Companero

I often refer to the ‘aesthetic’ (such that it is and why it must always be accompanied by quotes and qualifiers) of my fiction as equal parts art and spirit.

We can—and often do—toss around the notion that imbibing certain works of music or books or films is akin to having a religious experience. Those experiences often lead those of us so inclined to seek out an artistic life; we want to create something that evokes the same monumental response in another person.

I’m guilty of this desire, although the sad fact of aging is that these profound artistic experiences are fewer and farther. And creating works that evoke anything close to a religious experience in another human is, well, incredibly difficult.

Regardless, and speaking of desire, actor Bruno Ganz passed away yesterday. He was the protagonist angel in Wings of Desire - one of those few films that had that profound impact on my artistic sensibilities, on my soul. I couldn’t imagine another actor whose very face could evoke the wonders of a fallen angel experiencing coffee and cigarettes for the first time.

Wings of Desire is an amazing film. Bruno Ganz was an amazing actor. Losing one feels like losing the other.

Farewell, Companero.

We're Home

Just to get this out of the way: I was six years old when I saw Star Wars: A New Hope. George Lucas’ creation twisted itself around my DNA like a glowing light-saber twisty tie and shaped not only my childhood but my creative life. (Upon first viewing Star Wars, I was one of the many who immediately sought to create his/her own sci-fi/fantasy epics. I can’t remember if mine was Space Wars or Star Battles or some other vamp on the words ‘Star’ and ‘Wars’ but create it I did.)

And just to get this out of the way: I, too, was gravely disappointed in the Star Wars Prequels.

So, I’m a Star Wars fan like most of you.

Last Thursday night, I watched the Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer, and with three words and a note-perfect Wookie growl, everything lost was reclaimed.

Even if The Force Awakens fails as a movie, which we all know is possible and which we all not-so-secretly fear, JJ Abrams has already recaptured the ‘gee-whiz’ spectacle and ‘aw-shucks’ charm lacking in the Prequels. He did this by zeroing in what was missing: Han Solo and Chewbacca.

For all the awesome grandeur of the trailer’s crashed Star Destroyer and the sinister malice of the new Sith Lord and the steely cool of the crazy-chrome Storm Trooper, the trailer truly won us over by delivering back to us our old yet reliable, swashbuckling buddies.

I know without even Googling it that there are Star Wars fans who have written that Star Wars wouldn’t have been Star Wars without Han Solo. I’m not offering new analysis on that front. For as essential as the Skywalkers—and by extension the Jedi Order and the Sith—obviously are to the saga, you need Han and you need Chewie. You need their bickering friendship. You need their cocky, bumbling, get-it-done against-all-odds swagger.

They, more than the Skywalkers, epitomize what was and is so great about the original trilogy.

Lucas knew this. The mightiest cliffhanger coming out of The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t whether Vader was Luke’s father (the eventual acceptance of this one-time impossibility—how can a bad guy possibly be the hero’s father?!—seeped into our young minds during the intervening two years between Empire and the release of Return of the Jedi with an inevitability that eerily presaged adulthood).

No, the true crazy-making, obsession-generating cliff-hanger was: How the heck are we going to rescue Han? And as satisfying as the reunion between Leia and a just-thawed Han was, I guess, it was the reconciliation of Chewie and Han—with the Wookie warming the still chilled smuggler—that reassured us that everything was going to be OK. As long as these two were together with us, we could face the Jabbas and the Bobas and the Darths, and we would persevere.

And isn’t that what we’re after from Abram’s versions of our beloved film franchise? Reassurance? Perseverance?

As long as Chewie and Han are home, so are we.

 

Author Influences: Neil Gaiman

For anyone who has read my fiction, citing Neil Gaiman as an influence is akin to citing the importance of the alphabet in my trajectory as an artist: I couldn't be a writer without him.

I was not a great reader in my late teens (that, thankfully, came later in college), and if you had removed Stephen King from my adolescent library, every space of my bookcase would have been littered with comics. 

I was one of those lucky comic book geeks who just happened to be immersed in the medium during the mid-to-late 1980s when the ‘British Wave’ tsunamied the US. Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Grant Morrison, Dave McKean (apologies - I’m sure I’m forgetting many, many comic book greats) took over both the mainstream and ‘arty’ titles of the era.

It was the ‘arty’ ‘edgier’ titles that connected right there in the lizard part of my brain and propelled an already awkward adolescence (as if there is any other kind) onto something of an artistic path.

As much as I love what Gaiman has done with his novels (American Gods is my favorite), and as much as his children’s books are some of the best around, it is and was his initial comic book work on Black Orchid and The Sandman that built the foundation of my authorly aesthetic. Even today I can point to Gaiman’s early books and say,

‘Like that.’

For those who don’t know (or possibly don’t care): Black Orchid and The Sandman are both re-imagined versions of superheroes from the DC stable. Wikipedia has decent descriptions of the evolution of the characters and the series here and here.

The upshot: Black Orchid and Sandman were both B or even C-level superheroes, and the brilliant editorial decision was to allow creators to revamp these titles, sometimes drastically, in order to stoke new interest in the characters. (Alan Moore’s earlier work on Swamp Thing had already forged a micro-version of this same trend – taking a B-level DC character and de-emphasizing the more superhero comic elements in favor of, in Swamp Thing's case, a more horror/literary tone.)

One can’t discuss Sandman without emphasizing the artwork. The great Dave McKean created the art for Black Orchid (and I challenge you to find anything as exquisite as McKean’s work – Orchid’s violet eyes still haunt me), and he created the covers for every one of the 70 plus issues of The Sandman.

McKean and the other superb Sandman artists (too numerous to name here but available on the above Wikipedia link) are essential because although words are important to comics (argues the writer), it’s the confluence of word and picture that makes reading a comic book the transcendent multi-media experience that it is. When the art is tuned to the writing, and the writing leans on the art, they meld to capture imagination in motion – a condition unique to comic book reading. (And frankly one of the reasons why movies of comic book characters are often dissatisfying.)

Without sounding too much like an entitled fan of Bob Dylan who first heard the troubadour play a Greenwich Village dive, I was—again—fortunate to have attended the San Diego Comic Con in 1989 where Neil Gaiman was one of the featured guests. Sandman hadn’t even been out a year by that point, but the buzz was, well, buzzing, and we more committed comic readers knew we were reading something special.

In his typically generous fashion, Gaiman spoke with my friends and me in the hallway outside the auditorium where he’d just taken part in a Comic Con panel discussion (topic: spirituality in comics or something similar). I can’t recall if I said anything of quality or of consequence (likely I just gushed; Dream’s sister Death had just been introduced in Sandman, and, well, how awesome was she), but what immediately struck me about Gaiman (besides the black t-shirt and British cool) was his humble approachability – a trait he has maintained throughout his career.

He didn’t need to take the time, and yet he did, and that simple act resonates even these many (many) years later.

So to break it down, I’d offer that Gaiman’s gifts to us would-be artists are not only this populist accessibility he provides his fans but also the way he courts his muse. As mentioned, Gaiman flips projects between media—comic scripts, TV scripts, novels, short stories, poems, children’s books—as well as genres. I have to think that this cross-training approach provides him with not only fresh interest and perspective but also with the protection of being able to skate across the sucking quagmire of writer’s block.

Moreover, Neil Gaiman has taught us that living and working as an artist is preferable to any other way of being. He’s made us all his collaborators. He’s made us all artists.

Author Influences: The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

Autumn 1989, and I was well into my first semester of college. I hadn’t been the best student in high school, and I was repeating that same lackluster performance. The fire just hadn’t been lit. Yet.

I had taken a Journalism major and believed that I wanted to follow the news/editorial track. (I have no idea why, either.) I was miserable. Nothing about the curriculum excited me in the least.

Coincidentally I was midway through a fantasy series called The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, a writer I’d never heard of. While much of the content from my college courses was leaving less than an impression, the fantasy trilogy was making me obsessed. I read and re-read each book, savoring every well-wrought detail and dramatic beat, something I’d never done before.

Now, I’ve railed against the less than marketable aspects of my English degree many times, and yes, while the choice has had a negative impact on some of my financial realities, in terms of my development as a writer and as a human, the choice was the best—if not only—choice I could have made. Given the same choice today, I wouldn’t change it.

So you could say with some veracity that I changed my major from Journalism to English because of Kay’s fantasy trilogy.

What was so special about this fantasy trilogy?

Understand that while I loved comics and Stephen King novels, I had never been a fan of High Fantasy (or what I’d call ‘imagined world’ fantasy). My aesthetic preference has always been for weird shit that happens in the real world, and while I loved The Hobbit, I had (insert sad face) never been able to get into The Lord of Rings, which I acknowledge as THE fantasy trilogy of all time even though I still don’t love it.

Kay, who had worked with Christopher Tolkien on The Silmarillion, makes a savvy move by using a Tolkien blueprint for Fionavar, but he also leverages that other seminal fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia as the structural architecture for delivering his five protagonists to the other world. This allows the reader to discover the wonders of Fionavar along with the main characters, who all have fates written for them in this bright and lustrous land far from their own.

Also important for me, beyond the many wonderful characters and the lavish acts of heroism and adventure that I followed obsessively, was the grounded nature of the magic – how the mages relied on their human sources for their energy supply. This shaped the relationship between mage and source in ways that the best fantasy can exploit its genre in order to underscore and echo the complexities of our more mundane lives.

I’ve been afraid to re-read The Fionavar Tapestry in the, oh, twenty-five years since it changed the course of my academic career. I’m certain that the novels would hold up as fiction, but as passion-altering alchemy, I’m less certain that the magic is still there. Or if it is still there, I'm perhaps most afraid of what more that magic could do to alter the course of my life.

Influences - TC Boyle

There are those authors whose works initially set us on our path to become writers ourselves. These are often the authors we read when we are kids or teens, the authors whose works first haunt us and spur us to take on this writing life.

Then there is the second category of author influences, the established writers we encounter after we’ve already begun our writing careers. They are the unexpected influence, the ones we didn’t see coming, whose literary work crashes headlong into your intended artistic path and forever alters our course, making us aware that life is not a path through the forest but a voyage upon an uncharted sea.

TC Boyle is that author for me.

I was in my mid-twenties, already committed to becoming—to being!—a writer, and I was reading through the Best American Short Stories of 1997, a habit I had picked up during my writer workshops. The BASS collections are often staid and stuffy, more a reflection of the American literati perpetuating its tastes than of truly publishing the best short fiction of that year.

Two guest editors in the 1990s gleefully twisted the typical BASS modus operandi: Louise Erdritch and E. Annie Proulx (now just Annie Proulx). These collections are stellar and inspiring—qualities that BASS often fails to summon—and as a fan of Proulx’s, I found her take on that year’s best fiction startling.

TC Boyle (then writing as T. Coraghessan Boyle) originally published his story ‘Killing Babies’ in the New Yorker, and its topic is what you would guess from the title. What was foreign/shocking/enlivening was the outcome – the antagonistic Pro-Life protestor getting his in such a blatant and violent way. The shock I felt—I think I said aloud, ‘You can’t do that’—galled me and pissed me off, and yet, I was instantly won over. The story was both overtly political and shamelessly vengeful, but above all, it was a page-turner. Boyle can turn a literary phrase while engaging and entertaining the reader, sneaking in the art while distracted you with the story. 

Thanks to a coworker, who was already enamored of Boyle’s work, I started reading everything he'd written. His novel World’s End is still probably my favorite (always dance with the one that brung ya, right?) But I love his short story collections, and the novels Riven Rock and A Friend of the Earth are incredible examples of enticing narrative stamina.

His unabashedly Baby Boomer-focused fiction taught me how to structure a novel, how to delve into the minds of my characters, how to spice tragedy with humor. How to embrace my own flawed, contradictory humanity, even. My fiction would have continued to imitate that staid and stuffy BASS tone and timbre if not for Boyle’s intervention.

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the unfortunate influences that the Iowa Workshop and Raymond Carver have had on the pedagogy surrounding the teaching of fiction. I’ve been unfair. As Carol Sklenicka’s fantastic biography of Carver reveals, Carver was an instructor at the Iowa Workshop when both Boyle and another, very different writer Mark Helprin, were in attendance. Perhaps the Iowa Workshop has always been more diverse than I’ve given it credit for.

Boyle’s career and output have done to the MFA v. NYC debate what Alexander the Great's sword did to the Gordian Knot.