Saturday, February 28, 2009

Weekend Music Roundup

There are few things better in this world than hearing a new album for the first time. I would even have to rank it above books. I know, that's blasphemy for a writer to say, but it's true. Unless of course the book is along the lines of Gravity's Rainbow and the album is one retrieved from the clearance bins. But in general, I find it easier to get pleasure from an album than a book. I suppose that's because I'm less particular about music and have a wider range of what I like than I do for books. Don't get me wrong, I'm very snobbish about my music....but I'm borderline fascist about my taste in literature.

I would estimate that I listen to music at least 70% of my waking hours. Music has a way of creating images and stories and landscapes that I'm addicted to. I'm constantly seeking out new music and finding things that inspire me within it. That said, I've decided to devote Saturday's to mentioning the albums that have dominated my attention over the past week.

This week's standout spins:Justify Full

Babe Ruth: First Base- A heavy prog-rock standout from '72

Jackson C. Frank-A dark folk album from 1965 from a guy in the Woodstock area. Absolutely beautiful and sad.

Jean Grae: Attack of the Attacking Things- I've just been getting into Jean's albums. She's an MC from Brooklyn with an amazing flow and a very intelligent point of view.

Wale: Paint a Picture Mixtape- Wale is the leader of the D.C. rap scene and has mad skills. The mix of rhymes with D.C. go-go beats is unbelievably catchy.

Harlem Shakes: Technicolor Health: besides having a great title, this NYC indie band is very dynamic. This album hits "stores" next month.

Dan Auerbach: Keep It Hid- One half of the Black Keys, this is Dan's solo effort and it's great. Has the eerie sound of Black Keys but with a scaled down folk blues style.

Fever Ray- Hailing from Sweden, this album is just a great soundscape.

Trouble Andrew- Impossible to define, this album is a part club music, part Joy Division and 100% addictive. 

Santogold- This came last spring and had been on my wishlist since then. I finally got it this week and could kick myself for waiting so long. 

Cocoon: My Friends All Died in a Plane Crash- French folk pop...I know I'm going to love more come spring time when it matches the weather.


Since this is the last Saturday of the month, I thought I'd add to two albums I've listened to the most this month. They're actually both very similar...both are perfect for dark, cold winter afternoons and singing along to as you man the fireplace.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The First Thing I Ever Wrote...

There is one moment in every writer's life when they make that fateful choice and decide that they are writers. It means showing something you've written to someone besides those close to you. The second it's handed over, there's no turning back. No way to ever make those words unread again. 

I was sixteen and pretty damn sure of myself. So my debut came in the form of final assignment in Driver's Ed. sophomore year of High School. The project was to plan and budget a cross-country trip. Simple task.  

My best friend was my partner. (That friend later would make appearances as characters in both Pure Sunshine and Dirty Liar). For the last two weeks of school, the entire class time was given for us to work on this. We tried to do the assignment, we really did. But it was hot and we were bored. So we started to joke around and make up this crazy story. I started to write it down. Over the next two weeks, I would work on it at home. My friend and I would spend the class time reading it and cracking up. When it came time to turn in the project, we turned in this story. 

It was kind of bold, since it would count for a 1/3 of both of our grades. Plus, to that point, only my two best friends had ever read anything that I'd written. So I really had no real gauge to judge whether or not I was a actually a good writer. But as I said, I was pretty damn sure of myself. 

Here's the first opening bit of what I turned in....(the whole thing was something like 32 pages long):

Cross Country Manual

Shootn' the shit! Shootn' the shit everyday of summer vacation can really get to a person. It got to me and my pal, Pericles DeMoonshine one day. But we decided that we were going to do something about it. We weren't just going to sit back for another two months and then start the whole vicious school cycle again. "Nope. Now Way," we said. But what could we do? Then like a speedin' bullet the thought came to us . . . let's run away and travel Cross Country.

We began planning and planning at a speed so fast it became dangerous. I could hardly comprehend the ideas me and Pericles were throwing at each other. First we'd need a car. We both had recently got our licenses, but neither of us had a car. To get money, we pooled our resources. Between the two of us, we had $72.57. Not even enough to buy a go-cart. Well, we were determined to make this happen. We would simply have to sell some of our possessions to get capital.

What to sell; what to save; what was needed; what was unnecessary? These were the questions that plagued me and Pericles for the next few days. It took that long before we were willing to make the sacrifices needed. Such sacrifices included selling my brother's VCR, my mother's television and personal computer, my little siblings Nintendo, all their games, all their books, half of my CD collection, half my wardrobe, and all the furniture I could get out of my room unsuspectingly. Pericles sold his stereo, his TV, his Sega Genesis and CDs, his furniture, and a brass eagle his mother possessed. Now our resources totaled $2564.03.

We gathered our belongins' and set out to purchase the perfect cross-country vehickle. We found it in a brand-new RangeRover. Seeing as how we couldn't afford it, we purchased a '76 Mr. Frosty Mobile. It was a little run-down but never-the-less it was a Class A buy. We loaded the gear and hooked up Pericles's BOOMIN' BAZOOKA speaker system. I think we ripped off that sleazy '70's throwback used car salesman, Teddy. All that was left to do was to throw on the new Radials and pick a destination.

The trip took us to a Mexican prison, to Cleveland to see Don Mattingly go 3 for 4 with 5 RBIs against the Indians, a fictional town named Redneck Leck just outside of Chatanooga, and a  meeting with former WWF Wrestler: Ace Cowboy Bob Orton. In brief, it was epic and it thoroughly documented our dwindling finances and detailed the milage and road routes we followed.

A few days later, our insane Gym Teacher/ Driver's Ed teacher came up to us and asked, "Are you two the ones who wrote that crazy story?" We nodded sheepishly. "I liked that," he said. "It was crazy."

We got an A on the project and from then on, I decided I was a writer.

P.S. I showed this story to my older brother a few days after and the one comment I remember him making was: "You do know it's vehicle, not vehickle, right?"

Thursday, February 26, 2009


So now for something a bit lighter....

There are so many details that go into making a novel feel complete. These details come from such a wide range of places and experiences. I usually keep several notebooks of random thoughts and pick through these when I find myself in need of something.

Here's a list of some of those details (plus some other random facts) as far as Thief is concerned.
  • Dune -- This character's name came about one day while I was working in a cafe in Woodstock. There was a little boy in the cafe running ruckus around the place and thereby forcing his exhausted mother to continue hollering his name..."Dune! Come back here!" My ears perked up. I thought it was an interesting name and stole it.
  • Butterfly Wing Imagery -- The imagery of butterfly wings is part of the extended mythology Elizabeth's mother has saddled her with (see previous post). In the novel, Elizabeth holds this belief that one day she'll grow butterfly wings which serve as a metaphor for strength in her mind. This idea came from the Vivian Girl characters in Henry Darger's In the Realms of the Unreal. They are these magical girl creatures with giant butterfly wings who swoop down and save the other children in the story at times of peril. 
  • Alexi's wanting "to be so skinny that she would rot from view" is a direct ode to Richey James Edwards' lyrics on the Manic Street Preacher's song 4st 7lb.
  • The mall where Elizabeth and Dune end up at is based on the Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey. 
  • My working title for the book was Hey, Kid.
  • The store where Elizabeth attempts to sell stolen CDs is based on Norman's Sound & Vision on 3rd Avenue, just around the corner from St. Mark's Place.
  • The store they stole them from is based on a store on Philadelphia's South Street that no longer exists. But I put the store mentally where Bleeker Street Records is in NYC...only on the other side of the street...why the other side of the street? I have no idea, but that's how I pictured it in my head. Perhaps because the store in Philly was on that side of the street.
  • The subway stop where their house in Queens is the 36th Ave stop on the N train, where my friend Dan used to live.
  • The quote at the beginning of the novel is from the Sunset Rubdown album "Shut Up I am Dreaming" of my favorite albums of all time.
The trick of writing is to take all of these scattered elements and weave them into a character and story in a such a way that connects them. Finding the inspiration is the easy part...putting it altogether, that's work.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thief Part 2: This World We Live In is Full of Fiction

"My mother used to let me throw wishes into the river. I'd scribble them on tiny pieces of paper and cry as I watched them float away. She'd put her head near my ear . . whisper softly . . tell me how the seagulls would keep my wishes from drowning . . carry them off to the end of the world. One day all the wishes would come back to me on shooting stars." Thief page 18

As children, our parents give us answers to our questions and we believe in them. If we're told that thunder is only God bowling, we believe that until we're told otherwise by someone else we trust. This concept was one that I was thinking about a lot while working on Thief. Our way of perceiving the world is shaped in those early years and by those early stories. A great example of this is any religious text. Those stories are used to shape a view of the world. Later in life, we often question those perceptions, but in childhood, we truly see the world through the lens that is given to us. So what if that lens was blurry, or cracked, or tinted? How would that affect our view of the world? This was the question I had in mind while creating Elizabeth's character.

Elizabeth's mother in the story is someone with obvious mental illness and I wanted to examine how that might play out in this idea of shaped perception. The stories her mother told her would be filtered through her illness but Elizabeth wouldn't have had any other frame of reference, therefore, she would believe in them. At the time during which the story takes place, Elizabeth is old enough to realize the fiction in her mother's stories, but the impact of them is still woven into her personality. She struggles to see reality in the way the other characters around her do. This becomes a source of friction between her and the people she cares about. 

By the end of the novel, she never truly gives up these beliefs. They've warped, changed, and evolved, but they are still there. That's because I don't think we ever completely abandon those things we learn at a very young age and I don't think we should. Those are the ingredients that give us all a unique view of the world. It's what makes the world a more interesting place...something more mysterious than just scientific facts and mathematics.

"I never liked making wishes in fountains too much. It takes longer for them to come true . . at least that's what I always thought when I was little. My mother said those wishes had to wait their turn . . sit there and rust until the fountain emptied its water into the ocean . . that it could take days or even years . . that only the fountain could tell when it was full.

I never wished for anything big or important in a fountain.

Now I dig through my pocket and pull out a quarter. I close it tight in my hands until my palms get sweaty. I figure without the river close by I'll have to get used to fountains . . even for important things." Thief page 223-224

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thief Origin Story

Though I'm not one to usually start at the beginning a story, I will make an exception here and relate to you all how the idea for this book came about. Thief is nearly a direct response from fan reaction to its companion book Tomorrow, Maybe

I'd been working with interconnected characters for three books prior to Thief.  There's direct character links from Tomorrow, Maybe-to-Perfect World-to-Dirty Liar. Thief continues this idea by returning to Elizabeth, the younger girl in Tomorrow, Maybe. Elizabeth had always been one of my favorite characters. In Tomorrow, Maybe, I had expected readers to care for her the way the main character did. In the pivotal plot moment of that book, I thought readers would be heartbroken by Elizabeth's actions. And though most readers who wrote to me were saddened to an extent, they were more angry at Elizabeth than anything else. As the writer, it was such an interesting response. It was completely unexpected. 

I started to feel like I'd done Elizabeth an injustice. Like most writers, I feel a sort of fatherly obligation to my characters. I'm responsible for putting them in these situations and responsible for their reactions to them...all the while trying to create a desired perception of her at the outcome. I felt like I'd failed Elizabeth in that sense. So the idea of telling her story was born.

To redeem her, I had to somehow find a way to get her off the hook. Many readers blamed her character for the concluding events in Tomorrow, Maybe. That had never been my intention. But nevertheless, I needed to repair a trust between her character and any reader that read Tomorrow, Maybe

As I mentioned, I'd already been playing with interconnected characters and overlapping events told from different perspectives. As I began working on Thief, I started thinking about the role first person perspective plays in this process. I realized that readers had felt so close to the narrator of Tomorrow, Maybe that they couldn't help but choose sides and dislike Elizabeth by the end. Then I started thinking...what if that character was wrong? What if things didn't really happen the way she related them or perceived them?

When we read a first person narrative told from a character we like and trust, we naturally begin to accept their version of events as indisputable fact. Though, as all of us know, our version of what happens in our lives is never exact and very skewed. That was the starting point in the conception of Thief's plot. If the main character of Tomorrow, Maybe was wrong, then suddenly Elizabeth becomes the victim. She is the one who was wronged. In the end, I think the outcome was very powerful. The resentment readers may have felt for her suddenly shifts toward guilt that perhaps they judged her too quickly. In a strange way, I think some readers will feel as though they had let her down too. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

I just found out that my novel Thief made the 2009 ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers list. I'm very pleased that the book was recognized. The book came out last summer within days of my other book Zombie Blondes, which, like a ravenous zombie, stole most of the attention. Don't get me wrong, I love Zombie Blondes, but Thief is a book I'm extremely proud of artistically. 
I will post more about this book in the coming days, try to give some insights to certain aspects of the book. In the meantime, here's the Amazon summary:

"Elizabeth is a pickpocket and thief living on the edge in New York City. She and her foster sister, Alexi, are living with Sandra--a modern-day Fagin who takes in foster children and then forces them to steal things for her. Even though she's sick of it, Elizabeth doesn't really question her life...until Sandra takes in a third foster child, this time a boy. Dune is a completely lost soul, and Elizabeth begins to see the limits of her life. Sandra is not going to let her go easily--but Elizabeth knows she has to find a way out. With brutal honesty and striking lyricism, Brian James has created a character you'll never forget, trapped in a situation that's frighteningly real."