Friday, October 29, 2004


The current flurry of new projects has caused me to re-evaluate my ability to get through all of the fantasy novels and collections I planned to micro-analyze this year. I've still got a ton of secret lives to write for the Secret Life book. I've got interviews to do for SF Site. I've got a project going with Eric Schaller called "Are You Dead?". I may be working on a rather significant nonfiction book soon. I've got some revisions I want to make to Shriek, and I need to get started on finishing a rough draft of the next Ambergris novel/la, The Zamilon File.

For this reason, I've decided it makes good tactical sense to drop the micro-evaluations of the novels on my initial list (The Iron Council, Wolfe's two Knight novels, etc.) while still finishing up my evaluations of the Crowley and Day collections, and the Flights anthology. I'll probably also add Liz Williams' new collection to the mix. And I will still post general comments on the fantasy novels I read.

In the meantime, expect more Justify Yourself interviews, overviews of the work of artists I admire, etc.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, October 28, 2004

JUSTIFY YOURSELF: K.J. Bishop and Minsoo Kang

Readers may already be familiar with K.J. Bishop's The Etched City, a Decadence-drenched fantasy that has garnered lots of praise, won the Crawford Award, and is being reissued by Bantam Books in December. However, you may not be as familiar with Minsoo Kang, whose first collection, Of Tales and Enigmas, is forthcoming from Prime Books in January 2005. For that reason, a few blurbs on Minsoo Kang's behalf:

Liz Williams: "It has a real fairy-story feel to it, with a philosophical dimension that adds depth and resonance. Its subtle, intricate and inscrutable tales are filled with curiosities and wonders. I also thought that it had a very refreshing non-Western sensibility, and that there is room for the reader's imagination to do some work."

L. Timmel Duchamp: " Minsoo Kang has an impressive knack of embedding his tales in settings richly textured with their own distinct histories and conceptual systems. 'Of Tales and Enigmas' offers engaging narratives, often encompassing a grand sweep of history, that resonate intriguingly as postmodern parables about story and its tremendous significance in the world we human beings make collectively."

Nick Gevers: "Minsoo Kang is an emerging fabulist of rare distinction. His fictions--intricate, mythic, full of deft symmetries and acute resonances--recall Kafka and Calvino, but add a Korean edge and particularity all their own."

Zoran Zivkovic: "There is one solid reason you shouldn't miss Minsoo Kang's first story collection Of Tales and Enigmas: he writes beautifully simple and simply beautiful."

And now it's time for both writers to...


Why should readers pick up your book as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book?

K. J. Bishop: Readers should pick up my book and someone else's. Readers: buy a book instead of a pizza, or half a pizza, or whatever fraction of a pizza you can get for a few bucks these days. It's a diet that works.

Minsoo Kang: Fantastic tales, strange enigmas, intellectual puzzles, historical meditations, all very Borgesian, Calvinoesque, and, dare I say it, Nabokovian. Also, some Korean ghost stories written by an actual, live Korean from Korea, who speaks Korean, who reads Korean literature, writes about Korean history, and who still has nightmares from the worst experiences he went through while serving in the Korean army. Also, one of few works published in the United States written by an Asian living in the United States that is NOT about: how-my-Asian-mother-drove-me-nuts-until-I-found-out-all-the-terrible-things-she-went-through-in-the-old-country-and-learned-to-be-less-neurotic-about-my-Asian-identity-and-married-a-white-man-because-Asian-men-are-too-uptight.

Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?

K.J. Bishop: It's a book. Books are for reading. Reading improves literacy. Literacy is good for society.

Minsoo Kang: Breaking the stereotype of the Asian writer writing in the United States. ‘Oh look, he’s Asian and he’s written stories in the experimental-fantastic mode, not on how-my-Asian-mother-drove-me-nuts-until-I-found-out-all-the-terrible-things-she-went-through-in-the-old-country-and-learned-to-be-less-neurotic-about-my-Asian-identity-and-married-a-white-man-because-Asian-men-are-too-uptight. And he writes so fluently in English! I wonder how long he’s been in the country, and I wonder if his spoken English has a strong accent.’

Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?

K.J. Bishop: Throwing it across the room may have some therapeutic value.

Minsoo Kang: Known to work well for temporary relief from O.I.R. (overdose of ironic realism – caused by reading story after story, novel after novel that are ‘ironic but ultimately touching look at modern life’ and deal with ‘the-day-I-realized-my-father-was-a-vulnerable-fallible-human-being-and-how-I-despised-him-for-it-then-but-love-him-for-it-now’, and ‘how-my-Asian-mother-drove-me-nuts-until-I-found-out-all-the-terrible-things-she-went-through-in-the-old-country-and-learned-to-be-less-neurotic-about-my-Asian-identity-and-married-a-white-man-because-Asian-men-are-too-uptight.’

Assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience?

K.J. Bishop: Given that the book is full of violence and drug use and contains sex scenes and coarse language, I imagine that kids would probably think it was cool, if they weren't too bored by the long philosophical discussions. And there's a cute puppy in it.

Minsoo Kang: After reading the book, the child would find himself deprived of the ability to become an ironic realist. Therapy would be completely ineffectual in helping the child recover, so he or she would have to be sent to an institution for at least two years during which he or she would be subjected to the radical and morally questionable treatment known as the M.F.A. program.

If no one buys your book and you are unable to continue publishing your fiction due to the intense vilification that occurs in the media, what line of work will you go into?

K.J. Bishop: Village idiot.

Minsoo Kang: I have a day job as a professor of European history, so I would just write history books, but in order to make some extra cash until I get tenure, I would also adopt a penname and write novels on how-my-Asian-mother-drove-me-nuts-until-I-found-out-all-the-terrible-things-she-went-through-in-the-old-country-and-learned-to-be-less-neurotic-about-my-Asian-identity-and-married-a-white-man-because-Asian-men-are-too-uptight, because Americans can’t seem to get enough of them.

(Evil Monkey: "Jeff--did you have anything to do with this?" Jeff: "I will not rest until I have written a secret life for every American. It was my campaign pledge, and I plan to honor it." Evil Monkey: "Whatever. Say, gotten any further on Flights or that Circus in Winter collection--or even on the Crowley stories?" Jeff: "I hate you, Evil Monkey, with the hatred of a thousand white-hot suns channeled through a single magnifying glass.")

Monday, October 25, 2004


I don't usually use this space to talk about VanderNews, but this particular news is so rather huge for me that I need to at least mention it.

Tor Books has taken the North American rights to my new novel, Shriek: An Afterword, while Bantam Books has taken the reprint rights to both Veniss Underground and City of Saints & Madmen.

In addition, I've sold my in-progress Secret Lives collection to Prime Books.

I've posted more information about all of this on my messageboard.

For those of you who have followed my career, you'll know it's taken a lot of blood, sweat, and hard labor to reach this point, both in writing the books and in getting the word out about them. Thanks to everyone who has supported me over the years.


Friday, October 22, 2004

JUSTIFY YOURSELF: In Which We Hold Robert Wexler's Feet to the Fire

Mr. Wexler, author of the recently released novel The Circus of the Grand Design, consented to the first Justify Yourself VanderWorld blog interview. Coming soon: K.J. Bishop and Minsoo Kang find themselves interrogated, with two-way glass, bright lights in the face, etc.



Why should anyone bother to pick up your book as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book?
The cover art is better. But more important, taking into consideration page count, trim size, weight of the paper, cover stock, etc., the book has been constructed to achieve a physical balance that hasn't been duplicated since the 1875 publication of
Henry James' Roderick Hudson, which has been universally recognized as the most perfectly-produced book of the modern era. (There's actually a long and fascinating story about the printer of that work, who died soon after publication, due to complications resulting from a laundry accident.) My expectation is that millions of people will pick up the book and be so charmed that they will be unable to put it

Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities?
You can't shoot a gun while you're reading a book, can you? That's why the NRA is against books. But if reading cuts the murder rate, I'll keep writing.

Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?
If held long enough, its physical perfection causes a trance-like effect similar to that following orgasm.

Assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience?
The book has sex and violence so there shouldn't be any problems.

If no one buys your book and you are unable to continue publishing your fiction due to the intense vilification that occurs in the media, what line of work will you go into?
Cooking school, then a job in a restaurant. That way, I'm assured of at least one meal a day. Restaurant cooking jobs are supposed to be hell, but what could be worse than intense vilification? And someday I could have my own show on the Food Network.

(Evil Monkey says, "I used to work in the Circus of the Grand Design. That's how I lost all of my limbs...also, not to get off on a tangent, but...W already scares me big time. Does AM have to scare me now, too? Surely CB could have found a better photo?")

Thursday, October 21, 2004

LUCIUS SHEPARD--The Hardest Working Writer in North America?

Somehow Lucius Shepard manages to not only be one of the best American writers but also one of the most prolific. In the last month or two, PS Publishing has released his collection Trujillo, Thunder's Mouth Press has released his novel The Handbook of American Prayer, and Night Shade Books has released his novel Viator. All are of a stunning quality. And any writer would be happy to be defined by any one of them in a single year. That all three are from the same author in the same year boggles the mind. Well, my mind, at any rate.

I recently interviewed Lucius Shepard for Rain Taxi. The full interview will appear in a future RT issue, but for now a couple of snippets from that interview to whet your appetite.


Did you have any teachers outside of writing workshops during your formative years?
My father wanted me to be a writer, He taught me to read when I was three and provided me with a pretty fair education in the classics by the time I was twelve. He had me reading Shakespeare, the Romantics, Hardy, Conrad, Stevenson, et al. I didn’t understand a lot of it at first, but I must have absorbed something. I can still quote long passages of Shakespeare I learned during that time. But I did this at the expense of a happy childhood, and I went through a prolonged anti-intellectual phase; so I’m not sure whether it slowed me down or sped me up. I suppose it helped—things you learn as a child tend to stick with you.

Who are the major influences on you as a writer? What did you learn from each?
I became fascinated by the opening paragraph of Mishima’s Spring Snow, which describes some articles on a table, in particular a photograph. In describing those few articles, Mishima caught the character of an entire milieu. To say that one of my main influences is a single paragraph in translation may seem weird, but it’s true. I wrote paragraph after paragraph attempting mimicry. I always keep a copy of Spring Snow close. I suppose Graham Greene and Conrad were influence as regards my choice of certain materials. Flannery O’Connor taught me a great deal about the uses of ambiguity in relation to writing fantasy. I think my dialogue, when it’s effective, owes a good bit to writers like Robert Stone and James Lee Burke. Like most writers I absorb my influences osmotically, thus I’m unaware of many of them.

ROBERT WEXLER - The Circus of the Grand Design

Boasting a wonderful cover design by Luis Rodriguez, Robert Wexler's The Circus of the Grand Design is an honorable and wise addition to the long tradition of circus-based fantasy.

From its hilarious beginning in the home of a pretentious performance artist to its long and meandering middle in the aforementioned circus, Wexler's novel is among the best first novels of the year. Some might say that the book takes too long in the telling, but there are many rewards in the journey rather than the destination (which is still pretty darn compelling). What I love about Wexler is exactly that he's not in a hurry.

In general, I think we're too in love with action, with the hurried, frantic pace of the noir mystery, of the world-colliding space opera. But there are lovely benefits to slowing down and allowing a novel to envelop us in its world at a more leisurely pace. This is what Wexler gifts us with in The Circus of the Grand Design. Which is not to say that the novel is slow, but that it takes its time in an appropriate way.

It's a book wise about the mysteries of the world, and I could easily see it becoming a cult classic.



Reading this appreciation of Jack Vance I found myself cast back in time to the first moment I encountered his work: the novella "The Dragon Masters." It was a moment my 12-year-old self would never forget. The dislocation, the sense of strangeness mixed with the familiar. I loved "The Dragon Masters." I still love it.

When I was in elementary school, our teacher, god bless her, took us on field trips to the public library, and I'd dash up to the adult section because that is where they kept the Science Fiction. They had these amazing collections of the Best of Galaxy. Those anthologies blew my mind. You have to understand--I had no critical filters back then. I could care less about characterization, about literary style. I just loved stories. So I'd check out these huge tomes of Best of Galaxy, and in one of them, along with the work of Cordwainer Smith, I found The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance. It, along with "Scanners Live in Vain," changed my life.

When I read those old anthologies, some of which hadn't been checked out for years, I entered a truly alien world. All of it took me to another place. All of it coursed right into my nervous system and my reptilian brain. It's still all stored in my subconscious, and has mixed together with Nabokov and Whittemore and Carter and everyone else. It's all a homogenous soup at this point, each influence just as useful.

What amazes me is that Vance is still writing, even today. Unbelievable. I can't imagine writing to that age. The inspiration would have dried up.

He really is a living legend.


Sunday, October 17, 2004


I've been answering questions about writing (to the best of my ability) in the comments section of a previous blog entry. I thought I'd bring that section front-and-center here for those who might have missed it and are interested.

I'll be happy to answer more questions from the comments section of this entry.


Robert said...
If you've got four or five ideas for stories or novels competing for headspace, each equally interesting and compelling and demanding of your attention, how do you prioritize them? Or do you? Do you just keep chipping away at all of them until one of them wins the race to The End?

Answer: When I've got more than one project I'm equally passionate about, I start on the one I'm most likely to finish first. For example, if something seems likely to be a novella rather than a novel. Or, I'll do the one that's least like the one I've done before. Or, as is the case with my current projects, I have to go in chronological order and finish The Zamilon File before completing Fragments from a Drowned City. It's tough, though, because you can feel as if you're frozen just because you have such a wealth of different possibilities in front of you. Of course, the truth of it is, if you sit down with any one of those projects at your peak writing time--which for me is the morning right after I get up--you're likely to be inspired.

JP said...
I have a question regarding point of view. I'm increasingly torn between the unique, engaging voices possible with first-person and the sweeping perspective provided by third-person. I'm trying out intertwined and sometimes recursive multiple first-person narratives, but frankly, it's very tricky. So what's my question? Well, do you think this is an approach worth taking at all (I would like othe people to be able to read my stuff one day) and do you have any pointers to places where I could read this sort of narrative, and well, after reading Veniss Underground, anything you have to say on point of view is just fine by me.

Answer: Regarding point of view--I usually use the point of view and the voice (first/third/second) that creates the greatest sense of immediacy. If I have multiple viewpoint characters, I tend to stay away from using first person because it's difficult to make them individual enough to stand out from each other. I also think multiple first person narratives in a novel or story tend to become tedious even if differentiated. I use second person to attain the ultimate immediacy at the risk of alienating some readers who won't get into it. But to answer your question--you should do whatever feels right, whatever feels comfortable to write, and let the markets take care of themselves. There usually are only one or two best ways to tell a story, and you can certainly get hung up on figuring out which ones those are. (I'll answer this one in more depth soon.)

Rajan said...
Jeff, I don't know if you're still answering questions, but I thought I'd ask. I know that everyone has a different process, but do you find that you know the way the story is going to go before you actually start writing, particularly in respect to the ending? If so, how do you keep things fresh and interesting. If not, how do you deal with connecting particularly difficult dots (if you ever have that problem)?

Answer: I never start a story until I know the ending. And by knowing the ending, I mean in general. I don't mean specifics. And that ending might change during or after the writing of the story. But if I don't have an end goal in mind, I don't start the story, because I know I've never finished a story if I haven't known the ending before I started it. So, I start with a character, a situation, an ending, and usually some kind of surreal or magic realist image connected to the character.

Because the journey itself is vague, knowing the general ending doesn't spoil it for me. And since the ending may surprise me anyway--i.e., when I actually get to the writing of the ending, the character or situation may wind up radically changing it, I often experience short, sharp shocks of epiphany that keep things fresh. Sometimes the ending changes because I know more about the character by the time I get there. I am definitely exploring a character I know little about while writing. I only do back writing on a character's history, personality, etc., after finishing a rough draft, just to check and see if there's anything I should add in terms of detail, or if there's something about the character I still don't know that's important to the story...But everybody's different. What works for me would be totally wrong for someone else.


"Snow" from John Crowley's collection Novelties & Souvenirs is a miracle of memory, nostalgia, loss, and rather amazing writing. The story is so fragile, mimicking its subject matter, that when I first read it I thought for sure I would not be thinking about it weeks later, and yet I am. It's true that the story exists only because of a SF gimmick, but the more I remembered the beautiful little moments in "Snow" the less I cared.

Basically, in Crowley's imagined near-future the rich can buy a kind of "wasp"--a flying electronic recording device that follows a person throughout their entire life. The recording is then downloaded to a monitor and the "videotape" displayed at the person's gravesite/mausoleum. Mourners can access the images, but due to the way the information is collected, there are certain limitations, certain ways in which the images decay.

The narrator of "Snow" is the now slightly aging ex-lover of Georgie, a rich woman who sponsore his writing attempts but who more or less kept him as her own personal gigolo. Passages like these reveal so much character-wise, while seeming casual, effortless.

Now that [my] looks are all but gone, I can look back on myself as a young hunk and see that I was in a way a rarity, a type that you also run into more often among women than men, the beauty unaware of his beauty, aware that he affects women profoundly and more or less instantly but doesn't know why; thinks he is being listened to and understood, that his soul is being seen,when all that's being seen is long-lashed eyes and a strong, square tanned wrist turning in a lovely gesture, stubbing out a cigarette.

I love the end of that section, the "strong, square tanned wrist turning in a lovely gesture, stubbing out a cigarette." Somehow, even without it being said, you can see an expensive watch on that wrist. You can see the callowness of the character as well.

Now searching for more meaning in his life, the narrator accesses the memories of Georgie, who has since died. He does so in a place deader than a graveyard:

Now, after some hundreds of hours spent there underground, now when I have long ceased to go through those doors...I know that the solitude I felt myself to be in was real. The watchers around me, the listeners I sensed in other chambers, were mostly my imagination. There was rarely anyone there. These tombs were as neglected as any tombs anywhere usually are. Either the living did not care to attend much on the dead--when have they ever?--or the hopeful buyers of the contracts had come to discover the flaw in the access concept: as I discovered it, in the end.

The best parts of the story are the accessed memories--the minimalistic way in which Crowley writes those sections just underscores the fleeting nature of our memories. One of the most telling details comes when the narrator writes that he can no longer distinguish between his own memories and the ones imposed on him by what he has viewed. It's at this level, among others, that we identify with the story--how many times have images, videotaped or still, replaced our own memories. Until finally we are living someone else's version of events, in a sense.

I'd love to quote more from this story, but I really think anyone who hasn't read it should pick up this collection and read it immediately, so I'm in no hurry to spoil "Snow" for anyone.

(Evil Monkey: "So...yesterday I'm told you thought a guy trimming grass with a weedwacker was actually a guy walking his squirrel on a leash." Jeff: "It was early. I was tired. The handle on the weedwacker was pretty thin, looked like a leash." Evil Monkey: "Hmmm. Okay. So--holding up okay? Any word from...certain quarters?" Jeff: "No, of course not. It's Sunday. Geez." Evil Monkey: "Dude. I've never mistaken a weedwacker for a squirrel on a leash." Jeff: "You have no limbs. Shut up.")

Saturday, October 16, 2004


I've been blessed with many opportunities to work with artists whose work I love, and whose work inspires my fiction. I'll be restricting this blog series on some of my favorites to painters who have illuminated my fiction, with a separate series on illustrators if my magpie eye doesn't alight upon some other shiny bauble in the meantime. I'll soon be writing about Alan M. Clark, Hawk Alfredson, and Myrtle Vondamitz III.


Scott Eagle's work has appeared on the covers of three of my books now: City of Saints & Madmen, Secret Life, and Why Should I Cut Your Throat?, as well as my author and Ambergris websites. (More importantly, Ann and my ketubah is an Eagle original--one of the most precious pieces of art we own.) For City of Saints and Secret Life, Scott created pieces specific to the books. The amazing City of Saints piece hangs in our livingroom, with Secret Life soon to follow. For Why Should I Cut Your Throat?, an existing piece happened to fit the book.

I am drawn to Scott's work by a dual sense of play and of the mysterious.

I am also drawn to it by the fact that he changes his style every few years. He's not locked into one particular approach. His latest paintings, for example, are influenced by his collaborations with his children. (Jpeg too big to reproduce here.)

Some of his older work was clearly influenced by his study of and appreciation for Bruegel, Da Vinci, and other painters of that type.

He's currently working on, among other projects, something called "The Tree of Life," which is literally a huge series of canvases depicting the tree of life. It includes some of his collage work, which I find interesting because of the way he so fully integrates it with his own painting.

He used this technique for City of Saints--photograph and cut-out buildings from Bruegel and Bosch paintings form the backdrop. Because he took the images from several different paintings, the light shone differently in each piece. So, Scott painted over each collage bit, redirecting the light and matching the brushstrokes of the old masters in doing so. It's a rather audacious accomplishment from a technical standpoint.

Scott also sometimes uses a power sander to get certain textural affects. It's no surprise to me that as the artist guest at La Grange College's slipstream conference a few years back he said that his initial influences included Jackson Pollock and Salvador Dali, in addition to the Old Masters. You can see how he takes the new and the old and puts them all together in the service of his own iconography. The power of the paintings comes from what wells up out of Scott's subconsciousness. The playfulness also comes there, I believe.

My mother is a painter and I've grown up around paints and canvas and easels. I'm not a painter or an art critic. I just know what I like. I like the combinations of the primitive and sophisticated in Scott's work. I like how he changes his work. I like how each painting contains some detail, some subtext that defies easy comprehension on a first viewing.

You can find more of his work on his web site.

(Evil Monkey: "So...I thought I'd check in on you, see if you were hanging in there, given our last conversation." Jeff: "It's only been a couple of hours!" Evil Monkey: "So what. That's a century in cyberspace." Jeff: "I'll be fine. Exercise is saving me. Four hours yesterday lifting weights and riding the bike. An eight-mile run this morning. I don't even know where I am anymore. Or, rather, my muscles don't." Evil Monkey: "I don't have enough limbs to exercise. I can still do crunches, but that's about it." Jeff: "How did you lose your limbs?" Evil Monkey: "Dated the wrong woman." Jeff: "Oh.")

DEATH BED (The John Marshall Tanner Series)

I've really fallen in love with Stephen Greenleaf's John Marshall Tanner private eye series. Back in 1980, The New Republic called Greenleaf "The best successor to the Raymond Chandler-Ross MacDonald tradition to come along in a decade." I've now read three of his metaphor-rich, carefully constructed mysteries, with their idiosyncratic but very real characters, and I tend to agree. My favorite thus far is Death Bed, which I think is the second in the series. It involves the internal terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s (from the point of view of the authorities), a dying rich man looking for his son, and a host of other vivid characters. Tanner, a former lawyer, is a pragmatic man who keeps his word and lives the inevitably lonely life of a private eye. His apartment "absorbs" him "like a wet sponge." "If a bomb dropped in the neighborhood it wouldn't kill anyone I had spoken to twice." Set in San Francisco, the novels display a nice eye for the detail of the city, along with the necessary generic cityscapes that, done well, enhance the best noir detective novels.

Dawn was only a prediction. The city seemed broken into pieces, each clump of light separated from all the other clumps of light by black walls of apprehension and disappointment. The few night people I encountered stared at me with the frankness of kittens at the first sight of one of their own. But after the first glance, the night people turned away. I had a purpose, so I was out of place in the early morning, a geometric stripe through the splashy formlessness of the predawn city.

Sometimes Greenleaf overdoes it on the metaphors, but I like even this aspect of his novels. There's a little less adherence to the belief in practical prose in his books, but he never succumbs to purple prose. The dialogue is always terse, economical, and offsets the moments of introspection. Even better, Greenleaf's plots coil in on themselves--answers don't come out of the blue, but out of what you've already read and misinterpreted.


(Evil Monkey: "Jeff--it's amazing you can remain so calm, adding entries to your blog. Aren't you nervous about those possible upcoming book deals?" Jeff: "Sick to my stomach, actually." Evil Monkey: "Well, I admire your fortitude." Jeff: "It's the waiting that gets to me more than anything else." Evil Monkey: "I'm sure it will work out. Isn't some of it in place already?" Jeff: "Yeah, sure, a piece of it. But I'm superstitious. Until the dust settles and I Know All, I'm keeping my mouth shut." Evil Monkey: "Yeah--I know what you mean. I hate those blog entries you see sometimes from writers, like, 'Something good is going to happen soon. Something cool. But I can't tell you about it now.' And then it all evaporates somewhere in the Bullshit Zone." Jeff: "Yeah--I hate those, too. BTW--I think I found some prosthetic limbs for you. Would that be useful?" Evil Monkey: "Sure. That'd be nice. It ain't gonna make me any less evil, though.")

Monday, October 11, 2004

UPCOMING--And, Writing Questions, Anyone?

I'm still deluged with secret lives to write, and so am taking a longer break. Besides, after not writing any fiction since finishing the new novel, it's extremely therapeutic to be writing these secret lives, many of which are coalescing into wonderful little short-shorts; at least, I'm delighted with them. :)

Coming up, hopefully within a few days, interviews, some profiles of artists I admire, and continued reading of John Crowley, Flights, and The Circus in Winter. I note that Matthew Cheney has taken up this methodology of a slow dissection as well.

I have read "Snow" in the Crowley collection and find it to be a marvel of delicacy, memory, and regret. More on that soon.

Meanwhile, I am more than happy to answer any questions you might have about writing, in the comments box for this blog entry. Counter punching is so much easier than launching fresh offensives...


Thursday, October 07, 2004

MORTAL LOVE by Elizabeth Hand--Finished

As I've previously written, Elizabeth Hand's Mortal Love is a sumptuously written book, a feast for the senses, with very believable characters and situations. At one point toward the middle of the book, I found myself losing myself in it (in a good sense), as the divide between the real world and the fey for an instant fell away. I've already quoted enough from the novel for readers to have a sense of Hand's beautiful prose style, so I'm going to refrain from further quoting here.

And yet, as I entered the book's latter half, the narrative began to lose urgency and I found I was admiring Mortal Love more than living within it. After that initial interstitial moment of contact between worlds, everything else either operated at the same level of wonder or below. There's no real climax when it comes to the description, although there's one hell of a sex scene toward the novel's end.

[Note: minor spoilers ahead--nothing that gives away too much, I think]

That, however, is a rather minor nit. A more pressing problem is the juggling of three different viewpoint characters, two in the present and one in the past. The main thread, set in London in the present-day and featuring Daniel Rowlands, a journalist, is the most convincing--at least, until the end. The other contemporary thread, from the point of view of Valentine Comstock, has an arbitrary feel to it. We have limited access to Valentine, his thread limited to two or three chapters, and by story's end I began to feel that, given Valentine's ultimate role in the story, the reader wasn't well-served by his absence. His sections might have worked better if expanded and spaced more evenly between sections from the other two narrative threads. Or, perhaps, his sections aren't needed at all, and he could have been introduced through Rowlands' thread in some way. Especially since, considering his pivotal role at the end, we get no sense of his reaction to events—at what might be seen as the prelude to the novel's climax, his viewpoint vanishes, never to return. (This is obviously Hand's conscious decision, but I'm not sure it works as she intends.)

The third narrative thread, that of Radborn Comstock, a Decadent-era English painter is stunning in its level of detail and its sense of atmosphere. These scenes are, perhaps, among the most powerful in the book, as Comstock takes up residency at an insane asylum and falls in love with a mysterious patient. But what of their relevance to the novel as a novel? Except for a few pieces of information gained from the Radborn sections, this thread adds little to the reader's understanding. As a writer, my reaction to this thread is that it's so gorgeous and ethereal and yet wonderfully detailed that I wouldn't have wanted to see it deleted or diminished.

However, since I had a decent idea of what was going on about half-way through the book and the bulk of the best Radborn sections take place after that, there is a sense of marking time. There's no narrative urgency because we're, in a sense, just waiting for Radborn to figure out what the reader already knows.

The problem of lack of narrative urgency also permeates the Daniel Rowlands sections after awhile, as, again, we're more or less waiting for Rowlands to realize (1) that everything everybody has been telling him is indeed true and (2) the true identity of the mysterious woman he has fallen in love with. I became more and more impatient with Rowlands because, although a journalist, he seems unable to investigate the woman, to become the detective in journalist's clothing that he needs to become to help the pacing regain a sense of urgency and for the reader to move him from the "believable character" to "almost a real person" category. Instead, he is generally passive. (Admittedly, this may be because he has fallen under the mystery woman's spell.) This leads to a frantic car ride toward the end of the novel where another ethereal woman has to explain, or allude to explanations. In place of the lovely descriptions, the utterly hypnotizing sense of the fey, we get "business" as they'd call it in the theater. Actors careful to hit their spots and deliver their lines. And suddenly the spontaneity of the book fades a little. (I wonder about this in terms of the question of sprinter versus marathon runner, since Hand's stories and novellas almost never enter this kind of decaying orbit.)

There's a great beauty in Mortal Love and more than enough on a paragraph level and character level to hold the reader's interest, and it's possible I'm being just a little harsh given the expectations I had by the middle of the novel. For me, though, this was a wonderful tale in many ways and a maddening one in others. I enjoyed vast stretches of the book, however, and I would not be surprised to see the book figure strongly in genre awards categories, based simply on the amazing writing style on display.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004


Thanks to everyone for reading my blog. I'm getting a rather ridiculous number of unique visitors, for which I'm grateful. It's good to know someone's reading this!

That said, I'm going to take a short break from blogging to finish up some of these here secret lives for people who ordered my collection from Ziesing. I may post something brief Thursday or Friday, but other than that, I probably won't get back into it fully until Sunday.

Coming up--interviews with K.J. Bishop and others as I ask writers with new book releases to "justify themselves" through five tough but silly questions. This will become a regular feature exclusive to my blog.

In the meantime, for those who haven't read my Odd Jobs blog entries, here are the links to all of them. Makes for frightening yet funny reading...

Odd Jobs #1 - In Which I Become a Counter of People and Avoid Dogs

Odd Jobs #2 - In Which I Am Asked to Implore Michael Jackson to Become a Small Planes Enthusiast

Odd Jobs #3 - In Which I Lead a Midget to the Young Adult Mystery Section

Odd Jobs #4 - In Which I Work for a Company That's Like Lord of the Flies With Middle Management

Odd Jobs #5 - In Which I Am Arrested Because of a Pellet

Odd Jobs #6 - In Which I Am Asked "Are we going to go, Froggie. I want your blood."



So, Ann and I are going to a Halloween party this year and can't figure out who/what to go as. Suggestions welcome, using the Comments feature. Preferably something that has a linked theme for the two of us. (One year we went as Don King and the boxer he was promoting.)

If we pick your suggestion, you'll get a copy of Why Should I Cut Your Throat, my nonfiction collection, and a copy of the mass market edition of Veniss Underground from Pan Macmillan (which includes the novella "Balzac's War").

Yes, that's right folks--this blog is now determining what I dress up as for Halloween.

Deadline--October 20th (so we have time to prepare)...



I've decided to let Evil Monkey have his say about the latest McSweeney's. As you may recall, Evil Monkey usually just poses a question at the end of one of my blog postings, but since Evil Monkey's mention on Jonathan Strahan's blog, he's demanded more blogging time. Here are his thoughts.


The latest McSweeney's, their comics issue, is one of the most beautiful issues they've ever produced. In all of my days as an evil monkey, I've rarely seen anything so beautiful. It's in all ways a work of art.

So, then, why oh why do the contents mostly read like a particularly stiff slice-of-life mainstream literary magazine? We've got our obligatory neurotic R. Crumb section followed by a ton of similar material, most of it not quite as weird as the Crumb. Except for a couple of exceptions, like an excerpt from the marvelous Frank, there's very little of the surreal or the ethereal or the unreal/fantastical in this comics issue. There's even an essay by John Updike of all people! I've liked Updike ever since I was a small evil monkey, but the day I need Updike telling me something about comics is the day comics becomes just another mimetic mainstream literary A-B plot story...which apparently is what comics have become. It's like a SF-Fantasy anthology without any SF-F...

In short, McSweeney's has published a sanitized version of comics and graphic novels. Hell, unless I missed it, there's not even a Sock Monkey to be had!

Maybe that's hip. Maybe it's just boring...

(Jeff's Opinion: Now I get to sit on Evil Monkey's shoulder and point out that most of the cool surreal stuff is being done outside of the US--by Humanoids Comics, for example--and that there's no telling who else was approached but said no due to any number of reasons, etc., etc.)