The Death of a Literary Critic

09/27/2012 at 5:58 am (Writing) (, , , , , )

On my facebook fan page, I posted this.

http://www.dailydot.com/culture/literary-criticism-peter-stothard-book-bloggers/

And then I said this: Dear readers, do any of you have an opinion on this? Love to hear it if’n you.  I certainly have one. Or three.

My wondering got me this from a good friend, a terrific writer, and a great editor.

“If literary critics had solid standards for a critic’s education, perhaps even certification, he might have a point.  But what is “traditional lit crit” except self-appointed experts who found someone to publish their opinion?  Now anyone can publish their opinion.  He says all opinions are not equally valid, and I agree.  Amazingly, most people can manage to distinguish between those that are and those that aren’t, given what they like to read.  For instance, I expect that Sir Stothard’s opinion of any particular book of fantasy fiction, were he to even bother to review one, would differ widely from mine.  Now I can go online and find lots of opinions on a fantasy book, some of which I will learn to trust as being similar to my own.  And this is a problem because…?  Silly man.”

To which I could not help but respond:

“Oh, good point!  We require certification for almost everything now, things that were once the province of wildcats.  Like making movies.  Used to be you grabbed a camera, some real cowboys, a pretty girl to tie to some railroad tracks, and you had a movie.  The internet has given us wildcats back and in, of all places, the world of books.  If you’re good enough, and work hard enough, you can get a successful blog going.  Of course, if I know human nature, successful bloggers will find a way to control their new “industry” just as this poor man fights to save his old industry.  But for now it’s a free-for-all. 

Then there’s your terrific point about what REAL literary critics actually read and write about.  Certainly not fantasy or sci fi or horror.  Genre fiction has been ignored forever.  Actually, they’ve been scorned.  I will admit I do try and read what wins the Booker Prize or the National Book Award each year, but almost always set it aside for something much more interesting. Like a good book.”

And now here, I ask: any thoughts?

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One Writer’s Day and Night and Day

04/06/2012 at 6:38 am (Hypatia of Alexandria, Mary Magdalene, Writing) (, , , , , , , )

A writer, if they’re lucky, doesn’t know what time it is. A writer, if they’re lucky, doesn’t know which day of the week it is. Hours, days, weeks, months, are nothing more than Now… and Now is anytime. It’s any place the work is.

As Mary Magdalene, I studied in the Great Library of Alexandria. And when I was done filling my head with the knowledge of the world, I walked the land of what Rome called Palestine with Jesus. I was his teacher. I was his Beloved Companion. And we talked to all who would listen as I worked for seven years on The Secret Magdalene.

I was born during the last part of the fourth century to Alexandria’s leading mathematician breathing the air of of Rome’s Egypt as Hypatia . In my time, I was exalted beyond all women and most men, and then, still young, still fair, still revered by thousands, I was cruelly brought down by a few in a way hard to comprehend. And when that was done, the world tried to forget me.

I was pampered and rich, white and foolish in the city of San Francisco. It was the Roaring Twenties and I fell in love with a man forbidden to me, a man I destroyed in China Blues.

I was a writer, a woman who destroyed herself in a small town in a sweet slice of green called Vermont… or perhaps I recreated myself? Running from what I had done, I found a haunted hotel to die in. Or to live in forever. As I wrote Houdini Heart, I did not plan or plot or scheme. The work simply came with barely a change of word when it was finished. I don’t know if my hotel was haunted. I don’t know if everything is haunted, but I suspect it is.

Over my own years, the years I live as Ki, these things come to me. They are almost easy now. But only because I prepared for their coming. I learned how to write by reading. I learned how to write by writing. I took no course. I followed no rules but those that seemed mine. They were never mine. Story telling is ancient and all who listen know when a story is right and when it is wrong. They did not get taught this. Humans are born to tell stories or to hear them.

If the life you live seems pale to you, uneventful, unimportant, all that can change with a word. Even better, with thousands of words. Read them or write them. Better, do both. And you too will forget what time it is and your life will seemingly last forever.

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The Birth and Rebirth of a First Book

03/14/2012 at 11:29 am (Publishing, Writing) (, , , , , , , , )

All my life, like so many of you, I wanted to be a writer. A writer of novels, those loose jointed free wheeling tales of… ah, there was my problem. I believed I had no tales to tell. I was under no illusion that the story of my life would interest anyone. (How wrong I turned out to be… and one day I will write, not all, but choice selections from it, and I will call the book The Last Showboat. At this very moment, this story becomes a film, but I digress. I am a first rate digresser.) I also suffered the idea that I lacked imagination. I did not have stories telling themselves in my head. I did not sit in open air cafes with a leather-bound notebook and look arty as I scribbled away with an unusual pen. In fact, an idea never entered my head until I faced the empty page on a typewriter and then I began to type. I forced myself to type. Anything. Everything. And out came stories. Stories I had no idea were there.

So to publish my first novel, to have it accepted by a real publisher, was astounding.

My first book was called China Blues. A confession. At the time, I was thrilled to be in print but rather hesitant about the book’s merit. Besides English via Harper Collins in England and Doubleday in the U.S., it went into eight other languages and I still felt slightly uncomfortable about it.

Years passed, a whole slew of them, and my little publishing house Eio Books insisted on reissuing it. To reissue meant I had to read it again. I went unwilling into those pages. What a complete turnaround. All these years and all these varied books later, I’ve reread it as if I had never read it before. And my hesitancy vanished. So much so, I felt I would write about it here since it’s so much as if I were reading the work of someone else. We forget what we’ve said and how we’ve said it. Our perceptions change. Our tastes. Our experiences. And with all that, I found it a wonderful read, full of color and pace and character. I wrote it, and yet I wanted to know what happened. It made me laugh again. It worried me. I cared about the people trapped on those pages, people who could only live again if someone read the words written about them. And the story made me cry. Eventually, as it did the first time round, it broke my heart.

Turns out it’s also topical. The dangerous (even now) mingling of races, in this case a lily white woman of privilege and a Chinese man of true grit, all set against the background of San Francisco in the 1920s.

It was optioned in Hollywood by the famous production team of Zanuck and Brown. It was expected to go places. But like all stories, it suffered a twist in its own tail that shunted it off its high rolling track onto a spur. It’s waited all these years to be read again. The people at Eio Books believe that. Now I believe it too.

When it was first offered by my agents for sale, it went into auction… meaning more than one publisher wanted it. I’ll never forget what one editor said. She said it was a modern day EMMA. And it is. I find myself quite proud of it, so proud I hope it finds a new audience in this new world.

Here’s another chance for Lizzie and Li and Kit and Fearless O’Flooty. Show ’em what you’re made of, my lovelies.

Publisher’s weekly said: “”Offbeat, unruly characters and vibrant atmosphere spill over the pages of this promising first novel set in San Francisco during Prohibition… Bootlegging, the Tong Wars, smoky speakeasies, inept mobsters, and the Teapot Dome scandal zigzag through these pages like streaks of lightning. The Jazz Era leaps to life.”

I didn’t believe it then, but I believe it now.

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The End of Us

02/14/2012 at 5:49 am (Hypatia of Alexandria, Mary Magdalene, Writing) (, , , , , , , )

Writers and artists have often stood up for social and political beliefs. They’ve been silenced for it, sent to Stalin’s Siberia or Hitler’s concentration camps for it, stood up against walls. Hell only knows exactly what the Chinese or Koreans or Muslim terrorists do. But it’s bad. I’m not that kind of writer. I love what artists make, I care deeply about our planet and all lifeforms on it that are essentially innocent of its destruction, namely very young children, all animals, most women. In the historical novel form I write about what I know is the answer to human fear and greed and the insanity that grows from these like tumors. In The Secret Magdalene and in Flow Down like Silver I write in the hope I am able to give people that answer: awakening. Not to set aside the ego. The ego is a necessary tool to live in the world. But we have exalted the ego high above the spirit. And the ego is afraid and it works not for the good of all, but for its own perceived safety and gain.

I become more and more political now. As a species we have been destructive in so many ways for so long. The Earth could, until recently, accommodate our selfish wasteful violence. But we are fast reaching a time when it can’t accommodate us. The Earth has known almost the complete eradication of life at least 6 times. Over billions of years, it blooms again. This time, the eradication of life will take us with it: the pollution of the environment, the death of the sea, the extinction of every sort of other living form but ours, Monsanto’s evil design on owning genetically altered seeds, outlawing the use of natural seeds, and poisoning the land with pesticides, Big Oil’s hideously irresponsible dirty oil pipeline across Canada and the US. These terrible things will not take the Earth. As ever, the Earth will survive. But we won’t. Short term greed and fear and the insane need for power will take us down as a species. So I become political… something I thought I would never again do after watching the calculating media’s (spurred on behind the scenes) destruction of the brilliant and caring Howard Dean as a presidential candidate. I sign almost every petition sent me by Moveon.org or Dean’s “Democracy for America.” Does it do any good? Yes, it does. Loss of votes means loss of power. Those who have or seek power care about this.

But there is really only one true answer to all this madness. For every soul on Earth to know its source, to KNOW it is divine. Well, perhaps not all, but for enough to wake up in love and grace and understanding that ALL is One. “Enough” means millions.

What we do to what we see as “others,” we do to ourselves. And others do not include only what we call human, it means ALL others: plants, other species, the Earth itself.

If only millions could awake NOW to what we truly are and to what those still asleep are doing. Pipe dream? Perhaps.

But then I am an artist, and artists are prone to Pipe Dreams.

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Why writing can’t be taught.

02/06/2012 at 3:44 am (Hypatia of Alexandria, Writing) (, , , , , , , , )

Is there a high school, a college, an online “university” that does not offer a course in creative writing? Perhaps, but if you want to be a writer, you’re not going there. Courses in “creative” writing light a candle in your mind. You believe, you hope, someone can teach you to write. In some ways, they can. Sort of. They offer the tools of grammar. They speak of style and “voice” and symbols. They introduce you to those who’ve written and gotten noticed for their efforts. They evaluate and compare them. (A hopeless task to me, a disservice to the work, but that’s me. As all people are different in their similarities, so too are all writers. As an example taken only from myself… how do I compare Flow Down Like Silver, an historical novel about Hypatia of Alexandria, with Houdini Heart. Houdini Heart is magical realism, it’s horror. How do these compare?) They provide you with a platform to share your work. You listen to the work of others.

When you accept your degree, are you now a writer?

I’ve often been asked how to write. I have no answer but this: “Sit down and write.” Oh, I almost forgot. “Read what you consider the best. Emulate them. Do this long enough and there will come a day when you’ll find yourself writing in words coming from somewhere inside YOU.”

Albert Huffstickler, a Texan and a poet, once said, “My identity comes and goes. That part of me that doesn’t know who it is is where the writing comes from. Over that part of me, I have pasted a thin veneer called, The Poet. It is not what I am. It is what I do. I use words to describe what is going on in that part of me that doesn’t know who it is. That part is sometimes a cauldron and sometimes a very still place, like a deep lake and sometimes it is more like a wind. It is what I am before I was and what I will be when I am no longer. Left alone, I live with the truth that I don’t know who I am or what I am until the next thing appears to be written. I don’t know how to change this. If I could make that part of me that is constantly in flux into something measured and identifiable, then I would no longer write. I write out of the not-knowing-who-I-am. This is what I am. I am that-which-does-not-know-what-it-is. I am process. I am poetry.”

And that, profoundly and beautifully expressed, is the essence of writing. Or painting. Or music. Or or or. It’s what an artist IS. Their work. And it can’t be taught.

Sit down and write. It’s as simple as that. You don’t know who you are any more than Albert did. Or I do. No one does. Be process. Explore yourself.

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Hot Water, Live Wire

01/22/2012 at 9:17 am (Writing) (, , , , , )

Houdini Heart as a title came to me long before I knew what I would do with it. But when I knew, I knew. Unlike anything I’ve ever written, Houdini Heart poured out as hot water from a secret faucet. It ran with heat. I did not know I was writing horror. I was only slightly aware I might be writing magical realism. I damn well knew I was writing to cleanse my blood.

It worked. None of us will ever be done suffering. Suffering is a keystone of life. But some of us one day look our suffering square in the eye. Perhaps not for long, and perhaps not deeply enough to set it aside (do we ever set it aside?), but in my case long enough and deep enough to write Houdini Heart. I am that unnamed woman, or I could be. I suffer because I believe I am not good enough, not wise enough, not clever enough, not even lucky enough, to be a true artist, a real artist. Few artists escape this nonsense. It feeds us. We thrive on it. Sometimes it kills us. Literally. But it keeps us writing. It’s the spine of Houdini Heart. As for its heart, ah, that’s another tale.

Yesterday I learned that Houdini Heart had made the preliminary ballot in the Novel Category for the Horror Association’s Bram Stoker Award. I take this seriously. I take it open-heartedly. This is an honor I’ve now spent over 24 hours absorbing. It still runs along my nerves like the jolt of touching a live wire.

To be read by anyone is honor enough, but to recognized by one’s profession…I still reel.

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Listening for Voices

01/17/2012 at 5:43 am (Hypatia of Alexandria, Mary Magdalene, Writing) (, , , , )

A long time ago I began a book about Mary Magdalene. I honestly don’t know why. I’d never given her much thought. I am not a Christian. Truthfully, I do not subscribe to any religion. Religion, to me, is not spiritual. It’s a human construct carefully designed to control and direct the human desire for meaning. I long for meaning as much as anyone, but have never sought it from other humans. Dogma is dogma, no matter which religion we speak of. As for the Magdalene…perhaps if I’d known it would absorb seven years of my life, I might have set it aside and written a sequel to The Saggy Baggy Elephant instead. But day after day went by and The Secret Magdalene grew word by word, sentence by sentence. And then, one amazing morning, I honestly believed I had finished.

But something niggled at me, whispering: You are not finished. More would have their say. So back I went to the keyboard and out came Flow Down Like Silver. I wish I could say it “flowed.” But I can’t. To slip under the skin of Hypatia of Alexandria was no easy thing…especially with so little truly known about her. Hopeful speculations, unsupported hopes, dogged assumptions, but facts? So few, so very few. Hypatia and I struggled for three years. Less time than the Magdalene only because in researching Mariamne I’d found so much that applied to Hypatia.

This time I knew I wasn’t finished. I thought the Magdalene had more to say. And back I went to the words, a letter at a time. I finished that book. It’s called The Woman Who Knew the All. But when the last word was typed and I’d lifted my hands from the keyboard, I already knew it wasn’t right. I’d known it as I wrote it. Some of it was. Some of it was very right. But as a whole, no. Something was very wrong. I could not offer it for publication. So I let it rest quietly by itself. Perhaps when I went back?

And while waiting I wrote Houdini Heart, absolutely nothing like I’d spent years of my life writing and feeling and thinking about. Houdini Heart came fast. It did flow. And then it too was finished.

Back I went to the last of my trilogy of the Divine Feminine…simply words allowing me a way to think about what I thought I was doing. I thought The Woman Who Knew the All could be “fixed.” She could be rewritten, re-felt. But something in me said: This is not the voice that would speak. A new voice awaits you. Listen for her. I trust my heart. I trust what it whispers to me. So I left the Magdalene in her file and waited. A month ago, She came, the woman who would speak the last of what needed to be said. By me? Through me? Does it matter? I don’t know her name yet. But I do know the name she would call her book. THE TIME OF THE BEE. And I know when it takes place: in the last moment of the Goddess, almost 12,000 years ago.

Not what I expected at all. But whatever is?

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Deep Drifting

01/09/2012 at 8:58 am (Uncategorized, Writing) (, , )

T’would be nice to know what I was doing.  It seems that for the moment I drift.  No particular place to go.  Nothing in particular to do.  No particular goal to achieve.  (Except writing two books and co-writing a film script for a film that will most certainly get made…but enough of that.  Such stuff doesn’t seem to count when one feels rootless.)  I live in a charming little cabin in the deepy woods that could be taken away at any time.  An interesting place to be.  Like being weightless in a space capsule floating about in uncharted space.  I could float off at any time.  Yet I look out my tiny porthole with an eye just as it has always been: timeless, curious, eager, expectant, and fully believing in magic.  Magic is nothing more than intent.  I intend – ah, that’s how I started this paragraph.

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Born Free

01/08/2012 at 7:04 am (Hypatia of Alexandria, Uncategorized, Writing) (, , , , , , , )

To speak of freedom, one usually means freedom from the physical oppression of one’s fellow man (or woman…once us females get the chance and if we take it). Here I speak of a much more insidious lack of freedom, or slavery to come closer to the truth. To be burdened by something like our new corporate state is bad enough, but to be controlled by a system of belief is crippling. In Flow Down Like Silver, my true-life heroine, Hypatia of Alexandria, struggles against the blind beliefs of her students in the hope she can open their eyes to a broader deeper truth.

You and I, we all of us come dragging behind us as much “belief baggage,” and are weighted down with as many chains of unquestioned assumptions, as Jacob Marley’s ghost. We have to be. We’re human. And no human alive lives without a set of beliefs firmly embedded in their psyche, maybe even encoded in their DNA. Not only were we taught these belief-truths from the moment we opened our brand new eyes on this gorgeous world, we had them hard-wired in as a means to survival. Our assumptions about “truth” are the glue of our personal reality.

Come to Earth as humans, we all share human beliefs about reality–but modified if we are born, say, a Hindu. In other words, if born to Hindus, we should be Hindus. If born to Jews or to Muslims or to Christians or to atheists, we should all almost certainly be as they are. Arriving in a clutch of Born-Agains, we go through hell on earth–and pray for the Rapture to get us the heck out of here. Even born to the once-lovely Hippies, we come into this world trailing yards and yards of gauzy wide-eyed belief.

Unless we learn to ask questions.

Most of us have much to thank our parents for. Quite a few have a lot to complain about. As for me, I have really only this (which is both gift and curse): my parents taught me nothing. I missed out on the usual indoctrination. I can’t recall a single conversation about religion. Or one about social status, ie: racism. Or politics. Come to think, where the hell were my parents when I was growing up? Not parenting, that’s for sure. When they were around, I remember gossip. I recall fights. They weren’t exactly drunks, but the smell of liquor still makes me ill. There was always the television, and they certainly watched that. While they were doing all this, I was reading books. Even so, I had a roof over my head, and food more often than not. I had clothes and toys and whatever else a child needs to stay alive. What I did not have was cherishing. Or instruction.

All this became part of Houdini Heart, a book of supernatural horror heavily based on my youth.

As I said, this is a curse. But it’s also a blessing. I did not have to unlearn what was taught me as “truths.” I did not have to struggle to rid myself of my parent’s beliefs. I did not have to free myself from church or mosque or temple or even nude dancing in the woods. I held fast to no social dictum. I was born free of these things. And that includes the freedom to embrace any of them all by myself should they ever appeal. None of them have.

Which means I was born free to create myself out of nothing but my own thoughts and reactions to the Grand Mass Illusion I’d opened my illusory eyes on.

I paid a heavy price for this, but it was worth every anguish along the way.

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A Luddite in Kindleland

12/29/2011 at 5:28 am (Mary Magdalene, Writing) (, , , , , , )

I’m one of a dying breed: going the way of the Dodo, the tailfin, and the cocktail napkin. When people like me are gone (and we’re really going; I’ve finally reached the age where I can wrap my few remaining brain cells around that one), much of our world will go with us.

I love books. I love handling them, riffling their pages, admiring the design, the dust jacket, the binding, their smell, their feel, how they look with their sisters all-in-a-row on shelf after shelf.

I love arranging my own books. Six of them now. In English, Chinese, Spanish, Hebrew, Swedish, Czech, French…bedad, I’ve lost count of the translations. I grieve that my books are all in storage, packed away in boxes, waiting in the dark for the day I once again own a shelf. Which implies owning a house. Or near enough. Which surely means having a home. Having a home is my New Years wish.

Enough of that.

I was given a Kindle for Christmas. A funny flat grey thing. With buttons.

With help (of course) I got it registered or assigned or acknowledged…surely it’s one of those. With help, I learned the rudiments. I can now download a book. Which has become two books, then five, then—have you any idea how many books are fa-fa-fa-free from amazon? Not the new ones, oh no, but the good ones: the classics, the forgotten gems, the newly discovered oddities, so many works of ancient philosophy. It’s an Alexandria of free books.

I press the button called Home and up comes a growing list of books I don’t have packed away. I found Talbot Mundy! Only known to me by one book long long ago found somewhere, old even then, I went crazy nuts for it. Om: The Secret of Abhor Valley. Which now resides in one of those cold dark boxes in cold dark storage.

Mundy was all the rage a hundred years or so ago. He sold then as much as yet another vampire book would today. The King of the Khyber Rifles. Black Light. The Winds of the World. Compared to these, vampires are dull stuff. Talbot Mundy was a veritable genius and to follow his ripping yarns highly spiced with dazzling mysticism made his readers only a little less so. It took imagination to write those books and it took imagination to read them.

Last night I found The Yellow Wallpaper. My own book, Houdini Heart, has been compared to it…favorably. So to see its name on offer made my ears ring. It’s very short but wonderfully disturbing. Written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, it’s a strong, terrifying, symbolic tale of how women were once treated by “caring” men: their “devoted” husbands, fathers, brothers. That is, if they were rich. (For the poor female or a member of the lower classes, go directly to Charles Dickens.) Devouring Charlotte’s tale in one gulp, I found it amazingly similar to Houdini Heart in many ways. But the huge difference lies in the female narrator’s essential character. In The Yellow Wallpaper the woman is virtually helpless, in bondage to men and to how she is perceived by them. (Freud really helped out there. Be interesting to know how many women he drove to despair, insanity, even suicide.) In Houdini Heart, the woman is a creative master of her descent (or ascent) into, ah…your guess is as good as mine.

To read Gilman is to MUCH better understand the incredible strength it took to be an Emily Dickinson, a Jane Austin, a George Sand…and so many more. How should I have fared then? Would I have done as my Mary Magdalene did, dressed as a man so I might learn and survive?

Or would I have shot myself?

Must get back to searching for free books. Oh, how a Luddite loves her Kindle. Never thought it could happen to me. But then I resisted computers too. And classes in Creative Writing. That last one was a good idea.

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