Dale Lucas

author and screenwriter

Django, Chained

A couple weeks back, I started to write my next blog entry, which was to be a public excoriation of Quentin Tarantino.  Like most film geeks of my generation, I loved Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction when they first arrived.  But, unlike most of my peers, I think QT has become a silly, self-indulgent filmmaker whose early promise has been swallowed in a miasma of surface cool, cartoon camp and kitchsy stylistic flourishes bordering on self parody.  I intended to build a fine case against QT, while also reviewing his newest ‘masterpiece’ Django Unchained, which I planned to see (because if I’m going to talk about a film, I need to see it) and anticipated hating (because I haven’t really liked a QT film since Pulp Fiction).

Something strange happened, though.  First, I ended up sort of liking Django Unchained.  Not loving it, mind you, but certainly finding myself more invested in its story than I have been in any Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction.  A lot of this had to do with QT employing some self-control for once and telling a story that had more-or-less real, interesting characters at its heart, and eschewing his normal (and tiresome) penchant for shattering chronology and emphasizing bizarre little stylistic flourishes to no appreciable narrative end (remember the Pussy Wagon font introducing Hugo Stiglitz in Inglorious Basterds?  Or, for that matter, the Bride’s tiresome attempts in Kill Bill to get her toe to wiggle in said Pussy Wagon?  Snoooooore…).  The other source of my enjoyment might have come from the subject matter, and QT’s handling of it.  Django Unchained, for all its bombast, bent comedy and Spaghetti western silliness, is an earnest and brutal indictment of American chattel slavery, an unequivocal condemnation of slavery’s depredations, and an uncompromising damnation of anyone, anywhere, who thinks they can justify, brush aside, or dilute the poisonous legacy of slavery and the institutionalized racism that it supported.  While I have my issues with the movie as a movie, I think Tarantino’s intent in this regard is commendable.  What I find puzzling is the intensity of the reaction from the peanut gallery.

On one hand, you’ve got black filmgoers tweeting about slaughtering white folks in some long-overdue retribution for slavery’s terrors—which is silly, because it’s not like the terrors of slavery are breaking news.

On the other hand, you’ve got Spike Lee publicly refusing to watch the film, accusing it of making light of slavery and its effect on his ancestors—which is ridiculous, because while the movie is occasionally silly, I don’t think anyone who’s seen it could accuse it of making light of slavery itself.  So, Spike, you ponderous blowhard, you, I’m actually going to recommend you remove your head from your ass, posthaste, and try to make yourself relevant again by other means.

And finally, you’ve got a certain portion of the white audience that sees something pernicious and troubling in Django Unchained—positing either a cynical manipulation of black sympathies by a white filmmaker in the interest of selling more movie tickets, or a dumb dilettante stirring up trouble over old news, the cinematic equivalent of daring mass hysteria and injury by crying ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.

So, as Michael Caine once said, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”  Why all this flap over a single film of dubious merit by an oft-lauded but ultimately goofy filmmaker?  The answer, I think, lies in this simple fact: we think we’ve dealt with the legacy of slavery in this country, but we haven’t.   As a matter of fact, I would argue that a great many cultural factors in this country—from the persistent presence of southern apologists and slavery-softeners (“It wasn’t so bad!  The slaves were well cared-for, as good livestock should be!”) to the economic and social systems we embrace—perpetuate slavery’s pernicious socio-economic influence instead of exorcising it.

So, once more, for those in the cheap seats: slavery was bad.  It is the original sin of this nation, because while we were “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” our founding fathers thought they could still prevaricate and only extend said liberty to people of a certain color; could only interpret the transcendent, glorious idea that “all men… are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… among these… Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” to men only, and to white men of European extraction at that.  If the blight of slavery seems to stain the red, white and blue more deeply and garishly than all the thousands of cultures down through the ages that also practiced varying forms of involuntary servitude, it is simply for that reason: this nation, unlike any other in history, was born of the idea that all human beings are free, a radical idea for its time.  And yet, from the start, we failed to free every human being who called the United States of America home.  We were born of one of the greatest ideas in human history, yet we tainted that great idea with a vile and malignant hypocrisy.

The Civil War provided this country the opportunity to settle the issue of slavery and to set itself on a path toward true equality before the law for everyone that called America home.  Unfortunately, the cavaliers of the ‘gallant South’ proved to be piss-poor losers, and the Federal Administrations that ran this nation in the Civil War’s aftermath proved to be lazy and indolent victors.  Embittered southerners—whiny little curs that they were—responded to a fair-and-square loss with localized insurgencies against occupying Federal troops and reigns of terror aimed at recently-freed slaves and any northerners who dared to try and undo the social and psychological damage that slavery had wrought upon an entire class of human beings.  Southern apologists of that age (and the present one) want to cast this open rebellion and terrorism (along with the war that preceded it) as some sort of brave stand of a proud agrarian people against the oppressive hand of tyrannical federalism, as a matter of freedom and states’ rights, that had little or nothing to do with slavery.  But the fact is, the terrors and depredations of the Ku Klux Klan and their sheet-wearing ilk in this era were neither proud, nor libertarian: they were the cowardly and despicable acts of cowardly and despicable people neither smart enough nor brave enough to see the error of their ways, admit they were wrong, and try to embrace change.

The federal government compounded the issue by failing on the follow-through; or, in modern parlance, by having no exit strategy.  Sure, President Grant signed the Civil Rights Act of 1871 into law, allowing the Federal Government to intervene directly to suppress state disorders and, if necessary, suspend the right of habeas corpus—but it wasn’t enough.  Within ten years of the Civil War’s end, racist southern democrats were back in political power, the Federal government had withdrawn troops from the south and sought to wash their hands of the whole affair, and freed slaves were once more systematically disenfranchised and turned into second-class citizens by the slow passage of the legal code that would come to be known as Jim Crow.  Thus, because of poor planning and lack of conviction on the part of the Federal Government, the Civil War that was won on the battlefield was lost in the streets (not unlike our nation’s many armed adventures abroad, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan).  It would take almost another century, and the work of several generations of civil rights activists and progressive politicians before the oppressive legacy of slavery and the Old South would finally be broken.  Given these facts—a rebellion to preserve a vile socio-economic institution followed by armed terrorism and a century of home-grown American Apartheid—I find the fact that anyone can still proudly put a Confederate flag bumper sticker on their car, refer to the Civil War as the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ with a straight face, or apologize for the abominable feudal system that the Old South embodied absolutely dumbfounding.

But they’re out there: seemingly reasonable, intelligent people—the children of the modern south—who still don’t understand why any American, black or white, could be so upset by stuff that happened so long ago.

Well, befuddled white folks and southern apologists, perhaps the key lies in this simple fact: the legacy of slavery is still with us, played out every day in this country in the subtle socio-economic lessons that we teach our children and inculcate in ourselves.  That lesson is basically this: people with money and power are valuable, people without it are not.  It’s true that the United States is, at the best of times, seen as founded on principles of self-reliance and economic mobility—the notions that anyone willing to work hard, live frugally, and employ a little ingenuity can ultimately become a member of the privileged upper class by virtue of merit, and not (as it was in the Old World) by accident of birth.  But the fact remains that most people who become rich are born into rich families (or, at least, well-to-do ones); that wealth and economic stability pass through generations, and that true mobility, while possible and often apparent, is still the exception and not the norm.  Thus, people born into unfortunate circumstances—be they black, white, or otherwise—spend their lives toiling away, in the blind hope of ‘buying their freedom’ with strategic promotions, the invention of a better lightbulb, or a winning lottery ticket.  Meanwhile, those born well-to-do get to live a risk free existence where career-making unpaid internships are easily supported by trust funds, any number of brash start-ups can collapse because the family always provides a safety net, as do investments, and career opportunities grow like weeds out of educational opportunities that include private schools, Ivy League colleges, expensive tutors, and armies of family attorneys to wipe away chemically-driven missteps and run-ins with the law.

No, we are not slaves in modern America.  We have some choices—usually, choices dictated by the accidents of our birth.  But anyone who thinks that we are a land of truly equal and unfettered opportunity, where the human virtues of hard work and earned merit win out over the elemental forces of money and power is deluded.

Therein lies the legacy of slavery: we say we are a color-blind, money-blind meritocracy, but we are, in fact, still clinging to the ‘natural order’ embraced by our European forebears—an order that says the wealthy are entitled to all they can horde and more, while the middle and lower classes deserve nothing more than what they can snatch with their hands or shove in their shallow pockets.  Many of the black folk who see Django live this reality on a daily basis, and know well how the institution of slavery continues to affect their opportunities for education, for employment, for wealth, and for a sense of self-worth, even though slavery itself is over a century in its grave.  This is also the reason that someone like me—a white kid from the ‘post-racial’ South—can watch Django Unchained and tap its font of rage and revenge.  I’ve never been a slave; my forebears never wore chains; but I am from a world where a fortunate minority seem born to privilege and power, while the lion’s share of the population seem destined for no more than toil and dashed dreams.  Boiled down to its essence, Django Unchained is a story about an underdog standing up to a despicable bully, exacting bloody revenge.  Anyone who was ever picked on in a school yard should be able to understand the politics of the powerful lording over the powerless, and the rush that the powerless get when they finally stand up for themselves.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the big deal.  That’s why black folk are tweeting about killing white folk; why Spike Lee is enraged by QT’s apparent disrespect for the plight of his ancestors; and why some white folk see Django Unchained as dangerous propaganda while others see it as a rootin’, tootin’, hot-blooded revenge fantasy that even they—pale and freckled though they may be—can understand and embrace.  Django Unchained is about the war of the common man against entrenched tyranny—be it racial or socio-economic—and that’s a war still being waged.


[Note: I’d like to apologize for taking so long between blog posts.  Flog me with a wet noodle, I’ll offer some tearful mea culpas, and we can move on…]

A distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) ple...

A distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) pleads for help from Mr. Potter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Christmas movie is a venerable American institution, with a long, proud tradition and a handful of beloved classics representing our best national impulses regarding faith, gift-giving, family gatherings, and free housing for unwed mothers.

This year, though, the Christmas movie has collided head-on with another venerable cinematic tradition—the unnecessary, money-grab sequel—with the straight-to-video release of A Christmas Story 2, starring Daniel Stern.  There’s been no shortage of outrage around this news—after all, did A Christmas Story, a near-perfect film in its own right, really need a follow-up?  Have we really sunk so low in our sequel-addled, risk-averse film culture that we would create a crass and unnecessary follow-up to one of the most beloved holiday films of the modern era?

The answer, of course, is yes, we have.  So, in the interest of doing my part to clog an already sequel-glutted market with unnecessary follow-ups to beloved holiday classics, I offer my own proposal for a sequel to my own favorite holiday film, It’s a Wonderful Life.

So, constant readers, prepare yourselves for a roller coaster ride like no other.  If I had the power to go back in time and make it with a 1940s cast and crew, to maintain continuity, I would.  But, alas, we’re sundered from those bygone days of yore and we have a bottomless toybox of new filmmaking whiz-bangers to pepper our pots with nowadays, so just sort of bridge the gap between Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece and my modern extravaganza with your imaginations.  I’m sure the leap won’t be too far.  I remain very true to the spirit of the original It’s A Wonderful Life, while adding just a touch of modern attitude.  I call it:

 It’s A Wonderful Life 2: Vengeance is Mine

 (I’d really like to call it It’s a Horrible Death, but that might be a little heavy for a Christmas movie…)

The day after Christmas, 1946.

George Bailey (Ben Affleck) narrowly escapes incarceration, but finds that his friends have become clamoring creditors, his wife (Jennifer Garner, because her hubbie got her the job) is disillusioned with their shoddy life and lack of steady income, and all the good will he felt on Christmas day has evaporated into whispers, gossip, and innuendo.  George tries to contact his guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody, but now that he’s a full-fledged angel with wings, George can reach nothing more than Oddbody’s Heavenly voicemail.  Whatever he has to do to escape his present situation, George is on his own.

While trying to surreptitiously speak with Mr. Gower (Martin Landau), the druggist, about acquiring some tranquilizers to take the edge off (he’d like to smoke some opium, but Mr. Potter owns the Chinese Laundry, so George won’t give the old fart the satisfaction), a car speeds by the drugstore and sprays it with machine-gun fire.  George and Mr. Gower survive the attempt, but now George knows that something’s rotten in the village of Bedford Falls; that the lost deposit wasn’t just lost—it was stolen.  So George needs to figure out who took his money, why, and how to take his revenge on them.

Eager to lie low and avoid another assassination attempt, George goes to the big city to hide out with his old friend and rival, the dashing and worldly Sam Wainwright (Bradley Cooper).

In the big city, George and Sam hobnob with Butch (Samuel L. Jackson), a mobster associate of Sam’s.  Butch hears George’s story and tells George that he needs to stand up for himself; he’s been the nice guy too long.  He needs to take the fight to the enemy and show everyone that wonderful lives are seized with power and purpose, not simply inherited by the meek and mild.  “You don’t want to be loved, Georgie-Porgie,” Butch tells him, “you wanna be feared.”

So, armed with some cash from Sam and a promise of aid from Butch, George returns to Bedford Falls.  He enlists the aid of Violet Bick (Scarlett Johansson) to gather street-level intel (don’t be coy; we all know Violet is the town tramp), then does the unthinkable: he kidnaps Uncle Billy (Albert Finney), ties him to a chair, and tortures him for information about the lost deposit.  (He regrets doing this, because he knows Uncle Billy is just a dumb old sot, but he figures pain is the only way to focus Billy’s addled brain).  The torture yields a lead: the last person Uncle Billy remembers seeing before realizing he’d lost the deposit is Mr. Potter.

George realizes that there is only one way to get his street rep back, pay off his creditors, and ensure his future security: he’ll just have to kill Mr. Potter.  BUT, Mr. Potter has gone into lockdown, spending most of his time in his big mansion behind high, stone walls, with an army of former SS shock troops as his personal bodyguards.  Recalling what Butch told him, George knows that he can let nothing stop him: so he’ll just have to put together a super team to start robbing Potter’s banks and businesses to draw him out.

This kicks off a recruitment and training montage (because you need a montage; to show it all would take too long…).  Herein, George and his war hero kid brother Harry (Joseph Gordon Levitt), build their mission team and prepare them for infiltration.  They enlist Ernie, the cab-driver (Steve Buscemi), to arrange transport and customize their fleet; they get Bert, the cop (Brian Cranston), to provide them with arms, ammo and munitions, as well as cover of their activities inside the police department;  Mr. Gower, the chemist, to concoct some smoke bombs, gas grenades, and homemade napalm; and finally, Curtis, a black gardener (Tracey Morgan) from the other side of the tracks, to act as their eyes and ears on Mr. Potter’s estate.  Curtis tries to offer his services as a fighter, since he’s a decorated member of the Buffalo Soldiers—the all-black 92nd Infantry Division—with extensive field combat experience, but George assures Curtis that it’s just his ability to move and work unnoticed on Mr. Potter’s property that they need; they’ve got all the fighters they require.

Once the team is ready, they undertake their first heist, knocking over Mr. Potter’s bank in a daring armed daylight raid and escaping with a whopping $5,000 in cash (come on, it’s the ‘40s—that’s, like, $8 million in modern dollars).  Flush with this success, more heists follow (all presented as part of a montage, because, as I said before, to show it all would take waaaay too long).  They rob one of Potter’s saloons; one of his back-room brothels; one of his Chinese laundries (and George finally snags his opium pipe).  The money piles up; George and company are feeling pretty flush; and Mr. Potter, holed up in his mansion with his Nazi bodyguards, is raging (offering Jack Nicholson, as Mr. Potter, the opportunity to have a curse-laden shit-fit that will probably end up as his Oscar clip).

George tries to smooth things over with Mary and takes her out for a romantic dinner, complete with a bottle of champagne.  George is quite pleased with himself, but Mary finally ends the romantic meal by telling George that he’s changed.  He’s not the good man she married.  “What are you talking about?” George fumes.  “Isn’t this what you wanted?”  “Of course it’s what I wanted,” she says, “I just didn’t want it from you.”  All alone, George takes a walk on the snowy streets of Bedford Falls and runs into none other than Clarence Oddbody, his guardian angel (Patton Oswald).  Clarence tells George that he knows what he’s up to, and that George is headed for a big fall of he stays on his present, vengeful course.  George tells Clarence he can’t hear him—he’s speaking into George’s bad ear—and walks on.

Back at the hideout, George and company are attacked by Potter’s Nazi shock troops (led by a very villainous, oft-sneering Hugo Weaving).  Harry Bailey heroically saves George’s life but ends up getting captured.  Mr. Gower entrusts his chem bombs to the boys, then sacrifices himself in their defense.  Curtis saves the trapped team by busting in behind the wheel of Ernie’s cab and speeding them out of there.

Back at home, George finds the kids gone (they’ve left a note: “Gone to Gramma’s. See you next Wednesday.”) and Mary missing.  Once more, a trap has been laid and George barely escapes his house as it explodes.  When he and his friends retreat to Ma Bailey’s, Mary is still nowhere to be seen.  George deduces that she, too, must have been captured by Mr. Potter.  Now that warped, frustrated old spider is holding the two people in the world that George loves most.  Time for a showdown.

So, George and the boys storm Mr. Potter’s stronghold.  There’s a fierce firefight… big explosions… rapid attack dogs… full-flight wire kung fu…  fist fights!!!  After fighting their way through the yard and gardens, the guys make it inside the mansion—then get separated by moving walls and pneumatic doors.  George ends up in a cellar brig, assuming that he’s found the place where Harry must be held captive.  But George ends up at a dead end, surrounded, and learns the awful truth: Harry, Mary, and Sam Wainwright are all in cahoots with Mr. Potter, having been bought off with money, cushy jobs, and promises of vacation homes in warmer climes.  Violet is also present, Potter’s prisoner, being mercilessly tortured by the jealous Mary.  As George, Bert, and Ernie are gathered and about to be executed—

—Curtis and Uncle Billy bust in and save the day.  But Potter’s got another surprise up his sleeve: his Nazi bodyguards aren’t just bodyguards—they’re full-fledged fiery demons from the pits of hell!  (In Nazi uniforms.)  Pandemonium ensues.  There are more explosions and gunfights.

Bert and Ernie die in a hail of gunfire like the Gorch brothers in The Wild Bunch, declaring their closeted love for one another with their dying breaths.  Curtis saves George’s life and tries to kill the Nazi commander, but the demon Nazi is too powerful and incinerates Curtis with a wave of his hand (man… sucks to be Curtis).  That’s when George’s luck really comes in and Clarence Oddbody arrives, complete with a small army of winged angels armed with shiny silver pistols and Tommy guns spewing bright blue Heavenly fire.

As the devils and angels do battle, Violet and Mary have a kung fu catfight under some damaged water mains, their garments clinging to their bodies and their hair whipping this way and that like a couple of sweaty little jail-baiters at a rave.  Mary fights dirty, but Violet wins.

Elsewhere, George pursues the fleeing Mr. Potter.  Mr. Potter doubles back on George and gets the drop on him, taking aim with his wheelchair-mounted machine guns.  It looks like George’s wonderful life has come to a horrible end… but Uncle Billy is there is save George again!  Uncle Billy unloads a pump shotgun on Potter as Potter empties his wheelchair-mounted machine guns into Uncle Billy.  As Uncle Billy dies, George forgives him for being a silly, absent-minded old rummy that almost landed him in prison—but then George realizes that the dying Mr. Potter has activated a failsafe to blow his mansion sky high!  George and Violet run for their lives as the angels and demons keep fighting.  The mansion blows sky high just as George and Violet burst out the front door.

As the manse burns and money flutters down from the sky, the townsfolk arrive.  George suggests the money and says, “Take it, it’s yours.  We’re square.”  When they ask what George is going to do, George takes Violet in his arms and says, “Blow this pop stand.  What do you think Vi?  Florida or California?”  Violet’s answer: “Anywhere but here, Georgie-boy.”  Away they go.  Roll credits over Jay-Z’s smash-hit new single, “Christmas Smackdown (Motherf***ers).”

Fade out.

Man!  Quite a ride, right?  I’d totally pay my hard-earned money to see that magnum opus on a big IMAX screen in 3D, especially if a top-notch filmmaker like Michael Bay directed it.  He’s overdue for a Christmas movie.  I think this is the new classic he’s looking for.  After all, some long shots of the heroes walking in slow motion, gi-normous, fiery explosions, and waving American flags are just the thing to make an already balls-nuts movie spectacular.

Mr. Bay: I’m available for meetings at your leisure.

Dear Readers: I expect epic turnout at the box office.

Five Damn Good Reasons To Write A Book

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six. There were brief periods when I toyed with other vocations (among them archeologist and special effects makeup technician) but by and large, the drive’s been unwavering. I was born to write (I told myself with confidence), and that’s all there was too it. Sure, as I’ve gotten older, written more, tried to make a professional go at it, I’ve learned that things are tougher than I expected. But at the end of the day, it really doesn’t make a difference: this particular madness is in my blood and there’s no shaking it. If I never make a nickel at it, I still refuse to stop doing it. (This isn’t courage so much as compulsion: real writers—the sort born to the craft—really are just a step away from OCD therapy in regard to their need to make shit up, write it down, and get other people to read it.)

However, I’ve learned that there are other sorts of people out there who answer the siren call of the blank page. Many of them haven’t harbored a deep, burning desire to write since they were children; many of them, no matter how seriously they take the craft when they come to it, don’t see it as their primary calling, but as a sort of interesting sideline; but, nonetheless, they’re out there: people who want to write a book—any book—just to see if they can. I have a number of friends who fall into this category. I try to be as supportive and encouraging and enthusiastic as possible. Problem is, they’ve always got a reason not to do it.

I understand this. I’ve found myriad reasons not to do a veritable mountain of sensible and rewarding things. But, since wisdom holds that we ultimately regret the things we didn’t do more than the things we did, I would argue that most sensible people with an even mild inkling to try writing a book have no reason not to. So, in the interest of lighting fires under a few fannies, here are five damn good reasons why you—yes, you dear reader—should just throw caution to the wind and write that book.

First: It’s fun. Seriously. If you’ve never tried it, you should. You get to invent non-existent but fascinating people (not unlike a person afflicted with schizophrenia) then imagine all sorts of elaborate settings and situations and convoluted undertakings to involve them in (which is also, remarkably, similar to the psychological symptoms of the aforementioned schizoaffective affliction. Hmmmm…). You can make these well-wrought daydreams as grounded or as flighty as you like, keeping them confined to suburban U.S.A. or creating entire universes. Few things, friends and neighbors, are as rewarding as playing deity on the printed page, or lingering, voyeur-like, in the darkest shadows of your characters’ workspaces or bedrooms, bearing witness to their triumphs, their tribulations, their shames and their sorrows. This alone should convince you that you need to write a book. I shouldn’t even have to offer four more reasons.

But I will.

Second: It’s rewarding. Making art enlarges you (and yes, writing is art—even if you’re just out to write a pulp western or a bodice-ripping romance; I might draw the line at porny Twilight fanfic with the character names changed in order to avoid copyright infringement, though). When you set out to do a thing you’ve never done before, to learn its science well enough to be competent, and its art well enough to be unique and inspiring, you enrich your spirit, deepen your understanding of yourself and others, and gain confidence. Even if you find that you weren’t very good at it, or that you never want to do it again, you’ve got something to show for your effort: a completed, readable manuscript that you can yank out of your drawer on command, proudly display, and shout, “I did this! I made this glorious, awful, forgettable, daffy, sublime piece of misguided literary insanity! Yay, me!”

Wouldn’t you like to be enlarged (in a philosophical and spiritual sense, anyway)? Wouldn’t you like to be enriched? Wouldn’t you like to feel like you really did something that you set out to do? Something you never did before? Well, what the hell are you waiting for?

Oh, you still want three more reasons. You’re not convinced. Fine…

Third: It’s doable. Seriously—this isn’t climbing Mount Everest or exploring Mars or getting elected to public office without being the soiled bitch of moneyed special interest groups (which, so far as I can tell, may be the most impossible thing in the world to do). This is sitting down continually for a period of months, putting one word in front of the other to create the vivid and continuous dream that is a story, until said story finds its resolution and you type ‘The End.’ You can do this with a very minimal time commitment: an hour or two a day, five or six days a week (you’re allowed one off; two if you’ve maintained good output for the week). Isn’t making art worth missing a couple episodes of Honey Boo Boo or Jersey Shore? Of course it is…

Fourth: It’s impressive. Seriously—I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who say they’re writers, who have never, ever finished a book-length manuscript. Sure, they might have boatloads of dog-eared journals filled with thoughts and ruminations and navel-gazing free-form poetry. Sure, they may have written a few short stories or articles for the local paper. Heck, they may even have lots of ideas for book-length works and tons of notes: outlines, character sketches, scene breakdowns, timelines! But, they’ve never written the book. That means that even if you’ve written a bad book (and I can promise you that the first book you write will be bad; everyone’s is), so long as it’s complete, you’re still more of a ‘writer’ than the self-proclaimed writer who’s never bothered to write a book. You did something that many people dream of doing and never do, and you’ve got a finished product to show for it (relative merit of said product notwithstanding). At the very least, it’s a great conversation piece at parties—especially if offered as dismissively as possible, as if it was the easiest thing you ever did. “Sure, I wrote a book once…”

Fifth, and finally: It could change your life. Sure, there’s the obvious game-changer of writing a book as an idle fancy, finding out it’s brilliant, selling it for a million dollars, and finally living the life of leisure you’ve always dreamed of… but that pretty much never happens so I won’t even dignify it here. Even authors who seem to be ‘overnight successes’ or who ‘come out of nowhere’ have usually written two or three bad books that the world never sees before they sell their first good one. And selling a book doesn’t mean you’re on easy street: only four percent of the published writers breathing air in America right now make enough from their writing to live on.

No, I’m talking about something less exciting but more profound. You might find that it gives you genuine pleasure, a sense of honest accomplishment, and a deeper sense of pride and purpose. Maybe you won’t be good at it right away—but you might sense that you could be. And even if you’re never a master… damn, it felt good. It felt right. It felt like home.

Beyond internal epiphanies there’s the possibility of broader horizons. Maybe you’ll write that book and decide that wordsmithing isn’t your calling. Nonetheless, by doing something you’ve always dreamed of doing but never done before—and finishing what you started—you realize that you can do just about anything, if you simply make the time, learn the ropes, and do the work. Once you’ve learned that lesson, you can do just about anything: start a business; quit the dead-end day job and find another one that actually gives you some satisfaction; move on to a new art, like music or painting or photography; perfect your chili recipe or learn how to make mind-blowing cupcakes. The possibilities are endless—but you also realize they’re possible, because, at least once, you finished a seemingly impossible task that you set for yourself.

So what are you waiting for? If you’ve ever suspected you had a book in you, now’s the time to clear an hour or two off your schedule each day, hole yourself up in a small, private space, and start stringing those words together. Heck, National Novel Writing Month is November—you’ll be just in time to join the party and lay down your first 50,000 words! (Never heard of NaNoWriMo? Check it out here.)

Next time, I’ll offer Five Damn Good Books On Writing, to give you some wisdom and support in your new endeavor. Until then, I invite additions to the list above. Have you got an even better reason to write your book than I offered you? Share it!

Wise Words, A Slap In The Face

A while back I wrote about the challenges of trying to foster a writing career when temperament and circumstance both seem aligned to undo you. Like a lot of people with some dream job they’re trying to will into existence—be it a small business, a career in a fiercely competitive field, or some economic crapshoot like writing or playing music full time—I have thorny ups and downs in regard to how I feel about myself, my work, my progress, and my prospects. Some days, I can embrace my art and the burdens it brings wholeheartedly, reveling in the rather romantic notion that I’m some sort of knight errant of words on a holy quest to write something wonderful that will finally win me a comfortable, welcoming place in a hitherto hostile or indifferent world. Other days, the hostile and indifferent world seems to be winning, and I’m pretty sure that I should go heave myself off a bridge. The day job sucks up too much time (I lament)… the new baby sucks up too much energy… the mailbox and inbox yield nothing but rejection slips… everything I do manage to write is complete garbage… and why isn’t there ever enough money?

You know the drill, I’m sure. We’ve all been there.  (If you haven’t been there and you’re not lying, I hate you.)

But often, when I do find strength, or focus, or even just a swift kick in the rear to get me moving again, it comes from one place: best-selling novelist and gunnery sergeant of my muse, Steven Pressfield. Because nary a week goes that I don’t turn, at some point, to this wise and worldly wordsmith’s wisdom for a little pick-me-up or some time-to-get-real motivation, I figure I should take a moment to publicly give credit where credit is due, and turn you all on to a great writer and invaluable mentor.

To be clear, I don’t know the man. I’ve never met him. I just know his words, and those words continue to challenge and inspire me. I first stumbled on his work in 1998, when the Borders I worked in received his just-published novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire. Historical fiction wasn’t really my bag in those days, but the book called out to me and the read was a rare and delightful one. Therein, Mr. Pressfield managed the nearly-impossible task of making the outcome of a well-known historical event suspenseful, evoking the world of Ancient Sparta with a scholar’s rigor and a poet’s mastery, and—perhaps most important of all—making me feel deeply about the characters I encountered, and believe—without cynicism or reservation—in the ideals they fought and paid the ultimate price for. Entertaining me is not so difficult; impressing me with your research and the ease with which you sow it into a narrative only a little moreso; but getting my stony, cynical, world-weary heart to open like a flower and ache at the employ of words like duty, honor, patriotism, and faith? Let me tell you, friends and neighbors: that’s nothing short of a miracle. Ever since my first reading of Gates of Fire, I’ve never failed to recommend it to anyone and everyone I meet, having leant it out so many times that I’ve lost it and re-purchased it three or four times over.

But there are lots of writers whose work I admire and read that I don’t really think of as ‘mentors.’ Steven Pressfield became my mentor when I discovered his incomparable treatise on creativity, The War of Art. There are a lot of books out there on how to write, how to sell, how to be creative, how to get motivated, ad nauseum. I know, because I’ve read a lot of them. The War of Art is different: in a couple hundred slim pages, with chapters as elegant as cerebral zen gardens and as short as flash fiction, Big Steve lays down some of the most bullshit-free ruminations on creativity, struggle, and fear that I’ve ever read.

“The artist committing himself to his calling,” he writes, “has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.” But (he goes on to say elsewhere), “It’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot…”

Put another way: “The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”

I believe this. I try to live this. Sometimes I fail to. And when I fail to, The War of Art eventually calls out to me from my shelf, and I idly draw it out and let it fall open, and I’m reminded again what matters.

Sitting down every day and trying.

To be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull.

Like any good narrative, The War of Art depicts a conflict between powerful forces: the self-actualizing force of the Pro, and the pernicious, frustrating force of Resistance. Resistance (yes, capital R) is a personified force that lives in all of us and that tries it’s damnedest to keep us from being whoever or whatever it is that we’re supposed to be. It’s the voice that tells us we’re not good enough; the voice that tells us we don’t have to time or the energy; the voice that tells us that whatever nutty thing it is we want to do is… well, it’s just nutty, and we really shouldn’t waste our time doing it. Opposing Resistance is the Pro—our higher self, the guy (or gal) who knows that sales, accolades, and material success do not define the true Artist (or Entrepreneur—as Big Steve often equates the two); that one’s true mettle, one’s true purpose, are defined by what one does and the attitude one takes in the doing.

In short: turning Pro is, ultimately, the only way to combat Resistance. And being a Pro has nothing whatsoever to do with how much money you’re making, or how successful you are by worldly standards; it has to do with how seriously you take your work.

“The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work,” he writes. “The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.”

That’s quite a bucket of cold water—but it strikes me as absolutely, undeniably, indubitably true. I can only do the work, and do it like I mean it. Everything else is out of my hands.

I find that accepting that notion obliterates all my excuses. (Although I’m still quite good at making excuses… just ask my wife.)

So, that said, here’s to Steven Pressfield—the best teacher I ever had that I never met. Every single time I’ve been at a creative or existential crossroads in the past five or six years (and there have been quite a few), Big Steve taps me on the shoulder, offers some wise words, gives me a good slap in the face to punctuate them, then hustles me on my way. My novel Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights wouldn’t exist without those wise words, or that slap in the face.  He’s not flighty or fussy; he’s not bombastic or base; he’s not promising me that if I subscribe to his system or attend his seminar, I’ll get rich, be famous, and drive fast cars. All he promises (because he’s learned by experience) is that the work can be its own reward when we choose to see it as such. And if you start to doubt whether this man has anything to teach you, you need only be reminded that these wise little codices on ‘the work’ are not his primary output: his primary output consists of some of the finest historical fiction written in the last twenty years. He walks the walk.

I believe in saying thank you when someone gives you a gift.  This is that thank you.

If you’d like to check out Steve’s weekly insights on writing—on ‘the work’—you can find them here, at his web page.

Glasses hoisted and praises sung, what say you all? Where do you look when you’re down and lost and thirsty for inspiration (especially of the vocational sort)? What mentor, near or far, would you like to pay tribute to? Where do you find inspiration when your chosen calling—be it words, or music, or painting, or business—seems a curse instead of a blessing?

The Dread Baron Rides Again!

One year ago this week, Beating Windward Press unleashed my first published novel, Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights, upon an unsuspecting world. In the year that’s passed (too quickly, I might add) I’ve been tickled pink by the big love the Dread Baron’s earned from readers far and wide, and I’ve been hard at work on a sequel, tentatively titled Crossfire.  In honor of Doc’s first birthday, I’d like to offer my loyal readers a taste of what’s to come, with an excerpt from the aforementioned Crossfire.

For newcomers: Doc Voodoo is a pulp hero of my own devising, my take on the shadowy crime fighters of 1930s pulp magazines like The Shadow, The Spider, or The Avenger.  By day, he’s Dr. Dub Corveaux–a black physician and man of letters in Prohibition-era Harlem; by night, Dr. Dub Corveaux gets horsed (that is, possessed) by vodou lwa (the lwa being the gods of vodou) and stalks Harlem as a shadowy, supernaturally-powered avenger, serving up two-fisted justice with a heaping helping of hot lead on the side.  If you haven’t read his first adventure already, my only question is: what the heck are you waiting for?  Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights is available as a trade paperback or an e-book from online booksellers everywhere.

In the meantime, whether you’re one of the Dread Baron’s many fans or just making his acquaintance, I offer a little preview of Doc Voodoo: Crossfire below.  Herein, Mambo Rae Rae, a vodou priestess in Harlem in hock to the mob prepares to summon a very nasty lwa for a very nefarious purpose:

Mambo Rae Rae had to do everything right, or the only person hexed might be her.

Following some initial study—she needed to brush up on circles of protection and the like—a trip to Bellevue was in order.  There, she called in a favor from a regular petitioner—a laundress with access to a number of corridors and stairwells.  The young lady guided Mambo Rae Rae through the Bellevue labyrinth and into an unused basement chamber beneath the lunatics’ wing.  There, Rae Rae took a measure of soil from the earthen floor, knowing that the grief and madness poisoning it would have powerful namh.

If this operation worked, the Reverend Barnabus Farnes wouldn’t know what hit him.  Yes indeed, Rae Rae would remind that stiff-backed, self righteous old bag of bones that all the unseen powers—from the god he served to the lwa she held commerce with—were more than abstract ideas in dusty old books, more than Sunday sermons and rules inscribed on stone tablets or reproduced in cross-stitch for parlor walls.  Those powers were alive, and they were about to lay their dread gazes upon the Reverend Farnes in a most direct and unpleasant fashion.

She just had to make it through the summoning without ending up dead or stark raving mad.  If she could manage that, the rest of the operation should be duck soup.

Around nine o’clock on a Thursday evening, Rae Rae borrowed a broken-in Holmes sedan from a hotel maître d’ who often paid her for love charms and Tarot readings, then lit out for Queens.  Though clouds cloaked the stars and there was no moon to speak of, no rain was forecast for the evening.  She’d work her maji under the open sky, in the most remote location that she could think of which also met the ritual requirements.

Her destination was a wasteland of soot and ash known colloquially as Mount Corona—officially, the Corona Ash Dump, in Flushing.  The only mountains in Mount Corona were mountains of ashes hauled from furnaces and butt-cans all over the city, deposited out on Flushing’s edge like the ghosts of hills flattened by the city of skyscrapers and high-rises she left behind.  Rae Rae needed a crossroads and she needed privacy.  On a moonless midnight, she guessed the ash fields would offer both.

She arrived at the intersection of Corona Avenue and an unmarked country road with only an hour to spare.  She parked her borrowed car off the road, its headlamps pointed into the intersection.  With no moon or stars, no street lights or civilization near, her only light were those two glaring orbs at the nose of the car and a small lantern that she’d packed in an old, beaten picnic basket with her other ritual implements.

Rae Rae worked by the garish light of the car’s headlamps—a light that spread in a shallow arc across the intersection, throwing every stone and ripple into sharp relief and making of her own shadow a slanting, elongated giant.  In the intersection, she drew a large circle, and around the circumference of that circle she drew protective veves and inscribed words of power.  That would hold the lwa she’d come to call.  She added a smaller circle with more warding words just outside of it: her personal refuge.  That done, she fetched a corked bottle of good, imported rum infused with gunpowder and placed it in the very center of the circle.  If all went according to plan, the lwa she intended to summon would manifest inside that circle, and the words of power and veves she had inscribed around it would keep it well bound.

At least, she hoped they would.

Kalfou was not to be trifled with.

Mambo Rae Rae had only seen Kalfou summoned twice in the whole of her forty-odd years of life.  Both manifestations were memorable in the worst ways, and still sometimes terrified her when she dredged up their memories and dwelt on them too long.  One of the possessed voudisants had squatted by a bed of smoldering coals, scooped up an enormous handful, then opened his mouth and shoveled them down his gullet.  She remembered the smell of burning flesh as he held the coals… the choked, inhuman laughter he’d offered as he chewed and swallowed them.  The laughter had been Kalfou’s.  The screams that followed when Kalfou dismounted and departed were the horse’s.

The other manifestation had been a young woman—a beautiful girl whom everyone agreed was the prettiest maiden in the village.  When Kalfou mounted her, she’d astonished the onlookers with an absolutely gut churning sexual display, dancing and exposing herself so lewdly that even Rae Rae—no Puritan, surely—had been shocked.  When her dance was done, the girl had shattered a number of rum bottles left on the Petro altar and eaten the broken glass as though it were rock candy.  She wasn’t so pretty after that.

That was Kalfou.  The Lurker at the Threshold.  The Haunter of the Crossroads.  Chaos Incarnate.  He was Papa Legba’s vile twin, eager to throw the doors between the two worlds wide at the slightest provocation and set terrible powers loose in the mortal world.

And here she was, trying to call him up and ask him for a favor.

Rae Rae took an awful risk, calling Kalfou alone like this, trying to bind him, denying him a horse to ride.  He could take that as a sign of her mistrust, her fear, or her ignorance and burst his bonds just to prove he could.  She might end the night burrowing into one of those ash mounds nearby under his control, then suffocating once he’d departed.

Just remember, she thought, you didn’t have a choice.

She only half-believed that.

Time to get started.

Rae Rae emptied the rest of her implements from the picnic basket: a knife; a kwa-kwa rattle, to provide some rhythm for her Petro song; a small, red velvet bag filled with six silver dollars and some of the lunatic earth from the Bellevue cellars; and finally, an old flour sack, tied shut, moving the slightest as she lifted it out of the basket.  There was a black tomcat in the flour sack, caught that very afternoon after she’d enticed it with a dish of laudanum-laced milk.

The mambo took the flour sack and her ritual knife out to the center of the big circle.  There, she laid the bag down beside the bottle of gunpowder-laced rum, gently probed the cat’s shrouded shape with her fingers, and plunged her knife into the kitty’s throat.  It squawled a little when pierced, then mewled sedately as its lifeblood flowed out of it.  Rae Rae left the dying feline in the blood-stained sack and moved hastily into her own protected circle at the edge of the larger one.

She turned her back to the big circle and knelt in her own.  Wiser boukour than she recommended keeping one’s back to Kalfou in such situations, lest you engender his fury—or worse, invite him to mount you.  The car was still parked on the opposite side of the big circle, headlamps pouring their harsh light over the crossroads and throwing her shadow out before her, a long, lean, darksome marionette that scarcely seemed human, even as it matched her movements.  She considered doubling back to the car to turn off the lamps, but the offering was already bleeding inside the summoning circle.  She had to get started.

The mambo stitched a rhythm with her kwa-kwa rattle, and began her song.  She was astonished by how quiet and deserted the world around her felt, out here in the middle of nowhere, on a night blacker than a coal vein and twice as cold.  Tendrils of ash skirled off their scudding mounds as winds whispered through the wasted grounds, making shadows of their own as they danced between she and the car lamps at her back.

She closed her eyes.  Beat time with the rattle.  Sang.  So alone, in the center of those roads to nowhere, she started to hear sounds in the world around her that could not be real.  Small scuttlings magnified.  Sarabandes made of phantom breezes.  A chanting voice in the rattle that shook in her hands, stitching its terrible, unyielding tripartite beat.

The blood was spilt to draw him.  If she wanted to petition Kalfou, she would now have to offer him payment.

Still keeping time with her rattle, still singing her song, Rae Rae lifted the little red velvet bag, heavy with silver coins and poisoned earth.  She sang the last verse—the verse about a suitable offering and gratitude eternal—then pitched the bag backward over her shoulder.  It landed seconds later with a musical tinkling, somewhere behind her.

Then, Mambo Rae Rae waited.  Her song was over.  To finally open the door and bring Kalfou through, only one action remained.

She bent forward, kissed the paving three times while saying Kalfou’s name in between, then finally made fists and rapped them in rapid succession on the same patch of asphalt.

She kept her eyes shut.  She listened.  She hoped.

If he manifested, there would be some indication: words on the wind… a new tremulousness to the air … the sudden arrival of a flock of crows or a bevy of dump rats acting as Kalfou’s envoys.  Anything was possible.  She need only listen for it.

Because she would not open her eyes.  She could not.  If she opened them and saw something—a new shadow cast alongside her own by those glaring headlights—dear God, Mambo Rae Rae might go mad!

She waited.  The temptation to open her eyes—to crack them just the slightest, like a child playing possum for a parent trying to drag them out of bed—was almost unbearable.  But she fought the urge.  If she opened her eyes, even the slightest, and saw something moving in the light of the headlamps, she might be further tempted.  She might want to open her eyes all the way… to look over her shoulder.

But she knew that someone—something—might be standing in that circle if she turned and looked over her shoulder.  And she would not want to meet that someone’s gaze.  Not now.  Not ever.

A new breeze mowed through the ash that surrounded her.  Somewhere she heard the flap of small, leathery wings.  Insects seemed to be swarming over her bent knees, but she knew that was just aching muscles and an active imagination.

She waited.



Did she do something incorrectly?  Were the circles of protection a misguided addition?  Had her song not been loud enough, or long enough?  Perhaps the cat wasn’t a suitable offering?  Kalfou, being famously hostile and recalcitrant, might not appear for anything so base as a stray tom.  If it had been her tomcat and not a stray—an animal she owned and felt some affection for—that might have made a difference…

She counted to twenty, slowly.  Still, she heard nothing.  Felt nothing.  There was only the susurrating nocturne of the night breezes through the ash lands; the great, high lonesome of Queens at midnight.  Mambo Rae Rae sighed.  She would have to approach this differently… get the help she needed in some other way.

She opened her eyes.

There was a long dark shadow in the light of the headlamps that as not her own.

A cold hand fell on her neck and caressed her, so cold it burned like red-hot iron.

Mambo Rae Rae shot to her feet.  Reflex almost forced her to bolt from the circle—to run, as far and as fast as her feet could carry her—but she resisted the urge.  She kept her back to the great summoning circle, her eyes on the broad pool of light stretching out before her… and that separate, alien shadow that swayed behind her own.

He was here now.  Kalfou.  She knew it.  It had been his cold-hot hand on the back of her neck.

A series of terrible sounds rose behind her: canvas, tearing slowly under strong, sure hands; small, wet twigs cracking and breaking; a viscous sucking mingled with the gnashing of teeth on cold flesh.

Kalfou was eating the tomcat.

I should never have done this, she thought.  Never, never, never, never. 

Something flew into her peripheral vision on a low, flat arc, hit the verge of the highway, and tumbled off into the patchy, dead grass beside it.

The tomcat’s remains: broken, bloodied, mangled by strong hands and teeth.

Then, Kalfou spoke…