then started off down the street at a sprint.
He was almost forty years old but still pretty fast thanks to all those early morning runs on the beach. The sidewalks were mostly empty except for the occasional warehouse worker wheeling dollies full of boxes between buildings. He bounded from block to block looking for the blue baseball cap and white T-shirt. The plastic sheath that held his badge swung from the string around his neck and banged into his chest.
The blocks passed by in a blur. His lungs were burning from the suffocating industrial air, so he stopped to catch his breath. He was bent over with his hands on his knees when a blue and white streak flashed between two slow moving buses across the street. He ran out into the light weekend traffic narrowly dodging trucks as he crossed. He kept his eyes focused on the blue cap bouncing in the distance a few blocks ahead of him, and watched as it vanished between two buildings. Greg used his last burst of energy and rounded the corner into the small service alley several agonizing moments later.
The kid in the blue hat was standing on top of a dumpster trying to climb into a second story window that was just out of reach. Greg pointed his gun and shouted, “Stop! Police!” The kid half looked over his shoulder in disbelief while his fingers groped for the sill. Greg repeated the warning, motioning with the Glock toward the ground with a series of exaggerated gestures. The kids hands slowly left the wall as he raised them up above his head in a practiced motion.
Greg acknowledged his surrender. He gestured for him to climb down off the dumpster. The kid reached the ground and spun to face his captor. Greg watched the fear flickering in his eyes as they darted from side to side, desperate searching for an escape route. Greg planted his feet and leveled his weapon at the kid’s chest to discourage him from making another run for it.
Moments passed. Greg inched forward, closing the distance between them. The kid looked young, not much older than his friend Junior’s son. He was half way there when the kid reached into his waistband, bringing his hands up in front of him.
Greg had practiced for this. He instinctively squeezed off two shots, the first he ever fired in the line of duty. A deafening sound echoed off of the tall brick walls surrounding them. The black object flew from the kid’s hand and spiraled up into the air before clattering across the pavement and out of sight.
He seemed to fall in slow motion. His body twisted and his arms flailed around him as he spun from the force of the bullet. Greg couldn’t see any blood on the white T-shirt yet. He prayed he had missed, but had spent too many hours at the firing range to have that kind of luck.
Got a manuscript that’s made the rounds of rejections and you’re tired, so tired, of improving the story? No money for an editor? Then consider a co-author opportunity with me. Let me take a look, make suggestions for a rewrite or whatever it needs, in exchange for a co-writing credit. Then I’ll use all my contacts in publishing to land a deal with a Big 5 publisher. (Big 5 means an imprint with one of the 5 largest publishers in the world.) Genres: Mainstream mystery, crime, noir, hardboiled, romantic suspense, cozy, P.I. etc. Sorry, no fantasy or sci-fi at this time.
Photo credit: Freedigitalphotos.net
She passed away on Saturday after a 6-year struggle with breast cancer. Like Joan Rivers, it’s hard to imagine no more Jackie Collins in this world. When I was first developing as a writer, my favorite was Judith Krantz, but I learned a lot from Jackie. In particular, I first learned POV switching from chapter to chapter via HOLLYWOOD HUSBANDS.
Jackie was an irreverent, big-hearted, ambitious woman, and I remember seeing her at dinner in Hollywood, years ago. Across the room at a primo table, she was surrounded by powerful captains of industry, and it was Jackie who held court, no one else. Before women were supposed to be strong, Jackie understood power, how to get it, and how to use it. She led a charmed life, and wrote novels that millions relished. Rest in peace, Jackie darling.
To help support his family he did many things, among them selling bootleg hooch to sailers on the Long Beach Pike. For a
lark he took the L.A. sheriff department’s entrance exam. He passed it and became a life long cop. When he was promoted to Chief of Corrections the brass discovered that although he had two honorary degrees from USC, he never graduated from high-school. There was a rapid scramble to get him a GED diploma. The man was well educated, he just didn’t go to school.
A fellow writer once referred to me and Pearce Hansen as street writers. I was proud to be associated with Hansen, but didn’t see the link. It took a while to understand street writer was code for ‘he ain’t gots no higher edumacation.’ That what I knew, I learned in the street. True, sort of. I learned some things in the street (back of a Firebird or a bowling alley bar more like it), but I also learned a lot in public libraries and cigarette and caffeine fueled conversations with writers and readers. Dyslexia and a deep-seated mistrust of authority made me a lousy fit for academia. But I have no room for or truck with ignorance, so I educated myself. I have studied everything from Shakespeare to old west dime novels. From Dylan Thomas to James Crumley. I also have my rich and troubled life to pull from. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living – conversely the life un-lived is not worth examining. If all of one’s knowledge comes from reading and lectures, your work can not help but be referential. This isn’t ‘only write what you know’ crap, if you want to write about something go out and get your hands dirty, live it, tell Google to fuck off and spend a night interviewing Ensenada pimps. Good fiction is making shit up while getting the essential truths right. Our job as writers is to tell our truth fearlessly. Only by doing this can we find our voice and reach into reader’s hearts.
Here is a short list of my fellow autodidact writers – William Blake, Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, Harlan Ellison, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Terry Pratchett, Ernest Hemingway, Louis L’Amour, Ray Bradbury, Alan Moore, Tad Williams and, wait for it, William Shakespeare. Not bad. So from now on instead of street writer, how about you call me one badass autodidact motherfucker. ###
SAM WIEBE: I basically dropped out of school after my second year and worked a bunch of blue collar jobs, driving a forklift, stocking shelves at a liquor store, etc. I was without purpose. I enrolled at the local university-college because I remembered enjoying literature. I took a third-year Shakespeare course with a teacher named Neil Kennedy, and I was back in 100%. I went through and then into the MA program at Simon Fraser University, and finished in four semesters. I’ve been teaching ever since.
SAM:College in Canada is neither cheap nor guaranteed–it’s cheaper than the States, for sure, but still very expensive. I worked two jobs through most of my education, and I graduated with quite a bit of student debt.
On one hand I wish finances hadn’t played as much of a part in my education–I think schools are geared toward professional students, students who come straight out of high school, with families who have been to university, and who are supported financially. It’s a very grades-obsessed, career-obsessed view of education, and I struggled with that at times.
On the other hand, I’m happy with the circuitous path I took. A certain amount of struggle is good. Because of that, I don’t take my teaching responsibilities lightly.
I don’t know that having an MA gives you a benefit to being a writer. But it doesn’t hurt. If you like working with books, and with students, then there are worse ways to go through this vale of tears.
My experience with writing courses has been pretty mixed. I took an excellent undergraduate screenwriting course, where they actually produced, acted and shot our scripts. That was very helpful. It never really occurred to me to take an MFA, because I didn’t have the money, and I didn’t see anyone writing the kind of stuff I wanted to.
Simon Fraser University now has a program called The Writer’s Studio, which is very hands-on and publishing-oriented. It’s run by some great Vancouver writers. E.R. Brown (Almost Criminal) and Janie Chang (Three Souls) have both come through that program, and they’re terrific writers. If I was starting out now, I’d definitely try to get into a program like that.
My MA was in English literature, so I did a lot of American, English Renaissance and Restoration lit, and critical theory. My MA paper was on Orson Welles’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, Chimes at Midnight.
I started out with the idea of doing technical writing. Once I started TAing–working as a teaching assistant–I found that I really enjoyed it and was pretty good at it.
Yeah, I teach for a living.
Making the time to write is tough regardless of the job. I fit writing around work, but I did that during grad school, too. It’s a priority.
Elaine Ash said in a review that if you keep writing at the quality of your first book that you could become known as one of the best crime writers ever to come out of Canada. Are you making a career as a novelist your ultimate goal? Is it novel writing or bust?
That’s a great compliment. I try to think more in terms of telling the right stories than financial success–trying to “predict the market” and all that bullshit, or defining your artistic worth by your income, seem like sure ways to madness.
My goal is really to tell the stories I want, and get them out to people without compromising what makes them the stories I want to tell.
Career-wise, I don’t want to be owned–by a student loan, a giant mortgage, a boss, etc. If I can accomplish that as a writer, terrific. In the meantime I teach, and I enjoy that. Making kids aware of Dorothy B Hughes or Dashiell Hammett, helping them to express themselves–what’s not to like about that?
FIND SAM at www.samwiebe.com
LISA CIARFELLA blogs HERE.
DON’T MISS THE COMMENTS SECTION AT THE END. IT’S EXPLOSIVE!
All I can speak for is myself. I’m sure that many found their MFA experience educational. Alas, it wasn’t so for me. I learned a couple of things, but neither were about the craft of writing.
First, I learned like in most things in this country, the average person doesn’t trust their own acumen. It’s why Michael Jordan gets paid bazillions of dollars to endorse breakfast cereals and shoes and other bullshit products. It’s not that businessmen are in love with him and just want to shower him with big bucks; it’s that hard-nosed businessmen know that the average American doesn’t have a clue what’s good and what’s not and when a public or famous person tells them something is good, then they buy it. Same thing happens with bestsellers in books. Bestseller lists are the biggest lie out there. They have little to do with sales. It’s a marketing tool, pure and simple.
Publishers are like any other businessmen and women. Exactly like the folks who own shoe companies and cereal companies. They know the average person doesn’t have a clue what’s good and what’s not, unless it’s so clearly obvious that even the densest person can tell.
I learned this the best way—the hard way. Years ago, I had a novel my agent, Jimmy Vines, put into auction. Very exciting stuff. It went back and forth until the bidders dropped out and there were two left—St. Martin’s and Random House. SM offered a $50,000 advance and RH, $45,000. Jimmy left it to me which to go with and I made the biggest mistake of my life and went with RH. Ruined me financially and is still affecting me adversely today. But, that’s another story.
The editor at RH who took it was Scott Moyers. Mine was the first book he signed for them, having just come over from Villard Press to become a senior editor at RH. Shortly after, I signed with them, then-prez Ann Godoff of RH told my agent, Jimmy, that she’d read my book, loved it, and that when it came out, not only would it be on the NY Times bestseller list, it’d be #1. They could guarantee that, she said, because that list isn’t determined by sales. It’s determined by copies published. And, since it was going to come out simultaneously from Ballantine Press 50,000 copies in paperback), and from Random House (5,000 copies in hardcover), she knew it would leap to the top of the list. When Jimmy told me that and then told me how the list actually worked, it was an eye-opener.
Over the years since then, I’ve had skeptics question that, so I tell them to watch the list until they’re familiar with the names on it and then the minute a new title appears, to call their bookstore to see if it’s in stock. Almost always, it isn’t. Usually, the bookseller will tell them that they’ll have it in 4-6 weeks. That’s because it not only isn’t in print yet; it hasn’t even been printed. Much less shipped and placed on the shelves. Or had any copies sold… (That’s changed a bit now with the “pre-sold” copy opportunity Amazon and others offer.)
The list is very simply, a marketing tool. There are bazillions of people in this country who don’t know what good literature is. A great many of them depend on these bestseller lists to let ‘em know. What happens is if a book has enough copies printed, it makes the list, and then people see the list… and buy a copy. Life imitates art. Marketing 101.
I used to have a mother-in-law (since deceased) who was probably at best, semiliterate. (It wasn’t Jane, to put that at rest! Jane was an extremely intelligent reader.). To “impress” people that she was quite the intellectual or whatever, about once a month, she’d glance at the bestseller list and then run out and buy a copy of something on it and plunk it down prominently on her coffee table. To “prove” that she was well-read… What she didn’t realize was that if she was buying bestsellers, it most likely proved the opposite… I might add that she rarely ever actually read the book… But she’s only one of a large crowd of people who get their reading material from those lists.
This long story is used only to point out the one main thing I got from my MFA degree. Many editors are like many readers out there in the Great Flyover. Don’t have much more of a clue what’s good and what isn’t. So, if a writer or his/her agent sends ‘em a query and mentions that the writer has an MFA, they open their eyes wider, will actually read the mss, and will often take a book that wouldn’t have been considered at all without that MFA thingy… If you think publishers and editors and those folks are all geniuses, you may have just landed on this planet…
So, an MFA degree gets you read by editors. Is that worth the thousands of dollars and investment in time to obtain one? That has to be your decision.
The other benefit for me was that I got a new and different reading list. Discovered some writers I wasn’t aware of. I think I would have eventually discovered them, but the MFA program sped that up a bit. Not sure if that was worth the thousands of dollars in loans I took out and just paid off this past spring. And, most of those new writers I wouldn’t read today.
Mostly, I was reading all this stuff about upper-middle class angst. Really jazzy stuff, like how some guy was sorrowing because all he had out of life was his Chrysler agency and ten million bucks and was searching his soul and was in this big blue funk because he hadn’t gone off with Easy Sally that time at the senior prom way back in H.S. Every book I picked up at that period seemed to have a similar theme. I just couldn’t identify. Hell, I never was able to afford a used Chrysler, let alone an entire agency, and I had run off with Easy Sally–yeah, I was that guy, the one in the leather jacket and the slicked-back hair–really! I had hair, back then–and believe me there isn’t a lot of angst to be used for material in the writing trade when you’re sitting in the trailer and Easy Sally is looking like Even Easier Sally and you don’t know where your next PBR is coming from and the TV is flashing those little tornado warnings across the bottom of the screen and you’re trying to quiet the little rascal on your knee that has your last name but the propane delivery man’s hook nose. I just knew somewhere deep inside my bones I couldn’t fake writing a whole, entire book out of what it meant to be the Executive Vice President in Charge of Sales for Southeastern Florida for the Tidy Bowl Corp and sorrowing over the lost babe of his childhood or the sad fact that he’d chucked it all and gone off to paint Tahitian sunsets. Or that his wife had. Crap like that. On the other hand, my own reading list contained names like Charles Bukowski. His stories weren’t about middle-aged English professors who were all in a fret because their wives no longer get excited sitting around listening to them conjugate French verbs and deducing that their lives, the meaningful portions of them, anyway, were over. Some of these guys, it seemed, took 400 pages to figure out why the major babe in their life was leaving. They were bored, Jack.
That was the kind of thing my MFA reading list provided and the kind of thing my personal list gave me.
That lack of faith in one’s acumen is what allows MFA programs to multiply like wharf rats. A host of writers don’t have much faith in their own ability to write and they think that if only they could get those three letters behind their name, not only would they learn neat-o tricks to writing, the powers-that-be would take their efforts seriously.
Well, part of that is untrue. There are no writing “secrets” out there. There truly aren’t. All the secrets are right in front of you. Whenever you read a work of quality and something affects you emotionally, study how the author did it and put it in your tool kit. Part of that is true. There are increasing numbers of editors who don’t have that much talent themselves and many have bought into that lie that MFA grads are better writers than those without those letters behind their names.
Things have changed significantly. A few years ago there were very few MFA programs out there. The school I attended was one of the very best. Vermont College. Every year for many years, they rank in the top five in the list Poets&Writer’s Magazine puts out. Usually as #1. Today, programs are all over the map. They’re the new cash cow schools have found to pump dollars into their coffers. Quite a few are laughable. They’re at schools that aren’t much more than community colleges. More than one of these are nothing but a joke.
I had the choice of attending Vermont or the University of Iowa’s program. I made a lifelong enemy of my mentor, Elaine Hemley, by turning down her recommendation for me to Iowa to attend Vermont. Two reasons. One, I discovered that Iowa was known for operating on a kind of “star” system. If you were their fair-haired, blue-eyed boy, you got all kinds of attention. If you weren’t that guy, in the terms of my Brooklyn friends, fuggedaboutit. They strove to put out an identifiable writer—the “Iowa writer.” Vermont, on the other hand, had the reputation of working to make you a better writer, but not a “Vermont writer.” They wanted you to remain you, but just better. The other reason was Iowa is a full-residency program and VC is a low-residency program. Being married with a family and not having a daddy to send me to school, VC made a lot more sense.
Elaine, this forum is too short for me to say everything I want to about MFA programs. In short, I think they’re kind of fools’ gold for most writers. I think a lot of the folks who go to them think they learned a lot… but I’m not so sure that they have. The one thing a lot of them did emerge with is some confidence in their ability. Not sure if it’s based on anything real, but who knows? The only way I know to learn how to write well is to read a lot and to write a lot. Someone did a study years ago, where they tabulated all professional writers as to their education. They defined “professional” by the only proper way to do so—by writers who made their living from writing. They found that about half had a college education. But, about half had only a high school or even less education. The conclusion was that college had very little correlation to a writer’s success. What was constant with all the writers surveyed was that just about every one was an avid reader from a very early age and remained so throughout their lives. And that’s how I think you learn to write. And, it doesn’t cost any more than a free library card…
Today, there are MFA programs at directional schools, at cow schools, at glorified community colleges. They employ a lot of faculty whose claim to fame is some obscure book that sold fifty copies. The truth is, there aren’t enough quality teachers for all these programs. When there were only a handful of programs, there were some pretty good writers manning them. Today, it’s as if the American and National Baseball Leagues suddenly expanded to fifty teams in each league. That means there are a lot of minor-leaguers playing. It’s the same in a lot of MFA programs…