Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Conversation With The Director of The Documentary "The Horse Boy," Chronicling A Family's Trip to Mongolia With Their Son Who Has Autism

  part one of  a four part series

Introduction: Potential Problems With The Documentary
In this Michel Orion Scott documentary, a Texas family dealt with their son's autism by taking him to Mongolian shamans. There were so many ways that this project could have gone wrong. Michel recounted a few of them during an hour long interview in Austin this week.
The three major areas of concern, to my mind and with which he agreed (I will delve more into each later in this piece), were:
- The father of the family, who wrote his own memoir about the journey, also called The Horseboy, was also the executive producer of the movie. As a former journalist, I know that handing too much control to the subject is a dangerous proposition. He agreed, saying he was taught as a film student at the University of Texas that it is a "no-no" to give your subject so much control.
Fortunately, this worked out well since he did not exercise that power to in any way hurt the film.
- The trip to Mongolia was a logistical nightmare. How does one shoot footage for a documentary while on horseback, their main mode of transportation in that nation?
What happens if the director gets, say, giardia, as he did during this trip? Giardia is a parasite of the lower intestine.
- Due to his autism, their son daily experienced tantrums lasting several hours. How could this be handled, both during the trip and on film.
- There are few issues currently more touchy than autism since some will react strongly to any suggestions of anyone being cured of autism. What I did not know going into the film is that Michel and Rupert agreed the word "cure" did not fit the overall message of the film.
I also did not know that there was a comment in the movie from Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who is a best-selling author for books about her work with animal behavior, that even if there was a "cure" for autism she would not want it.
Why? Because there are advantages to being autistic, particularly being able to focus more deeply on areas than people without autism.
It was that last point that had me most concerned going into the movie. In fact, I thought I would dislike it but now I am a big advocate of the film. I am eager to read the father's memoir and interview him. That interview should come through within the next few weeks. I hope to also meet Rowan and see the ranch Rupert started and runs, The New Trails Center, which is for kids with autism. It is located outside Elgin, Texas, near where the Isaacsons live.
The Movie's Release and Future
Not only did this documentary overcome those potential problems, but it premiered at the Sundance Festival back in January. When it was shown in March as part of the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, it won a prize as the audience favorite.
Michel said he thinks it won the award because the movie is so stirring. People have an emotional reaction to it. He knows, he said, of some who even cried after seeing the original trailer for the movie. The film touches the general public. He said it is both “worldly” yet “personal at the same time.”
While it was exciting to have the movie premiere during Sundance, Michel told the audience at a screening added due to demand and popularity, the more meaningful showing was in Austin since that is where he lives and works.
You can see the trailer for the movie here.
Since then Michel has been preparing the movie to be released in theaters in September and editing the movie down to 53 minutes so it can be shown on PBS in spring 2010 and, later on the BBC. The DVD will contain footage cut from the original 200 hours of film edited to 94 minutes.
He said he was able to deal with the cutting and editing of the film knowing that one day, the original will be seen in its entirety on DVD. The DVD will also include more footage of interviews with autism experts about the disorder.
How Michael and Rupert Isaacson Met
Michel's early film career consisted mostly, he said, of skating videos and doing some editing work for a documentary filmmaker.
But Michel, who prefers doing edgy experimental work, was disillusioned after doing some other film work. Around that time he attended a talk given by Rupert Isaacson. Isaacson was giving a talk on a book he wrote about the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa.
Michel too was fascinated by indigenous cultures, calling it "one of his hobbies." After the talk, the two had a meeting which changed their lives. Rupert and Michel decided to begin making a documentary about the San Bushmen. At that point Michel was willing to do the project regardless of whether he was paid for it.
Then Rupert told Michel he had another idea. He told Rupert he was planning a trip to meet with
shamans in Mongolia and wondered if Michel wanted to join them and make a documentary about that instead.
Michel jumped at the chance saying even if the trip and project was a flop, he would, at the very least, get to visit Mongolia; a place he had always wanted to go.
“What did I have to lose? It is an amazing story. And I get to go Mongolia," Michel said.
By then Michel had seen Rupert and his wife, Kristin Neff, with their son, Rowan, and he was amazed at their patience and dedication as parents. He knew, he said, if nothing else the film could be a story about "the devotion of parents... no matter what happened." At that point Michel knew very little about autism.
The Book Deal
There are many ways in which this documentary is atypical and one of the more noticeable ones is Rupert, both because he was a producer for the documentary (which meant he had the power, if he so chose, to at least try to shut down the project) and since he was writing a memoir about the project.
Rupert had some contacts in the film and television industries so he began seeing if there was a way they could get some funding for the work. Michel was prepared to make the movie no matter what but was stunned when Rupert told him during one phone conversation that he had just received a seven-figure book advance.
What happened was Rupert did something unusual in book publishing, namely using an early trailer for the movie (this was before they even went to Mongolia but it did show Rowan's relationship with horses) as he shopped around a proposal to write a book about the journey.
Publishers recognized the interest in the topic of autism and the potential draw of a book about the family's journey. The tie-in to a documentary also helped; this was the trailer that brought some to tears. A bidding war erupted and then Rupert was given a contract of at least $1 million for the book, which came out earlier this month.
For the trip, they had a film crew of three, still pretty small, including Michel. Now, though, they had the luxury of knowing they would be paid and would not have to worry as much about funding for the film.
Given that Rupert's work and contacts helped obtain financing for the movie, it made sense he was to be the movie's producer.
This gave Rupert more control over the documentary than would usually be the case for the subject of a documentary. Michel admitted that early on he had some concerns on this front but they went away over time. Rupert never used his role as producer to alter the movie or make him look better.
Indeed, one reason I was so moved by this movie was Rupert's self-reflection as he expressed his worries and regrets. Early on in the journey, there is a scene where Rupert makes a mistake and then worries that he has been a bad father putting his own self-interest above the interests of his son.
Michel remembers that day well. Before then, he was wondering if he was just documenting a family doing something out of the ordinary. But at that moment, when Rupert began to express such real concerns and worries, Michel, said, "We have a film!"
As someone who has worked in special education in the schools and with special needs adults in their homes, I can tell you that the issues Rupert expresses are those I often hear. This movie will strike familiar chords with those families, some of whom still remember the days when terms like "refrigerator moms" were used, blaming autism on mothers.
The trip
To avoid making this piece excessively long, I am not going to go into great detail about the trip and the positive changes by Rowan. Instead, I will accompany the piece with links to articles about the book and movie by CNN, the New York Times and other news organizations.
I did, though, want to include some of Michel's comments about the journey. During the four months leading up to the trip the crew began practicing shooting film while on horseback, not an easy task. That was also when they interviewed Temple.
They later interviewed a few other experts on autism, who are also shown during the movie, giving the issue of autism some context and overview.
One reason I love the chance and opportunity to interview directors and authors is to ask questions about their craft and logistics. So I wanted to know how Michel was able to shoot beautiful landscape footage and conversations with the family members while on horseback.
What did they do, I asked, ride ahead of the family and then wait and film them as they went by and then do it again? Frankly, he said, that is exactly what they did. As if that was not enough of a challenge there was also the matter of getting shamans to agree to let them film their ceremonies in which they worked with Rowan.
The footage of the trip is incredibly, no pun intended, moving. I challenge those watching the movie to not be generally moved when the family's wishes, which at the time seemed so unrealistic, that Rowan would learn how to use the bathroom on his own. Not only does Rowan did accomplish that but he also began communicating and playing with other children, something he had never previously done.
The editing and the film's release
After the trip, following a well-deserved two week break, Michel got down to what he says is the hardest part of documentary filmmaking, namely cutting it down.
There was another reason why it was exciting when the movie premiered: Michel had refused to let family and friends see any of the movie until it was finished. So his immediate family went to Sundance to see the movie there while friends finally got to see the movie he had been working on for three years.
The movie has received good media coverage, Michel said. The only criticisms he is aware of come from the autistic community have from people who have not actually see it, who had the visceral reaction I initially did, namely fretting the movie would be touting a miracle cure or something.
But Michel explained he knew early on that was an issue and concern and planned ahead on that front. They decided to present the movie as what it really was, not about ending Rowan's autism but rather finding a place for autism in their family and in our culture.
Michel's future He is currently starting to work on two projects. One is a feature-length fictional film. The other is a documentary about the Hopi Indians and their relationship with the food they make. He plans to shoot footage in Bolivia about that culture's relationship between their people and their food. This will be partially a way to commenting in the great beauty in how indigenous cultures raise and provide their food and compare and contrast that with how other cultures do so.
However, first he needs to continue work cutting the movie down to the appropriate length for PBS and the BBC, which he called a painful process. It helps to know that people who will see the DVD can see the whole movie.
I strongly urge you to see this documentary when it is available for your viewing pleasure. Meanwhile, why not join me in reading the memoir by Rupert? I waited to start the memoir until I finished this piece because I wanted to try, as much as possible, to approach the two projects separately. When an interview with Rupert is scheduled I will begin soliciting questions you want put to him.
In a nutshell, this movie looks at this family's journey but it also does a good job, through footage of interviews with experts on autism, of putting issues relating to autism into proper context.
Thanks again to Michel for doing this interview with me.

My Interview With Kristin (aka Horseboy's Mother) About Recent Life From Her Vantage Point

This is the second part of a four-part series about Horseboy. Part One was the interview with the director of Horseboy, a documentary about this family.
This part is about the viewpoints of the mother of Horseboy aka Rowan. It is about her responding to Rupert's decision to take a family trip to Mongolia, making the documentary and what's in the future for the family after the publication of Rupert's memoir, "The Horseboy: A Father's Quest to Heal His Son." (This will take you to a page with information on the memoir and the trailer for the movie)
Part Three, which will follow in a day or two, will be an interview with Rupert. The interview is done - it's the introduction which has given me some writer's block.

Part Four will be a review of Horseboy. I have made a point of not reading the book yet because it's hard enough to separate what the family said in the movie and in the first interview (in person) and the second (by email) without confusing what was said in the book.

This series was originally planned for a few weeks ago but then my apartment was burgled and when they stole my laptop computer they also took away forever my extensive interview notes.
The Isaacson family was kind enough to let me re-do the interview via email. I thank them enormously for letting me do that.

You can get a sense, from this great brilliant blog piece of how some families and others with autism are responding to this book. When I visited the family and center I was surrounded by families, some impressed at the progress being made by kids around me (one hopped in my lap mid-interview) probably due to being around nature and animals.
During those three hours I spent probably an hour of it talking with Kristin and so I decided to split the resulting interview into two parts, one from the perspective of Horseboy's mother and one of his father. This made sense on several levels so I decided to stick with that.
She jokingly calls herself the "sane one" of Rowan's parents. Rupert has great ideas, but when he says things in the movie like, this is a paraphrase, 'Maybe the shamans really did heal their son,' she'll say, 'Essentially, does it matter what made him better? No, what matters,' she said, 'Is that he is NOW better.' Sure enough, when I visited, he was not the boy at the start of the documentary having hours-long tantrums, but rather someone showing me his pet rabbit and politely asking his mom if he can have some juice.
The following is an email interview with her. She alludes at one point to New Trails Center - that is the name of the center they opened so others can, like them, let their children with autism spend time in nature, with animals, and hopefully progress. Details of the center are here.
Scott: You told me about making a pre-emptive speech which I found fascinating. Can you tell me what you say, and why, when, for example, going on a flight with Rowan?
Kristin: I used to say (don't need to anymore) "Excuse me. I'd like to just let you all know that my son Rowan is autistic. I will try my hardest to make sure he stays calm and quiet during the flight but if he gets very loud or upset I hope you'll understand."
How many animals and of what types do you have in your home? Does Rowan have relationships with all of them? Why do you think animals seem more trusting of Rowan versus, say, people who are not autistic?
Right now we just have our cat "Scubby-kitty" and our horse "Clue." We just recently moved our pigmy goats to New Trails because they were escaping here, but he certainly has a close relationship with them - "Stella" "Oreo" "Annie" "Whimple" and "Alexander" (he named them all except "Whimple," who I named because when she was born it looked like her ears were a nuns whimple.)
Rowan loves all animals, even the five scorpions we caught and were going to flush down the toilet but he kept them in a cage and was fascinated with them. I'm not sure why animals respond so well to him. I've heard from other people who work with animals and special needs kids a similar story. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that all mammals have a care-giving system (largely oxytocin and opiate-based) that allows us to give and receive nurturance. The behavior of a child, especially one who seems vulnerable rather than dominant, probably engages that system for animals.
I know Temple Grandin asked us if Betsy was pregnant (flooded with Oxytocin) when she first encountered Betsy and in fact she was.
I asked a friend to read the book and ask any questions she wanted posed to you: One of the things mentioned at the end of the book was a trip to Africa to continue the shaman rituals for the next few years. Have you made those trips? Details?
We went to Namibia last summer and spent a week with Bushman shamans. It was arranged by our good friend Megan Bieslie, an anthropologist who works with Bushmen in Southern Africa and lives in Austin. We also had Besa, a powerful shaman who Rowan is named after (Rowan Besa Isaacson) come in from Botswana (Rupert is banned from Botswana because of his human rights work). We brought along Michel to film it all, and it was wonderful. We didn't see the immediate changes like in Mongolia but he's continued to make slow, steady progress (almost like it helped recharge his batteries).
As a parent, one of the things that most spoke to me was how the diagnosis of PDD/NOS completely changed your hopes for your child and family. Now that you've been through this life-altering healing journey, how has your hope changed again?
We're very hopeful that Rowan will lead a happy, productive life. He wants to be a zoo-keeper and I'm sure he will be able to accomplish that dream - whether that means becoming a wildlife biologist or simply feeding animals at a zoo. I'm also hopeful that he will be able to marry someday, since he's such a handsome, charming, charismatic guy!

Memoir: I Am The Victim of a Home Burglary; Won't Be Around As Much For A While

(from 2009)

This is going to be short and to the point. No jokes today. In fact no seeds today (with one exception) and for at least the next two or three days.
Yesterday I worked from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., leaving my home at 5 a.m. and returning at 10 p.m. I thought about writing something up about what it is like to work an election from the perspective of an election clerk instead of as a reporter covering the election. I also had ten stories I planned to seed but now I think I'll offer those, first come first serve, to those who email me since I don't like to seed stories I won't be around to moderate.
Anyway, I got home and found my apartment had been burglarized. They came in through a screen by the balcony. The police came and took finger prints. They may have found one set - they said the burglars clearly used gloves - but I'm hoping they are not my fingerprints or that of my nieces.
Stolen were:
A very nice digital camera given to me by my brother
The vcr/dvd player given to me by my sister and all the cables that went with it.
The cable modem box and,
most importantly,
and most tragically,
my laptop computer.
I actually closed the door, went outside and came back in willing for it to be different the second time. No dice.
So long story short I've now been unlucky twice, first the car stereo, now this. I did not have renters insurance. I will contact the apartment complex tomorrow (they are closed today) and have contacted the cable company.
Below are a few requests:
Can someone volunteer to review House this week? Please post if you can.
Same with Fringe this week. Can someone tape that?
(If someone can go by the House and Fringe articles and direct them here that'd be great)
Does someone have an extra or used laptop you can loan or sell me? I'm praying the computer is retrieved because among its contents are documents not saved elsewhere (most importantly, my notes from the autism interview I did last week which were not saved anywhere)
Can someone recommend a dvd/vcr player that also plays tv shows grabbed via BitTorrent. I will probably buy one though if someone wants to donate to the cause (i.e. me) that'd be great too and bit torrent-playing dvd players is much less important than having ANY equipment I can use. The only electronic thing the burglars left were the tv set and the cell phone charger.

Six Things You Should Not Say To Someone With Depression followed by good responses

(from july 2015)

Six Things You Should Not Say To Someone With Depression followed by good responses.
1. "Watch a funny movie. That always improves my mood."
Response: That may help you but it's unlikely a comedy will make me stop worrying about whatever problem, be it real, exaggerated or imaginary, is on my mind."
2. "Stay away from sad movies or books - they will make your depression worse.
Response: "Wow. So by that logic everyone who saw Sophie's Choice and 12 Years A Slave are now depressed?"
3. "You should not have to take medication to deal with your depression."
Response: "I'll stop taking medication for my depression when you stop taking medication for your asthma, allegies, heart problems and cholestorel."
4. "It takes more muscles to frown than to smile."
Response: "Well, then, my face muscles are really getting a good workout."
5. "You're still depressed? This is like the third day in a row !"
Response: "You still have a closed, ignorant mind after three days?" Or, more politely "You still have allergies after three days?"

6. "Why can't you just man up?"
Response:" Why can't you be considerate and helpful instead of insulting?"

An Interview With Robert Fulghum, Author of What Have I Done? and Everything You Need To Know You Learned In Kindergarten

(from Sept 2007)
You may not recognize the name Robert Fulghum but you have seen his work. He is the author of seven best-selling books All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It, Uh-Oh, Maybe (Maybe Not), From Beginning to End—The Rituals of Our Lives, True Love and Words I Wish I Wrote. There are currently more than 16 million copies of his books in print, published in 27 languages in 103 countries.
But it’s that first book – and the title essay – which you have most likely seen around. At least once a month I see on an office wall the poster with that essay on it. Fulghum is a wise man who says brilliant things in a concise way, often using charming, witty anecdotes. When I learned that we have similar spiritual beliefs and that he has a new book coming out of essays I jumped at the chance to interview him. He agreed to the interview to promote his new book, What On Earth Have I Done? which comes out September 18.
Reading up on you I saw that critics described your Kindergarten book as “trite and saccharine.” How do you respond to such critics?
This is addressed as if it was a unique issue for writers. But it’s a life question for everyone: What do you do about those people who don’t like you or don’t approve of you or who say negative things about you? Nobody can or should try to please everybody. Many people seem to admire my writing and there are many fine critical commentaries. I’ll settle for that.
I think one of my favorite essays so far in your book is the “Chair man” about the guys eating a chair. When you come across conversations like that do you write them down right away knowing it's solid gold or let them fester/mature a bit first?
I’m glad you like “Chair-man.” I always take notes of good ideas, then, as I explain in my new book, I tell the story to a long-time friend, try the story out in public speaking engagements, and then write it. I’m a storyteller - an oral art, so it’s always “tell then write."
Is this accurate? Its from Wikipedia so you never know: “Residents of his Seattle neighborhood note that he owns four full-body bunny suits and has an inordinate fondness for objects with pictures of bacon printed on them.” Why the bunny suits and the bacon? And were you really a singing cowboy?
Wikipedia. I’m not responsible for what gets published there. I do own a rabbit suit, a chicken suit, and a camel suit - and wear them when involved in doing affirmative pranks with a group called “The Friends of the White Rabbit.” What’s not to like about bacon? Yes, I was a singing cowboy.
What's the best and worst part about writing fiction? Writing non-fiction?
I'm a storyteller – one who conveys the truth he sees in the same spirit employed by a poet or comedian or songwriter. This is true for all of us – in the way we give an account of what we saw or did on a given day. I personally don't worry about the categories, but these thoughts come to mind: What I write is always somewhere between investigative journalism and myth… Much of what is labeled fiction is factual. The goal is to serve Truth in the best sense.
On your web site you wrote:
Please Note: During the month of September I'll be shuttling around the country publicizing my new book of essays. The ostensible purpose of book tours is to increase book sales and give readers a chance to experience authors first hand. But I don't go to be seen or sell books. I go to meet readers - to add some fleshy reality to those I address: "To Whom It May Concern." If you are a "To Whom" and I'm in your town, come say hello.
What is it you'd like to know about your readers? Here is your chance to suggest what you'd like them to say when they meet you besides, "hi".
I go out in the world to see the reality of my readers – so that I have a personal image of them, not an imaginary one. Whenever I speak in public I take photographs of the audience, print them up and look at them carefully. I want to see demographics – age, sex, etc. – but also create a mental image in my mind of those I write to. I've always had a quarrel with my editors and publishers over this. They talk about my readers as if they know – but they don't – they haven't been to see them – I have. One of the best experiences I've had as a writer was doing the True Love book when I asked my readers to collaborate with me in a book of love stories to benefit Habitat for Humanity.
My favorite piece in here is the one called "my fault." Has your idea – that family members take turns accepting blame for the events of a day regardless of true guilt – caught on with others? Do you think it should?
I don't know if anybody else practices my technique, though when I tell that story in public it always gets applause.
My favorite quote is this one: "Stoic wisdom about death and destruction is always proportionate to your distance from the scene of the accident. Sometimes someone is to blame. Not everybody must be excused."Do you want to say anything about how you reached that conclusion? It seems particularly timely as I write this amid Sept. 11 anniversaries and debate over the war.
Re the quote: It just seems obvious to me. The further away evil is from us, the easy it is to endure. I can't directly affect what happens daily in Iraq.
But that doesn't mean I'm off the hook. To work for officials who can affect that situation – to vote – even if what I do seems small, I still must do that little bit – because the small things accumulate. There's much of this line of thinking in my new book.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

An Interview With Mike Carey, Author of The Devil You Know

I've long followed and promoted the adage that knowledge is power and one can become smarter by reading books, but lately I've found there are exceptions to these rules. That's one way of saying that I keep finding new topics and artists of which I have been ignorant. Take, as a case in point, Mike Carey. When I was sent a copy of Carey's first novel, The Devil You Know, I had to google him to see who he was. My belated apologies to Carey for my cluelessness.
I quickly ascertained that he has been writing the X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four comic books and has been a major name in comic book circles for more than ten years. Surely I should have known his name before this. I have had my eyes opened in recent years — as I mention to Carey during this email interview — that the comic book form is ripe for experimentation, as with Larry Gonick writing what are essentially textbooks in comic book forms.
I asked a friend recently whether she reads any comic books or graphic novels and she said no. I pressed her on why that is, saying that surely if she read some of the graphic novels by Neil Gaiman or Art Spiegelman (especially Maus) she would find much she liked. But she had fallen victim to the same stereotype that I believed for too many years – that comic books are full of weak writing and dialogue and are just for kids.
Carey's novel is proof that not only can a comic book writer's story stand up well when stripped of the images, but that it can be one of the most unusual, compelling, fascinating books I've read in years.
The Devil You Know is about Max Castor, a down-on-his-luck freelance exorcist who uses music to fight demons. He is a horny guy and when he falls for the wrong woman she turns out to be a succubus. He is assigned to a job which grows more complicated and sinister and troubled, while violence, threats and other problems soon come at him faster than you can say "there are more undead in this book than you can shake a stick at." It's imaginative, engaging and great fun.
Scott Butki: First, how did you get into writing comic books?
Mike Carey: Like most people in the industry, I guess, I was a fan before I was a creator. I learned to read from comic books - notably from the so-called "Power-House Comics" of the mid-sixties, which were largely written and drawn by British comic book legend Leo Baxendale.
Then I started borrowing and reading my older brother Chris's American superhero books, discovered the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four, and that was it - the beginning of a life-long love affair. Or addiction, if you want to be cruel. So I was pretty much always reading comics as I grew up, apart from a short spell in my teens. Then I started to do comic reviews and articles for fanzines and semi-pro-zines, and from there I started pitching actual scripts and ideas to Martin Skidmore, who was briefly the editor on the UK Trident Comics line.
They picked up two of my stories, but went bankrupt before they could pay me or publish me. It didn't matter by that stage, though. I'd made some contacts through that experience, and I started writing on the American indie scene, through the good graces of two very generous people, Ken Meyer Jr. and Lurene Haines. I worked for Malibu, then for Caliber, and I slowly leapfrogged my way to DC's door.
What has been your high point and low points in writing comics?
The low points tended to be when a publisher I was writing for went bankrupt or ceased trading, leaving me out on my ear once again. It seemed to happen a lot. A creative low point was the Pantera comic book I wrote for Malibu's Rock-It imprint. It was... well, it was the adventures of the thrash metal band Pantera as they face down evil vampires and kick supernatural @!$%# somewhere in Texas. And it was so bad it sort of imploded and created a local black hole wherever it was read. Dangerous stuff.
Highs... Well, it's hard for anything to compare with the day when Vertigo editor Alisa Kwitney called me and invited me to pitch for Sandman Presents Lucifer. I'd been banging my head against the door for seven or eight years by that point, and suddenly it opened to reveal a land flowing with milk and honey and actual pay cheques.
More to the point, it was my dream job. I was such a hard-core Sandman fan, and there I was writing a book centered on one of the iconic Sandman characters. There was no living with me. More recently, both having a novel published and co-writing a book with my daughter were spectacular highs.
What made you decide to write a novel?
It was something I'd always wanted to do. It was also something I'd tried and failed to do a long time ago, back when I was still teaching. I didn't have any grasp of story structure back then, and I'd never learned the discipline of planning, so I wrote these things that were not so much novels as big, shapeless, bulgy bags of events.
But comics teaches you to plan scenes and story beats like a miser working out his monthly outgoings. "If I cut the exposition here I can have a splash page there..." I knew that after ten years writing comics in a dozen or more different formats, I could write a novel and make it work. And beyond that, the Castor books revolve around the use of music in an exorcism ritual. They'd make really rotten comics because music isn't visual and you pretty much can't make it visual. I needed Castor to be a novel or a movie.
Now here's the part I find confusing – this book is being marketed in the United States as your first novel, which it is, but Wikipedia says your second book is already out in Europe and you're working on your third novel. Do I have that straight? Are we a year behind in the United States or something? As if it's not bad enough that you guys in Britain have better chocolate - now this?
Nah, I'm working on the fourth now! The gap is widening... The truth is, Warner got the U.S. rights very early on in the process, but they wanted to do their own promotion and marketing for the series and so they cut themselves loose from the U.K. publishing schedule and did things in their own way. That's opened up a gap, but I think the plan is to have shorter intervals between releases so that the U.K. and U.S. schedules eventually dovetail. You're right about the chocolate, though. Cadbury Whole Nut is the best there is...
What do you like better – writing novels or comic books? Which is more difficult?
The two processes are very different. One of the biggest differences is in terms of the way the work impacts on your life on a day-to-day basis. It comes down to pacing again – or maybe I mean scheduling. In comics you work to very short deadlines. You plot months in advance, so you know where you're going, but you're writing the story in short segments that have to be completed within a finite and tightly defined time frame. So you write the script, you send it in, you get the edit notes and do a rewrite, and then off it goes to the artist. If you're in the middle of the next issue or a few issues down the line and you suddenly think "Oh wait, I should have introduced this character earlier" or "I should have prepared the ground for this!" it's too late and you can't change your mind. The freedom to change your mind is very limited.
A novel is something that grows gradually. You live with it for six months, or maybe longer, and at any point within that time you have the option of changing your mind about very substantial things. If you get to chapter 22 and you want to go back and change something in chapter five you can do that because chapter five is still there – it hasn't gone anywhere and nobody else has seen it yet. Nobody else is waiting for it to arrive so they can start doing pencils or lettering or whatever. So you have this vertical freedom which I really enjoyed a lot.
But comics have their advantages too. Scene-setting is effortless -- for the writer, anyway -- because so much can be conveyed in the visuals. And since you're telling the story essentially in two modalities, you can make words play off images to produce some very cool effects.
It's horses for courses, at the end of the day. Some stories work best in comic form, others play beautifully as novels – and some translate readily into any medium.
You're at least the fourth cartoonist I've interviewed recently, which is interesting since, with a few exceptions, I haven't read a comic book or graphic novel beyond those reviewed and since Doonesbury in a few years. I reviewed books by Larry Gonick (the Cartoon Guide History of… ) and Lloyd Dangle (Troubletown) and Brad Meltzer (who is starting to writing some of the Buffy comics.) Do you know of any of these guys? Any thoughts on them?
I don't know any of them personally, but obviously I know their work. I read Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe way, way back and loved it. I think I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop while I was at College. Troubletown is amazing, and I'm enjoying Meltzer's Justice League of America a lot. But you mentioned Trudeau in there too - he's like a god to me. There never was another strip like Doonesbury, although there are many strips around now that are indebted to it.
Has there always been switching by writers from comics to novels and back that Neil Gaiman and others does - or is that a more recent trend?
I think it's always been there, but only to an extent. The permeability now is massive and universal. Comics publishers are aggressively recruiting writers from the fields of TV, novels, movies - and writers are discovering that once they've reached a certain point their name becomes a sort of brand, which allows them access to other creative spheres. It's a positive thing, I think. The more different kinds of writing you do, the better your instincts become. And you keep yourself fresh by working the changes. If you stay in one niche, the temptation to do the same thing again and again is always going to be there.
Where do you see yourself in five years – still writing both comics and novels or doing all of one or the other?
Still writing both. And doing TV and movie work.
And swimming the English Channel blindfolded. Multi-tasking is my thing.
My pleasure.

Carey is best known for writing the X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four comic books and has been a major name in comic book circles for more than ten years. I came to know him via the publication in the U.S. of his first novel.
Scott Butki: If you were allowed to go back and return to high school but with any special powers you choose would you do it and which superpowers would you choose?
Mike Carey: I think I'd pass. Special powers would be cool, but having to relive my high school years? That doesn't appeal much. If I did, then I'd probably go for invisibility. The power not to be bugged is a great and precious thing.

Where would you suggest someone, as an adult like my friend I alluded to in part one, start with her explorations into graphic novels? Do you encounter the stereotype I referred to, that comic books are for kids, not adults (or at least not those of the non-geeky type)?

It's difficult because you're always going to get a kind of verfremdungs effect when you encounter comics for the first time. I could reel off a list of my own favorites and say "try these," but unless you're coming in from the right angle you can just find comics storytelling too strange and alienating the first time you encounter it.
One possible way in is through the sort of hybrid books where you get a sequential visual narrative but with accompanying text rather than in-panel dialogue. The Chaykin adaptation of Bester's The Stars My Destination, published by Byron Preiss back in the eighties, is one that I enjoyed a lot. It also makes a certain amount of sense to stick to genres that you already know and like. So, for example, don't read a horror comic unless you enjoy horror prose.
If you do enjoy horror prose, then read Junji Ito's Uzumaki, which is one of the best horror narratives of the twentieth century in any medium - right up there with Lovecraft's Shadow Out of Time and Kubrick's The Shining. Beyond that, I'd say pick up a good anthology like one of the comic book editions of McSweeneys or Image's Flight. That way you can dip into a lot of different styles and approaches and see if any of them work for you...
Where do you stand on the Batman TV series frustrating in that it was so campy it besmirched comic books? Or good fun? Or somewhat of both?
I enjoyed it as a kid - and actually took a while to realize that it was sending itself up. And I can still enjoy it now, when I'm in the mood. Let's face it, superheroes are hard to do seriously in any medium other than comics. It's like if you try to do a straight dramatic version of an opera, you immediately realize how ludicrous opera plots always are. Conventions that you don't question in a comic book -- like costumes -- become huge stumbling blocks in movies and TV shows.
What question are you most tired of answering?
Actually the one that causes me most grief is the "what else have you got coming up?" question, because I always miss something out and leave one of my editors feeling really aggrieved. But the hardest one, which I usually duck, is "where did you get the initial idea for X,Y or Z..."
What's the biggest misconception about you? About comics writers?
Well, some people make assumptions about me because of the kind of material I write. They expect someone dark and brooding, and actually I'm more sort of like Arthur Putey (a character in a Monty Python sketch).
I don't think there are any general misconceptions about comics writers - just a lack of any conceptions at all. People don't know we exist, unless they've got the passion themselves.

Friday, August 18, 2017

An Interview With David Denby About His Book Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation.

I know David Denby best for his film reviews in the New Yorker. When I heard he was doing a book on snark I requested a copy of the book and an interview with him via email.
I am still deciding what I think about this book and his position on snark, that it is somehow poisoning culture.
In order to make this interview more interesting I took the pro-snark position but I'm not sure exactly where I stand. I love one of the sites he is most critical of, which demonstrates how conflicted I am. I may later add a few comments on what I end up deciding on this issue.
Looks like I predicted correctly what some of the sites targeted in the book, sites like Wonkette and Gawker, would say in response to the book.

Those site's main objection is one I share and one I press him on several times, namely isn't deciding what is and isn't snark (or good and bad snark) so subjective as to be almost meaningless? I may come back after I clear my head of some personal matters to add a few additional thoughts about this book but for now let's get to the actual interview

What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book?
I wanted to call attention to a rotten style, maybe even start a public conversation about a phenomenon that seemed to be growing in this scary transitional period of journalism when so many established magazines and newspapers are beginning to subside into the Web.
I'll come back to that, but, first definitions. Trying to define snark-- isn't so easy, since it overlaps with common insult, sarcasm, hate speech, and so on, and the book forced me to think spin through different forms of abuse and comedy. After all, I love satire of the scabrous but civic-minded Stewart-Colbert type, and also the literary stuff, both classic (Juvenal) and modern (Gore Vidal), and I also love dirty-mouthed farces like "Knocked Up" and "Superbad"--I've certainly praised a lot of them over the years. I'm not walking around with a bucket of soap, trying to wash out everyone's mouth--that's @!$%#ing not it at all.
Gentility is not what I want. So what in the world is bothering me? It's abusive, undermining insult that doesn't bother to create a new image, or a new form of speech, but just lazily picks up some reference lying around the media junk heap. Snark is not just mean, it's knowing--parasitic, derivative--and people do it not just because they're trying to be funny (which isn't so easy) but because they're terrified of being one step out of date, and they want to send signals to their audience that they're on top of things.
So, yes, I wanted to call attention to it as a kind of bad writing, but I suppose behind every idea of style, positive or negative, there's some sort of moral idea, too. For instance, people doing their best to destroy other people's reputations with anonymous snark gives me the creeps; it cowardly fun. The Internet has liberated not only all the people with cool and interesting information and sentiment to share but also all the other-annihilating crazies. Snark is the vehicle of a lot of their attacks.
Why did you decide to write a book about snark?
I was afraid a kind of Gresham's Law was operating, or beginning to operate, in which the bad writing drove out the good, for the reasons I've given above. Explicitly, I was in a sweat last Spring and Summer that Obama would be done in by all the smears running around the Internet and dropping out of Republican Party mouths--he was a Muslim, he palled around with terrorists, he wasn't really American, and all that. I was pretty sure that the attempt to "otherize" Obama (as Nicholas Kristof put it in the "Times") was an appeal to racial prejudice in code. Well, my fears were true, I think, but Obama was saved. He was our democratic prince, and, for every smear, there was someone else ready to step forward and unmask it or denounce it. The media eco-system attained a kind of equilibrium in his case. But not, of course, in Al Gore's.
What do you see as the downside to snark?
It cheapens whatever it touches. Why? Because it doesn't engage anything; it's bulimic--it regurgitates rather than digests. It turns every issue into a matter of personal style, every substance into gossip, every character into caricature. It's the vehicle of Internet shaming and snooping (no one goes on the Net to somberly and soberly complain about his neighbor's behavior).
Everyone wants to be funny, and why not? But genuine wit is hard to pull off. Do you realize how many jokes Stewart and his staff toss out every day? Dozens. Nastiness, on the other hand, is easy, and it can hurt people--not, generally, people well-established in their lives but younger adults and kids, who live and die by what others think of them. And there's the long-term effect on your reputation and your privacy. Anyone can say anything about you on the Net and hide behind a handle.
Suppose a woman was sexually active in college or some guy did some cocaine at a frat party, and a jerk, hiding behind a handle, posts that on "Juicy Campus," naming names. This happens all the time. Ten years later, when you go for a job interview, that accusation is going to pop up on Google. It seems like careless fun when you're nineteen, but not so funny later on. I'm not exaggerating, it's happening. There was a big conference of legal scholars at the University of Chicago in November (the papers will be published by Harvard University Press) in which the issues of privacy and the Internet were thoroughly ventilated. These people didn't use the word snark, but that's what they were talking about.
Do you see any upside to it?
No one human being could fail to make a joke about Dick Cheney shooting his friend in the face. Snark can be a release. Everyone except possibly John Kerry does it, sooner or later, in conversation. On the page, though, it looks cheap, lame, impotent.
So I take it you are not a fan of sites like Television Without Pity where they mix their reviews and recaps with snark?
Um, no. Recent sentence: from TWoP, about "Supernatural": "Of course, the Monster Chow refuse to heed the Winchesters' most excellent and reasonable warnings and shove all of their belongings into the place anyway, and soon enough, the aggravatingly adolescent son's tossing around a baseball with The Thing That Lives In The Walls while his rather kick-@!$%# older sister finds herself the unwilling object of That Thing's decidedly slobbery affections, and before you know it, the family's charming little doggie has had its fur and flesh ripped from its bones, and the smart-mouthed uncle's taken a butcher knife through his windpipe, " etc."
Whenever I turn to TWoP, the writing is mainly endless plot summary with snarky adjectives. If I've missed some good writing, I apologize. But most of what I've seen is snarko-drivel. Okay, it's fun to sit around with friends and decorate a TV show--the jokes may be better than the show, and if the snark is flying, the evening becomes a kind of combat to see who can be the meanest and funniest. But that's a social occasion, where spontaneity and speed is what the fun is about. On the page, it palls very quickly.
There's another problem. All would be forgiven with TWoP if they actually responded with ardor to something new, fresh, a little difficult. If only they loved, forgive me, art, and even craft, a little more and the sound of their own sarcasm a little less. In their movie reviews, are they excited when something astounding like "There Will Be Blood" comes out? What really lights their jets is trash like "Bride Wars." In a way, despite all the sarcasm, they operate as the thugs of the conglomerates--they're largely within the world of corporate culture. If they did get behind something serious, they would risk making a fools of themselves--someone would slam them, so sarcasm is safer. Sorry for the self-plug, but it's at that point of fear that's criticism takes over.
I am a fan, however, of TPM, rather than TWoP--that is, Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall's political site, which I think is the best thing to come along in journalism in years. And I admire Pitchfork, smart, erudite pop-music site. In the end, the Internet will be the salvation of criticism, since book and movie and music critics are all dying in hard copy, but it may take a few years. Right now, it's certainly the easy entry point. I tell kids who want to write about the arts that they now have the opportunity to go on at length, maybe work with a good editor (even a tough friend will help), and develop a voice. But don't expect to make a living at it for some time.
Do you want to respond to the negative review of your book in New York Magazine?
Adam Sternbergh's main point was that snark was an appropriate response to a corrupt and dishonest world. I wouldn't disagree with his description of the world, but the appropriate response to corruption and dishonesty, dear Adam, is satire--what Stewart and Colbert do four times a week. That's what I praise in the book over and over. Snark just doesn't cut it. Sternbergh defends his friends at TWoP, and he way overvalues snark's strengths, and if that's what pleases him, so be it. Edward Champion, on his book blog, took the Sternbergh piece apart point by point, so I'll leave it at that.
Is the book getting the kind of reception you expected?
Well, it's very early--it was just been published. But I expected that the book would scrape some people's nerves and please others, and that will continue to be true. If you actually say something, and don't just do the old soft shoe down to the bottom of the page, as Wilfred Sheed once put it, you will get in trouble. But it's healthy to get in trouble, particularly as you get older. I certainly wanted to disrupt the snarkers--I wanted to say to them, "You're not punching your weight. You're making things too easy on yourself." And, sure enough, they've taken the bait. And I wanted to reach out to people who are bored with the same kind of cruddy writing that I'm bored with.
But there's something else going on that I hinted at earlier--a kind of panic in print journalism. The great newspapers and magazines are subsiding into the Web, slowly, agonizingly, but inevitably, and no one wants to be left behind, cast out as clueless, so there's a kind of forced embrace of New Media., even among well-established Old Media journalists. Much of what the Internet does is great, but certain kinds of terrific writing--the beautifully crafted sports story, the resonant book review, and, most important of all, investigative reporting--could weaken or disappear from newspaper and magazines once they go exclusively into the Internet.
I know there are sites uniquely devoted to serious book and film criticism, and I admire them, but it will take a while before they establish the authority of the old publications. I think journalists have to find some way of holding onto what they do best and not get stampeded into lowering their game just to survive. So I guess I'm sending out a signal--"Here's a bad style. Don't fall into it."
You speak about Maureen Dowd. Why her? What is her role in all of this?
She's brilliant, the most talented writer of snark in the country, but she's completely irresponsible--a stuffy word that I would normally never use about a writer, but she deserves it. If you're a pol and you're vulnerable in any way at all, if your throat is exposed for a second, she'll leap at you. With what point, though? If she has a political idea in her head, a belief in any legislative program, any direction the country should be going in, I've yet to hear it. For her, politics is just a parade of phonies seeking power--imagine what she would have done to Lincoln or F.D.R. At the moment, she's lost, because she can't do anything with Obama. He's obviously intelligent and serious and accountable, so she can't find a way to attack. But she will, sooner or later. Look, I think she played a role--a small role--in the destruction of Al Gore in 2000. He presented himself awkwardly to the public, and she caricatured him relentlessly. And got many things wrong about him. As I say in the book, that election was snark's greatest victory and snark's greatest disaster.
Has there been an increase in the level of snark in film reviews?
No, I don't think so. Years ago, John Simon infuriated a lot of people (including me) by commenting on women's looks in a beauty-contest way without ever getting to the main point, which was how they used their looks. That failed as criticism; it was snarky. No one's doing that now. There are certainly nasty-funny reviews (I wrote one on the preposterous "Australia"). A.O. Scott, who's basically serious, even a little lofty at times, can be very funny when he wants to be, and Manohla Dargis, his colleague at the "Times," has an easy, slangy way with language in which humor is built into description and phrasing from the beginning. My colleague at "The New Yorker," Anthony Lane, is often very funny, but, if you look closely, there's a melancholy, even tragic view of life flowing uneasily beneath the jokes. That's not snark.
There's no reason to write a lengthy review of a terrible movie without being funny, and entertaining the reader is a perfectly legitimate use of criticism. The best at this was Pauline Kael, who was often barbarically funny, but always with a serious point behind it.
On a related note, do you read other film reviewers and which current ones are your favorites?
I read the ones I mentioned above, and also David Edelstein, who's doing a bang-up job at "New York" magazine, and Joe Morgensteren in the "Wall Street Journal" and, in "Entertainment Weekly," Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwatzbaum, who are admirably tough-minded in a very commercial magazine environment. I read a lot of others, on an occasional basis, on the website "Metacritic," which aggregates all the reviews.
Last question: one problem I anticipate with your book and the reviews of it is one you allude to, namely the difficulty of defining snark. For example, you praise Stewart and Colbert and say what they do is not snark but point to, say, Dowd as snark. But I can easily see someone suggesting Stewart and Colbert ARE snarky and you are picking and choosing which snark is ok and which is not ok. How would you respond to that?
Stewart can be snarky, as I admit on the first page of the book, but a lot of his jokes, and Colbert's, are fueled by a passionate civic idealism. The government should not lie or take away our civil liberties or start wars without adequate reason; a Supreme Court decision should make sense (Colbert's recent "defense" of the Ledbetter decision, which exposed everything wrong with it, was a daring use of irony).
These are not snarky themes--in fact, they're very daring themes for comedy. I'm not sure we've ever had popular political satire on this level of invention before. Dowd wants honesty, too, but she largely ridicules people's appearance, manner, affect, language. She's all on the surface, with no political passions, no positions, no sense of what government and politics are for in the first place.
Whatever you're in favor of, she's against it if you say it in some way that, in her book, isn't cool. But she gets things wrong all the time. She thought Obama was "effeminate" and "diffident." (Obama diffident? Is she nuts? This is one of the most ambitious men of the last hundred years.) She couldn't really see Obama, because she stayed on the surface and snarked and misread his surface calm as weakness. Basically, she's a conventionally-minded woman with a wicked tongue. Funny, but a real hood--a snarker to the core. She's very different from Stewart/Colbert.

This is the second part of my two part interview with David Denby. The first part focused almost exclusively on his new book. I asked if we could also talk some about films so this part contains comments both about snark and about films.
I decided to break this into two parts for two reasons, namely it would have been too long and I hesitated before asking him if he minded going off-topic of the book and talking movies. So here we go, first some movie questions than two last snark questions.
Scott: Do you pay attention to the Oscars? Do you think the right movies get nominated but don't win or that that the right movies are not even nominated?
David: I don't take the Oscars all that seriously; no critic does, though the awards are fascinating as examples of what Hollywood thinks it's doing well.
The real puzzler this year is the 13 nominations for "Benjamin Button." "Citizen Kane" got nine. What is that placid movie about, anyway? It's academically obsessed with working out its own conceit about backwards aging. A stab: Everyone in Hollywood is obsessed with aging, always having "work" done. So here's a movie that begins with its protagonist a wizened baby in an old-age home and he winds up growing down to Brad Pitt, which seems to embody Hollywood's worst nightmare and most happy dream of perfection in one package. It's been reliably reported that men around fifty are sitting in theaters weeping. Dear God.
What movie was overlooked - by the Oscars or by the box office - that readers of this should go see?
I wish they had nominated "WALL-E," a brilliant movie about the death of industrial civilization and its ironic rebirth in a space station that looks like a cruise liner; and ""Rachel Getting Married," Jonathan Demme's movie
about the fissures and bonds in a complicated family.
And the toughest question of all for movie critics what's your five (or ten - i'll let you choose the numbers) favorite movies of all time and why? (hey, it could be worse - i could have made you choose just one)
I don't have a list of absolute favorites because it's an endless wave of viewing and reviewing, though I certainly love screwball comedies like "My Man Godfrey," "The Awful Truth," and "His Girl Friday. Also Welles's "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons," film noirs like "The Big Sleep, Antonioni's "LAvventura," Bergman's "Persona" and "Smiles of a Summer Night," Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai," silent films like "Sunrise."
We talked before about movie critics you liked and I noticed you didn't mention Roger Ebert. Was that an intentional omission? My biggest coup at newsvine was getting an interview with him.
I know you two have different styles so can you articulate how you two review movies differently and what you think of his work? And I dont think I have to remind you (bringing us back on topic) not to be snarky:)

Roger Ebert writes a plain, vigorous style which can be very effective. He certainly nailed
what was wrong with "Benjamin Button." I should have mentioned J. Hoberman of the "Village
Voice," who knows an enormous amount not only about film but modern culture
in general.
Aren't some of the famous put-downs by Churchill, Twain and Dorothy Parker essentially snarks?
They all said brilliant, funny, nasty things, but what they said depends on astounding shifts of language. In Parker's most famous crack, someone walked into the Algonquin and said "Calvin Coolidge is dead." And she said, "How can you tell?" And also, of an early Katharine Hepburn stage performance, she said, "Katharine Hepburn runs the gamut from A to B." And then there's "If all the girls at the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be surprised."
What she does is shift the ground underneath your feet by reversing the expected normal response or upending the way language usually works. That's wit, not snark. Someone in Churchill's hearing was gassing about the "great traditions of the Navy," and he said, "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum, buggery, and the lash," which is so startling that it's like a slap across the face. That isn't snark either. It shocks you into a new perception. He also described his rival Clement Atlee as "a sheep in sheep's clothing," which works the way Parker's jokes do, by reversing normal expectation. Mean, funny, but not snark.. Twain's wit is generally warmer, though he was hilariously nasty on James Fenimore Cooper. But that piece--"James Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"--is really a kind of realist criticism of Cooper's romantic fables. Criticism, not snark.

Re: Churchill I was thinking of his famous line where a woman said he was drunk and he said she was ugly. Was that not snark?

Yes, Churchill could be rough on women who attacked him. He said he wouldn't touch a woman politician with a ten-foot pole. An apology was demanded, and he said something like, "I apologize. I WOULD touch her with a ten-foot pole." In the quote you mentioned, he said, "Madame, tomorrow I will be sober," leaving the implication that tomorrow she would still be ugly. Mean and funny, of course. But look at the way he reverses the expected come-back and plays on language. That's invention, that's wit. Whereas Penn Jillette saying last Spring, "Obama did great in February, and that's because that was Black History Month. And now Hillary's doing much better 'cause it's White Bitch month, right?' just gives me a pain in the side. Lame, snide, weak, knowing--depends on racial prejudice and misogyny and does nothing fresh with the language. It's snark.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Interview With Lloyd Dangle, Author of Troubletown

One of the great parts about interviewing authors is I'm constantly having to re-examine stereotypes and perceptions. For instance, I never really thought about cartoon books as an avenue for education on difficult subjects. But Larry Gonick, with his cartoon guides, has proven me wrong on that front.
Now we turn to Lloyd Dangle who, with his cartoon and book, Troubletown, has also forced me to think out of the box as I realize it's possible to write sharp barbs about the Bush administration and the war on a regular basis and still be funny. Think G.B. Trudeau's excellent Doonesbury strip (there's an author I'd LOVE to interview) meets the movie Network meets the documentary Control Room.
As with Larry Gonick, Lloyd Dangle is a sharp, witty cartoonist. Dangle frets, though, that he may best be known for doing the artwork for the Airborne product.
This is Dangle's third book. He has been writing this comic since 1988.
I told Dangle I was going to reference Larry Gonick and his Cartoon History of the World book in my review and asked what he thought of Gonick.
Dangle wrote:
I'm a big fan of Larry Gonick and know him. He's so good, I'm surprised he's never taken on anything really ambitious. Come on, history of the universe? That's a topic you could just phone in, isn't it? Seriously, Larry was also a mentor to me when I was starting out. He's a nice guy. But I like Larry's comics not only because they are very smart and accomplished, but because he's one of the guys who create characters that are springy and alive, and throw in lots of good yuks and visual surprises, and it makes for good, classic cartooning.
And now on with the interview, which was done via email:
How did you come to be a cartoonist?
Odd as it sounds, I had a crazy image of myself being a cartoonist when I was a kid. I imagined I would have this really cool lifestyle where I sit around a groovy Manhattan apartment, smoking a pipe, being witty and urbane, and somehow wads of money would just flow in. After a lot of missteps and twists and turns I ended up doing almost exactly what I had pictured, except for the pipe and the Manhattan digs––and the money. Mostly, I have always been very good at ridiculing people and drawing portraits that exaggerate their flaws and sensitivities. These things in the normal world will get you fired or beaten up, but for a cartoonist they come in very handy. Lastly, I was born with a funny name, which tends to send one down a certain path, like for me it would have had to be circus clown, porn star, or cartoonist.
Did you draw about less controversial subjects first or was politics always your interest?
When I was younger I drew "relationship" comics. Love is a universal subject and I seemed to be so good at getting myself into screwed-up relationships that I became an expert in dysfunction. That kind of drama was very relevant to me, and the cartoons went over pretty well. Eventually I got into a healthy relationship––and nobody wants to read about that. I was so happy when my son, Oscar, was born, in fact, that I wrote three Troubletowns about being a new parent. Never have I received so much hate mail! The truth is that I always write cartoons about what is relevant to me at the moment. With the worst president in history and our liberties and values under threat, I can hardly imagine writing cartoons about other things right now.
What's it like to hear someone like the late great Molly Ivins praise you with the words on the back of the book? In a column she wrote:
While we have been absorbed in the silly circus of cultural issues and the riveting questions of the war, we've also been getting our pockets picked. Big time. I am impressed that cartoonist Lloyd Dangle in the strip "Troubletown" managed to get the whole problem into 12 panels, each announcing some piece of economic news accompanied by an American saying, essentially, "What, me worry?"
I always loved reading her columns; she knew her stuff and she had a great sense of humor. So, yes, it was fantastic. I didn't beg her for the quote, either, it actually came from a column she wrote in which she used a cartoon of mine as the springboard for her lead. Somebody emailed me and said, "Have you read Molly Ivins's latest column? She mentions you." I couldn't believe it. It was so cool.
What was your goal with this book? Did you accomplish it?
Since I draw Troubletown in weekly installments I'm never sure whether, taken all together, it forms a coherent story, or whether what I do is equivalent to the random neuron firings by a jellyfish being prodded by a stick. Well, to my surprise in editing this book, not only did it make a compelling document for our times, I discovered that I had been right about…everything! Even things I forgot being right about I had been right about.
In the book you mention at one point MTV refusing to show bands against the war. I wasn't sure if that really happened or was an exaggeration. Was it? And, more generally, is most stuff in your book factual except when labeled as such?
At the time I drew the one about MTV I would have been able to cite my source, but I can't now. I recall that Clear Channel refused to run anti war songs as well as another major radio chain. I may have lumped them together with MTV, but definitely there was a voluntary ban on anti-war songs by the big music media at the beginning of the Iraq war.
In general, I cite actual facts, but I also use extreme exaggerations, like having Bush casually claim that he is over fifteen feet tall. He didn't really do that but he might as well have. I wouldn't say that I always label it when I'm exaggerating, but I think it's always pretty obvious.
What would you like to be known for?
I'm afraid it is inescapable that I will be known for the cartoons on the box of Airborne. I fear that my gravestone will say, "created by a school teacher who was sick of catching colds." Seriously, I think it will work itself out. My son is the only one who will be stuck with the psychic ramifications of knowing me, so in his case I hope I'm known for being fair and accepting and loving.
Who are YOUR favorite cartoonists?
Toles, Derf, Sipress, Olipant…those are ones I always have to read. There are a lot of terrifyingly good young whippersnappers coming up too. Iraq and George Bush haven't just created the perfect breeding ground for Al Qaeda, they've trained a generation of political humorists!
Are there good conservative cartoonists or is that, like conservative documentary makers, an oxymoron or just bad results like with Millard Fillmore who is about as funny as, say, the war? Speaking of which, how do you make the war funny?
That is a good question. A lot of the cartoons on the daily comics page are what I would consider conservative. Blondie and Dagwood live in a world frozen in time–– a conservative utopia. It's one of my all time favorites by the way. I have a poster by Jack Chick, the guy who does those tiny comic book religious tracts you find in bus stations and laundry mats. It's a funny and elaborate picture making a weak argument against evolution. It ends with a fat academic-looking archaeologist praying to a statue of a monkey eating a banana. I had to take it down recently. It was getting stale.
The war is tragic. You would have to be an animal to make fun of someone being maimed or killed or dismiss someone's suffering or loss. On the other hand, as part of the human condition, humor is on the same continuum. That's what makes it funny to see a cartoon frog with its legs chopped off panhandling for nickels with a tin cup. It cannot be explained.
Oh, and do you have a favored presidential candidate based on who would be fun to draw and write about or do you not think about such things?
I like Fred Thompson. He just cracks me up whenever I think about him, and the way that some people think he's a gorgeous movie star. If he gets elected it will be hard to enjoy Law and Order reruns, the same way, as a California resident, it is hard for me to enjoy Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. McCain is always a barrel of laughs. Hillary never disappoints. Mitt Romney would be a gift for cartoonists. The problem, I am anticipating, is that anyone elected, even a Republican, will invariably do something good, which will be such a departure from what we're used to, it will make Americans go sappy and let down their guard.
The other thing I am anticipating is that when Hillary Clinton is elected it is not going to be easy for her to give up all the heightened powers that Bush has taken. How will she handle it?
How do you choose what topics to write about? Are there other topics you consider off limits to you or others? What is the best and worst part of your chosen genre?
Cartoons can be precise and can nail any topic when they are done well. I'm not saying mine always are, but the great ones can. I choose topics strictly by what is relevant to me personally at the moment. What is off limits, and, amazingly, a few cartoonists every year do this, is to draw a cartoon that is reminiscent old racist propaganda. You know, suddenly a big, smiling "darkie", a greedy, hook-nosed jew, or inscrutable "oriental" appears in an editorial cartoon in 2007! Those things usually cause quite a stir and they should.
The genre of comics I think is pretty amazing. In fact after all these years it still surprises me that a few crude sequential pictures can tell a believable story. I don't dwell too much on the negative aspects, the limitations for placement, the money, threatening emails, the times they reduce the size of my comics on the page so you have to use a magnifying glass to read them, did I mention the money?
What are you working on next?
I have an endless array of books and creative projects underway in my studio. I would tell you about them but then I would have to kill you. I am more secretive here than Pixar when it comes future releases. I HAVE to be, the imitators are so busy. I do have some jigsaw puzzles coming out this fall, from the company Bits and Pieces –– just in time for Christmas!
Thank you for the interview.

Scott's Interview With John Michael Cummings, Author of The Night I Freed John Brown

I love when interests intersect and such is the case with this interview. Please allow me to explain.
I find history fascinating. It is one of the reasons I, a Southern California native, love living where I do in Hagerstown, Md., surrounded by such historic landmarks as Gettysburg about an hour's drive one way and Antietam Battlefield a 45 minute drive another way. This also means getting to know Civil War re-eneactors, who I find fascinating and wrote nearly 100 articles about for the Hagerstown newspaper.
Also within an hour's drive is Harper's Ferry, W. Va, a famous national park for several reasons but for me it's best known as the place where John Brown made his last stand.
John Brown is, to me, one of the most fascinating men in American history. Was he a hero despite being guilty of cold blooded murder? Was he a psycho who just happened to be fighting for the right cause, namely freeing the slaves? When he was hanged at Harpers Ferry did they realize they would make him into a martyr, someone whom would be discussed centuries later?
Well, he is. Enter John Michael Cummings, who grew up in Harpers Ferry across the street from the John Brown Wax Museum. John wrote this fictional book which is partly about John Brown.
I was reading Bookpage at my library about a month ago and noticed they alluded to a new book aimed at young adults on the topic of John Brown. I did what I normally do these days when I see a book that interests me, namely i fired off an email begging for an interview with the author.
I have been to Harper's Ferry several times both to write news stores and to show it to friends and family. I have frazzled tour guides with my questions about John Brown, particularly asking if they had read Cloudsplitter, a brilliant book about Brown by Russell Banks, written from the perspective of one of John Brown's sons puzzling over the usual questions: Was his dad a religious zealot who went too far? Was he in the right ethically even when in the wrong legally? You know, good light reading.I was told in no uncertain terms that the park had no position on that book which I found odd. I do suggest checking that book out but only after, of course, first reading the one we are talking about today.

John Michael Cummings did something great - not only did he write this fantastic book and agree eagerly to this two-part interview - but he joined Newsvine. I think he is the first author I have interviewed who joined the community prior to the interview's publication. John has posted a few comments in this article where I solicited from the community (in an attempt to make this more of a community interview) suggested questions for this interview. John and I also exchanged opinions about writing and editing in my memoir piece about teaching.

Now, without further ado, here is the first part of our interview. The second part will focus more on the book itself. His is one of about 12 books I've packed to read during my week off Newsvine as I travel to Jamaica for work.
Scott: Why did you decide to write a book - your first novel - about John Brown?
It is not really about John Brown. My novel is about how John Brown's legacy influences a boy's need for a father figure and ultimately inflates in him a sense of hero worship of, debatably, a saint or madman.
If I could not write this story, then I did not know my own life. This happened to me, at one stage of my life, growing up in a little house across from the John Brown Wax Museum, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the site of Brown's raid and capture.
I should add that if I could not find enough grist for a novel out of a childhood in Harpers Ferry, then I had better see a career counselor!
What kind of research did you do? What was the most surprising thing you found?
Research was fairly minimal, in that this novel, in large part, is about a boy's idolization of Brown, so the basic facts were enough. There are fictional embellishments that are in keeping with the young hero's sense of imagination and exaggeration, but the essence of Brown is accurate.
Keep in mind it's a native's view of a town that raises John Brown up in historical accuracy, letting the world weigh in on the moral controversy on their own time. It is also a town that won't admit he's a historical figure as a commercial icon.
Some research was done on John Brown's trial. What I did in my novel is a fictional treatment of this trial, enhancing the essence of John Brown's words for the sake of my young hero.
What are you working on next?
My brothers and I had the misfortune of a harsh father, and in many ways, our problems in life have been much worse than his ever were. There is a cruel irony to how abuse reverberates. I don't really care to go beyond that at this point, other than to say that this is a powerful adult novel that must be written second.
Was the plan always for this to be a young adult novel?
No, not at all. In fact I was barely familiar with the genre before it was suggested to me. My original plan, with a previous version, was to make it a memoir. Revisions led to the idea to make into a To Kill A Mockingbird-like coming-of-age novel. But this met with the rigid reality that the book market has long been pushing these types of dark-bordered novels far across the aisle into YA, where they must be "child safe" for schools and libraries. I soon accepted that if I wanted to get published, I had to adopt this story to the YA genre, losing some of its harsher elements.
Still, I am glad I did. YA writers know how to punch their stories forward. They don't laze around in literary abstractions - they go for the sizzling concrete. My editor constantly showed me how to "tighten for power" - I could have used her help on my adult short stories!
In order to provide the necessary context for a story like this, how do you explain such an abhorrent concept as slavery to today's North American kids, to whom such a thing is so foreign?
Since my novel is more about Brown's legacy in the modern-day town in which he was captured, the word slavery doesn't arise other than to briefly define who John Brown was. To the townsfolk, he's the Jay Leno guest of history stars. To the young hero of my novel, he's a man who did something with his anger, rather than just wallow in it.
Still, had slavery itself been looked at more closely in my novel, I'' not so sure it would be foreign to young readers. Kids today relish in make-believe acts of cruelty - all stripes of video games, to say nothing of whatever a computer can hook up to. They know all about the Iraq War of course. Black men in old-time chains could be tame stuff in their minds compared to what a snazzy assault rifle can do to the living.
I think I know what might be more foreign to kids today than slavery. Given the frivolous entertainment value of our presidential election - square in the face of American citizens who sit still and take this mockery of our most fundamental and crucial right -what might be foreign to kids today is how a past nation could have had the fire and guts to become so divided as to fold up into war, when we as a nation today seemed more interested, say, in whether Palin is spunkier and cuter than Obama is young and handsome.
You've written many short stories, right? So what did you like better - writing short stories or a novel?
Short stories have always been easier for me, as they probably should be, but succeeding at a novel has been a tremendous triumph. There is no denying the bliss of spreading a fabric of writing across two or three hundred pages. It is the difference between a journey and an outing. Naturally, it's umpteen times harder, too. More than that, there's an irreplaceable feeling of playing in the big leagues now. It will be hard for me to return to the short story form
Did you read Russell Bank's Cloudsplitter?
I started some time back, but regrettably became sidetracked. I've heard nothing but good things about it.
If you could talk to John Brown and ask him three questions, what would those questions be?
This is a wonderful question! I'll take the liberty of making him a reincarnated John Brown.
What were you thinking that fateful day - letting the eastbound B&O train go freely out of Harpers Ferry and on to Washington to spread a warning call of your attack?
Are you surprised it took a hundred years (a whole century!) after your death and a four-year Civil War for our nation to enact the Civil Rights Act?
Clearly you have no compunctions about letting a nation purge its sins by its own blood, as you foretold. As you look at the changes in our society today - equality of sexes, multilingual communities, a black presidential candidate - you have to admit surprise. You undoubtedly also know we have recently been attacked by those who hold themselves out as righteous martyrs. Given your role in history, how do you see 9/11?
Do you consider Brown a cold-blooded killer for his actions in Kansas and/or W. Va or was it somehow justified?
Certainly not a "cold-blooded" killer - Brown was nothing but hot blood - but a killer, yes. He was also a hero against a barbaric wrong.

I did a thorough introduction of John Cummings in part one of this two-part interview
Put simply he grow up literally across the street from the John Brown wax museum in Harpers Ferry, W. Va. so when he wrote his first novel it was only natural that it would be, at least peripherally, about John Brown, a man who I consider one of the most fascinating charismatic figures in United States history. I say "peripherally" because the book is mainly about a teenager growing up in Harpers Ferry, W. Va. and dealing with his family which contains more skeletons in the closet than most Halloween stories. That, for the record, was a metaphor - there were no actual skeletons in the story.
But this novel did not start as a novel nor was it always intended for young adult readers. So let us resume the interview there:
Scott>How did this book come about? It was at one point a novella, right? How did it come to be a young adult novel?
John: By the tumble of destiny.
Close to eight years ago, if you can believe it, it actually began as a kind of memoir. But it was never engaging or complete enough as such. The more rewrites and revisions, the more a youthful voice emerged, until the novel's direction into young adult seemed certain, even inevitable. (I say "inevitable" with a touch of pride and honor because the voice of a good novel should be unavoidable.)
The novella form was a turning point in this story's many carnations. As an adult novella, it was brisk, yet challenging in its language and free with its abstractions. The move to a YA novel actually lengthened it, from 40,000 words to 60,000 words. At the same time, language became simpler and more concrete. The new emerging voice relied on boyish honesty, dejection, and exclamations—the fullest range of innocence emotions I could recollect, imagine, or otherwise re-experience. Groundwork on the minor characters deepened, and developments were cleverly set up. In short, a true novel was born.
It was a very curious, humbling, and priceless experience--the straightforward tongue of a 13-year-old proving to tell a more profound and powerful story than what his older-sounding counterpart in the novella could.
Scott: Is it frustrating that a novel like yours has to compete against the highly competitive, celebrity-driven book market?
John: Thank god I'm moving beyond frustration and learning to play the market's game on its terms, mostly by making myself highly competitive and something of a name. I'm probably not yet on the big radar, but I am persistently sending out my strongest signal.
The Night I Freed John Brown has been well reviewed by The Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, The Orange County Register, and The Tennessean, along with five award-winning literary journals: Mid-American Review, Black Warrior Review, NEBO, Gulf Stream Magazine, and The Texas Review. Its diverse appeal is echoed by those who blurbed it: Newbery Honor recipient Ruth White, Pushcart Prize winner R.T. Smith, and Poet Laureate Fred Chappell.
I do not know of many "YA novels" to receive this kind of wide-ranging send-off.
Of course shelf space in major bookstores is merciless and shameless for the consumer's dollar. (If Chelsea Clinton writes a chick lit comedy romance, look out!) More often, my novel has to compete with over-the-top, kid-centric YA books, in which a less than realistic young hero saves the world, at the very least. That's not at all what I've written.
Honestly, sometimes I'm not sure what I have written—a novel that adults like because it speaks to them with a richly sensitive and sentimental voice of their bygone youth, or a lyrical YA novel that challenges young readers to grow up in their reading.
In any event, I am proud of the bouquet of thought in my novel, because it means I did not alienate the brighter readers or write down to the rest. I went into this project determined to write a true coming-of-age novel that held onto both good language and a hardscrabble reality. I did not publish 75 short stories over the last 15 years to make my first novel crap. I hope enough young readers will appreciate the introspective, sensitive voice of the hero and even clue in to the novel's second sight of adulthood.
But to directly answer your question, my best offense against a fickle, who's who book market is my own good name, not goofy celebrity gimmicks, which I could do none of anyway, but truly good writing hopefully recognized through awards. Everybody likes an award winner, and every bookstore makes room for it. That is what I am capable of, not pop idol prose.
Let's not forget, too, that competition is often a good thing. This novel, for example, has forced me out of my secluded life and into public readings. That in and of itself is a social triumph for me.
Scott: Your novel and many of your short stories are written in first-person. Why is this a comfortable point of view for you? What are the difficulties?
John: First person has always been my first choice, despite the risks and limitations. It is beautifully confessional and honest, as long as controlled and respected. "I loved her, and I lost her. Now I miss her." From the first word on, it is powerfully intimate and engaging.
Of course the danger is putting readers off through negative indulgence, or breaking a cardinal rule and being disingenuous. To say nothing of the problem of perspective: how do you see inside another's mind to write about it?
I have actually pondered my fondness for first person, even worried that it may be narcissism. So much so, I have tried to dispose of it.
There are, after all, plenty of choices. Third-Person limited remains a future possibility. Third-person objective, though, I got my fill of as a reporter. Talk about having your arms and legs tied while trying to type an insightful story completely dependent on picked brains of your sources. I'm not sure if I could ever have the patience, discipline, trust, or methodology for that approach, to say nothing of the desire. Nor can I ever imagine being so-called omniscient, except maybe on my deathbed. How can a writer be omniscient when he writes to find out what he does not know but thinks he does?
To my credit, I have written a few successful short stories in third person limited. But more often than not, I cannot reduce the distance I feel between me the writer and "he" or "she" the character. In fact I feel trapped at a distance. As a result, I often end up seeing into no one's mind very well.
Why is it so important, even critical, to me that storyteller and main character be one in the same? Why do I merge the two, putting myself in the center of action and thought? Perhaps it is just my predilection when it comes to the autobiographical novel.
Perhaps more. I have been complimented on what has been called an innate trust of my own voice. Compliments are nice, but I feel there's a good reasoning behind my choice of a point of view that experts call risky and limited.
None of us get in this life any more than first person. We know ourselves best and have to rely on clues from others to know them: facial expressions, body language, dips and rises in voice. And yet the world turns well on just these clues. Humankind is pretty close to ESP, just by being observant and sensitive to others. I cannot think of a more reliable point of view in feeling out a character's deepest motivations.
But if you use "I" in your writing, you better be writing with the heartfelt honesty of a letter to mom, knowing that dad, or step-dad, as well as all the neighbors, could be reading over her shoulder.
Scott: Several reviews of your book said it reminded them a bit of "Breaking Away." What do you think of the comparison?
John: That's fine. It's a great movie, though those boys are much older and their circumstances different: college town divide between locals and privileged kids. I've also heard it said that my novel is evocative of "Stand By Me," which is closer in age group and has several memorable railroad track scenes too.
But compared to either movie, I wince just a little. I've not really seen my hero's voice narrated in a movie, nor his life depicted in one.
Josh makes no apologies for his weaknesses. He's not a cinematically cute kid with a few stylishly sympathetic problems. He's bare-bones fragile, full of tears, trapped in a backward house, and often nothing but a 100 pounds of neediness. At the same time, he has an old sensitive soul; you can't help but know that he will be a wise grandfather some day. And in the end, he's tougher than you expect.
The truth is, nothing I've seen on TV comes close to how I remember my childhood or how I feel I have written this novel. But comparisons are needed, to be expected, and, in this case, flattering.
But while on the subject, personally, in "Breaking Away," I liked Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) and completely related to his escapism into Italian and cycling. But Josh is actually more like Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), a ratty-haired shrimp whose alter ego is the inexhaustibly zippy point guard Steve Nash.
That's an insider's take on it.
Scott: Are they going to stock your book at Harpers Ferry Park? I gave them a hard time for not stocking Cloudsplitter, but I guess they can use the same excuse - namely it's fiction - for both.
John: I'm trying hard to get it stocked there. I really am. Letters, updates, recommendations—I'm pressing the communication. It would be a great outlet for me. As a local author, hopefully I would give them something in return, too. But I've heard no answer from them one way or the other. So we'll see.
It would also be a personal thrill and honor, considering that my school bus stop from the first grade on was just across the street from the park bookshop. On many a morning, I stared at its front doors, waiting for my bus to lumber into town. After school, I ventured into the bookshop, always amazed by all the glossy-covered books about the town, everything from the history of water-powered industries to the evolution of the Hall's rifle. Not to mention beaucoup books on Brown.
Professionally speaking, I should add that the bookshop has a stellar reputation for quality.
Was the plan all along to make parallels between the main character's family and John Brown's? Or am I giving anything away by saying that?
No to both questions. The similarity proved to be a convenient, appropriate, and, once again, inevitable fit. I cannot overstate the importance of inevitability. I wrote earlier that by "the tumble of destiny" this novel developed--and that is exactly how it happened!
My editor honed in on John Brown both as a complement and clash to Josh's father. I took her lead. The resulting parallel between the two families of sons was pure serendipity.
It's no secret that fierce fathers conquer their sons, out of an insatiable need to be the alpha male. John Brown's sons were forged into replicas of their father, however discontented or warped they may have become as a result. In my novel, Josh and his brothers are dominated by their father, too. Josh, however, rebels. But, ironically, he rebels by seeing the good in John Brown.
Josh is the X factor in the classic family, the boy who is hauled over the coals by his stern father for being too sensitive, then teased by his brothers, only to be all the more mollycoddled by his mother. I imagine if John Brown were to get his hands on my main character, he'd slap the starry eyes off his face, yank the drawing pencil out of his hand, and shove a stolen rifle in its place.
But in my novel, as Brown comes to life in our hero's heart, thank god Josh is wise enough to stop history from repeating itself on him. In the end, Josh will not become another of Brown's sons forever called to violence against those who stand in his way. Instead, Josh goes slumming into history, only to come home to the present, to his real family, wiser.
What character were you most like as a child and what character are you most like now? Please elaborate.
Great question! As a boy: Josh, no question. Insecure, overly sensitive, constantly criticized by his father, Josh is my self-portrait—but as seen through the YA filter. That is, edited of all the unspeakable utterances of a damaged child.
Narrating his voice into the mainstream has been a tricky negotiation of the P's and Q's in the YA genre. I am mostly satisfied with the result. Josh gets his--and my--point across. My inner child and I have our day on stage—and in John Brown's court! You can't ask for any more than that from personal writing.
As an adult, unfortunately, I am like no one in my novel. Not yet anyway. I would love to be like Mr. Richmond—full of life, kindness, generosity. His type makes the world a better place. But he is perhaps more an ideal to behold than a man to imitate.
One footnote: The real Mr. Richmond (which of course is not his actual name) has passed from this world. He was a wonderfully flamboyant man who made all of Harpers Ferry stare, blink, and smile. I often thought the electricity of history ran through him.
The Ricky Hardaways of the West Virginia panhandle, those basically good-hearted longhair doofs, are all but extinct from the area. Like the buffalo, they are all pinned back in the woodsy depths of the state, if they exist anymore at all.
The character Jerry, who was modeled after my oldest brother, fell off this mortal coil years ago, in his twenties, and lay injured before the mobs of indifference. His mental illness was nothing that the state, or my family, could ever deal with. He died in his heart, which no amount medication could ever make him stop feeling.
I was struck by how much of the book was about the father-son relationship. I was recently talking about this topic with author Brad Meltzer, who has father-son plots in his last two books at the same time that, not coincidentally, his dad's been on his mind. In a recent interview he said if he looks at a book he can tell what's on
the writers mind. Do you agree with that? Would we be right to assume your own family was much on your mind as you wrote this?

For me, the answer is a no-brainer. A resounding yes! I'll confess right here: As I touched on in an earlier answer, I could scarcely write fiction if it weren't largely autobiographical. (How's that for a contradiction!)
Here's more. Over the last fifteen years, in publishing seventy-five short stories, I have as much pretended to make up stories as I have disguised the past reality inherent in them.
This is largely a feat of inventing deceptions to the living record--a fiction masquerade. Details like names, physical descriptions, professions, and locations are all easy to invent, like playing dress-up in the attic. But the hearts of my characters, I've had no choice but to take from people I have known and have never forgotten for a second. Otherwise, what do I know to write? Who am I to ask for the reader's attention, if I can't share the remarkable so-called ordinary people I have encountered?
On that note, I have never really understood the word "fiction." To me, in the most practical sense, it means you cover your tracks in laying bare someone living or dead, so as to prevent him or his family from suing you for defamation of character! I am sure that when my family read the disclaimer in my novel—"…any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental…"—they rolled their eyes and said, "Yeah, right."
If imagination is such a wonderful place, then why is fact stranger than fiction, as the world has come to realize? Fiction, it's true, grants complete authorial authority, in plotting, characters, conflict, setting, style, and on and on. This, I think, is partly the problem. Complete freedom has led to a gross, conceited misuse of this authorial authority—a lack of restraint and respect for the narrative. So much so, preposterously unrealistic stories, those over-the-top stories, have become the norm. Lost is all positive restraint. The quiet, honest story gets called too quiet.
Some writers just make me think of aggressive apes banging on typewriters.
What reaction has the book received from the Harpers Ferry community?
Mostly good, from what I hear. It's an original and, I think, rare point of view of Harpers Ferry. So, in that respect, what's not to like? By that I mean, my hometown crowd should be my easiest crowd.
But I've not promoted my novel in West Virginia in person just yet. Harpers Ferry may have been an elixir in my writing, but it is a toxin in my life. I did not do well there as a boy, despite all the outward appearances of being satisfactory in school. Today, whenever I return to the town—or so has been the case the last few times I have gone home—bad memories climb all over me like rats in a well, until, in no time, I am at my worst once again.
I am not puzzled by this. As a boy, I was keenly aware of class divisions there, and as far as my family, my novel tells the rest. There is, I fear, no going home again.
But I will forever love the town for its imagery and for my memories of escaping to the riverbanks with my brothers and the family of brothers I modeled the fictional Richmonds' after in my novel. Like the supernatural aerial imagery in "The Crow," every night in my mind I pilot a glider down the dark Atlantic seaboard and fly low into the mountains around Harpers Ferry, swooping down on the town, cutting through the still nighttime air to visit all the old haunts. I am alone, strange, but happy.
What's next on your plate?
I'm keeping tightlipped about this—but let me say I've enjoyed answering your questions, and I thank you for this wonderful opportunity to share my novel with the Newsvine community!