When Death Answers Your Letter

A funny thing happened yesterday. I was working on a short story and I reached a point where I was convinced I had written myself into a corner. I had conjured a scenario so specific that I couldn’t see my way out. I put the story aside for the rest of the day.

Except somewhere around midnight, I woke up with a handful of bullet points rolling around in my head. If this, then that, then that, then something else, and it would all work, and it would be even better than I’d planned for the story, which I’ve been battling off and on for the better part of two months. I’ve written entire other stories in the interim.

I was afraid that if I waited until morning, I’d forget all my perfect little additions and changes, so I got up and went into another room to write down these ideas. I got most of them, and the one that I’d forgotten to transcribe was still with me when I woke up several hours later. So now I know I can finish the story. Funny how things work, sometimes.

We watched Collateral Beauty, a movie that has a lower Rotten Tomatoes score than what’s-his-name’s approval rating. Way lower, although audiences seemed to like it. I thought it was okay, up to a point, and then it went a touch too far, and then another. Will Smith plays the owner of a small ad agency who loses his daughter and goes into a spiral. He writes letters to Death, Love and Time. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that much, and that the incarnation of those concepts show up in his life to respond. What the trailer doesn’t tell you, and what seemed like a pretty terrific idea, is the reason why those concepts are personified by the people they are. They’re there to bring him back to reality so he can make some crucial decisions about his company, and they also connect with his three major partners in the firm—a guy who is having Love problems, a guy staring Death in the face and a woman who thinks Time is running out for her. Pretty slick. Good actors, all, too. But then the movie makes a couple of BIG REVEALS at the end that just destroyed it for me. Sure, there was some foundation laid for one of them (“if only we could be strangers again”), but it requires a lot of the audience to truly buy into it, and the other one was just, well, pointless. Did they expect the audience to go “oh, my gosh?” We didn’t. I just groaned.

We’re on a Stephen Fry binge. We watched the six episodes of Last Chance to See, in which he joins up with zoologist Mark Carwardine to revisit the endangered species that Carwardine had sought out twenty years earlier in the company of Douglas Adams, which was turned into a book of the same name. Now we’re watching Stephen Fry in America, in which he visits all 50 states in six episodes, scrutinizing America through the eyes of an outsider, sort of a pop-anthropologist. He ends up in some very unlikely places (a coal mine and a nuclear submarine, both of which are small places for a man of his stature, a body farm, a parole hearing) and meets a lot of people who have no earthly idea who he is, except for Sting, who does. It’s fun stuff. Light entertainment. He’s a bit of a scaredy-cat some of the time, though. Not quite the intrepid traveler that Michael Palin is.

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Sense of an Ending

We saw the movie adaptation of Julian Barnes’s Man-Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending last weekend. I haven’t read the book (I will now), but the cast alone was enough to convince us to see the film. It stars the always reliable Jim Broadbent as the divorced father of Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, who is hugely pregnant and single. He’s on decent terms with his ex-wife, and runs a tiny classic camera shop.

He receives an unexpected letter from the mother of a girl he knew when he was at university. A girl he fancied but never quite managed to get on with, and who will be played by Charlotte Rampling in the modern era. The letter is posthumous, and it is a bequest of some money and an object, unspecified, that is the movie’s McGuffin. Rampling’s character has it and won’t give it up.

The story can be compared to Ian McEwan’s Atonement in that it is driven by an ill-considered letter written under passionate conditions that has far-reaching implications. However, Broadbent’s character has written that letter out of his memory of events from his college days. Suddenly he is forced to reckon with the reality of what he did, and the consequences.

It’s the kind of film that kept us talking long after it was over. The big reveal toward the end makes you go back and re-evaluate other things that happened in the movie and question why certain characters did what they did. Ultimately, why did the mother want to will the object to Broadbent? What did she hope to achieve?

Apparently Broadbent’s character is treated less well in the novel, but even here he self-centered, demanding and stalker-ish, although by the end he has something of an awakening. This thing from the past belongs to him and he’s determined to get it. It asks the question: are we better off revisiting certain things from the past or does it just re-open old wounds and cause new pains? We thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Jackie and Ove

I finished the first draft of a 4400-word short story yesterday, sitting at the bar in the local Mexican restaurant while drinking a margarita. I wonder if that makes the margarita tax deductible? Then I dictated it into the computer and spent the morning cleaning up the transcription mishaps. I’ll let it sit for a while and then make some more editing passes at it. It doesn’t have a market in mind, although it originated from something a couple of friends of mine discussed on Twitter a while back.

I generally watch something on the television during my morning workout session. Today I started a Netflix series called Four Seasons in Havana, which is billed as Caribbean Noir. It’s made up of four 90-minute episodes that adapt crime novels by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura. They’re set in the 1990s, and though noir, the series has the luscious color of the tropics. The main character, the police officer, is an aspiring writer who adores Salinger and is more interested in the literary and artistic side of his country than in crime, although he’s very good at that, too. He’s divorced, drinks a lot, doesn’t have a car or a dog, but he does have a fighting fish and, after the opening to the first episode, a new love interest. I picked up the first novel in the series, too, called Havana Blue, although it wasn’t the first to be translated.

We watched Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as the former first lady. The wrapping device is an interview she conducted (Billy Crudup plays the reporter) shortly after the assassination in which she does her best to seal her husband’s place in history, and succeeds in imprinting the term Camelot in the national memory. The events of the movie focus on the assassination and its aftermath, although there are some flashbacks to the time when the Kennedys allowed cameras into the White House and Jackie conducted a long tour of the place, showing it to America for the first time. Portman is quite convincing as Jackie, but the former first lady comes off as mercurial and indecisive, although one has to consider what she had just been through and continued to go through.

The we watched A Man Called Ove, based on the novel by Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman. It’s about a 59-year-old man, newly widowed, who is something of a grouch. He lives in a gated neighborhood—he’s responsible for the gate—and he rules it like a tyrant, making note of any offenses against the list of rules he and a former friend (now nemesis) came up with. To him, everyone is an idiot. A new family moves in: a husband, his Persian wife and their two daughters, and they become determined to thaw him out and be good neighbors. Over the course of the movie, we learn about Ove’s tragic life. It’s a good-hearted film with comic elements and dramatic elements.

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If I say it enough, it will become true

My interview with Stephen King and Richard Chizmar about their collaborative novella, “Gwendy’s Button Box,” is up at CD Online.

We were familiar with the name Seretse Khama from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels by Alexander McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe, the protagonist of that series, often reflects about what a great man Sir Seretse was. The man who led Botswana into independence.

So, when we saw the trailer for A United Kingdom a couple of times last fall, we knew we wanted to see it. Khama was to be King of Bechuanaland, a tiny and poor nation just above South Africa. He studied law in England while his uncle ran the country as regent. However, he upset a lot of people by falling in love with and marrying a white woman. The predominantly black and repressed people of his nation weren’t eager to have a white sovereign—and her family and social circle weren’t thrilled by her choice of spouse, either. A national crisis ensued, with the British applying pressure because they didn’t want to annoy South Africa, in the throes of apartheid but Britain’s main source of gold.

The movie stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, and tells a reasonably faithful version of events from the 1940s through the 1950s. It’s a love story above all else, but also an interesting look at the birth of a nation and lots of political posturing, including a surprising revelation about a less than stellar moment in Churchill’s career.

We also saw The Light Between Oceans, starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz. Fassbender’s character, back to Australia after World War I, signs on as the lighthouse keeper on the island of Janus. He meets Vikander and marries her, and the two live together in relative isolation. She has a couple of miscarriages and then a baby is miraculously delivered into their hands. They make a morally dubious decision and have to live with the consequences when the truth comes out a few years later. It was easy to understand why people do what they do in the film. Tough choices all around. After relating everything about their early lives in minute detail, I wish the film had spent more time looking at events after the major crisis instead of flitting pas years of the characters’ lives, where some undoubtedly interesting things must have transpired.

I’m about ¾ through a Norwegian series on Netflix called Occupied.  It’s based on an idea from novelist Jo Nesbø. In the near future, Norway stops producing oil and gas to concentrate on green energy from thorium, leaving Europe in the lurch. The EU gets together and nominates Russia to occupy the oil-producing regions in the North Sea, forcing the ruling party in Norway to abandon their platform and continue to supply oil to the continent. It’s a fascinating look at the politics of the region and reflects on our current situation in interesting ways. In one memorable scene, the PM threatens to destroy another politician who wants to break away from the party by saying he will revel something about her actions after the occupation. “But that’s not true,” she says. “If I say it often enough, it will become true,” he responds. Sounds familiar.

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Take this Jobs

Always a pleasure to receive my annual check from the Public Lending Right Commission in Canada. Money just for having my books in libraries in Canada. How cool is that? One of the books I have listed is When the Night Comes Down (you have to be at least a 25% contributor to register a book, so I can’t add anthologies in general), and I’ve earned significantly more from it from the PLRC than I have from royalties.

I had an interesting experience yesterday. Something I tweeted was retweeted by someone with a few million followers. So all through the Academy Awards last night, I was treated to a steady stream of likes and retweets! It was interesting to see something like that propagate. On of my regular moderately popular tweets gets 100-300 engagements. This one has had over 150,000, and counting. It seems to have taken on a life of its own.

We were sort of disappointed by Steve Jobs, which we watched on Saturday. Not by the movie, per se, but by the fact that so much of it was utter fabrication. The movie’s structure was interesting. All the action took place around major product launches: The Macintosh, the NEXT and the iMac. That meant that we never got to see Jobs in his regular environment. Which meant that a lot of crises and confrontations had to be shoe-horned into the hours leading up to the product launches. From my reading afterwards, it appears that virtually none of those arguments happened, and certainly not in the stressful context of the launch prep. There’s no doubt that Jobs’ treatment of his daughter Lisa was reprehensible for a long time, but there’s no mention of the fact that she actually lived with Jobs and his wife (also not mentioned) and their children (ditto) for her last four years before college. Fassbender is good and Kate Winslet is very good, but you have to wonder what the point in making a biopic is if you’re going to make up most of the major facts to suit yourself.

Stay tuned Wednesday for my interview with Richard Chizmar and Stephen King about the collaborative novella that Entertainment Weekly will be launching.

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Moonlight and Mayhem

Book tours seem like tough slogs—not that I’d ever object to having the kind of writing career where I could conceivably be sent on one. It’s been fun lately to watch Ian Rankin and Sarah Pinborough ping-pong off each other as they toured the US, with Rankin often appearing at venues where Pinborough would be signing books a few days later. Rankin sang Pinborough’s praises at his events—a number of the people who came out to see her at Murder By the Book were there because Rankin had recommended her when he was at the store last week.

Alas, I couldn’t get to Rankin’s event, but I did make the trip into the city yesterday for Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes signing. We’ve crossed paths briefly in the past (at the World Horror Convention in Brighton, which is now seven years ago, if you can believe that), and have exchanged messages on social media. So it was fun to hear her talk about her life in publishing and how she got the opportunity to write a thriller, and the problems of trying to market a book where the twist is so crucial to describing the story.

She was nearly an hour late arriving in Houston because her driver from Austin didn’t show up and new arrangements had to be made at the last moment. But I think everyone who came to the store for her appearance waited around, which says a lot. Murder By the Book is a great store, with terrific patrons. If I lived closer, I’d be there all the time. This was the last event in Pinborough’s tour, so Houston sent her off today with torrential rain, although the storms were less dreadful than initially predicted.

We saw Moonlight this weekend, which is now available on iTunes. I knew very little about the story going into it. It consists of three sections detailing the life of a young black man from Miami. The first part is when he’s eleven. Then it jumps ahead to when he’s seventeen, and finally to when he’s twenty-five. His single mother is a crack addict who ignores him and often sends him away so she can have the apartment to herself. He comes to the attention of a local drug dealer, but rather than take advantage of young Chiron, he takes him under his wing, together with his girlfriend. He becomes a surrogate father, teaching him to swim and explaining to him what some of the insults that are cast at him mean. He and his girlfriend provide a safe place for him to go, which is something he’s been lacking up to now. His life is no less difficult at seventeen, and at twenty-five he reconnects with a classmate with whom he had a meaningful encounter during that period that didn’t end well.

It’s an unusual film that toys with audience expectations. Some of it is based on stories from the writer’s youth and also the director’s. It was filmed in Miami, which creates an unusual juxtaposition of bad neighborhoods that are within walking distance of beautiful beaches. One of the most poignant scenes is the one where young Chiron’s interrogation of Juan, the drug dealer, forces the older man to confront the ugly nature of his business.

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Lunch at the Vinyl Cafe

I wasn’t living in Canada when Stuart McLean came onto the national scene with his Vinyl Cafe programme on CBC radio. As with the Tragically Hip, it was a bit of Canadiana that passed me by until many years later.

I was visiting northern New Brunswick one December about fifteen years ago. I had gone to Campbellton (the city where I was born) on an errand for my parents and I distinctly remember stumbling across the CBC radio station during my return trip. I was on the highway, that beautiful elevated section of road that lets you look out across the Restigouche river toward Quebec, when this mellifluous voice started recounting a Christmastime story that involved newcomers to a neighborhood. The Chudary family wasn’t familiar with Canadian gift-giving traditions, and their misunderstanding sets off a massive neighborhood gift exchange as everyone struggles to make sure they don’t offend anyone else. It’s light and funny and endearing, full of warmth and heart, and it was a wonderful introduction to a terrific storyteller.

On my way back to Texas, I found a Vinyl Cafe book in the airport bookstore in Toronto, and I subsequently regaled my wife with the stories therein. Eventually we collected all of his books, and the story about Dave’s efforts to cook the turkey one Christmas never fail to crack me up. At the same time, we were impressed by McLean’s deep dive into the story after receiving complaints from animal rights supporters that the turkey in question had been abused. He reported, in all due seriousness, on their deliberations about whether the story should be dropped from rotation or perhaps edited to remove the passages that caused offense. Ultimately, they decided to air the piece unaltered, arguing that it was only Dave’s opinion that the B-grade turkey he acquired at the last moment looked like it had been abused.

Though he told stories about other people, McLean is best known for his tales of Dave and Morley, their two children, Dave’s record store, their colorful neighbors and the disagreements that often ensued from Dave’s misguided efforts at something he attempted with the best of intentions. The tales are set mostly in Ontario, but there are frequent trips back to the Maritimes to visit Dave’s home. The stories tug on my nostalgia strings, because so much of Dave’s upbringing resonates with my own.

I read his stories aloud, because that was how they were received by most of McLean’s audience. At heart, he was a storyteller, and he had a wonderful voice and dramatic aspect that brought it all to life. When we learned over a year ago that he had cancer, everyone hoped that before too long he would once again sit on the stool in front of the microphone and a studio audience and tell us another tale about Dave and Morley, their two kids and the dog.

Alas, the Vinyl Cafe has closed.

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E-book roundup

A rare promotional post! My Cemetery Dance Select eBook is available at Amazon (US, Canada, UK), at Barnes & Noble (Nook), from iBooks and for Kobo. For a few bucks you can get four of my previously published short stories on the reading device of your choice: “Overtoun Bridge,” “A Murder of Vampires,” “Centralia Is Still Burning” and “What David Was Doing When the Lights Went Out.”

Not enough stories, you say? But wait, there’s more. In When the Night Comes Down you can read four stories by me, plus a batch of stories from three other authors. My stories are “Silvery Moon,” “Knock ‘Em Dead,” “Something In Store” and “Purgatory Noir.” It’s available in print but also as for Kindle and Nook.

Enjoy my reviews of Stephen King’s novels? If so, you can get a bunch of them in a nifty little signed, limited-edition chapbook from Cemetery Dance. I called it Twenty-First Century King. And if King trivia is your thing, Brian Freeman and I have this thing called The Illustrated Stephen King Trivia Book, illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne, that can be had in print or as an eBook. The questions are hard and the clues flagrantly unhelpful! (I wrote the clues, so I get to say that.)

And if you’re getting geared up for the Dark Tower movie coming out later this year, what better way to brush up than reading The Dark Tower Companion (Kindle, Nook) or The Road to the Dark Tower (Kindle, Nook).

Check out my Amazon store for more! And happy reading.

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Stormy weather

While parts of Atlantic Canada (and the eastern U.S.) are getting walloped with snow, we here in southeast Texas had a rough day with heavy winds, hail in some parts, the odd tornado or two, and a bunch of rain. It was a cold front that saw the temperatures drop from the eighties on Sunday (sit in the driveway with a glass of wine and watch the sun go down) to the upper forties overnight (I don’t think we’ll be dining on the restaurant’s patio tonight, alas).

I’ve been reading Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe to my wife, so we decided to revisit the movie this weekend. It doesn’t hold up quite as well as I might have liked, but it still has some fine moments. It’s funny, though—in my memory of the film I had Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary-Louise Parker’s characters inverted, and I think that if I was casting the movie today, that’s they way I would have gone.

During dinner on Saturday, we listened to an Alison Krauss and Union Station live album, and “Man of Constant Sorrow” inspired us to watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? again (Dan Tyminski of Union Station is the vocalist to whom George Clooney lip-syncs). It holds up a little better than Fried Green Tomatoes. There’s plenty of mugging and over-acting, but it’s still watchable.

Then we were tempted by a trailer for an Australian film called The Dressmaker about a young woman (Kate Winslet) who returns to her tiny hometown after a couple of decades abroad. When she was ten, she was suspected of breaking the neck of a boy and she was effectively banished from the community. She has no recollection of the events of that day, so she’s come back to find out if she is, in fact, a murderer. Her mother has declined in the intervening years (the locals call her Mad Molly), but she perks up again after her daughter’s return. Liam Hemsworth is the love interest and Hugo Weaving is the cross-dressing local constabulary who bowed to pressure and spearheaded her banishment all those years ago. It’s a bit of a revenge tale, and once it starts going down that track it derails a bit. Characters behave uncharacteristically, merely so we feel like they deserve what happens to them. It has the out-of-kilter feel of a Wes Anderson movie, but it’s not quite quirky enough to be that and doesn’t play it straight enough to be taken seriously. Plus there’s an unearned death at the 2/3 point that just felt arbitrary and unnecessary to me.

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Super weekend

When I bought tickets to the Yo Yo Ma concert, I didn’t realize at the time that it was going to be on Super Bowl weekend. Not the night of the big game, but the night before. We kept reading about all the activities that would be taking place in the theatre district all weekend long, and how bad traffic was going to be, how difficult the parking, etc.

So we allowed plenty of time and found out it was much ado about nothing. We got to the theatre district in the same amount of time it would have taken under normal circumstances, and we paid our $10 to park in the garage near Jones Hall, same as always. (On Sunday afternoon, some of the surface lots were charging $100 and $200 for a parking spot!) We had early dinner reservations (which somehow got lost), but there was no trouble getting seated, either.

There were major events going on all around us, though, and there was a large police presence. We saw several Department of Homeland Security vehicles go by, and there was no shortage of black SUVs and marked police cars lining the streets.

The concert was quite something. The Houston Symphony Orchestra opened with Gershwin’s American in Paris and then the cello master joined them for Dvorák’s cello concerto. After all the obligatory applause and handshaking and bowing and encore calls, Yo Yo Ma came back by himself and played something that I didn’t recognize. His playing is so dexterous that at times it seemed like there were more notes being played than was humanly possible. It was a night to remember, for sure.

I’m not a huge football fan, but I usually watch some playoff games and the Super Bowl. This year’s game was one for the books, no doubt about it. We heard that a bunch of people, presumably hoping to beat the crowds and traffic, opted to leave NRG Stadium in the fourth quarter, when it looked like Atlanta had the game wrapped up, only to end up watching on TV screens in the parking lot when everything went south for the southern team and north for the Patriots.

We had to take a 45-minute break in the second quarter to talk to our daughter, so I pushed “pause” and we picked up where we left off at the end of our conversation. That meant I had to stay off social media for the rest of the game to avoid “spoilers”! Think what you will about Brady and the Patriots, it was an impressive performance and a comeback for the ages. Made for an exciting game, no doubt about it.

We were equally impressed by the halftime show. Lady Gaga put on a memorable performance. The drones that made the animated star patterns at the beginning were pretty impressive. Something we’ll no doubt see more often in the future.

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