Monday, May 13, 2019

CROWD PLEASING

Okay, here's the thing about Game of Thrones: George R. R. Martin has not even finished writing the sixth and last book of the series yet.


Everything that's happened on the TV adaptation for the last season and a half has been cobbled together by the showrunners and their scriptwriters.

Granted, Martin is their chief consultant and guru on the show. We assume he is shaping the narrative to some degree as the show thunders toward its grand finale next week, giving his team the general idea of where the story is headed.

But how closely does it have to hew to the book Martin is actually writing?

Think about it: If Martin is like most writers with a publication date looming, he's still tinkering with plot details and narrative choices. He may think he knows where he's going, but still deciding the best way to get there.

Martin's ouvre has taken on a life of its own.
Then along comes the TV adaptation, wending its way through Martin's first five A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which becomes a freakin' global phenomenon and earns Martin an audience of untold gazillions — every single one of whom develops very particular ideas about how their favorite character or storyline should go.

What's an author to do?

You know what they say about pleasing all of the people all of the time. So, for the sake of sanity, most authors try to write for the only audience that matters — themselves. (Or a least their inner editors.)

But with an audience as massive as Martin's now is, ready to scrutinize every semi-colon, he's got to be feeling the pressure. Meanwhile, the TV series gallops along at it's own breakneck pace.

But it could work to Martin's advantage. He now has a worldwide supply of beta-readers (okay, beta-watchers) eager to point their thumbs up or down over each new revelation that flickers across their screens. Social media explodes like dragon fire the minute after each new episode is aired.

George R. R. Martin: who's writing this thing anyway?
So Martin is in a unique position to gauge how his narrative choices are playing out before he actually commits them to a published book.

Not that he will necessarily adapt his novel-in-progress according to what plays on social media — nor should he.  Anyone who cheerfully kills off his nominal hero at the end of the first book in a six-book series doesn't exactly fall into the crowd-pleaser category.


But with public outcry (not to say outrage) reaching fever pitch at each new plot twist revealed on the show, he now he faces the kind of integrity test that has so often challenged his characters over the last eight seasons.

Will he do the right thing, according to his own perverse instincts? Or will he strive — for once — to give the people what they demand?

Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, May 12, 2019

RING MASTER

Fantasy author's formative years, obsessions, explored in Tolkien

When movies are made about real people — especially creative artists — it's always interesting to see what aspect of a life the filmmakers choose to spotlight. Will the focus be on a singular event in the subject's life to build a story around? Or will the movie try to suggest in dramatic terms what inspired the subject's work?

In the atmospheric Tolkien, a movie about the celebrated fantasy author who gave us The Hobbit, and The Lord Of the Rings, these two approaches are the same thing. The movie begins in the horrific trenches of The Somme, in France, during World War I, a setting to which it keeps returning throughout the film.

The devastation of warfare was certainly the most singular event in J. R. R. Tolkien's life as a young man, but it also inspired him to create the epic battle between good and evil that occupies the Rings trilogy.

Directed by Dome Karukoski, from a script by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, Tolkien tries hard to elide the author's experiences as a schoolboy, an Oxford student, and a soldier into the larger themes of quests, courage and fellowship that would dominate his later work. The filmmakers are largely successful at this; their workmanlike approach doesn't always create a lot of deep resonance, but it's a satisfying look at the gestation of the creative process.

J. R. R. Tolkien's dust jacket design for The Hobbit, 1937
This is not a portrait of the artist writing in a fever of inspiration. Instead, Tolkien (played as an adult by Nichols Hoult) is depicted as a man of very methodical, intersecting obsessions, writing stories, and developing complex language systems for his own amusement. He also sketches almost constantly: fantasy landscapes, menacing figures emerging out of the shadows, dragons. (Tolkien himself provided watercolor paintings for the dust jackets and endpapers of many early editions of his work.)

The director's thoughtful approach may drag a little in the midsection, but his themes line up with Tolkien's stated purpose to explore "the journeys we take to prove ourselves."
(Read more)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

HOLDING CLOSE / LETTING GO

I wouldn’t exactly call it an anniversary; that suggests something to be celebrated. But I passed a milestone this last week — one year to the day since I lost my Sweetie.

Lost. Passed away. Joined the Heavenly Choir. Shuffled off this mortal coil. Whatever euphemism you like, as long as it doesn’t involve the ‘D’ word.

Funny, a year ago, I thought (in those fleeting moments back then when I was capable of thinking) that I’d have it all figured out by now. I would miraculously know what to do with the car I can no longer drive, this house, still so crammed with his stuff (not to mention my stuff!), this life with him no longer in it.

But so far that miracle hasn’t happened. I find myself just as overwhelmed as ever, paralyzed by the prospect of going on without him. I understand the necessity of plunging forward — instead of crab-crawling sideways like I’ve been doing. But the question is, when is it all right for those left behind to survive?

James is already physically gone, an impossible reality I grapple with every minute of every day. I desperately want to hoard his memory, like I’m holding on to his stuff, afraid that if I change anything, I might inadvertently slip one of the tethers still holding his spirit in place here with me. So I cling by my claws like Sylvester the Cat to every item that was so much a part of him, and every insistent memory of the life we shared together.

But no matter how ferociously I try to hold on, I can feel part of him beginning to slip away from me. Whether I like it or not, my life is slowly beginning to regroup around his loss, the way tidewater patiently diverts itself around, but ultimately engulfs an obstacle in the sand.

The tide will keep coming in and going out again. I can’t stay in one place, just surviving from one crisis to the next. Somehow, I have to dig in and take a stand, or the tide of life will erode me.

Of course, some stubborn part of me doesn’t want to make any new memories without him. That would feel like a betrayal. But as horrible, as hideous a thought as it is, I need to go forward, or be stuck here in this precarious limbo forever.

I have to let him go.

But how?

Then I remembered a scene in my first novel, The Witch From the Sea. My heroine, Tory, the daughter of a Native American mother, learns that her friend and fellow pirate, Jack, has suffered a terrible loss in the past. She tries to comfort him with a Mohawk prayer for the dead — and the survivors. 

“They say to the dead: We release you on your journey. Let nothing of this world hinder you, let no friends or relations trouble you. Forget the sadness of this world and go in peace.

They say to the survivors: The journey of the dead will be yours one day. If you love them let them go in peace. Do not trouble them with your sadness. Do not be idle with grief. Do not lose hope.”

The next step, she tells him, is to abstain from wickedness for a year, although Jack points out, it’s a little late for that in his case. “If you can’t be good for a year for the sake of ceremony,” says Tory, “you must take the time to mourn out of respect.”

I’ve had a year to mourn, a process that’s not going to end anytime soon. But it’s time to get out from under the yoke of grief, to stop using my sorrow as an excuse not to take responsibility for the rest of my life. And, somehow, I have to re-commit to hope.

In this at least I have an ally in James, the most positive person on the planet; he never lost hope about anything, no matter how daunting, and his enthusiasm for life was unbridled.

That’s the part of his spirit I must never let go of. Never, ever.

(Top: Cosmic Connection, by James Aschbacher)
(Above: New Release Party, by James Aschbacher)

Monday, April 22, 2019

GLAD TIDINGS


 Happy Spring Rebirth to all, whether you celebrate Easter, Passover, or the pagan fertility goddess Eostara!

This is how James Aschbacher and I spent every Easter Sunday for the 10 years he was painting murals with the 4th and 5th-graders at elementary schools across the county.


While they were off home for the holiday weekend, hunting for eggs and going into sugar shock, we were in the schoolyard, prepping the wall and transferring the kids’ designs to be ready for them to start painting as soon as they came back.

This was his very first school mural, Bay View Elementary, at Bay and Mission, in the Spring of 2005.

Here’s how it worked. First, he visited the classrooms and got each student to make a drawing in keeping with the theme (in this case, the ocean).


Then he stretched a long roll of paper across our floor at home and arranged their drawings into a composition. Over the holiday weekend, armed with carbon paper and markers, he and I would trace those images onto the school wall he had prepped with his spray-painted background.

Then, over the next two or three weeks, the kids came out of class, two at a time, to paint their images.


James centered this particular mural with his image of dolphins circling the sun. But all other creatures in the mural were dreamed up and painted by the kids themselves — and James always loved to see what they came up with!

They got to choose their own colors to paint with, too, and in the pic of the finished mural (with my Art Boy standing proudly beside it), you can see they mostly favored bright, neon hues. Which really makes the mural stand out at that busy intersection!


The kids also got to "sign" their work. See those hand prints all around the border? Instead of the usual runic glyphs James carved around the borders of his smaller paintings, he let every participating student slather the color of their choice across their palms and slap their hand print up on the wall!

This not only created a festive border, it allowed the kids to, literally, leave their mark on the school. It was their favorite part of the process!

So no baskets of chocolate bunnies for us, all those years. But, boy, was it worth it!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

GAME (BACK) ON


Hey, Thronies!

It’s that time of year again: the eighth and final season has finally begun for Game of Thrones, the most notorious perpetrator of fan abuse in the history of entertainment. Not only does the show routinely kill off its seemingly most important, fan-favorite characters, it’s been 20 months since the last episode of Season 7 aired.

Yes, it’s been a long dry spell, but now the Internet is burning up with commentary, predictions, crackpot theories and wild-ass speculation. And since you can already read tons of that stuff online, you don’t need to hear it from me. But here’s the thing: whatever show runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss do with the plot, devoted fans deserve a rip-roaring finale that stays true to the characters so painstakingly crafted over the previous seven seasons.

Jon Snow and Daenerys: compatible story arcs
Patience has thus far been rewarded for viewers who have picked up on characters with the most interesting story arcs since the beginning. Like Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the girl who talks to dragons, bartered bride-turned-queen of a massive army of freed slaves.

Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), long assumed to be the bastard son of Ned Stark (the show’s nominal hero, until he was ruthlessly exterminated at the end of Season 1), has been testing his mettle and honing his conscience up in the frozen North for most of the series. (Hint: building a wall against your perceived enemies is always a stupid idea.)

Jon is honest to a fault — a fault the size of the San Andreas. He’s incapable of not telling the whole truth, even when a little minor dissembling might get better results. Remember at the end of last season, when he led a delegation of leaders to the odious Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) to secure her help in fighting off the encroaching White Walker zombie menace?  When Cersei demanded his loyalty, he just couldn’t bring himself not to mention that his first allegiance was to fellow delegate (and lover-to-be) Daenerys.

Cersei and Jaime: shocked, shocked, to learn his sister lied
He should learn to borrow a page from Cersei’s own playbook. After pretending to join the alliance, the cold-blooded vixen revealed her true plan to her brother (and lover; it’s complicated), Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who was shocked . . . shocked, to learn that, despite her promise, she would not send her army to the fight, hoping the zombies and all her rivals would kill each other off so she could rule whatever's left of the realm unchallenged.

Then there’s Tyrion Lannister, Cersei and Jaime’s wily, outcast dwarf brother, one of the few other characters in the show with a consistently functioning moral compass. As played by the inimitable Peter Dinklage, Tyrion’s dry wit and sense of justice have propelled the series through many a rough patch. Statisticians who follow these things report that ratings go up even higher for episodes featuring Tyrion.
Tyrion: on the lookout for an exit strategy

Who doesn’t want to see Dinklage earn another Emmy? We didn’t see much of him in the season 8 opener, but there’ll be all kinds of hell to pay if the writers haven’t dreamed up a magnificent exit strategy for Tyrion by season’s end.

Okay, it’s weird that the last two seasons are no longer based on the novels in George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire series, the books that spawned the show. As consultant and godfather to the show (he’s gotten a script credit on all 73 episodes so far), Martin simply hasn’t had time to finish the next (possibly final) book in the series. Which means Benioff and Weiss (supposedly with input from Martin) are now making up the end of the story as they go along.

So, even when the curtain rings down on Season 8, it still might not be the end. The show runners may or may not be sticking to Martin’s vision, or they might be concocting an alternative story of their own. It could all be “what if . . . ?” speculation, entirely different from whatever we find in Martin’s next novel when it finally hits the bookshelves (if it ever does), inviting fans to choose sides behind their favorite version. Ensuring that the GoT legend just goes on and on.

Oh, consider the possibilities!

PS: Forget about who will sit on the Iron Throne. The mystery I want solved is, what happened to Jon Snow’s loyal white direwolf, Ghost?

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

RADICAL HISTORY TOUR

Julius Thomas III (C, L), Simon Longnight (C, R), inHamilton

Hamilton in SF: I was in the room where it happened!

Back when I was trying to market my very first historical fiction novel, I did a lot of research into the genre. Certain historical eras, I discovered, were trendy among editors and publishers: The Tudors. Ancient Greece (or Rome, or Egypt). The Civil War.

But the one period agents cautioned writers away from was the American Revolution. It was perceived by editors and publishes as a bunch of old white guys in powdered wigs haranguing each other about politics. Readers weren’t interested. It wasn’t sexy, youthful, or exciting.

Tell that to Lin-Manuel Miranda. When his blockbuster Hamilton hit Broadway like a tsunami in 2015, all the rules flew out the window. Miranda reframed the dry, dusty story of our Founding Fathers into a startlingly relevant, immediate, hip, and entertaining show; along the way, he reinvented both how history is retold, and the entire genre of musical theater.

All of which is on vivid display in the production of Hamilton currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco.

This is the third official U.S. touring company, featuring many performers who have appeared in previous productions of the show, on Broadway and on tour. (This is the troupe Miranda took with him to his home turf of Puerto Rico for a three-week engagement earlier this year.) And, boy, do they know their stuff!

Not a traditional play with musical numbers, Hamilton is more of an uninterrupted song cycle (like Tommy). There is hardly any book (i.e. spoken dialogue), but the show’s musical and lyrical themes build and weave in and out of each other as the story progresses.

And what music! It’s an irresistible mashup of hip-hop and Broadway, with traces of reggae, jazz, and boogie-woogie, along with haunting ballads and big show tunes. And all of it is performed by a multicultural cast, with people of color in all the major roles — including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton himself.

The show repurposes these figures from the mundane engraved portraits on our paper currency into the hot-blooded young radicals they once were, talking sedition and revolution in taverns while hatching their plan to resist the far-off, woefully out-of-step King of England and his ruinous taxes, and jumpstart a revolution to claim their freedom as an independent nation.

Filling in for Miranda in the title role at the Orpheum is Julius Thomas III, whose presence and strong singing give the show its center. Also impressive is Donald Webber Jr as Hamilton’s lifelong adversary, Aaron Burr, (and, ultimately, the victor in the duel that took Hamilton’s life), whose wry narration gives the show a wistful tone as he reflects on the part he is destined to play in shaping Hamilton’s legacy.

Harriman, Sloan, Castillo: rock on
The three women playing the pivotal Schuyler sisters sing beautifully, especially Julia K. Harriman as Eliza, who becomes Hamilton’s wife. Sabrina Sloan is smart and sassy as alpha sister, Angelica, who submerges her own feelings for kindred spirit Alexander and engineers his relationship with Eliza because she realizes her duty as the eldest is to marry rich. Darilyn Castillo plays kid sister Peggy; their soaring trios rock the room.

Simon Longnight has a blast in the showcase dual role of the Marquis de Lafayette (delivered in a buttery French accent) and a flamboyant Jefferson. Isaiah Johnson plays General Washington (the designated grown-up in the room) with tremendous fortitude, and Rick Negron steals the show in his three brief (but hilarious) appearances as King George.

In a recent article in the SF Chronicle, author and activist Ishmael Reed denounces the show as “bad history” for (ahem) whitewashing Hamilton as an abolitionist who fought against slavery. You can Google a plethora of opinions on whether Hamilton himself actually owned slaves (Jefferson and Washington certainly did), although Hamilton bought and sold slaves as property in his early career at an import/export firm, and on behalf of his Schuyler in-laws.

Thomas (Hamilton), Johnson (Washington): write, not fight
But this show makes no pretense to serving up a strictly factual biography of Hamilton or his era. After all, the Founding Fathers were not men of color, debating in vigorous hip-hop rhymes. The point of the show is to make the spirit of revolution accessible to a contemporary audience in our own era of resistance.

The multicultural casting of Hamilton and his allies identifies them visually and spiritually as scrappy outsiders on the fringe of the mainstream, determined to shape a better world.

Along with its pro-diversity and pro-immigration sentiments (in colonial America, with no national identity of its own yet, everybody except the native tribes had migrated from somewhere else), the show delivers a resounding rejection of slavery and celebrates equality for all. And that’s the take-away here. No matter to what degree the real-life Hamilton earned his abolitionist cred, the powerful message of this show is unmistakable. 

But don’t go for the message alone; go for a rousing three hours of live theater!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

TALKING BOOKS


Big thanks to Beth Svee and her hard-working staff for the warm welcome given me yesterday at Porter Memorial Library!

I was invited to come talk books as part of their monthly Meet the Author Series, and it couldn't have been any more fun.


I spoke, I signed, and I sent multiple copies of all three of my books out into the hands of eager new readers. 

The Beast went on, Alias Hook continued his voyage of conquest, and The Witch From the Sea set sail for adventure!

Thanks to all the book-loving patrons who showed up on such a blessedly sunny day. Especially those of you who lined up to get your books signed and chat with me afterwards. It was delightful to meet you all!

Now I can’t wait to write another book, so we can do it again!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

AND THE WINNER WAS . . .

Funny how time flies!

The Academy Awards were two weeks ago, already, and I have yet to inflict upon you . . . oops, I mean, share my annual Oscar Barbies post! You know, my crack-brained tradition of dressing up dolls from my misfit Barbie collection as the Best Actress nominees.

Well, you couldn't expect your luck to hold out forever. So, here she is (ta-da): Olivia Colman in The Favourite!

Okay, I only had the time and energy to do one nominee this year. But I picked the right one, as Colman went on to win the gold. (Beating out poor Glenn Close, in like her 49th nomination. Most movie fans are astonished to learn that Close has never actually won the Oscar!)

But if the highly peculiar The Favourite had to win anything (and that's a debatable point), I'm glad it was for Colman's fearless performance. Of course, Barbie is a lot more glam than Colman's sad-sack Queen Anne — but at least I got the bunnies right!

An old hippie earring of mine, planted upside-down in her copious hair, makes the perfect crown!

Maybe next year, I'll have time to do them all.

You've been warned!

Friday, March 8, 2019

MEET THE AUTHOR!

I stumbled upon this somewhere — maybe it came from the Porter Memorial Library newsletter? — in advance of my book talk there next Wednesday.

As I posted last time, I'm thrilled to be the next designated speaker in their Meet the Author series!

If you’ve never been to this little jewel of a library, at 3050 Porter St. in  Soquel, check out their website or their Facebook page!

And, yes, I’ll be bringing copies of all three of my novels: Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge (in stores now!), Alias Hook, still winning fans since launching his voyage of conquest in 2014, and even my very first novel from 2001, The Witch From the Sea, now (ahem) a rare collector’s item!

I’ll be talking about the genesis of each novel, reading (mercifully brief) excerpts, signing books, and answering all your questions about the arcane mysteries of the writing life.

(But then I’ll have to kill you . . . oh, just kidding!)

So do please plan to come out on Wednesday, March 13, 10:30 in the morning. Hang out with me and swap stories, check out my books, and discover the little library that could!

Friday, March 1, 2019

COMING SOON!





Save the date, friends and readers!


I’ll be discussing all my books — from The Witch to Alias Hook to the Beast — at Porter Memorial Library, the tiny little treasure of Soquel Village, on Wednesday, March 13.

Rare vintage copies of my early books (okay, they’re out-of-print) will be available at special, extreme library discounts! I’ll be reading excerpts, signing books, and revealing secrets of the writing life.

Showtime is 10:30 am, in picturesque Soquel.

Hope to see you there!