Friday, June 28, 2013

My Night With Jeffrey Dahmer


"I've had sex with over a hundred men and only killed seventeen of them.  That should count for something."

I spent Wednesday night in a dark, hot, filthy, basement-like garage listening to Jeffrey Dahmer talk about his life.

Okay, it was actually actor Josh Hitchens performing his one man play Jeffrey Dahmer: Guilty But Insane.  But oh my God, it was mesmerizing.  I know because twice I managed to look away from Hitchens in order to glance at the audience and they were motionless, stunned, rapt.

The first thing that has to be said is that no, the piece was neither exploitative or gross.  Hitchens's impersonation of a man who killed human beings, ate their hearts, and kept their skulls as trophies is both moving and horrific.  None of it is played for visceral kicks.  his Dahmer is a very human monster, in part appalling and in part sympathetic.

The other thing that has to be said is that though "Dahmer" tells you up front that there will be no explanations, this narrative (taken from his confession, courtroom testimony, and subsequent interviews) provides as close to an explanation of his behavior as we're going to get.  All the experts who examined Dahmer declared him sane, prompting a headline that read:  HOW MANY PEOPLE DO YOU HAVE TO KILL AND EAT TO BE CONSIDERED INSANE IN MILWAUKEE?  But in a court case, "sanity" is a legal term meaning "able to distinguish between right and wrong."  Which Dahmer could.  He was, however, acting under compulsions that made him do things he knew were wrong.

This is a terrific piece of theater, written by Hitchens, and made up almost entirely of Dahmer's own unparaphrased words, stitched together from his confession, the trial transcript, and interviews after the fact.  I'll go to see Hitchens in pretty much anything -- he's that good -- but I think this may be his best work to date.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Chinese Glove Puppetry


One of the pleasures of writing is the odd places that research takes you.  As witness the video clip below.

Back in my college days, I had a friend who ran a summers-only puppet troupe called Moxie Marionettes.  The name came from his conviction that anybody could be a puppeteer -- that all it took was moxie.

Well, my friend had moxie a-plenty, but that's another story.  More relevant is the fact that while, yes, close to anybody with moxie can, with some research, practice, and hard work put on a puppet show, there is a huge gulf between mere puppetry and great puppetry.

The clip below being a good example of the latter.

Enjoy!  You can find Part 2 here.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Richard Matheson, 1926 - 20013


There is a strange irony in the fact that writers for TV and movies make a lot more money than do print writers but garner a lot less fame.  Which irony is doubled when you consider that Richard Matheson was a print writer best known for his media work who was greatly admired by Ray Bradbury, a prolific media writer who is best known for his print work.

Matheson was an originary writer -- a source of ideas rather than a writer who takes other writers' ideas and casts them in better prose.  Here's a case in point.  One of his novels, I AM LEGEND, posited the last man on Earth who is under nightly siege by former humans turned vampire.  This was a great idea which was obviously suited for a movie.

Which movie has been made I don't know how many times, possibly most famously as THE OMEGA MAN.

But there are movie geeks out there who can read me chapter and verse.

 It doesn't stop there, though.  At one point an obscure film maker named George Romera tried to get he rights to make his version of the novel and failed.  So he tweaked a little here and there and came up with the first modern zombie movie.

An entire genre owes its existence to Matheson.

There'sa a lot more I could say, but the essence of it is that he was a writer who enriched your life.  I can confidently state that without knowing who you are.  Of how many writers can that be said?

You can read io9's excellent memorial here.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Know Your Audience

I was, as always, on the road today.  So this post is entered late . . . But since the implicit social contract I have entered into with you stipulates only the day and not the hour, it counts.  

If I had to miss a day, though, better it were a Friday than a Monday or Wednesday.  Because fewer people read this blog on Fridays.  (This is, I suspect, because most people do their idle blog-reading in the office and on week's end are looking forward to the weekend.). That's why if I have an observation that that I think a larger-than-usual number of people will want to read, I post it on a Wednesday or a Monday.

And there is the essence of the principle of "knowing your audience."  It is not a matter, as I'm sure many suspect, of pandering and condescending to one's imagined audience.  It's having some idea of the expectations of such readers who are likely to read the sort of stuff you write and throwing in a bit of explanation or foreshadowing when they need it, but refraining from it when they don't.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Speak of the Devil . . .


Here's a true story.  Years ago, my friend Stanley was driving through my neighborhood with his daughter Nell and granddaughter Cassandra, then a little girl.  Prompted by the locale, he said something to Nell about me.

Just then, he saw me up ahead, walking along the sidewalk, as usual lost in thought.  "Speak of the Devil," he said, pointing, "there he is!"

And drove on.

A mile or so down the road, Cassandra said, in a very small voice, "Pop-Pop, was that really the Devil?"

I've always been pleased with that.  And I like the thought that many, many decades from now, when memory starts to fade, Cassandra might say to her great-grandchildren, "I saw the Devil once.  He was  this scrawny white dude.  Not at all elegant the way you'd expect."


Tuesday, June 18, 2013


I had a thought and I think you should pass it along.  Not because it will do me any good -- the first thing that gets stripped from this sort of thing is the author -- but because I think it would be great if everybody who would like the thought encountered it:

Fireflies are proof that God loves children and wants them to be happy.

Spread it to the winds!  Let's make strangers happy!

(I should mention here that while I have never censored any comments posted here, I reserve the right to do so with this post.  No smarm, please.

Monday, June 17, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Gertrude Stein


Gertrude Stein is very important to me, and I could not tell you why.  All I know is that I find myself thinking about her a lot more than I do about, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner, authors whose works you might think would be a lot more utile to me as a writer. 

At her best, she wrote works of genius -- though what kind of genius it's sometimes hard to say.  And much of her writing was so gnostic that critic Michael Dirda, genial man though he is, was prompted to compare it to children playing in a sandbox:  They're obviously involved in something intense, "but what it is, only the angels in heaven know."

Still, whenever I encounter an article about her, I immediately pick it up and read it.  Which is how I noticed that inevitably the writer will refer to her as looking "mannish."

Odd word choice, that, because she looked like a lot of women of a certain heft and age.  You could easily have an aunt who looks like her.  There was really nothing strange or man-like about her appearance.  Now, obviously, the writers are (a) being lazy and (b) signaling the reader that she was a lesbian.  But there are so many  different ways of conveying that information ("She was a lesbian" leaps to mind, or "Alice B. Toklas was her lover") that it seems there must be something behind that word.

My theory is this:  Everybody agrees that Stein took herself very seriously indeed.  She knew she was a genius and would tell you so to your face.  She deferred to nobody.  And she clearly thought she was the most important writer alive.

The great male egos of the time were all exactly the same way.  Consider only Hemingway and Picasso.  But women creators did not act that way.  They may have thought it -- I'm guessing Virginia Woolf had a pretty good notion her work would endure -- but they didn't shove that fact in your face, the way the guys did.

Except for Gertrude.  She did it and she got away with it and it's too late now to put her in her place.  So when she's written about, that word "mannish" is brought out like a ritual slap in the face:  You weren't properly deferential, it says.  You stepped out of line.

That's only a theory, mind you.  But reading some of what's written about her, the subtext is strong.


Friday, June 14, 2013

The Phoenix and the Dragon


It was a big moment for me when The Iron Dragon's Daughter was selected for the Fantasy Masterworks line.  Over the years the editors chose wisely and well and so created a literary community such as I had yearned to be numbered among since long before I published a word.  For one brief, glorious moment, I thought, "I made it!  I'm playing with the Big Kids now!"

And of course then a little voice in the back of my skull said, "Back to work, Swanwick."

Now the Fantasy Masterworks people have announced their next five books, scheduled to come out in October, in time for the World Fantasy Convention.  All worthy, all admirable, all books you should read.  But I want to draw your attention to two in particular.

Most of all I want you to admire The Phoenix and the Mirror because Avram Davidson was a literary genius who is today in danger of being forgotten.  In the Middle Ages, a body of legend arose around the error that the poet Virgil was a magician.  Avram built upon this fact the first volume of a trilogy he never completed., rich in alchemical lore and literary as all get-out.

Learned, brilliant, accomplished ... Dear God, this man could write!  So well that I have not words for it.  Honesty compels me to admit that TPatM was originally going to be the first volume of a series (Davidson started a lot of trilogies he couldn't complete), but it does conclude, and for those who love gorgeous prose, there's nothing to compare with it.   Please do consider buying this book, reading it, and becoming a better person for having done so.

The second book is The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard.  What is particularly notable here is that where most great fantasy works creep into greatness over the course of decades, Subterranean Press first published this volume last year.  It went immediately out of print (I snatched up my copy very fast), and now it's slated to a Fantasy Masterwork.  This may be a world speed record.  But, by God, the book deserves it.

You can see the press release (or net release or whatever it's called) here.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Inspiration Versus Sitzfleisch


It's been so long since I relied on inspiration that I'm in danger of forgetting that it's a real thing.

Back in the day, when I was a teenage werewolf, the holy fire would descend and I would stay up all night writing, writing, writing.  That's how I came to be married, in fact.  One Friday night, I was inspired and by the time that feeling went away, it was nine o'clock in the morning.  I switched off the typewriter (a Selectric, I am proud to say), stood up, and was about to stagger off to bed, when I remembered that I didn't have any clean clothes in the apartment.  So it was either go to the laundromat right away or wake up in eight or ten or twelve hours, only to have to put on filthy clothes.

So off to the laundromat I went.

I'd been writing all night, remember.  So I'd outlived my deodorant and I needed to shave.  My hair, which back then went halfway down my back, was a mess.  So this was a very bad time to encounter somebody I knew.  But two doors down the street, there was Marianne, sitting on the stoop with her father, who had come to visit.

Mr. Porter was a snazzy dresser, and he was looking good as always.  Marianne was (and is) a beautiful woman.  I looked like the very definition of a perp.  So when I stopped to say hello, I was careful to explain that I didn't always look like this.

Marianne's father went home and told her mother about me.  Marianne's mother very firmly told her that she was not to marry me.  And Marianne, for the first time in her life, looked at me as a potential object of romance.

So I'll always be grateful to inspiration.  But I stopped relying on it long ago.  Nowadays, I rely on Sitzfleisch.  Absolutely uninspired, I plant my butt in the chair and force myself to write.  Even though I'm almost never in the mood to do so.

This is one of the differences between the gonnabe writer and the professional.  I could go the rest of my life without inspiration and never notice the lack.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Iain Banks Has Left the Wasp Factory


The best way to remember Iain Banks, who died yesterday morning at the far-too-young age of 59, is by reading one of his books.  If you've never read it, I recommend the novel that first brought him to the astounded attention of the world -- The Wasp Factory.  By some readings it's a horror novel, by others mainstream.  And it's just a flat-out astonishing piece of writing.  I say this as someone who is not a big fan of horror or of horror-related mainstream fiction.

Aside from the fact that it's relatively short and you can read it quickly, that's all I'm going to say about the book.  You'll be happiest going into this one blind.

And while I'm at it . . .

In 1994 I wrote an essay titled "In the Tradition..." which praised many of the fantasists then working whom I deemed most worthy of praise.  Here's an excerpt from it, in which I lauded Banks's The Bridge.  The word never appeared in the essay, but it occurs to me now that this was his Steampunk novel:

Iain Banks has the pleasant distinction of simultaneously holding down two separate literary careers, one as the mainstream author of such acclaimed works as The Wasp Factory and Canal Dreams, and the other as an equally admired science fiction writer.

I'll confess that I don't know which hat Banks was wearing when he wrote The Bridge.  It hardly matters.  What matters is the remarkable setting he has chosen for the bulk of the book--an enormous and seemingly endless bridge stretching from horizon to horizon across a nameless ocean.  An entire society lives upon the bridge, employing bicycles, rickshaws, and motorcycles for short-term transportation and steam trains for longer voyages.  Here is the scene from a platform above the main train deck:

Over the noise of the milling people, the continual hisses and clanks, grindings and gratings, klaxons and whistles of the trains on the deck beneath sound like shrieks from some mechanistic underworld, while every now and again a deep rumble and a still more profound quaking and rattling announces a heavy train passing somewhere below; great pulsing clouds of white steam roll around the street and upwards.
 Above, where the sky ought to be, are the distant, hazily seen girders of the high bridge; obscured by the rising fumes and vapors, dimmed by the light intercepted outside them by their carapace of people-infected rooms and offices, they rise above and look down upon the rude profanity of these afterthought constructions with all the majesty and splendor of a great cathedral roof.

The first-person narrator is being treated for amnesia.  He finds himself in a mannered society rather like that of Freud's Vienna but riddled with small absurdities, not the least of which is the total lack of curiosity its citizens display toward the bridge itself.  What lands does it connect?  Who built it?  How old is it?  Only the protagonist cares, and he cannot find out.

His sporadic search for answers is the chief of three alternating narratives.  The second follows the life and difficult romance of a (young, at first) man in contemporary Scotland, and the third . . . well, it can only be characterized as the adventures of Conan the Glaswegian.

At first the farcical adventures of a nearly brainless swordsman with an overintellectualized familiar and a truly hideous accent ("I luv the ded, this old basturt sez to me when I wiz tryin to get some innfurmashin out ov him.  You fuckin old pervert I sez, gettin a bit fed up by this time enyway, and slit his throate; ah askd you whare the fukin Sleepin Byootie woz, no whit kind of humpin you like.  No, no he sez, splutterin sumthin awfy and gettin blud all ovir ma new curiearse, no he sez I sed Isle of the Dead" and so on) seem jarring and even intrusive.  There are moments in the main narration when the fabric of reality wears thin and opens a window into the second plot-line.  But this barbarian stuff is straight out of left field.

These segments are so engaging, however, so funny in an awful way, that the reader comes to accept them while doubting they'll ever quite make sense.

The Bridge is, underneath all, a novel of psychological revelation.  So I am forced to be a little coy about the plot.  In broad terms, it is about the protagonist's reluctance to deal with the mystery of his situation.  He is a man in serious peril and it is his task to discover the nature of that peril.  However, life on the bridge is pleasant, and he has met an engaging woman, an engineer's daughter named Abberlaine Arrol.

The sections on the bridge are more vivid and engaging than those set in Scotland.  The same could be said of the swaggering, cigar-smoking Abberlaine compared to her real-world counterpart.  Small wonder that the protagonist is uneager to rock the boat.  But little things start going wrong.  Telephones cease to work for him.  He loses his social position.  Mad events proliferate.  He must finally find the resolve to ask tough questions and face their consequences.

Morals are out of fashion these days, even in the retrogressive universes of fantasy.  But if there is one message to be taken away from the book, it is this:  That sometimes the reason life seems difficult is that we are engaged in difficult and important work.

And our foul-mouthed, sexually deplorable, and bloody-handed barbarian?  One of the many delights of The Bridge is the marvelously orchestrated revelation by story's end that he is integral to the plot.  Central, even.


Friday, June 7, 2013

Telling Tales


When I was an undergrad at the College of William and Mary, roughly a century ago, Dr. Jenkins (who knew how I felt about science fiction) gave me a flyer that had popped up in the English Department and been routed to him because he taught the Creative Writing class.  It was for a relatively six-week course in writing science fiction called Clarion.  I glanced at it and threw it away because not only could I not afford to money for it, I couldn't afford the six weeks either.  Back then, I held down a 48-hour a week summer job at the Johnson-Carper Furniture Factory, and saved almost every penny of it to pay for my schooling.

The exception was books.  I bought lots of SF paperbacks at used book stores, because I rightly considered them to be an important part of my education.

One Saturday -- I remember this vividly -- I found an anthology of stories from Clarion students.  They were, on the whole, pretty crude.  But I could see that these were the products of raw, talented writers who had just been through an experience that had cut years off of their learning time.

You can imagine how jealous I was of people who could afford such an experience.

Nowadays, I suspect that I ducked the bullet.  Because the Clarion experience -- whether it be Clarion West, Clarion South, or the original Clarion Classic -- is not for everybody.  It best rewards those who can write fast and aspire to a conventional prose style, and least serves those who write slowly or have distinct prose styles.  A timely scholarship to one of the workshops quite possibly could have prevented the young Howard Waldrop from ever writing another word.

However, for many writers, the experience is a very positive one indeed, an early booster engine for their literary careers.  So I'm passing along the following info about an upcoming anthology that doesn't contain a single word written by Yours Truly:

The Clarion West Writers Workshop has teamed up with Hydra House to publish Telling Tales, an anthology of short fiction by award-winning and highly acclaimed Clarion West alumni and edited by Ellen Datlow. The first such book produced by Clarion West, Telling Tales will be released on July 1, 2013, to celebrate the workshop’s 30th Anniversary year and help raise funds for the organization.
Telling Tales contains sixteen works of speculative fiction, ranging from near- future science fiction to swashbuckling fantasy — stories by Daniel Abraham, Andy Duncan, Kathleen Goonan, Kij Johnson, Margo Lanagan, David Levine, Louise Marley, David Marusek, Ian McHugh, Susan Palwick, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Mary Rosenblum, Christopher Rowe, Nisi Shawl, Rachel Swirsky, and Ysabeau Wilce.

An afterword accompanies each story, written by an instructor from that graduate’s year: Greg Bear, Terry Bisson, Pat Cadigan, Gardner Dozois, Andy Duncan, Elizabeth Hand, Nancy Kress, Ursula K. Le Guin, Maureen McHugh, Pat Murphy, Samuel R. Delany, Paul Park, Geoff Ryman, Lucy Sussex, Howard Waldrop, and Connie Willis.
The book will be available for pre- orders in April in hardcover, paperback, and eBook formats from Hydra House, the University Book Store in Seattle, and other online retailers.

 You can pre-order from Hydra House here.

Above:  The upcoming book.  The original series was going to be yearly, I believe, but only lasted I think two anthologies.  I have them around here somewhere.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Barrel Test


My son Sean has friends who think they might want to become writers.  He tells them that if they want, he can arrange for me to go over one of their stories with them.  "It feels like being put in a barrel of gravel and rolled downhill," he says, "but you'll be a better writer afterward."

So far, nobody has taken him up on the offer.

That's only natural, of course.  New writers are as greedy for praise as a child for candy.  But, like candy, praise contributes very little to their growth.  They need criticism and correction -- not to build character or anything like that, but because criticism and correction contain information that will make their fiction better.  On those rare occasions when I teach at Clarion or Clarion West or Clarion South, I always tell my students that their job while there is not write good stories but to make interesting mistakes and as many of them as they possibly can, in order to elicit information from me that they will find useful.  With the possible exception of the first week, when they're being eased into the experience, workshoppers should get as little public praise (the private conferences are a different matter) as possible, because it wastes their time and makes the other students envious.

Still, I think Sean has come up with a good way of gauging whether there's any hope for your becoming a writer:  If you could improve your writing by being placed in a barrel of gravel and rolled downhill, would you do it?  If not, then you're probably not going to make it.


Monday, June 3, 2013



I had quite a nice weekend, topped off yesterday by a daylong backyard party with a lot of the people I like most in attendance.  So today I am happy but weary.

Which is why I'm posting the above footage of gannets diving.  Watching them is almost terrifying, they're so swift and efficient.

Beautiful, if amateurish, footage.  I'm not a big fan of the music, though.

And here's some footage of gannets in super slo mo.

Finally, if you like a little intellectual context with your eye candy, Darren Naish's blog post, which turned me on to the original video, can be seen here.  Good stuff.

And in the Guardian . . .

The very fine writer Christopher Priest eulogizes the late Jack Vance.  Unsurprisingly, it's quite a nice piece.

Click here to read it.