Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Memoir in the Form of Four Denim Jackets (Part 2)

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This denim jacket isn't even mine. It belonged to a young woman I met when worked as a Clerk-Typist 1 for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories.  At the time it was located in Landis, an old tuberculosis hospital in Philadelphia.  Marianne Catherine Porter was an interesting woman.  She was trained as a marine biologist and worked for the Bureau as microbiologist.  The patches on her hacking-about jacket were for various bird sanctuaries she'd visited, including one in Trinidad and Tobago.  Not visible in this photo is a patch on one sleeve for the Space Shuttle, which she had seen in transit.

Marianne was smart, witty, and had a variety of interests.  She was exactly the sort of person I wanted to have for a friend.  So what is her jacket doing in my closet?

Reader, I married her.


Above:  I like to tell people we met in a TB hospital.  It sounds more romantic that way.


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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dogfight -- the Movie

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Nothing is ever certain in the film industry, but it looks like the movie version of "Dogfight" might actually get made.

"Dogfight," for those who don't know, is a story I co-wrote with William Gibson long, long ago.  How long ago?  So long ago that when it was published my name came before Bill's.  He was still working on Neuromancer then, and we were both all but unknown.

Now director Simon Pummell is writing the script for his version of the story.  This is not going to be a big Hollywood production -- and that's a good thing.  Most of those movies, I can call the plot twists before they happen.  Pummel is essentially an art movie guy and  a BAFTA winner.  I have no idea what he intends to do with the story.

So I've got my fingers crossed on this one.  Because I really want to find out.

You can read about it here.


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Monday, January 26, 2015

A Memoir in the Form of Four Denim Jackets (Part 1)

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I'm never going to write an autobiography.  But while cleaning out the downstairs closet, I unearthed four denim jackets from my past.  Here's the first:

The Seventies:

I came to Philadelphia in the winter of 1973 with fifty dollars in my pocket, a two-pack-a-day habit, and a friend who was willing to let me crash on his couch.  By the time I found a job that spring, I'd lost forty pounds.

But I've written about that elsewhere.  This jacket was from slightly later, when things were getting better.  I had no beard in those day and hair down below my shoulders. I ran with a scruffy batch of art students, musicians, underachievers, and the like.  Collectively, we had a thousand shifts for getting by.  One of my friends embroidered mandalas on the backs of blue denim jackets and sold them to a boutique, where their prices were jacked sky-high.  She offered to make one for me, and I requested she embroider one of my dragons instead.  I wore black denim then because I was in my early twenties and more than a little Byronic.

I wore this jacket to my first Worldcon -- MidAmeriCon in Kansas City.

The day I put that jacket in the back of the closet, I found a small American flag on the sidewalk, picked it up, and put it in a pocket.  Back then, it would have been a bad idea to wear such a thing in public.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Ask Good Questions

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Back in December, Adam Claxton wrote here, asking how (and here I paraphrase and oversimplify) a new writer can cope with the despair that seems to be an intrinsic part of being a writer.  I answered him as honestly as I could.  And then an interesting thing happened.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro picked up the question and used it as the basis for a Locus Online roundtable discussion.

So now such literary luminaries as Peter Straub, Cecelia Holland, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Dirda, and many more (hi, Cat!) have put serious thought into Adam's question.  Simply because it was a good one.

When writers are just starting out, the awareness of how little inflence they have can be enervating.  Yet with one good question, Adam was able to, if only briefly, engage the thoughts of people he must surely admire.

This shows the power of good questions.  They get even more powerful when you ask them of a story you're writing.  Not questions you already know the answers to, but ones you don't.  Questions like "What would a woman really do in this situation?" Or "How would this technology change the people who use it?"  Or (and this is a classic) "Who gets hurt?"

Ask good questions.  Let your story answer them.  You'll be surprised what it has to say.

You can read the Locus Roundtable here.  And you can read the original blogpost here.


Above:  As always, writing advice applies only to those for whom it works.  There are all kinds of writers.  If the above doesn't work for you, you're just not the kind of writer for whom it works.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

[dream diary]

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January 21, 2015

Of my final dream of the night, I can remember only four things:

1. It was a serious art-dream.

2.  Its title was OPOSSUM

3.  The last name of its author was La Feignis.

4.  No opossums appeared in the dream.


Above:  Max Ernst.  The man rules.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Fragmented Masterpiece of Isaac Babel

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Over on Facebook, one of my Ukrainian friends asked me why I named my blog Flogging Babel, and wondered whether I'd ever read the works of the great Isaac Babel.

The blog's name came about because I started it in part to promote what was then my new novel, The Dragons of Babel.  Coming from a generation which thought self-promotion something of a character flaw, I chose the word "flogging" as a gentle bit of self-mockery.  In retrospect, I probably should have thought of how odd the title would look a few books down the road.

As for Isaac Babel... Oh, yes.  I once brought a copy of The Red Cavalry Stories with me to Russia, in fact, as my reading material.  If you haven't read the stories yet, I strongly urge them upon you.  They are an intellectual adventure.  But not a light one.  Here, chopped from a longer essay about fix-ups and very lightly rewritten to make it a stand-alone essay, is my take on it.


Isaac Babel’s Shattering Masterpiece

Isaac Babel’s most famous work is The Red Cavalry Stories, ostensibly nothing more than a collection of stories with a common setting and recurrent characters – the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920 and the soldiers and civilians caught up in it.  By any measure, it is a major work of literature, terrifying, moving, and a judgment on the human condition.  Babel was involved in the war as a propaganda officer, and spent much of his time trying to prevent Cossacks from executing their prisoners.  From the atrocities, rapes, and casual murders he witnessed, he created something of enormous depth.

Yet not all of the stories are impressive as stories.  Some are vignettes or even anecdotes.  They grow in cumulative power as the book is read, events recur, people show themselves in different aspects.  This is an effect that relies heavily on the stories being read in the order presented.  (Babel wrote more Red Cavalry stories after the book’s publication; when they are included, they are grouped separately, as afterthoughts, so as not to interrupt the original structure.)  Read randomly, they would still impress and terrify.  But the work as whole would be greatly diminished.

What makes this particularly interesting is that the stories themselves are seemingly presented in only the loosest order.  A story begins to tell one tale and then is interrupted and goes haring off after a totally different one.  Narratives begun in one story are dropped abruptly, only to be picked up again later in the book.  Events appear out of chronological order.  Characters disappear and then reappear, sometimes greatly altered and other times heartbreakingly unchanged.  Some never turn up again, and the reader may or may not learn what becomes of them.  The narrative intelligence darts from memory to memory, never lingering long, fleeing from one to another like a sleeping man trying to dream his way out of a nightmare.

Taken as a whole, The Red Cavalry Stories looks like nothing so much as the fragments of a novel which cannot be written.

There is a scene in Federico Fellini’s Satiricon set in a workshop where Roman artists are creating  fragmentary mosaics and statues without arms or heads.  Babel’s book can be best understood as that same artistic project taken seriously rather than as a throwaway joke. It is a novel whose continuity has been shattered by the enormities that the author witnessed.

The novel is literature’s ultimate expression of moral sense made structure, a summation and universal comprehension of the world.  So when there is no sense and can be no comprehension, it is inadequate to the task and the artist needs a new form.  Call The Red Cavalry Stories a mosaic novel if you wish or a chimera if you will.  But it is not merely a collection of short stories.

It is a work of traumatized genius.


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Monday, January 19, 2015

Alice K. Turner, Last of Her Kind

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This is extremely sad.  Alice K. Turner died last night, of pneumonia.  Alice is best known for her twenty years as fiction editor of Playboy for two decades (1980-2000), during which time she was remarkably receptive to science fiction, provided only that it was as good as or better than anything else she might have bought that month.  During her tenure, the fiction -- whether genre or not -- was always worth buying the magazine for.

Alice's attitude toward science fiction showed in the fact that she kept up her association with it after retirement, attending the occasional convention, writing critical essays and, with Michael Andre-Driussi, editing the critical volume Snake's-Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley.  She also wrote The History of Hell, a work of non-fiction.

Alice was a delight to hang out with and talk with.  What she liked, she liked for the best of reasons, all of which she could articulate.  If what you had to say was worth hearing, she would listen to you forever.  But only the most boorish of creatures would attempt to dominate a conversation with her, because her wit and insight were of the finest water.

Alice's good friend, Ellen Datlow, another editor of renown, notes that a friend called her "one of the last grande dames of New York."  Not a bad encomium for a smart, elegant, and wholly admirable woman to receive.

Above: Ellen Datlow's photo of Alice Turner. 

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