Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Book Review: Interview with the Vampire

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vampire narratives, far from being about the desire to cheat death, are really stories that help us to understand that even living forever won’t save us, and in this story Rice dares us to ponder whether we ourselves could even genuinely endure the endless sorrow that, without exception, so often accompanies an everlasting life.
Interview with the Vampire is a gothic horror novel by the American author Anne Rice, first published in 1976. The novel centers around vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac, who tells the story of his life to a young reporter. But from the outset Louis struggles with his vampire nature, frequently worrying that being a vampire automatically marks him as a "child of the Devil," however, it’s his darker side, or rather his human side, that is now revealed instead of hidden behind a bourgeois morality that really troubles him.
Despite Louis's attempt to cast his life as a cautionary tale, the young interviewer cannot accept the inevitability of a vampire's despairing end and his ultimate message about the dreariness of immortality has no effect on the interviewer. In the arrogance of youth and humanity, the interviewer believes he could use immortality far more wisely than any vampire who came before him and asks Louis to turn him. The lesson for us is clear. Youth will never learn from the wisdom of age and will always seek to experience things for itself.
This was Rice’s debut novel and is based on a short story she wrote back in 1968 and was composed shortly after the death of her young daughter Michelle, who served as an inspiration for the character of Claudia. “Writers write about what obsesses them,” Rice said in an interview. “You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. Lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”
Rice’s compulsively readable novel is also arguably one of the most celebrated works of vampire fiction since Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897. As the Washington Post said on its first publication, it is a “thrilling, strikingly original work of the imagination ...sometimes horrible, sometimes beautiful, always unforgettable.”
Some modern critics, however, have proposed that the reason readers became so enthralled with this book, or with vampire narratives in general, is because, in so doing, they overcame, or at least temporarily were able to escape from, their fear of death. The origins of most vampire myths being rooted in the fears concerning the dread of premature burial. But in Freud's view it is not actually death that people fear, because nobody really believes in their own death. Instead mourners project the idea that the recently deceased must yearn to be reunited as they do. Emotions such as love, guilt, and hate fueling that desire. Furthermore, that which one does fear cannot be death itself, because one has never died. People who express death-related fears, veritably are trying to deal with unresolved childhood conflicts or traumas that they cannot come to terms with or express emotion towards.
Which is what makes Interview with the Vampire such a human story. It’s a story in deep connection with mortality, human frailty, hunger, sex, and death, and how all these things come together to define us. But if I were pressed to sum up the theme of the book in one sentence, I would suggest that it revolves around whether or not we can authentically achieve true love in a such a hostile world, one in which God is dead and there is no Hell, just this baleful life on earth and a series of corpses.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

My Reading Life: with Scott Santens

What are five books you loved? For one of them, why did you love it?

Five books I love are: The Dispossessed, The Sparrow, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The New Economics, and The Demon-Haunted World… apparently anything that starts with “the.” The Demon-Haunted World will always hold a special place for me, because it was the first book I ever read by Carl Sagan, and it’s like a war-chest of critical-thinking skills to arm someone for an entire lifetime. Fortunately, one of those people was me.

What is a book you didn’t like, and why?

Back in high school, one of the books I had to read in AP English was Pride and Prejudice. I couldn’t stand it. Out of all the books I was forced to read and wasn’t interested in, that was the hardest for me to get through because I kept falling asleep. It was like the book gave me narcolepsy. I loathed it and begged my teacher repeatedly to never subject any future class to it ever again.

What is a funny/interesting/unique anecdote about you as a reader?

I think I may be a bit odd in how I earmark pages. If a page has a quote I like, I’ll fold the upper corner. If the page has a really good quote. I’d double-fold the upper corner. If the page has what I think may be one of the best quotes in the book, I’ll also fold the bottom corner, and it will be a larger fold than the upper corner folds.

How did you first fall in love with books?

I was raised with books. We had a lot of books. As a kid, I had shelves of books. It’s hard to say when I first fell in love with them, because it’s like asking when I first fell in love with my family. They were just always there, and I always enjoyed them. I think I started reading a lot more though when I discovered the Choose Your Own Adventure books, and also Encyclopedia Brown. I consumed all of those voraciously.

What book or books are you planning to read soon?

I’ve got a very large stack building which is really hard to make any dent in when I spend my time focused on writing instead of reading. People send me books that haven’t been released yet, and right now one of those is a book by Hugh Segal that I really look forward to reading called “Bootstraps Need Boots.” There’s also an older book that came highly recommended and I just got called “The Tyranny of Kindness” that I’m excited to read too.

What book do you always recommend?

A book I always recommend is one I already mentioned, Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. One I haven’t mentioned that I would also include is Aesop’s Fables. Seriously, that’s something everyone can and should read. It’s centuries of accumulated wisdom in bite-size stories that can help us throughout our entire lives.

What book/books changed the way you see the world and your place in it?

Two books that changed the way I see the world are Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In one year I read every book Ayn Rand ever wrote. I loved how as an atheist she put mankind above religion. The way it changed the world for me though is not what people probably think. It’s what happened after which was when I noticed that people practically worshipped her and also denied climate change. This was back in the late 90s. It was just something that really impacted me how an entire group of people could just decide to spread anti-scientific beliefs because to acknowledge reality would mean making some changes. It helped me see that whereas I could read something and find both stuff I liked and disliked, other people took it all or nothing, and could form a religion around an atheist

What was your favorite childhood book?

I had a huge book of Brothers Grimm-style stories that was illustrated and I just loved reading that book in bed as a kid.

Do you have any favorite literary journals?

I don’t read any literary journals. I just read the occasional report or paper in them.

Have you ever read anything that made you think differently about fiction/nonfiction?

The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a book that made me feel differently about fiction, because it describes the Monomyth formula which so many stories follow. Joseph Campbell was amazing in how he saw what was in so many of our stories as humans. So much of that book can be applied to nonfiction too, because once you see why humans keep telling the same stories over and over, our world starts to make a lot more sense.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

The first really long book I ever read was A Mirror of Her Dreams, which along with A Man Rides Through It is a two-part series called Mordant’s Need by Stephen R. Donaldson, a fantasy writer. I chose those books at like age 11 because they were so big and the concept of mirror-based magic seemed really cool. I loved those books. I’d love to see them made into a series someday like Game of Thrones.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

I can’t think of any author I didn’t like and came to like. I like them or I don’t. Sorry, Jane Austen fans. I’m not giving her another chance.

What book have you read that has most influenced your life?

I suppose the book that has most influenced my life is Manna by Marshall Brain, because it got me thinking about the idea of unconditional basic income as a way of getting us off the dystopian track we’re on, and onto a utopian one that looks more like Star Trek.

Who are your favorite writers?

My favorite writers are: Carl Sagan, Noam Chomsky, Stephen King, and Greg Egan. I don’t tend to focus on authors and instead tend to focus on individual books, but I focused on them.

What do you read on holiday?

My holiday reads aren’t any different than my everyday reads. I just read whatever I’m reading or want to start reading.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most underrated?

Most underrated author is Greg Egan. He writes some of the best sci-fi out there, and I have yet to see a movie or TV series based off a single one.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?


What is your favorite book published in the past twelve months?

My most favorite recently-published book is Crisis 2038: A Novel by Gerald Huff. He was my friend and he died the day after he completed it. It was his final goal in life, and he achieved it. And it’s a great book with a message about the need for basic income before technology starts breaking all of society around us.

Did your parents read to you when you were young?

Yes, both my parents read to me as a kid. I loved it. My sister read to me too, and I also read to her. I also enjoyed writing as a kid too.

Which book have you given most frequently as a gift to others?

I think the book I’ve gifted most to others is actually a series of books. It’s called “The Value” series, and each of them are about some value that’s good to learn, like the value of sharing for example, and they are illustrated, and each one involves some famous person growing up with some kind of imaginary friend that helps them learn the value. I loved them as a kid, and I think they’re great for parents to read to their kids.

What impact can a book have on the reader?

A single book can change everything. Books have a special power. Because of their length, they draw us in, and we can start to see as the author sees or wants for us to see. A book can change our beliefs. It can make an atheist out of a believer, or a believer out of an atheist. It can make a Democrat out of a Republican or a Republican out of a Democrat. It can change things deep within us that we fundamentally identify with. It can open our minds and our hearts to each other. Books are empathy machines and logic machines. They are the torches of humanity that we keep lit and pass around to each other to light the darkness and show us what we’d never have experienced otherwise.

End of Interview 

Described by historian Rutger Bregman as "by far, the most effective basic income activist out there" Scott Santens has lived with a crowdfunded monthly basic income since 2016 and has been moderator of the Basic Income community on Reddit since 2013. He is the Editor of Basic Income Today, and serves on the board of directors of both the Gerald Huff Fund for Humanity and also USBIG, Inc. He holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology and his home is in New Orleans, Louisiana where he's lived since 2009.

Follow Scott on Twitter: @scottsantens

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Criticism would be better if there were less of it. Today anyone with an internet connection can post any nonsense opinion they want, with little regard for taste or even basic grammar. So with this review what I want to do, more than anything else, is to explore a little of my own methods, techniques and feelings on the nature of criticism, how I approach it, and what I think it’s limitations are, and perhaps, most importantly, why you should even be listening to me in the first place.
I suppose I wanted to be a critic from an early age, mostly because they got to do the things that I always wanted to do but was denied. They lived the kind of life that I wanted. I could never get to the theatre to see a play for example, so I read all the theatre reviews I could get my hands on. Likewise, the few novels that I could get my hands on were great, and always welcome, but it was always the book reviews that really stood out to me. More often the criticism was perfectly satisfying in its own right, complete and fulfilling enough to make anything more seem superfluous. However, the great majority of book reviews published today often give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is being dealt with.
And so, for me, when it comes to criticism and reviewing, two points are always paramount: (a) make your criticisms as honestly and forcefully as is appropriate, and (b) try to find any redeeming features in even the worst performance. Point (b) is perhaps the most egalitarian: hardly any book is completely void of some good qualities. It’s also important in a book review to convey accurately and succinctly what the author has to say before offering any evaluation whatsoever. Few books are perfect and many are defective in one way or another.
Whenever you read a review by someone that contains nothing positive at all, but only criticism, you should be especially suspicious, the reviewer obviously has an agenda or a vendetta or simply wants to look tough. A good reviewer must above all be fair, even when highly critical; so he or she should try to be as equally positive as well as negative. This is not to say that this will always be possible, or compatible, especially if the reviewer is at all honest. Tone and style are also both crucial tools in the critic’s belt. Although, the greatest difficulty, as Elizabeth Hardwick has said, “...is making a point, making a difference, with words.”
My ostensible goal when crafting a review, is to celebrate the good and condemn the bad, but I am at every turn thwarted by the sheer mass of mediocrity with which I must contend with. Until one has had some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover just how bad the majority of them actually are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’ But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse.
In essence then, criticism is highly subjective. But it is a sort of subjectivity which strives towards a universal objectivity. We all agree that things such as beauty, truth, pleasure and pain exist. But we don’t always agree on which forms in which they manifest. And really, what meaning is there in the word ‘good’ anyway?
Better Living Through Criticism attempts to answer this question, and is composed of six chapters and four dialogues, which opens with an imaginary, or perhaps not so imaginary, interviewer asking the critic: “What’s the point of criticism? What are critics good for?” And it says, just before it closes, that where criticism is concerned, “nobody has ever figured out where to begin, or what to conclude.” But does this mean we have gotten nowhere?
Well, no. Critics perform a vital service in the creative continuum, deconstructing movies/albums/books/plays down to their requisite pieces and casting the bones in an effort to call forth larger cultural themes and ideas. Henry James wrote that criticism showed the mind engaged in “a reaching out for the reasons of its interest,” and Scott, says something similar toward the end of his buoyant and argumentative book: “Let’s say that a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.”
In other words, the nature of the critic, is to try to unpack the underpinnings of artistic endeavor. But most people simply do not care enough to read about criticism, and so aren’t likely to read a defense of it, and people who are already committed to criticism don’t need it defended. Who, then, is Scott attempting to persuade?
This uncertainty about audience is one of the most important and symptomatic facts about the book. It appears most clearly as a problem of reference, which is always an issue in criticism. A critic must assume a certain community of knowledge with the reader, or else the argument can never get started. But Scott is hesitant to take for granted any prior literary or historical knowledge on the part of the reader. No matter who or what is mentioned, Kant, H.L. Mencken, Henry James, Louis XIV, he introduces it with a journalistic tag: e.g., “Moby-Dick, (Melville’s) grand, tragic, philosophically ambitious narrative of an ill-fated whaling voyage.” This says both too much, who is the potential reader of Scott’s book that doesn’t know Moby Dick is a whale?, and too little, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, three adjectives aren’t going to give you any real sense of it. Which makes the book extremely unfocussed in a way and I struggled to understand just exactly what the author wanted to accomplish. His measure of good criticism is almost too relative, too hard to nail down. Which is a function, primarily, of his laudable unwillingness to try to characterize what is good art or good literature given the variability of all forms of both and the tendency for many arbiters to see "quality" through a Western lens. But I would have preferred that he was a little more prescriptive about the principals behind what makes for good criticism which you would think is distinct from what is being critiqued. As a result, Better Living Through Criticism, ended up being a different book than what I was expecting. It was more personal and more abstract, really almost philosophical in it's approach to criticism. However, Scott does make a strong case for the inevitability of criticism as a feature of any society that values thinking of any kind and in the process, ends up providing an interesting history of criticism itself. Still yet, I do feel that the subject matter would have been better treated in essay form, rather than a full length manuscript.
Elaborating on what is perhaps the boldest argument Scott puts forth in the book, “All art is successful criticism.” Sukhdev Sandhu writes, “All artists find themselves reckoning with the past, judging its achievements, assessing its relevance for the present, revolting against or carrying the baton for it. Huge swaths of contemporary culture – from hip-hop, to the films of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers – are constructed from borrowing, quotation, and meta-commentary, much of it bracingly original. Seen in this way, they are not just poster children for postmodernism, but direct descendants of Shakespeare who ransacked the cupboards of high and low literature, history and folklore in search of viable scenarios, cobbling together scraps of Ovid, Holinshed, Latin comedy, and commedia dell’arte sketches.”
But criticism, even when it is not literary criticism, is still, nevertheless, a literary activity, it is a kind of writing. And a culture indifferent to writing will be indifferent to criticism. And criticism is always addressed not to fans, but to independent minds, people who express their enthusiasms through debate and analysis rather than dogged collecting and esoteric one-upmanship. And regardless of what may be believed, I do think it still matters what an unusual mind, capable of presenting fresh ideas in a vivid and original and interesting manner, thinks of books as they appear. I’ve written about a hundred book reviews since starting this blog and I believe the book review is one of the most valuable literary forms and not at all easy to do well. And I would encourage everyone to write them and to take them seriously.
Whatever its occasional pandering, Better Living Through Criticism, does exemplify the rhetorical virtues it so enthusiastically celebrates as being peculiar to the critic: attentiveness to detail, alertness to context, and a hunger for larger meanings. Reminding us that in the end, it is the job of the artist to free our minds, but it is the job of the critic to help us figure out what to do with that freedom once we have it.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Ode to a Bluebird

There's a scared little boy that lives inside of me.
But I pretend he's not there, pretend he grew up.
Yet, I can hear him crying now as I write this.
But I’m too tough for him. So I beat him down and flick his ears and tell him to be quiet before someone hears him. 
And the strangers I meet never know he's there.
But late at night, when it's just the two of us, I let him out and tell him that I know he's scared, but not to cry.
And when morning comes I put him back.
And we subsist like this, with our
shrouded understandings, and it’s enough to make a man weep.
But I don’t weep.
Will you?

Saturday, July 13, 2019

A Gift and it's Discontents

The response I invariably give to the question, “What would you like for your birthday, Christmas, etc.?” is, “Nothing.”
People naturally assume that I’m just being modest, or at worst humble, and insist on getting me something anyway and of course it’s generally something that I couldn’t possibly want any less, something that even the most die-hard pack rat would look at and say, “Throw that out!”
And then they always ask me that most pretentious of questions, "Do you like it?” And I'm forced to say yes while a smug smile spreads across their face and I struggle to keep from choking on my own disappointment while simultaneously hoping that this piece of shit came from a retail store nearby and can be exchanged just as carelessly as it was purchased. Believe it or not there are some assholes out there that will go to such extremes that they'll do whatever it takes to prevent you from returning their gift. God help you if they happened to have made it themselves.
“But it’s the thought that counts.”
Really? How much thought could possibly go into a set of dish towels? My guess is practically none.
“Whose name did we draw this year honey?”
“Johnny’s “
“Ok here, lets get him this, so long as he has something to open.”
Who hasn’t had this conversation before? Anyone who has ever drawn names at the office or has forgotten someone on their shopping list. It’s the thought that counts? Come on, even if this were true nobody believes it. 
When you give someone a gift you are essentially attempting to evoke a response from the givee preferably a favorable one. But why do we want this? Is it because we want to make someone happy? It ultimately doesn’t matter; your interest in giving the gift will always remain self-serving since all purposeful actions benefits the self by the mere fact of the self-wanting to do them. Not to mention the phenomenon of me-gifting. Besides giving someone a gift they didn't want or ask for and then saying it’s the thought that counts is like a plastic surgeon, since your already under, adding an extra nose to your face because he thought you might like it and then expecting you to be grateful about it. What kind of bullshit is this? Not only does it obligate me to return the favor but I must now be grateful at having been made to do you a favor.
You know what "gift" in German means? Poison. We're all being slowly poisoned to death by people with supposedly good intentions. Leave it to the Germans to know a bad idea when they see one, except Nazism, they really dropped the ball on that one.
The only kind of gift anyone truly wants are the expensive gifts, and thats only because expensive gifts have no sentiments attached to them, which is what makes them desirable in the first place. It relieves us of the burden of having to get close to each other, allowing us to keep our distance while we engage in this consumer fueled emasculating barter system we call "gifting.’’

Friday, July 12, 2019

Notes on Reading

The first time I picked up Dean Koontz‘s novel, The Voice of the Night, I was still in high school. And I finished the book in one sitting after reading it for the entirety of an afternoon, one winter, in my grandfathers small convenience store, sitting by an old coal fired stove, used to heat the place.
I have actually longed to reread it, but I fear I might hate it this time around. It’s a legitimate fear of mine. I think if I was to reread it, I would be a lot more hardened towards it, simply because I’ve read a lot of books over the years since then. But I will always remember and cherish this one as one of the first, and certainly among the few, novels that have left a lifelong impact.
I also remember the first time I read, what would later become my all-time favorite novel, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. I was again still in high school and it was fall or winter. Some of the best reading I’ve done has been during those dreary winter months. This time however, I was at home by myself reclining on the couch in our family room.
I remember reading the description Judd Crandall gave about the first person to ever be buried in the Pet Sematary, Timmy Baterman. As I read this section of the book I imagined the road that he shuffles up and down on at all hours of the day, as being the same road we used to get to our house. A real road that ran through the neighborhood.
Not long after I had finished reading this passage I received a call from my grandmother asking me to come over to collect some leftovers she wanted us to have for dinner. So I ventured out into the night. A cold chill still in the air. Nothing to light the way except one or two street lights that seemed to work capriciously.
Upon reaching the middle of the road I stood and looked down it as far as the light would allow and was suddenly overcome with the sensation that Timmy Baterman was shuffling towards me in the dark.
This is the only book that has ever truly scared me and I’ve reread it several times and it’s always had the same effect.
Once I was reading a short story collection, Queen of Cold-Blooded Tales, by Roberta Simpson Brown. Brown was a Kentucky native born in Russell Springs, at the edge of the Appalachia mountains, and our school librarian had read a few of her stories out loud to our class in preparation for our Halloween festivities. I liked the stories, so I decided to read the rest in her collection and checked the book out that very same day.
The story that I remember most vividly from that collection is, The Handle. The title referring to the handles that can be found running along the outside of a casket. Chills shot down my spine as my closet door slowly began to open right at the exact moment in the story when one of the handles turns up in Ernie’s room. The latch on the closet door was broken and would occasionally open on its own. It was nothing unusual, but it was always unnerving whenever it happened, made more so this time by the story I was reading. A story about a boy who comes back from the grave to claim his friend.
Then there’s Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. I was around eleven when I first read this one, an especially vulnerable age for tales of well-dressed self-loathing vampires wrestling with existentialism.
Everyone knows by now about the tragic child vampire Claudia, trapped forever in the body of a child, never to be independent, never able to live or to be treated like an adult. But what was so interesting about her was the fact that, for all intents and purposes, she didn’t have a human life before becoming a vampire. She was only five years old, so, unlike others, Claudia didn’t have a humanity to remember and to influence her. She was turned before she understood the difference between right and wrong, before she understood the value of life. And because of this she was cold, cruel, and vicious in her own unique ways, but she also suffered in her own unique ways too.
I have a lot of memories reading these books and whenever I think back on my adolescence, these are some of the books that come to mind. They all helped to shape me as a reader, and maybe even in some ways, as a person. Which is also what makes books so powerful. They allow us to reach back in time and, in a way, transcend it. Even now whenever I’m reading a book that I’m really enjoying, it feels as if I'm a child again, peering in through the crack in the door and spying on the adults in the other room. But, ordinarily, I’m always a little sad after reading a book I really enjoyed. I’ll never have that same feeling or experience again. It’s that same thrill that I’m forever chasing. I may enjoy rereading it, but that first initial experience of unmitigated enjoyment will be, as Roy Batty in Blade Runner said, “lost forever, like tears in rain.”

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Short Story Review: The Garden Party: a selection from, The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Miss Mansfield does not write what one usually thinks of as a “short story.” She is interested in people, not plots, in the substance and color of life, not the chess patterns that can be made with it. Her impressive ability to extract the beauty and vitality from whatever subject, no matter how mundane or difficult it might be, is not only greatly appreciated, but is revealed in full magnificence in her story, The Garden Party.
As the title suggests, The Garden Party centers around an annual party held by the Sheridan family at their home. The Sheridans are a well-off upper-middle-class family, made evident by the very idea of a ‘garden party.’ One of the Sheridan children, Laura, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, is looking forward to the party and is keen to become involved in its preparations. But, while the Sheridans are preparing for their party, news arrives that a working-class man who lives in the poorer part of the village has been tragically killed when his horse reared up and threw him from his cart. Laura, filled with sympathy for the dead man and his family, pleads with her mother and siblings to cancel their party in light of the tragedy. How can they hold a party, with music and guests and laughter, when a family nearby is in mourning for the death of their husband and father? Laura finds, however, that the rest of her family are not as sympathetic as she: they assume the man was drunk, revealing their class prejudice, and that those types of people don’t expect sacrifices from the likes of them. Laura gives up trying to persuade her family to cancel the party, and retires to her bedroom to get ready before the guests start to arrive. Here she catches sight of herself in the mirror, all dressed up, wearing an elegant and fashionable black hat, with a decorative gold pin, and decides that maybe her mother was right and it would be silly and wrong to cancel the party. She decides to attend the party, and return to thinking about the recent tragedy only afterwards.
The party itself is treated in the space of just a few short paragraphs and after the guests have left, Mrs. Sheridan, suggests that Laura should take the leftover food from the party to the family of the man who has died. Laura does so, and finds the poor family grieving, with the dead man laid out in one of the rooms. She is encouraged to go in and see him and when she does she is overcome with an odd feeling, not of sadness, or of despair, but of happiness. Joy. Release. Contentment. She leaves the house, finding that her brother Laurie has been sent to look after her. And as they walk back home together, Laura tries to put into words how she feels. She cries, but whether they are tears of joy or sadness remains unstated. The story finally ends with Laura attempting to convey to her brother how she feels about life, but finds she cannot think of the words.
Clearly, the story Mansfield tells us is ultimately a story about failure. Unlike the others, Laura sees the situation as it is, she recognizes the injustice and the need to react, but in the end she is unwilling to accept the consequences. In the end she's more deplorable than any of the rest because she had the faculties but lacked the integrity to use them. And instead we witness her betray what was her innermost and honest, unspoiled nature.
But the beginning of the story seems to speak of something else; of an awakening and hope, of change and choices, where Laura's youth and character stand out so beautifully. There's something thoroughly offensive in her family's response: they can't call off a social occasion every time "a drunken workman" happens to die; we are made to sympathize with Laura's doubts and her reluctance to conform, gently seduced to take her side against the families staid social conventions. And when she surrenders in the end we feel the blow of that defeat.
Admittedly, this story offers us many things. It offers us a critique of the class system, a story of initiation into the adult world of sex and death, an amusing examination of family dynamics, and it offers us a touching portrait of a child struggling to establish herself as an independent entity in the face of nearly overwhelming parental influence. But once we juxtapose these competing perceptions, we begin to apprehend something a little more abysmal. That sooner or later we all escape into the comfort of the customs in which we we’ve been bred. Allowing all the “garden parties” that are yet to come, to take place. If they do or if they don't, it makes no difference. People will suffer as before, but the trick you must master, as Mrs. Sheridan might have put it, is to somehow learn to ignore them.

You can read the complete short story: here

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Exclusive Interview with Author Timothy Jay Smith

You have a new novel out now, The Fourth Courier, set in Poland. What’s it about?

The Fourth Courier opens in the spring of 1992, only four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A series of grisly murders in Warsaw suddenly becomes an international concern when radiation is detected on the third victim’s hands, raising fears that all the victims might have smuggled nuclear material out of Russia.
Poland’s new Solidarity government asks for help and the FBI sends Special Agent Jay Porter to assist in the investigation. He teams up with a gay CIA agent. When they learn that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb is missing, the race is on to find him and the bomb before it ends up in the wrong hands.
My novels have been called literary thrillers because I use an event or threat—a thriller plot—to examine what the situation means to ordinary people. In The Fourth Courier, Jay becomes intimately involved with a Polish family, giving the reader a chance to see how the Poles coped with their collective hangover from the communist era.

How did you come up with the story for The Fourth Courier?

The Fourth Courier book goes back a long way for me. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Solidarity won the first free election in Poland in over sixty years. In the same year, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced new cooperative laws in the Soviet Union, which was an area of my expertise. I was invited to the Soviet Union as a consultant, which led to my consulting throughout the former Soviet bloc, eventually living for over two years in Poland.
At the time, there was a lot of smuggling across the border between Russia and Poland, giving rise to fears that nuclear material, too, might be slipping across. While on assignment in Latvia, I met with a very unhappy decommissioned Soviet general, who completely misunderstood my purpose for being there. When an official meeting concluded, he suggested we go for a walk where we could talk without being overheard.
I followed him deep into a forest. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. Finally we stopped, and he said, “I can get you anything you want.” I must have looked puzzled because he added, “Atomic.”
Then I understood. In an earlier conversation, there had been some passing remarks about the Soviets’ nuclear arsenal in Latvia, for which he had had some responsibility, and apparently still some access. While my real purpose for being there was to design a volunteer program for business specialists, he assumed that was a front and I was really a spy. Or perhaps he thought, I really did want to buy an atomic bomb!

Have you always been a writer?

In the sense of enjoying writing, yes. I actually wrote my first stage play in fourth grade and started a novel in sixth grade, but I didn’t become a full-time fiction writer until twenty years ago. The first half of my adult life I spent working on projects to help low income people all over the world. I always enjoyed the writing aspects of my work—reports, proposals, even two credit manuals—but I reached a point where I’d accomplished my career goals, I was only forty-six years old, and I had a story I wanted to tell.

What was the story?

For over two years, I managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians following the 1993 Oslo Accords. One thing I learned was that everyone needed to be at the negotiating table to achieve an enduring peace. So I wrote a story of reconciliation—A Vision of Angels—that weaves together the lives of four characters and their families.
If anybody had ever hoped that a book might change the world, I did. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to bring about peace in the Middle East, but I’ve continued writing nevertheless.

It’s obvious that you know Warsaw well. Other than living in there, what special research did you do?

Warsaw is a city with a very distinctive character. It’s always atmospheric, verging on gloomy in winter, and the perfect location for a noir-ish thriller.
I had left Warsaw several years before I decided to write a novel set there, so I went back to refresh my memory. I looked at it entirely differently. What worked dramatically? Where would I set scenes in my story?
It was on that research trip when all the events along the Vistula River came together for me. There was a houseboat. There was Billy’s shack, and Billy himself whose “jaundiced features appeared pinched from a rotting apple.” There were sandbars reached by narrow concrete jetties and a derelict white building with a sign simply saying Nightclub. Fortunately, Billy’s dogs were tethered or I wouldn’t be here to answer your questions.
My main character is an FBI agent, and I didn’t know much about it. A friend, who was an assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, arranged a private tour of the FBI’s training facility in Quantico. That was before 9/11. I don’t think that could be done now. Maybe for James Bond himself but not for a wannabe writer.
If I was going to write a novel about smuggling a portable atomic bomb, I needed to know what a bomb entailed. Weight, seize, basic design, fuel? How would a miniature bomb be detonated? So I blindly contacted the Department of Energy. I explained what I wanted and was soon connected to an atomic expert who agreed to meet with me.
We met on the weekend at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in Rockville, MD. We met in line and were already talking about atomic bombs before we ordered our coffees. He had brought basic drawings of them. He was an expert and eager to share his knowledge.
Can you imagine having that conversation in a café today, openly looking at how-to schematics for building an atomic bomb while sipping skinny lattés?

You’ve mentioned ‘scenes’ a couple of times. I know you also write screenplays. Do you find it difficult to go between the different formats or styles?

The sense of scene is crucial to my writing. It’s how I think about a story. Before I start new work, I always have the opening and closing scenes in my head, and then I ask myself what scenes do I need to get from start to finish.
I think it comes from growing up in a house where the television was never turned off. My sisters and I were even allowed to watch TV while doing homework if we kept our grades up. Sometimes I joke that canned laughter was the soundtrack of my childhood. I haven’t owned a television for many years, but growing up with it exposed me to telling stories in scenes, and it’s why my readers often say they can see my stories as they read them.
For me, it’s not difficult to go between prose and screenplays. In fact, I use the process of adapting a novel to a screenplay as an editing tool for the novel. It helps me sharpen the dialogue and tighten the story.

In your bio, you mention traveling the world to find your characters and stories, and doing things like smuggling out plays from behind the Iron Curtain. Was it all as exciting as it sounds?

It was only one play, and yes, I confess to having an exciting life. I’ve done some crazy things, too, and occasionally managed to put myself in dangerous situations. Frankly, when I recall some of the things I’ve done, I scare myself! By comparison, smuggling a play out of Czechoslovakia in 1974 seems tame. But I’ve always had a travel bug and wanted to go almost everywhere, so I took some chances, often traveled alone, and went to places where I could have been made to disappear without a trace.

It sounds like you have a whole library full of books you could write. How do you decide what story to tell and who will be your characters?

I came of age in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, so I developed a strong sense of social justice. That guided my career choice more than anything, and when I quit working to write full-time, it was natural that I wanted my books to reflect my concerns. Not in a “big message” way, but more in terms of raising awareness about things that concern me.
For example, take Cooper’s Promise, my novel about a gay deserter from the war in Iraq who ends up adrift in a fictional African country. It was 2003, and in a few days, I was headed to Antwerp to research blood diamonds for a new novel. I was running errands when NPR’s Neal Conan (Talk of the Nation) came on the radio with an interview of National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb about a project on modern-day slavery. It was the first time I heard details about human trafficking, and was so shocked by its enormity that I pulled my car off the road to listen.
I decided on the spot that I needed to find a story that touched on both blood diamonds and trafficking. When I went to Antwerp a few days later, I visited the Diamond District as planned, but also visited a safe house for women who had been rescued from traffickers.

In The Fourth Courier, you team up a white straight FBI agent with a black gay CIA agent. Even Publishers Weekly commented that it seemed like an ideal set-up for a sequel. Do you plan to write one?

Probably not. My to-be-written list is already too long.
I’m close to finishing the final edits on a book set in a Greek island village, which is more of a mystery about an arsonist than a thriller. I’ve already started a new novel set in Istanbul about a young refugee who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with ISIS. I’ve never written a novel set in the States but I have the idea for one.
To date, my books have been stand-alones with totally different settings, characters, and plots. I try to write what I like to read: smart mysteries/thrillers with strong plots and colorful characters set in interesting places. I suppose like me, I want my stories to travel around and meet new people.

You’ve had gay protagonists or important characters since your first novel over twenty years ago when gay literature had not yet become mainstream. How would you say that affected your choices as a writer, or did it?

Friends warned me that I shouldn’t become known as a gay writer because it would pigeonhole me and sideline me from consideration as a serious writer. At the time, I think the general public thought gay books were all about sex and more sex. Of course, already there were many emerging gay literary writers; it was more stigma than reality.
The world of thrillers and mysteries is still largely uninhabited by gays. Hopefully I am helping to change that. I also hope that my novels expand my readers’ understanding of homosexuality in the places where I set them. In The Fourth Courier, the gay angle is key to solving the case. In my other novels, too, the plot turns on something gay, and the way it does is always something that couldn’t have happened in the same way anywhere else because of the cultural context.

What do you want your readers to take away from The Fourth Courier?

What motivated me to write The Fourth Courier was a desire to portray what happened to ordinary Polish people at an exciting albeit unsettling moment in their country’s history. I hope my readers like my characters as much as I do—at least the good guys. The people are what made Poland such a great experience.
The Fourth Courier is my thank-you note to them.

(Extended interview below)


What made you want to become a writer?

A couple of things came together for me at the same time. I had a very exciting career working on economic development projects to help lower income people, first in the US and then internationally. My own specific career goal was to design and manage an overseas project that had some real significance. That happened. I designed and managed the U.S. Government’s first significant project to assist Palestinians after the start of the peace process. When that project ended, I was 46 years old and had accomplished what I had set out to achieve in that career. Anything else felt like it would be redundant. I also had a story to tell (and believed it might contribute to Middle East peace). I had grown up a Zionist (though I’m not Jewish) and ended my career helping Palestinians. I knew, understood, and appreciated both sides of that conflict, and felt compelled to write about it. That became my first novel, A Vision of Angels.

Do you write alone or in public?

Always alone with my office door closed. Even if I am home alone, I close my door. If the door to my room is open, I feel distracted and anxious.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?

I tend to write stories either from multiple perspectives, or only one perspective. With the former, readers sometimes complain they are initially confused by who’s who, but by the time they make the complaint they are already sorting it out. I wouldn’t call it tough criticism, though.

What has been the best compliment?

That readers have learned something about issues that motivate me to write my stories in the first place. When I am deciding what to write next, I always ask myself: what issue or concern or matter of social justice do I want to highlight. Then I sort out what plot best that lets me do that. I’ve written about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (A Vision of Angels), human trafficking (Cooper’s Promise), and the impact of the fall of communism on average working class families (The Fourth Courier). My next published novel will deviate from that formula somewhat. Fire on the Island is really an homage to Greece, where I’ve cumulatively spent about seven years. But I am already working on my fifth novel, The Syrian Pietà, about a gay refugee living in Istanbul who’s recruited by the CIA to go deep undercover with Islamic State.

What is the most amusing thing that has ever happened to you as a writer?

I can’t think of anything especially amusing. Now I’m worried about myself!

What do you love most about the writing process?

The words. I’ve always loved language. It’s what sets us apart from other species. We have a past and future that we convey through language.

Do you have a day job in addition to being a writer?

No. I work at writing full-time. I easily put in eight hours a day. During the day, I combine editing, marketing, research with everything else I have to do in life: shopping, exercise, running errands. By about 5 p.m., when I allow myself my first glass of wine, I try to put everything else aside and concentrate on new writing. Most days, I work until midnight. There are lots of things we have to do in life. I simply organize them all around my writing.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Neither. It’s how I want to spend my time. I watch very few movies, don’t own a television, and while I’m a social guy, I also try to make sure I don’t let socializing steal all my time—especially since I prefer to write in the evening.

What are some common traps for aspiring writers?

Loving your darlings too much. Trying to be too clever (it always shows). Not trusting your reader. Giving too much information too soon (always hold it back as long as you can). Giving someone’s backstory in one big dump. Ignoring the rule of Chekhov’s Gun. Wanting to surprise the reader with twists that ultimately don’t feel organic to the whole story. Resisting feedback.

Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

I’m not sure that it’s a question of ego per se. You have to have thick skin and be able to take critical feedback without becoming defensive or crushed.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

If you’re asking what weakens me as a writer to the point of destruction or impotence, the answer is nothing.

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

I laugh at my funny scenes, cry in my sad scenes, respond to my sex scenes, and choke up almost every time I give a reading. All of that emotion is in my writing. I’m passionate about what I write about. I can’t imagine being a dispassionate writer.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Writing is a craft that takes a long time to learn well. Be devoted to learning it. Don’t kid yourself that you’re better than anyone else and thus can break the rules because your greatness will shine so brightly that the whole world will recognize you for the great writer you are. Writing really doesn’t work that way.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Growing up, I was told my first word was “more”. I reached out my hand and said it. I’ve never really stopped asking for more. Not in an especially greedy sense, but in the sense that I want to experience as much of life as I can.

What does literary success look like to you?

Walking down the beach and seeing someone reading my book.

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

No. I see it as dedicated work. It’s emotional but it’s not a spiritual practice. You can’t imagine how I experience all of my stories emotionally. It’s what I hate the most about readings; that I choke up. I know my characters so well that even their most mundane traits or moments carry emotional weight.

What period of your life do you find you write about most often?

In three words: all of it. Writers constantly plumb their own psyches and experiences to create characters and situations. All of my life infiltrates all of my stories.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good or bad ones?

Of course I read reviews from such sources as Publishers Weekly, Booklist (American Library Association), Kirkus Reviews, and other prominent reviewers. After a book is released, I follow reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for the first couple of weeks, but not very carefully after that. Bad reviews? I shrug them off.

What is the most difficult part of your creative process?

The third rewrite.


What are five books you loved? For one of them, why did you love it?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Burial Rites by Hanna Kent
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
American War by Omar El Akkad
I loved The Luminaries. It’s set at a time and place I knew nothing about (New Zealand’s Gold Rush in the 1800s). Catton also took a style page from Balzac by having an introduction to each chapter alerting the reader to what is about to be reported. For example, one reads: “In which Charlie Frost forms a hunch; Dick Mannerling buckles on his holsters; and we venture upriver to the Kaniere claims.” It’s very clever, and eventually these intros are actually longer than the chapter itself.

What is a book you didn’t like, and why?

That’s easy. The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. It’s been years since I read it, but I still recall how nothing worked for me in this book. By the end of the book, all I felt I knew about the main character (Robert Langdon) was that he had a quirky smile. But worse, there were just things that stretched incredulity, and even in fiction things need to be somewhat plausible. At one point, Langdon just happens to have a friend who lives nearby and has a private jet that he flies to England—without paperwork, flight plan, or official clearance. In the real world, the military would’ve given chase and shot him down.

How did you first fall in love with books?

I suppose I have to give my mother credit for that. She was always reading, more often than not bestsellers, and claimed she had read every book in her small hometown’s library. In my hometown, the local library always had a summer reading challenge for kids, and I loved competing in that. But basically, I grew up in a household that respected education (my mother was the first woman in her family to get a college degree), and if you’re going to be educated, you have to read.

What book or books are you planning to read soon?

The Moscow Rules by Antonio and Jonna Mendez
I Will Never See The World Again by Ahmet Altan
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Maze of Cadiz by Aly Monrode

What book do you always recommend?

One book? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It conveys five stories about humanity at different moments in time: past, present, and the dystopian future. He even creates a new (and understandable) vocabulary for one of the stories set in the future. Brilliant.

What was your favorite childhood book?

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

Do you have any favorite literary journals?

Not really. I don’t read much short fiction except for short stories in The New Yorker.

Have you ever read anything that made you think differently about fiction/nonfiction?

Yes, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Despite the title, it’s actually essays that, taken together, constitute a memoir. It made me rethink my notion of memoir. Memoirs have always struck me as a little boring (“first I did this then that”) or thinly veiled efforts at pop psychology. Chee tosses out the whole notion of a chronological memoir and doesn’t fall into the blame game of blaming parents or upbringing for everything that didn’t work out in his life. Instead, he chooses seminal events in his life (e.g., the AIDS crisis) that he describes from the perspective of how they caused him to develop as a person.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. People tend to think of Zorba the Greek when Kazantzakis is mentioned, but this book is equally as good and actually more powerful. It humanizes Christ in ways that make him more accessible and believable. I’m not a believer of any religion, but when I finished The Last Temptation, I recall putting it down and saying aloud, “If there’s one book that could convince me to be a Christian, it’s this one.”

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

I can’t think of one.

What book have you read that most influenced your life?

Hunger in America by Robert Kennedy. It converted me to a life dedicated to helping others.

Who are your favorite writers?

Robert Goolrick
John Le Carré
Graham Greene
Nikos Kazantzakis
Yasmina Khadra
Margaret Atwood
Isabel Allende
Ernest Hemingway

End of Interview


Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. En route, he’s found the characters that people his work. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he’s hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that’s seen him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.
Tim brings the same energy to his writing that he brought to a distinguished career, and as a result, he has won top honors for his novels, screenplays and stage plays in numerous prestigious competitions. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel. Previously, he won the Paris Prize for Fiction (now the Paris Literary Prize) for his novel, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012. 
Tim was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. His stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award, and his screenplays have won competitions sponsored by the American Screenwriters Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Fresh Voices, StoryPros, and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/TimothyJaySmith
To purchase a copy of The Fourth Courier click here