Monday, November 30, 2015
Saturday, November 28, 2015
If I were to script my life, it would have been filled with as much variety of experiences as I could fill into each day, but instead, 30 years ago, I took a job as a forensic toxicologist with the Illinois State Police. It has been a wonderful career, with fascinating cases, published papers, court testimonies and two murder-mysteries, all from a base in Springfield, Illinois.
Would I call Springfield the melting pot of diversity? Ahhhh, NO.
I would call it a safe place but safe in the way a child peeking out from behind their mother's skirt feels safe. A place where tuna fish from a can is pretty exotic stuff to some.
Museums, parks, art galleries, and theaters... Well, if you count the museum with the re-creation of Abraham Lincoln's cabin, where he's reading by a fire and an art gallery where you can walk home with the painting if you pay for it, technically we do have these features. Plus, we are host to the Illinois State Fair, where you can get anything battered and fried, if you can get it on a stick.
As a writer and a scientist I often consider the Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and wonder if it applies to us. It says you can never simultaneously know exactly where something is and exactly where it is going. We constantly have the choice to step off from what is known or hold tight to it. I think Springfield holds tight but its most famous citizen, Lincoln did not. When I can, I choose to step off that known path; certainly not as much as some but more than others. The challenge is recognizing when you are being offered that step.
Sunday, November 22, 2015
|Maracas Beach, Trinidad, West Indies|
|Map of Caribbean illustrating butt end, aka Trinidad|
So, I got info on publishers and literary agents from a friend who printed out a few pages for me now and then, and from magazines like Writers Digest which advised me to invest in a monstrous telephone book-like tome called Writers Market that was published every year and was out of date before it hit the shelves. I bought it anyway. Back then no one was accepting queries by e-mail so I became familiar with SASEs--self-addressed stamped envelopes--and IMCs--international mailing coupons--all of which were a pain in the assets. I had to acquire rolls of US stamps to stick on the envelopes, figure out how many I should put, wait months--and usually in vain--for a response, etc.
I did not do much querying back then, and no wonder. More than six years of inactivity passed between my first flurry of queries and my second.
The second bout of querying, at the bottom end of 2005, began in much the same vein, but then I discovered the website AgentQuery, a database of agents that could be sorted in various ways, including by those who accepted e-queries. I sent out the first e-batch in the first week of January 2006 and got several responses immediately, four of which requested my full manuscript. Printing out the 420 page monster plus synopsis times four cost me money I could ill afford: photocopying was expensive here in Butt End.
Two months after I sent out those first e-queries...I had an agent and let me tell you, no milestone in publishing has thrilled me, literally bringing me to my knees, like that day the agent called with her offer of representation. This was BIG, I thought at the time. Susan had sold The English Patient, one of my favorite films, to Miramax, and Holes to Disney, and repped Julia Cameron and Jonathan Safran Foer. This wasn't just good; it was stratospheric.
"I have to tell you--I'm in Trinidad," I told her haltingly, thinking of her telephone bill.
"That's okay," she responded. "We have clients all over the world." I said it before and I'll say it again: this was my kind of agent. She sold the book some months later.
Over the years my location has become less and less relevant to my publishing life. High-speed, wireless net access caught up with Trinidad and with me, as did lightweight laptops, netbooks, tablets and phones that are way too damned smart. Self-publishing platforms such as KDP, D2D and Smashwords, as well as social media utilities like Blogger, Facebook, Twitter etc. also helped to shrink my world and give me near instant access to everything and everyone I needed. My network of writers and readers is modest by some measures, but far outstrips the reach I could even have imagined back in 1997 when I bought that Brother electronic typewriter and converted my tiny scrawl on piles of legal notepads into a readable manuscript.
There are still downsides to my location in Trinidad: the popular conventions, workshops, retreats and book fairs are too far away and thus too expensive for me to attend. I seldom meet my online writer people in person--I've met only one to date, actually. But I don't complain. I have consolations, like writing retreats on the coast with local writer friends who are a lot like me. Writers. Dreamers. Thinkers. Just like every other kindred writing spirit I've found around the globe.
I now have 29 titles (two novels, several novellas and a slew of novelettes) out there in the world under a variety of pen names and in several genres. With the exception of the first novel, I managed every aspect of their publication myself. And I've done it from right here on my little rock at the butt end of the Caribbean. You asked about my location? Location, schmocation!
|Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad & Tobago|
Thursday, November 19, 2015
My wife Valerie and I did not come to Wilmington for the film industry. In fact, other than my summer jobs and the traffic problems, the film industry had no direct impact on our lives. However, movies and a couple of hurricanes did change the city and its culture profoundly – which in turn affected our family.
We came here thirty years ago because of a career opportunity gave us a choice of relocating to one of three cities: Fayetteville, Jacksonville, and Wilmington. A Marine base, an Army base, or a quiet coastal town of about 50,000. Our first child had just turned two and the town on the coast sounded like the best place to raise a family. What we did not research before moving was the racial tensions in Wilmington. When we moved to the Cape Fear in 1982, we found a beautiful city between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean that had great beaches, wonderful weather, cheap houses, and the unshakable conviction that the year was 1952. Our first house was a craftsman fixer-upper in a predominantly black neighborhood not too many blocks from the river and withing walking distance of the alternative school where I taught.
Schools had not integrated until the 1970s (15 years Wilmington 10 – nine black men and a white woman who had been falsely convicted (and a decade later exonerated) of arson and assault. Seventy-some years before, in 1898, Wilmington, NC, was the site of the only coup d'etat in American history. Up until 1898 Wilmington was 2/3 black and was a progressive, racially mixed business and political community. That was when an organized army of 2,000 white supremacists executed a carefully planned reign of terror and – in the course of a few days – overthrew the elected government, set black neighborhoods and businesses ablaze, murdered between twenty-five and ninety "troublesome" black citizens, and drove middle class black families, black professionals, and whites who supported the black community out of the city.
[In the 1980s I became friends with Jerry Jacobs, seated far right in the picture, and was a pall bearer at his funeral. In 1998 Valerie and I were part of the 1898 Centennial Commission's "Wilmington Black and White" week of commemorative events; we conducted a seminar on racially blended families and interracial relationships.]
The aftermath of the 1898 uprising formed Wilmington's culture for the next century. It led to the resistance and violence surrounding desegregation and, at least during our first decade here, shaped how people responsed to our family. There was in Wilmington a sharp and uncrossable demarcation between white and black; between haves and have nots.
In 1984 Firestarter, the first of several Stephen King movies shot in Wilmington, put the Cape Fear on the map for major studios looking for a fresh, non-union, location. The studios began expanding and various support and ancillary companies appeared. At the time there was no pool of local workers with the skills they needed, so they began importing their own people from California – people who didn't give a damn about Southern "traditions" like racism (and expected restaurants to serve something other than barbeque, pancakes, or Calabash seafood). I don't think they were unaware of the color line, they just chose to completely ignored it – and with the amount of money they were infusing into the local economy, their behavior was more than tolerated.
In 1996 the Cape Fear was devastated by two hurricanes that hit back-to-back: Bertha and Fran. People came from all over the country to help – particularly from coastal and eastern Texas, where they were familiar with cleaning up after hurricanes. Many of these people liked what they saw (Have I mentioned how beautiful the region is?) and decided to bring their families here and settle down. Between the summer of '96 and the 2000 census, the Hispanic presence in the population in the Cape Fear went from <1% to 5%. In the 2010 census it was 10%.
The most immediate impact of Bertha and Fran on our family was flooding – not just inundating our house, though that was serious, but the swarms of Norwegian wharf rats trying to escape the rising river. As soon as we got our house back in shape to sell, we moved out of the city to an unincorporated rural area of blueberry and strawberry farms known locally as Ogden. Our house was the first in what is now a housing development and the only strawberry farm left is a pick-your-own tourist attraction. When we moved here in 1982 there were just under 50,000 people in Wilmington and not quite 100,000 in New Hanover County as a whole. Today, thanks to the film industry and those two hurricanes, the populations are nearly 80,000 and over 200,000, respectively. The old guard of Wilmington, the racists, the southerners, still fight being dragged into the twenty-first century tooth and nail. They aren't yet the minority politically, but they are no longer the driving economic force of the region and they know – despite recent Tea Party advances – that in the long run it's a losing battle.
So how does this environment, my thirty-three years in the Cape Fear, influence my writing? Seeing a city, a region, a way of life, go through such a fundamental sea change, having been part of that change, inspires and informs my fascination with cultures in transition and with how individuals and communities cope with – and either reject or find common ground with – the Other. These themes in turn shape what I write about and how I write about it. Would I be a writer living anywhere else? Certainly. I just wouldn't be the writer I am today.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Me? I live in Kansas City, and it's a pretty cool time to be doing that sort of thing.
Our baseball team won the World Series. The website Money Under 30 recently ranked us 10th on a list of cities for young college graduates looking for a decent place to live and make some good money. If you ask me about the nine cities ahead of us? Boooooooooooooring.
Kansas City is where it’s at.
I’m not a native, you understand. Though I’ve now lived here just about half my life, I’m still a transplant. If you’d asked me thirty years ago where I’d be living as I plunge headlong toward my 50th birthday, I’d likely have responded with something like one of the coasts, or Hawaii. I might even have said that I’d probably end up somewhere near the city of my birth, Tampa, Florida.
How does one go from the Sunshine State to the Show Me State? An extended tour in the military coupled with simple fate and circumstances saw to it that I ended up here. To be honest, I arrived thinking I’d do my two or three year assignment before shipping off to some other, more interesting locale. Then, I opted to leave the service for civilian life, and Kansas City became my home. That was twenty-odd years ago, now.
I love living here.
It took me a while to figure that out, of course. Going from being able to swim outside almost year-round and not even own a winter coat required some getting used to, after all. However, Kansas City found a number of ways to help me cope with the transition. For one thing, there’s a lot to do, here. Museums, parks, art galleries, and theaters out the wazoo. Did you know that we have the only nationally recognized museum dedicated to the First World War? It’s located right across the street from my favorite building in the entire city, Union Station.
For another thing, we throw a mean party, as some of you probably saw after the Kansas City Royals won the World Series a few weeks ago. The Power & Light District has transformed a once derelict downtown into a thriving entertainment hot spot, and the Country Club Plaza boasts some of the finest restaurants and upscale shopping opportunities, if that’s your thing. In addition to the top-tier entertainment venue that is the Sprint Center, we also have the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which is a truly stunning feat of architecture that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Inside that beautiful building we have the world-class Kansas City Symphony, which performs everything from classical concerts to providing live musical accompaniment to the recent Star Trek films.
You may have heard that we have some decent barbecue. It’s true. Believe the hype. Beyond that, we also have a tremendous number of restaurants, from elegant dining to the best grub a short order cook can toss at you on a paper plate. If you leave this town hungry, it’s your own fault. Seriously.
The city and its various landmarks serve as inspiration for a number of my stories. I just recently finished a science fiction tale that’s set in 1960s KC. I once wrote a story set in Union Station, while sitting in Union Station. I wrote the whole thing longhand while eating at one of the cafes.
It doesn’t hurt that we have a thriving creator community here. Writers, artists, photographers, musicians...you name it, somebody’s making it here, somewhere. Attending local and regional conventions has linked me with a cabal of wonderful creative types, particularly in the writing fields. Best-selling authors like Gillian Flynn and Jim Butcher have connections to our fair town, and some of the hottest talent working in comics today calls the Kansas City area home.
We even have Hallmark Cards headquartered here, for crying out loud. How cool is that?
And yet, even after all of that, to this day I still cheer on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Oh sure, I’ll root for the Chiefs, but the Bucs have always been my team.
Do I miss Florida? Absolutely. I still have family there, and there are times when I think maybe I should have moved back, but Kansas City is where I hang my hat.
I do so loving here.
Sunday, November 8, 2015
I came to like California a little more over the years and appreciate the opportunities it afforded me. I was able to do a lot that I never would have been able to from Montana, like going to San Diego Comic Con, two World Fantasy cons, and anime conventions.
But I have never written about the area where I live. When anyone outside of California (and even many of those in CA) think of the state it generally breaks down to San Francisco and Hollywood. That's the only thing that anyone associates with the state. I live very far from those two places in the Central Valley. Which people don't think of except for the occasional joke about Fresno or Bakersfield cropping up in TV, film or books. One of the lines I remember was basically "Fresno is somewhere you end up" it's not a place people go to voluntarily.
In a month however I'm moving to new state which I've never been to. Oregon. I am looking forward to leaving behind the small town I live in which is very isolating. I have one local writer friend- our very own Sunny Frazier (who DOES write about this area)- but we write very different genres.
And despite my dislike for where I live in CA, I am wondering if time and distance will soften my perspective. Perhaps, someday, despite all my opinions that 'nothing ever happens here', I will one day set an Urban Fantasy novel or a children's book in the Central Valley where I used to live.