Archive for May, 2013

My new favorite thing to say, when people ask how the novel’s coming along:

“It’s with my editor.”

This simple phrase conjures up many things, not the least of which is that the project, by simple virtue of having an editor, has gained legitimacy, gravitas, that it otherwise might not have. It tells the world, ‘I’m so serious about this that I have placed my dream in the hands of another, to do what they can with it.’

Oh, and I’m meeting with my editor tomorrow.

How badass awesome does that sound? I got a chill just then, when I wrote it. I threw in the ‘Oh, and’ part to make it sound casual and non-chalant, like this happens all the time in my world. Which, until this particular point in time, has literally never happened before. By the way, I have absolute faith in my editor; she is a brilliant writer in her own right, and someone I trust without hesitation. I know that whatever recommendations she has will only make the story better, and I’m excited to see what she has to say.

In the meantime, my inability to leave well enough alone has resulted in the emergence of a new chapter, which will help round out one of the supporting characters, giving a bigger window into their madness. I’m quite happy with it, and am looking forward to seeing how it blends into the narrative.

I have also spoken with an old friend, who is an insanely talented artist, to work on the cover. This novel, this story of mine, is taking on a life of its own, and for it to be a homegrown project that dear friends are helping with, make it all the sweeter.

More news to come, as this thing continues to take shape.

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There’s this thing I remember. It was several years ago; the Mrs and I, before she was the Mrs, were at Barnes & Noble. I was standing in the queue to buy whatever it was, and there was a man ahead of me.

He was in his mid- to late-forties, not unlike me. He was wearing brown penny loafers, dark socks, and cuffed tan khakis that broke perfectly at the foot. White starched button-down, no tie, top button undone, and a navy blazer. Short brown hair beginning to recede, semi-rounded glasses with tortoiseshell frames. A plain face one would expect to see in an Eddie Bauer or LL Bean catalog. In his hand was a book, John Grisham I think, or something like it. Just an average-looking guy.

A very average-looking guy.

An exceedingly average-looking guy.

Average-looking, to the point that it seemed forced, deliberate, contrived. Like he was making such an effort to blend in that he stood out. The book he held, whatever it was, was almost definitely from the New York Times Bestseller list because, you know, that’s what average guys read. When it was time to make his purchase, his responses to the clerk were pleasantly average, and he paid with a non-descript card, drawn from a perfectly normal-looking wallet. I’m sure that when he got to the parking lot, he climbed into an average sedan, probably tan in color, and listened to Michael Bolton or Kenny G on the drive home.

And I have no doubt whatsoever that there were bodies in the trunk.

This guy, this exceedingly, impossibly average guy, scared the living hell out of me, so much so that all these years later, I can see him in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it were yesterday. I realize now that this guy, this mind-boggingly average-looking guy, was applying Reverse Clown Logic.

Let me pause to explain.

Clown Logic is this: anyone who would go to such extremes to disguise their appearance, foot size, body type, and face (like clowns do), has got to be hiding something truly horrifying. Hence, Reverse Clown Logic dictates that only an even worse monster would hide in plain sight, appearing benign, literally daring the world to look him in the eye, because to do so would be not unlike staring deep into the very heart of an impenetrable  darkness, from which the only escape would be insanity.

And in the deep, dark parts of the night, when sleep is a stranger and the shadows fall weird across the bed, it’s that guy, that average-looking guy, who taunts me, his banality openly mocking everything good and right, and waiting, just waiting, to unleash himself on the world.

Which is why I love bookstores.

Shit. How many years thinking up this story, a year and a half writing it, and every step of the way, up to and including the final page, and I’m all kinds of stoked on it. Tense, dark, disturbing, freaky, maybe even terrifying at parts, and I’m just loving it.

Until yesterday, when I turned it over to my editor. And suddenly a lifetime of self-doubt, long-suppressed, has come gushing up like a secret volcano. Maybe the real horror is the process of writing the story.

‘Secret volcano?’ This is worse than I thought. If I’m already relegating myself to using phrases like ‘secret volcano,’ it may be time to start drinking. Except that I hardly ever drink, so I’m not sure it would help. It probably wouldn’t. Never mind.

To be fair, I haven’t heard from her yet, which only means that she’s reading it and making notes. Which is fine; this is the process, and I entered into it willingly. And I have absolute faith in her abilities and complete trust in her opinion. I have some ideas to work into the story, so it maybe isn’t done just yet.

Okay, coming down. First anxiety attack subsiding. Till the next one.

The StandIt’s that time again; I’ve got another piece up at Zombie Hamster, this one regarding Stephen King’s novel The Stand, and the miniseries that was based on it. When I first learned that we’d be doing a month of Stephen King retrospectives, I immediately jumped on this book; it was the first novel by King that I’d read, at the tender age of twelve, the year it came out. I have re-read it more times than I can remember, and can practically tell the entire story from memory. Hell, it may have been the first ‘adult’ novel I ever read. Who better to write about it, right?

The Stand: A Bang, A Whimper, and A Glimmer of Hope

Well, this proved to be an exceedingly difficult piece to write. I get the themes that King was addressing, and it still works today. In fact, many of the themes are even more applicable today than they were thirty-five years ago. That said, I’m not sure I did it justice, particularly when it comes to the miniseries. My first copy of the book, paperback, had a note on the back, indicating that it would soon be a motion picture which, as mentioned in the article, never happened. The eventual miniseries…well…I wanted to be kind. I really did. But in the end, I had to settle for being honest instead.

5.7.13. County Department of Mental Health

Typically, I arrive early, to the tune of about forty-five minutes. This is not an awesome part of town, as one would expect of a chronically underfunded County Service agency. The streets are littered and dirty, the building old and ugly, security guard in the lobby warily suspicious.

I state my business, present identification, and have a photo taken for the obligatory ID badge. This is an odd place, old and quiet, shabby industrial decor giving no indication of the work that takes place here. I guess it’s typical for such a building; my experience is so minimal that I really have no baseline for comparison. People here, workers that is, seem cautiously friendly. So long as I don’t pose a threat, all is well. Little eye contact at the elevators, although a stale but refreshing breeze emanates whenever the lift doors open.

I’m guessing that this is where psych students do their internships and clinical hours, though I have yet to see anyone who is obviously in emotional distress. Probably on a different floor, as this is surely an admin wing. I saw a place across the street, a heavily fenced basketball court above a parking structure, wondering if that is where the troubled people are kept, or is it elsewhere, part of the county lockup.

Research indicates the LA County Jail system is the largest mental health facility in the United States, so I’m fairly certain that I’ve knocked upon the right door. I’m here to add depth, realism, to my story, to get an idea of how things may have worked eighty or so years ago. Having read Cold Storage, having seen Titicut Follies, I think I’m on the right track but here, now, this is the big time, and what I learn today will guide the direction of that part of the novel, so it’s crucial that I get it right. Any punter can make this stuff up and have it be at least somewhat believable; that doesn’t work for me. If it doesn’t ring true, then it’s all bullshit and the whole project has been a waste of time, energy, and dreams.

So I sit down with a gentleman who is part of the county mental health system. The guy is amazing; he gives me a full hour of his time, during which I give him a quick rundown of what I’m writing about, in order to see whether or not I’m in the ballpark with this thing. Turns out…I’m doing it right. Whew. We talk about the changes mental health services have gone through down the years, the evolution of some treatments, the abandonment of others, his experiences during his residency at An East Coast Psychopathic Hospital in the late 1970s as well as the differences in patient outreach following the Reagan era’s notorious (my word) de-institutionalization policies.

Along the way, the gentleman shared numerous stories of his more memorable patients and cases (no names), various forms of mental illness and their manifestations, and some of the more archaic forms of treatment that no longer exist in North America today. I am indebted to this man for taking the time to talk with an unknown author, for being so open and interested, and for helping immeasurably with this project of mine.

On a final note, I think that what the people at County Services do, day in and day out, is nothing short of heroic. Charged with dealing with countless Angelenos in all states of emotional crisis takes a level of compassion that many of us probably don’t think about. Their work is often thankless, sometimes dangerous, and wildly unpredictable. I am so thankful that I got to spend some time among them.

Christine2-312x480It’s been a a few days since the last entry here, but I have a new piece up at Zombie Hamster that I’m really happy with. It’s a retrospective on Stephen King’s classic novel Christine, and its subsequent film adaptation by John Carpenter. Find it here:

Christine at Zombie Hamster

This one was great fun to work on; there are so many timeless themes that the biggest challenge was keeping the word count to a reasonable number. Hope it’s enjoyable.