Dave Justus is author of the first and many other games in the Lifeline series from Big Fish—including the eponymous original; Lifeline 2: Bloodline; Lifeline: Silent Night; and Lifeline: Halfway To Infinity—which have enjoyed nearly 7 million worldwide downloads to date. He is also the co-writer, with Lilah Sturges, of the comic books Everafter: From The Pages Of Fables; Public Relations; Fables: The Wolf Among Us; and more.
Lifeline games are games, but they're also novels. Part of the growing "interactive fiction" genre, the games are entirely text-based, with the reader making choices throughout. It goes like this: A stranded astronaut contacts you, asking for help in the form of a person to talk to as well as ask for advice. Sort of like if "The Martian" were a game instead of a movie, and you got to talk to Mark Watney the entire time he's stranded on Mars.
Lisa: How did you get involved in writing the Lifeline series? Did you have any background in the game industry? What was the genesis for the first game?
Dave: I came to Lifeline in a sort of roundabout way. The original game was being developed by Three Minute Games, a tiny three-man skunkworks within Big Fish. They'd had some minor successes, but they'd come up with the concept for Lifeline and wanted its release to coincide with the release of the Apple Watch. They offered the job to my friend Daryl Gregory -- who is one of the best writers I've ever read, and I thought as much before I ever met him -- but he was too booked to do it, so he very kindly suggested me for the position. Three Minute took a chance on me (I'd barely been published at that point), and gave me tremendous freedom under a very tight deadline. They knew they wanted about three days of gameplay, a sci-fi story with a nongendered protagonist in a "choose your own adventure" style, and they needed it in five weeks. Beyond that, I was free to do whatever I wanted... which was both amazing and daunting.
I had no background in games whatsoever, but I honestly think, in this case, that worked to my advantage. I'd been an avid NES gamer in my childhood, had spent plenty of time with Infocom games like Hitchhiker's Guide (whose DNA you can certainly see in Lifeline), and had played several Playstation games growing up, but the last one I'd really sunk any amount of time into was Tomb Raider 2, back in college. Once I graduated, I had very little "mad money," and I chose to apply that to comics (which I've been collecting since I was eight) rather than video games. But in the case of Lifeline, I think it worked out very well, because I wrote the game purely as a conversation. I wasn't thinking in terms of "power-ups" or acquiring weapons or typical video game structures; rather, I wanted it to feel as much as possible like the Player was receiving texts from a real human being. And the feedback we've gotten has largely indicated that that's exactly what people feel when they're playing: They're not controlling a sprite, they're talking to an actual person.
Lisa: How much text is in these games? As much as a typical novel, say 80,000 words, at least? Or far fewer? Also, you say they wanted three days of play, but I note there are breaks when Taylor is busy. What's the breakout between "idle" time and actual play? How did you figure out how long the breaks should be? What's the longest? The shortest?
Dave: The first Lifeline game is a little over 50,000 words -- more in the range of a novella, or possibly a YA novel. Because of the way I ended up structuring the game (in that I didn't really know what I was doing and wanted to give people the most bang for their buck), a Player who makes it to the end of the game alive will actually have seen the bulk of the game's text. Hopefully no passages that contradict any others, obviously... but I wanted to put as much info as possible on the screen.
Lifeline 2: Bloodline had almost twice as many words. It was very freeing for me, because I felt like I could go into so much more depth on Arika's character, her world, and her quests... but it was a lot to ask of the team on the other end, specifically in terms of translation to other languages. For subsequent games, we've looked for a happy medium in terms of word count: not so much that it causes panic attacks at the Big Fish offices, but enough that the authors can stretch their legs a bit and the Players can, we hope, feel satisfied with the end result.
The "idle" time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit. The first "long" break in the original Lifeline comes when Taylor sleeps on the first night -- the Player must give Taylor some information that creates a life-or-death scenario overnight, and we wanted Players to be tense, anxious to see whether their advice had been Taylor's doom or salvation. I believe that the longest break is six hours (for a character to sleep); delays can be as short as a couple of seconds, if we want to employ them to help with the timing of a joke or something. I originally feared that the breaks would be a turn-off to Players, that no one would want to wait an hour while Taylor walked around a crater. And indeed, after one death, the games give you the option to switch off the "real-time" mode and play with no delays whatsoever. But what we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of Players chose to switch back to "real-time" after trying "fast" mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.
Lisa: Let me return to what you said about wanting players to feel as if they're talking to an actual person instead of "controlling a sprite," and how your lack of game-industry experience felt like an advantage to you. This might rankle seasoned game writers and narrative designers, since we're quite serious about our craft and its tradition beyond power-ups and what's "typical." Have you since become part of the game-writing community, instead of a sort of self-described outsider? Or do you still see yourself that way? I'm asking because text adventures in particular have a history and set of best practices that predate what we think of as video games today.
Dave: Please believe me when I say that the last thing I intended here was to cause offense. When I say "typical" structures, I only meant the things that I, personally, thought of as aspects common to NES and arcade games, based on my own history with them. As I mentioned, I'd also played many text games back on my old Apple IIe, and I was primarily drawing from my (admittedly fairly hazy) memories of those while trying to construct Lifeline.
I would definitely still consider myself an outsider when it comes to game writing. I'm in Texas -- nowhere near Big Fish or Three Minute, out on the West Coast -- and I don't wind up getting to attend all the expos and conventions with them. I would be very interested if you could point me to resources for the best practices that you mention -- I perpetually feel like I sort of stumbled into success with Lifeline, and I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "We know you're just faking it. It's time for you to leave." That day is going to suck.
Lisa: Great answer ;). I'll send you some links later on so you can join the game-writing party! Next question: Older players or those younger who've discovered the series anew might compare Lifeline to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were first popular in the 80s (I was a huge fan). Were those an inspiration for you?
Dave: They absolutely were. I was a voracious reader as a child -- the sort who would read the back of cereal boxes, just because they had words on them. My parents and grandparents, much to their credit, always indulged this behavior, so I had shelves and shelves of books, including probably two dozen or so Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The one that stands out in my mind, to this day, is Inside UFO 54-40, credited to Edward Packard -- it was a terrifying science fiction story, bleak to the point of nihilism, in which all paths led to defeat, and the best ending could never actually be reached. And it blew my tiny mind. It was the bridge between kids' books and adult literature for me. Once that book had broken me, I could not have cared less about Beezus and Ramona; I was ready for the Overlook Hotel and moon monoliths and Nadsat.
Lisa: I first came across your work back when I was with Big Fish, as manager of the narrative design team. How did the relationship between Big Fish and 3-Minute Games come about, in as much as you can share with readers?
Dave: I'm probably not the best person to answer this one. My understanding is that Three Minute were operating as a skunkworks under the auspices of Big Fish, coming up with all sorts of games like Feed Your Monster and Poll Party. Basically, they were testing different styles of games, different pay structures, seeing which combinations worked best. They had the idea for Lifeline -- from its style to its pay structure to its length, everything came from them. They had done the work in order to make the determination that this was the best admixture of elements... and they got it very, very right. How much I contributed to that, it's hard to say; they had laid the groundwork for me so well, all I had to do was step in and not completely fall on my face. I'm grateful every day that they set me up to succeed, and I'm happy that I was able to deliver something that achieved what they were hoping for.
Lisa: Let's talk about the structure for a Lifeline game. Branching choices can quickly lead to a very complex structure unless you create small branches that loop back to a main narrative, and/or employ the use of stats to track choices. How do you plot out the varying narratives in Lifeline?
Dave: The "complex structure" that you mention is something I ran into very quickly when I was working on the first Lifeline. Even when you only provide binary choices -- which, so far, is all we've done -- those branches can quickly grow out of control as each one doubles, then doubles again, until from a single node you've created a mountain. I had to train myself to weave the elements back together, to keep things from ballooning out of control. When I took on the original assignment, I thought, "Oh, this will be just like writing a short story." But it's not; it's like writing thousands of very, very short stories, of a few sentences each. It took me a painfully long time to make that distinction, but once I did, I was able to realize where I'd gone wrong, and start to plot out "nodes" where the threads were drawn back together. That made my work so, so much easier.
I'm not a coder by nature. I use Twine as the basis for these games (and then a lot of proprietary processes happen afterward, most of which are beyond my comprehension), and in that program I do my best to branch and reconnect smoothly. It's a tremendously useful GUI for people like me, people who need their hand held throughout the process. No matter how carefully I've plotted things in advance, every Lifeline game has led me in unexpected directions; the story that wants to be told is, without exception, better and more interesting than the story I lay out at the beginning. I trust those feelings, trust that when Taylor or Arika or whomever pulls the narrative in an unintended direction, that I'm getting a real sense of what the story should be, instead of forcing it down avenues that aren't true to the characters. (This, by the way, is a fantastic way to drive the rest of the development team insane.)
Lisa: What's an example of a node? Also, did those driving the process have a sense of what came before so you weren't all reinventing the wheel? What you're describing here reminds me of the awesome discussion over at Choice of Games, where they do a great job of teaching newbies how to avoid this kind of ballooning while preserving the need for meaningful choices.
Dave: I think of nodes as "have-to" moments in the game. If, say, by the end of a day, Arika has to learn a certain piece of info, encounter a certain prop, have an opportunity to eat, and fight a specific foe, then I have four nodes for that day. If she can't move on without acquiring an object or having a conversation, then I know that, no matter how wildly things balloon, all roads must lead back to a single point. The order in which they're encountered may or may not matter, but generally speaking, these are the crucial passages; the Player's decisions upon hitting these nodes will have a major effect on what follows in the game.
Lisa: How many different endings could players get in a typical Lifeline game? How do you make sure those endings make sense for the previous choices made in the game?
Dave: Generally, there are a few deaths along the way. These are paths where the Player has made an egregious mistake, or else has willfully decided not to aid the protagonist. Those are, of course, the "bad" endings -- no one should be proud of killing their hero. Then there are the "good" endings, where the Player has done most things right, and has achieved an ending that is satisfactory, although not the best one could hope for. The hope is that the Player will feel good about these... but will still have a nagging sense that they should return to the game, and work for the best possible ending. And we'll tell you when you've achieved that; we want Players to know when they've gotten all the items, or defeated all the villains, or done the best they can. I write stories with Pyrrhic victories, sometimes -- blame Inside UFO 54-40 -- but there's always a "best" ending, and that's the canon ending that leads to the next game in the series.
Lisa: Does this ever backfire? It strikes me as different than most casual gameplay, where player character deaths are generally avoided. Do you lose some players by opting for Pyrrhic victories?
Dave: I had that fear at the outset, but to the relief of all of us, the Player reactions to character deaths seem to be a deepening of involvement, not an abandoning of the game. It seems to largely be the case that, if a Player loses Taylor by pushing the character too hard or by supplying incorrect information, there's generally a sense of culpability in the death that makes the Player want to try harder the next time. I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on social media expressing genuine grief and sadness over character deaths in the Lifeline games.
Lisa: (This last one's for my stepson, who loved the first game when it went viral at his high school a few years ago.) You set up Taylor as a gender-neutral character, an interesting choice. Can you talk about your reasons for that? My stepson notes that most of his classmates assumed Taylor was either female (most of the women did this) or split evenly between male or female (mostly guys).
Dave: The gender-neutrality of Taylor's character came from Three Minute Games, but I thought it was a fantastic idea. At that time, it was easier than I thought it would be to write such a character -- when gender signifiers are removed, you realize how similar a kick-ass male and female protagonist actually are. It's grown increasingly difficult, as Halfway To Infinity introduces a doppelgänger Taylor, to keep the pronouns correct -- but I'm happy to face down that challenge. Seeing so much fan art for the character has made me realize just how much room we've left for interpretation. I don't consider that there's a "right" answer at all. People who know me have told me that they see a lot of me in Taylor... but for every argument for "male," I see another one, just as convincing, for "female." I love that I don't have a definitive answer. I hope that I never do. I hope that I can continue to write a character that resonates with everyone who reads it.
You can download the game to your favorite device. See the Big Fish Lifeline page for more info.
Sometimes I like to break from the long-form novel writing and try my hand at shorter pieces. It's also gratifying to see your work published in other venues, and to hopefully pick up new readers. It's been a busy fall, with the launch of Bound to the Truth coinciding with three short publications:
This Action Cannot Be Undone
I had an idea in mind for a while to capture the drama of online connection and disconnection as told solely through Facebook notifications. I finally crafted a short piece, the work taking me longer than you'd think, given the length (poets, I know your struggle). I found a great home for "This Action Cannot Be Undone" at Argot Magazine--check out the cool layout. Since I'm involved in game design, and so many people are annoyed by game requests on FB, I made up a fictitious game called Crash Monkey Bonanza. Hence, the sparklenuts. One of my readers said "The monkeys have gone sparklenuts!" is like the best line ever. (Angel investors, if you'd like to see a proposal for this as a real game, let me know.)
I felt inspired to write about my first seven jobs when the meme swept the Internets a couple of months ago, and Tues/Night was happy to oblige, including me in a roundup of posts on the subject. This one is 100 percent autobiographical, which felt strange and risky to me after writing fiction for so many years, both the novels and all that game writing, but there it is. Believe me, you can't make this @$%& up.
Regular readers of the blog know I'm not a huge fan of National Novel Writing Month. For me, what's needed much more is a National Novel Reading Month. You can see why in the stats I included in my article on NaNo for The Chronicle: In the nearly 20-year history of NaNo, only around 250 novels have been picked up by publishers and made it into print; whereas, last year alone, close to half a million writers participated. But! Wait! I challenged myself to find the validity and goodness in NaNo, and I'm proud of how that comes through in the piece. See for yourself.
Please support these supporters of writing by clicking on the links and commenting on the pieces. Thanks, and have a great day!
Image courtesy of Pixabay. No sparklenuts were harmed in the creation of this post.
Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He is the author of the award-winning Inspector Chen series of mystery novels, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006), Red Mandarin Dress (2007), and The Mao Case (2009). He is also the author of two books of poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003) and Evoking T'ang (2007), and his own poetry collection, Lines Around China (2003). Qiu's books have sold over a million copies and have been published in twenty languages. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.
Qui and I are old colleagues and friends. I served as a beta reader for his first novel before that was even a thing, and the two of us worked together teaching English at St. Louis Community College. During me recent trip to St. Louis, he told me about his interesting indie project, a poetry collection written in the voice of Inspector Chen, a character he's developed over the course of a multi-book series. Chen trained in poetry, and it informs his thoughts and is a compelling aspect of the series. But this is the first time the poems have been gathered into a collection.
Lisa: Poetry has been an integral part of your Inspector Chen series since the beginning. Why fuse these seemingly disparate genres—poetry and crime—into one?
Qui: To begin with, I love poetry, and I cannot but have my Inspector Chen love it, too. In an age with few people reading poetry, it's just my way of smuggling poetry into crime fiction. But it's also more than that; in classical Chinese novels, there're more poems than in my Inspector Chen novels, usually with a poem at the beginning of a chapter, and another at the end of it, and more with a new character being introduced. And I think it is justified for varying lyrical intensity in the narration--like the use of blank verse in a Shakespearean play, so it sort of carries on the Chinese tradition. But more importantly, at least so for myself, I want Inspector Chen to observe not only from a cop's perspective, but from a poet's as well. The two sometimes come into conflict, which may also make the character more complicated.
Lisa: That’s really fascinating; I didn’t realize Chinese novels integrate the poetic form so much. And yes, I enjoy the two sides of Chen’s brain, poet and inspector. Together they lead him to a sort of third way of doing things that seems to be a negotiation between the two. There’s a lush, philosophical quality to his thoughts that make his perspective such a pleasure. I’m curious: What have readers said about this unique poetry/mystery mashup? I know we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. your foreign readers. Are those abroad more receptive to reading poetry with their plots?
Qui: I believe it’s something worth trying for a writer to write in the genre, but at the same time, to push the limit of it—if that’s what you call the unique poetry/mystery mashup. From what feedback I’ve gotten from my readers, I think they like it. Yes, we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. readers elsewhere. For instance, Poems of Inspector Chen have been translated and published by my Italian and French publishers, and during my tour in France in October, one of the most rewarding experiences there was the discussion with 300 high school students in Lyon about that poetry collection, which they studied in class. But I want to add, readers here are also so enthusiastic about the poetry. During a recent conference sponsored by the Ahmanson family in L.A., for instance, the host offered the poetry collection to everybody attending the conference. A very large audience indeed. It’s just her way of supporting poetry and Inspector Chen, which I understand and appreciate.
Lisa: With your background in literary poetry and fiction, what drew you to the detective genre in the first place?
Qui: I've always loved crime fiction. But the way I started writing in the genre was accidental. In the mid-nineties, I went back to China for a visit after staying in the States for seven or eight years. I was so impressed by the changes taking place there that I wanted to try my hand on a novel about the society in transition, but I had not written fiction before, so I had a hard time putting things together. Then the knowledge of the crime fiction genre came to my rescue, so to speak. I reshuffled the contents, and used the genre as a ready-made framework for what I wanted to say. In fact, when I submitted the manuscript for Death of a Red Heroine to my publisher, I was not even that sure it was a real crime novel. But my publisher liked it and wanted me to expand it into a series. So here I am, with book number ten of the Inspector Chen series coming out in French in September. But because of the accidental entry, you may still notice the sociological traces in all these books.
Lisa: Wonderful—that explains so much. It’s interesting to hear you say your original plan was to write about society in transition. You weave this into the plots well, or rather, you deftly use plot as a vehicle for immersing your reader in that transitional society fully. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the series. How has that waxed and waned over the course of the series? You say now with ten there are still traces…
Qui: With so much happening in contemporary Chinese society, I’m capable of putting each Inspector Chen investigation in a specific social, political, cultural backdrop, in which the crime and the investigation are directly or indirectly commenting on it, and also commented on by the society in transition. For instances, Death of a Red Heroine against the backdrop of the split personality imposed on individuals living under an authoritarian regime, Red Mandarin Dress against that of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake against that of China’s ecological crisis, Enigma of China against that of governmental cyber control, and Shanghai Redemption against that of uncontrollable corruption under the one-party system… And with so much still happening there, Inspector Chen has a long way to go with a sociological perspective. After Becoming Inspector Chen, the manuscript I’m working on also has such a background focus on the lack of an independent legal system in China.
Lisa: Let’s talk about your latest book, a collection of Inspector Chen’s poetry in one volume. It’s a brilliant, yet curious choice. Are there other models for what you’ve done, taking a fictional character and making him the “author” of a book of poetry? What made you decide to do this now?
Qui: For myself, it’s not exactly a curious choice. I don’t think I had any models in mind while compiling the collection, but I benefitted from the “mask” theory elaborated by Yeats. According to him, a poet could speak behind the mask of a character. And I found the experience truly liberating, for I could suddenly write about things familiar, relevant to the inspector, but not necessarily to me. It’s also experimental in exploration of the reversible interrelationship among the creating and the created in the process of fiction writing.
Lisa: I’m also intrigued by your decision to self-publish this book of poetry. What has been your experience so far, as someone whose work has always been traditionally published—first with SoHo Press and now with St. Martin’s—stepping out into the wilds of publishing on your own?
Qui: The Poems of Inspector Chen was published traditionally in France and Italy. But I’m quite aware of today’s difficult poetry market. For me, it’s a labor of love, but not necessarily so for every publisher, which I understand. About a year ago, I happened to talk to a friend about it, and he helped the project greatly with his expertise in the field of self-publishing. It’s really to his credit that the poetry collection came out here like that.
Check out Qui Xiaolong's web site for book links and more.
Welcome to the inauguration of "What's the Motive?" In this regular blog series, guest authors discuss the motive behind their latest books. Maybe that’s the motive for murder in the traditional mystery sense, but writers will share some aspect of motive in their novels without spoiling the plot. For example, rather than focusing on the killer, what is the protagonist’s motive? This could also be the author’s motive for writing the book. Why this book? Why now? Contributors are free to explore “motive” in all of its connotations.
Here Corrina Wycoff shares the motive behind all of her main characters, the "unattainable desire to outrun public failure." In this age of daily public online communications, it's one I'm sure many readers feel keenly.
In 1980, at nine years old, I auditioned for Annie. I lived on the East Coast, and going to a cattle call Broadway audition was practically as common a rite of passage as a first kiss. I wasn’t a particularly good singer, but I was a creditably good mimic. My Andrea McArdle impression was decent enough to get me a lot further in the audition process than it should have, far enough that every kid in my neighborhood knew about it, far enough that when I didn’t get cast after two call-backs, my failure became an ongoing subject of playground gossip and cafeteria scorn. Years later, after personal devastations much worse than the Annie experience, I still occasionally thought about this ruined chance, about the happier roads that might have arisen from earlier roads, if only.
I’ve never written about my unsuccessful childhood stab at professional theatre, but the important part of the story can’t be found in its literal details—the suffocating crowd of young girls waiting outside the Alvin Theatre on 52nd Street, admitted inside by the dozen to stand on the black, dusty stage and to sing a few bars of “Tomorrow”; the choreography I was shown twice and then expected, to my horrified astonishment, to repeat; the polished, young performers waiting backstage with me, wearing brand new, hot pink OshKosh B’Gosh overalls and comparing their agents, their private tap dance lessons in Manhattan, and their resumes. However, those details, once fictionalized beyond recognition, have repeatedly become the scabs overlying the singular stinging wound at the psychological core of all my main characters. My characters’ primary motivation—like mine, it seems—is always the unattainable desire to outrun public failure, a hopeless quest to transfigure it into something, anything, less painful.
My first book, O Street, describes a character’s twenty-year attempt to escape the humiliating aftermath of having been, in childhood, the victim of a well-publicized sexual assault. My newly published second book, Damascus House, follows six characters, members of a fundamentalist Christian church, each trying, in different ways, to restore dignity after suffering a small, public scandal. Currently, I’m working on a third manuscript, still untitled, that revolves around a woman who, with decreasing success, tries to rationalize her failings as they become increasingly apparent to everyone who knows her. Although we live, now, in a post post-Freudian world, the idea of a surveillant superego still captivates me as a source of narrative tension, as do the (very human) methods by which characters try to avoid the judgment and contempt of that surveillant Other.
Playwright Harold Hayes explained, “The essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his own deeds.” I repeat this advice to my creative writing students, to remind them to establish necessary elements of character motivation, tension, and conflict in their fiction. When I’m writing, I repeat this advice to myself, too, with the caveat that people also cannot walk away from the aftermath of their own humiliations, no matter how assiduously they try.
Review Damascus House.
Review O Street.
Follow Corrina Wycoff via Amazon.
Corrina Wycoff’s fiction and essays have appeared in journals, magazines, and anthologies. She is the author of two books of fiction, a linked story collection, O Street (2008, OV Books) and a recently released novel, Damascus House (Spuyten Duyvil Press). A single-mom-turned-empty-nester, she lives in Washington State, where she teaches English and Writing at Pierce College.
Sometimes I like a good film noir classic, as in the 1944 movie "Laura," named one of the 10 best mystery films of all time by the American Film Institute. This one was just right for a Saturday night movie binge because it features a young Vincent Price as a pretty boy gigolo, if you can imagine that, and a victim who's made a life for herself as a successful advertising exec, a rare career woman for her time.
What I didn't expect in this strange but clever whodunit is that one of the main characters and ongoing suspects is an eccentric writer, a dandy who pens columns while sitting at his bathtub desk. From his posh penthouse apartment in New York, he brags about making fifty cents a word on his writing.
Hold up, I thought. Fifty cents a word? In 1944?
Those of you who've never tried to make a living with your words probably don't know this, but fifty cents a word is considered a good rate today. Yeah, in 2016. I'm part of several online freelancer forums, and there I regularly see rates of $150-300 for a 700-word article, which works out to about 20-40 cents per word. The top echelon magazines reportedly pay their freelancers $1-$2 dollars per word, and there are a rare handful of freelance writers making bank, but the vast majority of words that get written in America today sell for far less. Disturbingly, there are plenty of publishers who expect writers to work for "exposure," or for mere cents per word.
Here's what writers today should be making per word, if we take 50 cents in 1944 and adjust it for inflation: $6.82.
That would be almost $5K for a 700-word piece, which is a far cry from reality. And you wonder why so much of what's out there is written in listicle format and laden with gifs! Even if the 50-cents-per word bit were a dramatic embellishment, and let's say the actual writer pay at the time was half that, at 25 cents per word, or a quarter, at 12 cents per word, which is about what I make today on stories for my local paper, we're still looking at serious stagnation, or even devolution. Depending on whom you ask, the publishing industry is either experiencing a glorious renaissance or is in its death throes. If it's the former, writers on the whole aren't experiencing the golden part of this age, and if it's the latter, then I suppose things will only get worse from here on out.
In my overly long, SEO-designed headline above, I promised I'd mention how this relates to the overall brokenness of the economy. This writer wage stagnation/devolution is another example of how we've been shafted in the last generation as productivity has actually gone up but salaries haven't kept pace, pay for CEOs and others at the top soared while most other pay stagnated, and benefits such as pensions and employer-paid health care became a thing of the past. I'm no economist, though, so let me refer you to these nine sobering wage stagnation charts put out by the Economic Policy Institute.
Sure, EPI is considered by some to skew liberal and/or is tainted by its labor backing. But you know what? It's hard to argue with the data. For example, since 1979, middle-class wages rose only 6% and low-wage workers' salaries actually fell by 5% while those with the highest salaries saw a 41% increase. Here's another: In the 1960s, CEOs typically earned 20 times what a typical worker earned, but today they rake in 296 times what a typical worker makes.
So writers in this analysis are low-wage workers whose salaries have fallen over time. Our economy is one big film noir movie, but the villain is greed and the policies that support and enable greed. Spoiler alert: The mystery of who killed Laura, the advertising exec, is far more fitting and poignant than anyone in 1944 could have imagined. Yep. You guessed it. The writer did it.*
* Or at least, he thought he did (plot twist!).
If you don't understand this joke, read all about the legendary, unsolved D.B. Cooper hijacking case here!
I finally had a chance to review my video from the IDEA Summit last month. To tell the truth, I find watching videos of myself to be a tough task, as I endlessly critique my performance, attire, physical appearance--you name it. There's also the truth that women who talk about games for women have been horribly harassed online. So I'll admit to some fear that being more visible as a woman in the industry making games for women will garner me the kind of attention I'd rather not receive. I hope that's not the case.
For the record: I've never been harassed about my game work, either in person or online. But I've also always worked in casual games, which means I've been working on games for families, or specifically for women, throughout the course of my eight-year career in the industry. In other words, I've never asked for changes to be made--or tried to change--the games being made for hardcore gaming audiences. The work I've done to help developers tailor their games to a female audience was by company directive, and in everyone's best interest, as it made the games sell. We always knew that if the games didn't sell, we'd all have to go home. So the work we did was tied directly to the bottom line and not due to a political objective, not that there's anything wrong with political objectives.
So that has likely insulated me, and I don't have much experience with that other world, outside of sometimes playing hardcore games myself or meeting people at the Game Development Conference.
You can watch the video of my presentation here. All in all, I think I did all right. Most importantly, I loved the synergy between the students, faculty, and all conference presenters. The exchange of ideas and rich conversations will stay with me. I'm already looking for the next opportunity to participate in something like this, which I hope comes along soon.
I was also part of a panel discussion, along with a wide variety of people with varying expertise pertinent to entrepreneurship. This got spirited when the subject of sexism in the tech industry came up.
I'd be interested in hearing about your experience with games--both as a player, if you are one, or as someone who's stood outside the industry, looking in.
I was invited to participate in this summit on digital entrepreneurship, which is pretty damn cool. That week I'll be a guest lecturer in a digital design class (I've done this once before, remotely), a speaker at the summit itself, and a judge of student work at the salon. Here are the summit details:
International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit (IDEAS)
Presented at the University of Florida Digital Worlds Institute’s Research, Education and Visualization Environment (REVE) - March 25th, 2016, 9:30AM-5:00PM
Come join us for an amazing day of exploration & innovation with premiere guest speakers from around the world.
IDEAS is an inspirational event offering a day of learning how to succeed in the digital media business landscape. This one-day summit promotes the confluence of traditional entrepreneurship and new technologies, with an emphasis on new business forms and the opportunities created by these technologies. Guest panelists — academic and real-world practitioners — will link theory and practice, in a dialogue with participants, as they share their innovative stories, techniques, and ideas that have established them as leaders in their respective fields and industries.
Event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/973184246099902/
Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org
The event is free but RSVP’s are required: email@example.com
Event schedule, March 25th:
- 9:30AM to 10:00AM – Coffee and registration
- 10:00AM to 10:50AM – Key note (Ofer Zinger)
- 11:00AM to 11:50AM – Panel discussion
- 12:00PM to 12:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (Nestor Gil)
- 1:00PM to 2:00PM – Lunch
- 2:00PM to 2:50PM – Guest speaker presentation (Lisa Brunette)
- 3:00PM to 3:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (D.A. Jackson)
- 4:00PM to 4:50PM- Guest speaker presentation (Taqi Shaheen)
Ofer Zinger, Entrepreneurship - Hands-On
Being an entrepreneur is exciting, however, extremely risky; more than 90% of the startups fail. As a serial entrepreneur in the digital space, Mr. Zinger will cover the common pitfalls as well as the shortcuts to startup success that are often missing from standard textbooks, using real life hands-on examples.
Ofer Zinger has founded several companies in the digital space such as TLV Media, Dynamic Yield, Cedato, Ilivid (Acquired), Bundlore (Acquired) and others. Consultative to the Israeli Intelligence (8200), IAF, Iron dome project, and various companies in homeland security and medical devices sectors. Ofer Zinger is currently the Chairman of Feature Forward, a programmatic video advertising platform. (https://www.linkedin.com/in/oferzinger)
Lisa Brunette, Crafting Games for a Mainstream Audience
The current market is flooded with mid-core games targeted toward a male audience aged 18-35, while the audiences outside that demographic remain underserved. Learn how to craft game stories for women, older players of all gender identifications, and children in this talk from a recognized expert in premium casual storytelling.
Lisa Brunette has story design and writing credits in hundreds of bestselling video games, including the Mystery Case Files, Mystery Trackers, and Dark Tales series for Big Fish and AAA games for Nintendo and Microsoft platforms. She is featured in Boy’s Toys, a documentary about women in games. She earned an MFA in Fiction from University of Miami, and she is the past recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission, and the William Stafford Award. (www.catintheflock.com)
Nestor Armando Gil, Labor Under Alternative Economies
Social practice art takes as its starting point relationships and dialogue, two elements crucial to a successful entrepreneurial enterprise. By producing research, commodities, and performances in a social context, Nestor Gil addresses memory as a series of negotiations that are personal, cultural, and political.
Nestor Armando Gil was born in Florida in 1971. He received the Masters in Fine Art degree in 2009 from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His performances and visual work have been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally in Spain, and the United Kingdom.
D. A. Jackson, Making Something Out of Nothing: Independent Filmmaking in the Digital Age
Award winning director D.A. Jackson discusses the ins and outs of film production in the 21st Century. Topics covered will be, how to use available resources, budgeting, directing, writing scripts, producing, VFX, and distribution.
D.A. Jackson has been working in the film industry for the past 18 years. During his career, he has worked as a director, stuntman, fight choreographer, actor, and producer. He has directed commercials, music videos, television shows for SPIKE, and won numerous awards for his independent feature films and shorts . His passion for storytelling and unique approach to filmmaking has led him to be an often requested speaker at colleges and film festivals.
Taqi Shaheen, Being Digital: The Chinese Way
Born in Pakistan, and currently lecturing in Shanghai, China, Taqi is uniquely positioned to present the complex system of entrepreneurship as it exists in Asia today. From art works, to information technology and video games, Asia has been a hotbed of production and innovation.
Taqi Shaheen is a filmmaker, visual artist and art educator whose work crosses mediums and defies genre distinctions to fashion witty and curious observations of contemporary Asian cultures and their urban landscapes. He graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, and uses hybrid digital video and film formats to research and construct non-fictional narratives collaborating with various visual artists, musicians and performers.) (http://www.taqishaheen.com/)
IDEAS is sponsored by UF Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Warrington College of Business Administration, supported by the UF Division of Sponsored Research, presented by the UF Digital Worlds Institute, and organized by Prof. Marko Suvajdzic.
Prof. Suvajdzic is a diverse thinker with 17+ years of achievement in academia and the creative digital research and production space. Marko’s experience includes a wide range of digital startups and educational projects. He has lectured internationally at schools and conferences in: U.S.A., U.K., India, Serbia, Norway, and China.
Cheryl Sesnon. Photo by Karissa Carlson, The Evergreen State College.
Everything about Cheryl Sesnon screams success. At 58, she’s currently the executive director of Jubilee Women’s Center, a well-regarded, highly effective non-profit organization that helps women transition out of homelessness. Besides this Amazing Grace Award, she’s received a number of others: Harlequin’s “More Than Words” Award, the Aubrey Davis Award for Progressive Leadership, and Seattle University’s “Lead, Ignite Award,” just to name a few. And she was the leader behind FareStart’s legendary job training program, which boasted an 82% retention rate under her tenure and experienced explosive growth.
So it might seem surprising that Sesnon once thought of herself as doomed to a life of failure.
At 24, she suffered from chronic depression, low self-esteem, and substance abuse. She was in an abusive relationship. She attempted suicide.
“I realized I needed to either commit to dying, or to living,” she says. “I felt hopeless, I was on a negative, destructive path, and I had no idea how to get out of it.” Sesnon remembers standing on the sidewalk and watching happy people walking by and thinking they were stupid, that they didn’t know how awful the world really was.
To snap herself out of this bleak world view, she adopted the attitude that everything she assumed about the world was wrong and vowed to watch how happy, successful people lived their lives and learn from them. She got herself into therapy, took classes, and stopped feeding her anger toward the world. “It was coming from a place that was wired up wrong,” she says.
Now she considers herself an expert at how to get people to break out of the limiting patterns of their lives, and she clearly does so with compassion for how difficult change can be. “I understand being stuck in a certain way of thinking,” she explains. “It’s very real. You think it’s the way.”
Sesnon’s positive rewiring was so complete that it forever altered her career path. Early on, she launched a successful catering business, but ultimately, the work felt unsatisfying. “We were spending money to make money,” she says. “There was a piece missing for me.”
She found her heart’s work in non-profits, but she doesn’t consider herself a “bleeding heart.” Rather, that work feels solid to her, substantive. “Jubilee is my dream-come-true,” she says. Now she works with women whose life circumstances have brought them to a place where they feel stuck and don’t know how to live differently. “To work with women and meet them at that place, it means the world to me.”
At the start of our interview, Sesnon shared with me that she’d recently beat breast cancer after a nearly yearlong process that included a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. She describes this ordeal not in terms of her own struggles but for the remarkable experience of being cared for by others.
“I’m used to being on the service end,” she says. “I’ve never been on the receiving end of being surrounded by compassion and care. I felt so loved. Everyone—staff, residents, donors—were incredibly generous and supportive.”
Congratulations to Cheryl Sesnon for winning a ‘Granny,’ and may she continue to serve the women of Jubilee well with her talents and gifts.
About the Amazing Grace Award
The 'Granny' recognizes the outstanding achievements of women over 40. It’s named after the trailblazing character in my Dreamslippers Series, Amazing Grace, AKA Granny Grace, a seventysomething who solves crimes while pursuing her own spiritual path.
The first recipient of the award was indie writer Karen Nortman, 72, award-winning author of the Frannie Shoemaker mystery series.
The second was Cherie Althauser, 65-year-old yoga teacher, volunteer, and spiritual devotee.
Winners are profiled at www.catintheflock.com and receive a modest award self-funded by me.
A Note About My Involvement with Jubilee Women’s Center
I’m a Jubilee donor and have previously written about the organization for Seattle Woman.
The chariot that awaited me: An early 90s-era limo that once served the White House.
While in D.C. this past week, I was the featured guest at a book event. Looking for my ride to the event that night, I stepped out of the hotel and scanned the drive-up for a vehicle befitting a middle-aged guy like my friend Brewster, the host. A fuel-efficient compact, perhaps. After all, I'd met Brewster when we were both interns in the arms control community back in '92. I completely ignored the stretch limo in front of me until a black-capped attendant popped out and said, "Lisa Brunette! Your ride is here!"
For the record, this has never happened to me before. I've never even been inside a limo. Seriously, not even for prom. In case you're wondering, my mode of conveyance then was an '80 Pontiac Grand Prix, fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror.
But there was Brewster, ensconced with his fiancee Kate in one of the limo's rear-facing seats. It turned out the limo was his. The story goes that one day he went out looking for hub caps and came back with a limo instead. He'd taken Kate along to dissuade him from frivolous purchases, but she had encouraged this one.
Here's a rather blurry photo of me peeking out of it. My husband apologizes for his picture-taking skills, and since he has tremendous qualities in every other aspect of existence, we don't fault him for it. Unfortunately, though, this shot cost him his phone, which he dropped, shattering the screen.
(I know, right? My hair is SO BLONDE. And if one more person says, "Your hair doesn't match your name," or something equally inane, I am going to dye it PINK. OK, not really.)
Another capped driver, Roger, squired us to the venue: A sort of compound of houses and garages on an acre of land just inside the Beltway. Several people live there in a community that frequently hosts events like my book reading. Brewster, whose last name really is "Thackeray," dubbed it 'Makepeace Manor.' The name has been printed on posters and pens.
It was a lovely crowd of about 20 all gathered around the Manor fireplace. I read from my poetry collection and both Dreamslippers novels and had a blast doing so. Because I like to make things interactive, I tapped into the group's energy, which was extraordinary and vibrant. We got into some really interesting discussions about dreams, lucid dreaming, and the edge between reality and dreaming. There was an epically long Q&A. I think I'm still there, in fact. These people asked great questions.
Many of them are self-identified "burners," which is not a reference to Bernie Sanders (although a good number of them support him). It's from the "Burning Man" desert festival, which has apparently spawned smaller "burns" and burner communities all over the country. I have never actually been to Burning Man, but it's great to see people coming together for artistic collaboration and togetherness.
Incidentally, Brewster, who with five project cars filling the Makepeace Manor garage is just a bit of a gearhead, helped inspire Granny Grace's car Siddhartha from my Dreamslippers Series. Back when we stomped around D.C. together in '92, he took me for a spin in this little beaut:
Of course, the above is a hardtop (sunroof), and Granny Grace's is a convertible. I loved the impracticality aspect of a convertible in a city that rains nine months out of the year, and I also have vivid memories of my father's convertible Fiat Spider, a car I'd hoped to inherit when I turned 16. But Dad traded it in for a Ford Escort just as I was taking my driving test. I could tell you that to add insult to injury the Escort was white, but I think a Ford Escort is enough injury, regardless of color. What is it that hippie folksinger Melanie used to sing? "White should be beautiful, but mostly it's not."
I'm grateful for the opportunity to introduce my work to the burners and share in their company for an evening. There's nothing better than old friends with old cars in an old town like D.C.!
The fine folks at indieBRAG asked me to write about my favorite Christmas carol for this blog hop, but the first carol that came to mind is one I can't stand: "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
Maybe it's the crassness of it that has always bothered me, even at an early age, or the cliché image of a grandmother as a doddering, wig-wearing, egg nog-guzzling dodo who gets herself killed by Santa. I mean, Grandma receives short shrift in this tale, while Grandpa, on the other hand, "we're all so proud of" for "taking this so well." The vague misognyny, the lyrics, the music, everything about the song makes me cringe.
So I used my intense dislike for it in fiction.
In Framed and Burning, 78-year-old renegade grandmother Amazing Grace shudders when her granddaughter cues up the song to play at a party. Grace uses the opportunity to check in with her erstwhile beau, Ernesto:
Grace despised the song, deep down in her bones. She hung back as the rest of the crowd laughed and began to carry on. Grace hooked her arm through Ernesto’s and squired him to the balcony.
“Horrid excuse for music,” Grace said, shaking her head.
“Yes, well, it is Americana at its worst.”
There was a pause as they gazed at the moon casting a beam of light on the waves far in the distance. Then Ernesto turned to Grace, swept his arms around her and said, “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” she said instinctively, though she realized she was only being polite. She’d been so wrapped up in the case that she hadn’t had time to miss him.
I'll stop there, since what happens next yields crucial, plot-spoiling information about the case Grace is working on. The point is that it was satisfying to juxtapose the schlocky grandma from the song next to my sharp, savvy Amazing Grace.
That whole Christmas scene was great fun to write for another reason as well. I lived in Miami for two years and celebrated two Christmases there. Holidays in the tropics can be strange for anyone from a Northern climate, as the typical trappings of merriment--snow, snowmen, sleighs, evergreen trees--can seem out of place amidst palm trees and sunshine. It's a quirkiness I've always enjoyed, probably because my earliest Christmas memories are of growing up in Arizona as a military brat. In the Chandler town square back in the Seventies, they used to erect a Christmas tree out of tumbleweeds spray-painted white.
That experience informed my thinking on the matter of how to celebrate Christmas when one's locale is far from snow and evergreen trees. One of my favorite Christmas carols is Big Crosby's tribute to Christmas in Hawaii, "Mele Kalikimaka." I've also tried to be environmentally sensitive in my domestic practices, so I've rarely ever purchased a Christmas tree that would only be discarded at the end of the season. So my Miami tree for two years running was a potted hibiscus:
Christmas in Miami, 2000 or 2001.
The bright blooms of the hibiscus lent themselves to quirky pairings such as this:
In Framed and Burning, the Christmas tree becomes a way to memorialize the friend they've lost:
...Cat and Mick came home bearing a small, potted hibiscus tree. Its tangerine flowers resembled umbrellas that would unfurl in full bloom, a decadent pistil of pollen beckoning from its center.
“Let’s set it here, in the window,” Grace said, beaming at her two lovely family members.
Mick and Cat carried the hibiscus together and set it down delicately. They stared at the tree for a moment.
“I’ll go get the other swag out of the car,” Cat said.
“I’ve got some bling upstairs to add to this thing.” Mick winked at Grace and slipped out the door.
“It’s perfect, isn’t it?” Grace said this to Rose, who was stroking one of the soft blooms.
“It smells like tropical Christmas.” Rose stuck her nose closer to the flower and inhaled.
Cat came in, her hands full of shopping bags, which she dropped onto her chaise lounge, now clear of paperwork related to the case. She reached into a bag and withdrew a box of retro bubble lights. Together, the three of them strung the lights onto the miniature tree. Once the lights had warmed, Cat, who said she had experience with these kinds of lights, tapped or inverted them to get them to bubble. Their effervescence made the room sparkle.
In came Mick with a canvas drop cloth he placed around the bottom of the tree as a skirt. He also brought down a box, which he offered to Grace. “Will homemade ornaments work for your solstice party, Miss Pris?”
“Oh, Mick.” Grace took the box and reached inside. He’d fashioned the most delightful ornaments out of bits and pieces from his studio: a few spines of an old Chinese fan tied together with red velvet ribbon; a garland of driftwood and shells; a vintage toy car hung with glittery string. The four of them decorated the tree together, marveling over Mick’s creations.
When they were done, they stood back to admire it, and Rose said, “We need a star.” She looked at Grace and smiled. “I know you’re not hot on the Jesus story, but that star of Bethlehem, it always makes me weepy to think about it, a beacon in the night.”
“I’m not against those aspects, per se,” said Grace. She thought about the church sermons of her childhood, the fire and brimstone and talk of sinning. “There’s a reason they’re always claiming it’s the greatest story ever told. I think it resonates with us to think of God as not just a man, but a small baby in a manger. He’s nothing but potential.”
“I think I have an idea for our star,” Rose announced. “Mick, come and help me.” The two of them left....
In the book, there's more here, but I'll cut right to the next Christmas tree scene. Readers of the novel know by this point in the story that Donnie, who died in a fire in Mick's studio, has been cremated, his ashes stored in an urn:
...Rose and Mick resurfaced, Rose holding something delicately between her hands. “I got to thinking about the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men, bringing gifts of frankincense and myrrh. Well, we don’t have any of that, whatever it is, but we have something better.”
She moved her top hand to reveal a star crafted out of thick white paper stock backed by tracing paper. There were cutouts in the thick top layer of paper so that the lights from the tree would shine through the tracing paper, dotting the star with glints of light. It was a six-pointed star with beams emanating downward. She shook the star softly, and fine glistening grains of sand filled the beams of light like stardust.
“Did you use beach sand?” Grace asked. “It looks sugary, like it came from Bahia Honda.”
“No,” Rose said with a glowing smile and a wink at Mick. “That’s Donnie.”
Miami tree at night.
O Street by Corrina Wycoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I posted this review to Amazon back in 2007 but am adding it to Goodreads now to share the love. Here's my Amazon review, which still stands: O Street is the kind of book that is sadly missing from mainstream literature. It's engrossing and incredible in its realism, a book that makes you want to buy copies for everyone you know. O Street would be a candidate for publication by a major publishing house if only it weren't true that editors think no one wants to know that a young girl can go through a life like this one, through no fault of her own, just the chance of birth behind it. Which is not to say that Other Voices isn't a commendable press, a real coup for Wycoff, and a force of nature in contemporary literature. You'll thank them for believing in this book.
Wycoff makes us confront the failures of society, the way people like the mother protagonist fall through those cracks, which aren't cracks at all but more like chasms. Wycoff doesn't apologize for her political edge in this book, but neither is O Street a polemic. The argument is in the heartbreak at the heart of the story. You will want to rescue Beth, and you will cheer when she rescues herself in the absence of any other savior.
Never mind the somewhat dismissive Publishers Weekly reference to "degradations and disappointments" that are "sounded like elements in therapy." The whole of literature depends upon elements that could be discussed in therapy. Wycoff eschews banal self-help assessments and solutions and instead delivers a gripping story, in the voice of a talented writer:
"The O Street Girl came back to school today. She arrived between the first and second homeroom bells. She'd been absent since last January, and now it was October, and so many things had happened, things you would have told her once, before she was the O Street Girl, when she was Beth Dinard, your friend. But no one was talking to her today, so you couldn't tell her about your first French kiss, your first hit off a joint, your first fistfight. No one was talking to her and no one was talking to each other and so much happened since she went away."
View all my reviews
The Power of You: How to Live Your Authentic, Exciting, Joy-Filled Life Now! by Chris Michaels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Disclosure: Dr. Chris Michaels and I have been guest writers on each other's blogs. However, we've yet to meet in person. I first heard about his work when I listened to a podcast about being gay and spiritual in America. I was deeply impressed by his honesty and passion, as well as his unapologetic attitude. After reading his blog, I felt a definite kinship with him, and I thought our audiences would appreciate hearing from each other. When I saw that he'd written this book, I immediately added it to my reading list, and I'm glad I did.
I've always craved spiritual connection but have not often found it in organized religion. And I approach all teachings with a heavy does of skepticism. Even in the most liberal of churches or from the most seemingly open-minded spiritual leader, I've struggled with teachings that seem to me to be victim-blaming or self-destructive or just plain impractical. But I had none of those problems with Chris's discussion in The Power of You.
I was highlighting so often on my Kindle, I thought I might as well highlight the whole book. Chris's teaching is grounded in day-to-day reality, and from there, he provides concrete examples and advice for getting in touch with the divine and building the happier life you want. What I love about Chris is that he doesn't use his religious teachings to judge or shame or blame someone for their own unhappiness. Rather, he meets you where you are and shows you how to get where you want to be.
"When you take God out of the sky and place it down here in your life, everything changes," he says. Let that change begin with this book. But read it with intention, and commit to doing the exercises. You are definitely worth your time!
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I'm offering three short stories on ebook for absolutely FREE. (You can get them wherever ebooks are sold: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple (iBookstore through your device), Kobo, Smashwords, etc.) You can also read them on Wattpad.
These are part of a larger work-in-progress inspired by my childhood growing up as an Air Force "brat." Each story is about a child struggling to find his or her place in a military community at the end of the Cold War.
Coming from an autobiographical place as this subject does, the extended, novel version has been tougher for me to write. I managed to complete a manuscript draft this past winter, but after putting it aside for a few months and reading it again, I really wasn't happy with it.
It's less emotionally challenging to make stuff up, which is partly why I'm having so much fun with the Dreamslippers series.
Still, I'm proud of these three short stories, which came out of my MFA thesis in creative writing. I won the Associated Writing Programs Intro Journals Project award back in 2002 for "Birdy," which was also published in print in Bellingham Review.
"Spy Boy" first appeared in print in a journal called Accent Miami. "Her Mother's Shoes" was also accepted for publication, by North Pacific American Journal, but then they ran into some leadership issues, so it never appeared in print. But it's the story that everyone remembers most from the grouping.
About the cover images: They were chosen by my friend Anne Harrington. I met Anne at Amazing Grace Spiritual Center; she designed the Center's "spiritual hero" cards, and as a former "brat" herself, she really connected with the stories. Anne keeps bugging me to finish the whole thing.
Someday, I'll do that. But for now, I hope you enjoy these as the self-contained pieces they were originally written to be.
Off we go, into the wild blue yonder...
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This will definitely resonate with anyone who came of age pre-Internet. Interesting observations, and while Harris doesn't deliver much more than a "meditation" on what we should do about the loss of absence, I appreciated his even-handed approach to the subject.
View all my reviews
Nothing in Reserve: True Stories, Not War Stories. by Jack Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was introduced to Jack Lewis' writing when I edited it for Crosscut, and I admired it then as I do now. These essays cover a life before, during, and after service in the Iraq War, and as such, they offer an unblinking honesty about it all: the naive but proud notions of service, the valor and vices of battle, and the vicissitudes of middle age. Lewis is a clever wordsmith, and his playful prose is backed by a wealth of experience fully lived and amply analyzed. Readers should be prepared to be moved to tears, disgust, and laughter by turns in these pages. They may find themselves looking up from their Kindle to quote from the book: "Soldiers my come and soldiers may go, but the bureaucracy of armies is immortal and immutable." "There's no better tool in the world than a switched-on soldier." "Any problems more complicated than eating, sleeping, and mission prep could be saved until you got home. It's a savings plan for personal problems that pays you back with interest, compounded hourly." So while the military and motorcycle jargon might make one feel as if peering into a foreign world, there's so much here to grab any reader that the book shouldn't be relegated to only those looking for a good war story, especially since Lewis challenges our very notions about what that is.
View all my reviews
I don't know why this one hit me so hard. I knew they were going to close my favorite Bartell store - they'd been letting us know in their characteristically customer-service-centered way for months. And it's not like there isn't a replacement Bartell nearby. The new one is in fact a Bartell on steroids, all swankified with New Seattle features like a place to refill your microbrewery growler. Plus, the building isn't special in any way, not Googie architecture like the Denny's they tore down or a beloved, Old Ballard 'third place' to hang, like Sunset Bowl.
But hit me hard it did. I was walking down the street, wondering if I needed to pop in and get something from Bartell, and there it was, already fenced up, a construction backhoe poised to begin ripping into the establishment like an angry beast.
For the past decade, I've popped into this Bartell thousands of times to fill a prescription or fulfill a chocolate craving. I've loaded up on discounted vitamins and bottles of salad dressing. The photos of smiling family members on my walls are framed by the high-quality but reasonably priced picture frames I've purchased here.
And I've been a long fan of the locally owned Bartell chain. I once pitched a story on it to an editor (rejected), and I tried to swing a gig writing the Bartell corporate history (scooped). See also: Making a living as a writer.
Oh, I know that all things must change, that the only constant is change, and that arriving here as a newcomer myself ten years ago, I was part of this change. Bartell had already changed apiece. I've just recently come out of mourning for the retirement of my favorite crew of elder statesmen pharmacists and their assistants, who knew me by name, treated me like a respected neighbor, and delivered on the best customer service I'd experienced at any drug dispensary, anywhere. Their youthful replacements are poster children for the Seattle Freeze, and they wouldn't know customer service from The Postal Service.
So many of the things that drew me to Seattle's Ballard neighborhood - its Scandahoovian fishing culture, the working class set of its jaw, its annexed-small-town vibe, seem to be slipping away. The sky used to be filled with seagulls; now it's construction cranes. A newspaper once listed each Seattle neighborhood by its residents' most likely attire, and Ballard's was something like "the jeans I left on the floor the day before." Now I think it would be "the $200 jeans I bought online." It used to be I couldn't wait on a street corner without having an overly polite driver insist on my pedestrian right-of-way. Now, I fear for my life in crosswalks even though they're brightly painted and marked with flashing lights.
I had a conversation recently with a woman who's moved from Ballard to Everett. "I can't afford to buy a house here," I whined to her, and she replied, "I can't afford to buy the house I just sold here." The house next door to hers had been sold to a developer, who promptly put up a block of four three-story homes, what I refer to as "stacks." The stacks blocked the light to her backyard, and the garden she'd cultivated for years could no longer grow. So she decided it was time to leave, even though she runs a business out of Ballard, for how much longer, I wonder.
For the past four years, I've been weighing the advantages and disadvantages of staying put. In the end, going won out over choosing to stay. My husband and I didn't think we'd be leaving for a couple more years, but opportunity elsewhere knocked at the same time that Seattle seemed to be shouldering us aside. In a couple of weeks, we'll be moving to a city with a population that is one-sixth the size of Ballard's.
I have no illusions about what small-town life will mean for me. So you can spare me the lecture about how isolated I'll feel, how bored I'll get of the handful of restaurants in my new burg, or how much more conservative it will be.
But what I do have is hope. Hope for a more sustainable lifestyle where a person can afford to purchase a home and save for retirement without over-leveraging herself on a micro condo, its fancy "community room" full of partying techsters.
And maybe a friendly pharmacist who remembers my name.
My Interview with David Michael Ramirez II, the Breakout Translator of Yoshinori Henguchi's Poetry
Yoshinori Henguchi is the author of Lizard Telepathy, Fox Telepathy, published in 2014 by Seattle indie publisher Chin Music Press. Henguchi founded Gallery Iris in Osaka, Japan and regularly exhibits photography and poetry. His poetry collection, WMMWWMWWWMWMMWMWW, was published under the imprint nobodyhurts. He was also a 2006 winner of the Canon Corporation New Cosmos of Photography Award. David Michael Ramirez II translated Lizard Telepathy, Fox Telepathy into English, a passionate process that transpired over many years, after he met Henguchi at a gallery opening in Osaka in 2008 and made it his mission to bring the poet's work to an English audience.
Lisa Brunette: Henguchi employs repetition to an incredible degree in this collection. Is repetition more tolerable/soothing in Japanese culture? Or would you say it's the same as English?
David Ramirez: It's unnatural–unnatural to the point of distinction, and maybe distraction. But it allows for a kind of psychological effect reminiscent of ellipses and gives an overall baseline for other sensations to contrast with. When you get done reading, if you're not paying attention, you're not sure what you just read, and the repetitive part eventually recedes, and the objects in the poems have a chance to stand out, whether they're part of the repetitive statement or nestled alongside it. There's also the question of just how much our own psychological existence is repetition, and how much is change. I guess I'd hope to liken Henguchi's repetition to a syncopated ideaphoria.
Lisa: I could see that. I'm impressed even that the spacing is preserved, the gaps and pauses in the prose that give the lines internal breath. By the way, it's lovely to look at the Japanese typography. I'm struck by the beauty of the characters, which retain their symbolic origins, in contrast to English, which is purely a signifier.
David: Preserving the gaps and pauses during the design process was an incredible headache. There were revisions made to the original as we were editing, and as the translator and one of many proofreaders and editors, I would not be notified about changes beforehand, so I would discover them after finalizing the English, feel like screaming, and then calm down and write an email to revise the master document, which I didn't have access to. We communicated design corrections through emails with color highlights, footnotes to word docs, and a rare Skype to Tokyo. Eventually we came up with a system to preserve and localize the gaps in English. This felt like a major achievement.
Lisa: I note the first poem in the collection, "Nihongo," is about the Japanese language itself. Can you talk about the decision to foreground that?
David: There are so many challenges in translation, and bringing the reader into a language they're not familiar with, in a language that they are familiar with, was the goal of the work. "Nihongo" does that by practically giving the language, Nihongo (Japanese), a personality, a dynamic, and a sense of being something that you grapple with. It's a feat even in the original Japanese, and torques the minds of many traditional poetry fans. I was even asked by one reader, "What's he trying to do! Is he trying to destroy Japanese?" and this is not the case, far from it in fact, but riding that line between destroying language and breathing life into it was what made it contemporary.
Lisa: So many of Henguchi's observations are, well, Tweetable--you'll notice I've been quoting him on Twitter as I've made my way through the work. For example, "In our house grandfather lit grandmother's cigar and passed it to her. Women smoke/men light." I'm curious about what initially attracted you to his work, and if it was this distilled observational wisdom of his.
David: Oh, boy, this is my favorite topic. It was really Henguchi's love of word and passion for expression that popped off the page and grabbed me. His line, "I want to burn Nihongo and turn it into smoke" got me hooked. A language full of convention such as Japanese is not something you're supposed to "smoke" or "burn," but I've certainly felt both smoked and burned by language, so turning it inside out was exactly the kind of near-hallucinogenic experience I was searching for in literature.
That, and that the subtle messaging was not singularly nihilistic. It doesn't seems to revel in failure or rage, but seems to skip to a beat that feels contemporary. I guess you could say that it was fast enough, flexible enough, and has that "something" that turns language inside out and doesn't flinch; that's what hooked me. It was love at first sight. There's also his ability to really speak about Japan in a way that doesn't lose cultural relevance but doesn't over-romanticize it either.
Lisa: Henguchi reminds me of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the way that he is calling attention to the pleasures and pitfalls of language itself. His prose poems in particular called to mind Lyn Hejinian's autobiography My Life, both for the examination of language and the examination of self, as Lizard Telepathy is full of autobiographical references, which even if they aren't truly autobiographical have that feel. I also think of the work of Seattle's own Stacey Levine, and I note that Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons was helpful to you in this translation process. Who does Henguchi cite as his own influences?
David: The Language Poets are an excellent analogue to Henguchi's poems. His method for writing does start with sight and sound. The one thing he does feel confident about is that regardless of convention or lack of it, Henguchi wants his poems to be fun. That, I abide by. If you can re-invent fun, you've got something.
As for influences, Henguchi hasn't recognized a contemporary movement or artistic influences, and has recently found poetry to be one of his main creative impulses. He's interested in how he is intrinsically indebted to being born as a human and the life that this brings. Stylistically, he feels a kinship to photographers Araki Yoshinobu, Kyoichi Tsuzuki, and painter Shinro Ohtake. In Japan he's been asked about connections between his artwork, Japanese hip-hop culture, and the work of Miranda July and Harmony Korine. Again, more than anything, he's cognizant that because of the essential, shared human condition, all artwork is related, and every similarity is fair game.
For my part I see Henguchi as a poet who's developed something special at the right time, part of a Japanese renaissance that's just beginning to come out. The older generation who made their waves in the 60s and 70s is just beginning to pass the torch. And I feel Henguchi's work is part of sloughing off the past. I was lucky to meet with a scholar at the UW who pointed out that due to the flexibility and ubiquity of the Internet we're seeing linguistic stylization that hasn't been part of the average writer's repertoire since the early 19th century.
Lisa: Part of Henguchi's project seems to be acknowledging what can and can't be captured, whether in photography or writing. In "Gone Insane," for example, there's a stanza that begins, "Can meet when we can can't meet when we can't." The stanza ends with, "I don't even catch a glimpse of that boy." What are your thoughts on this?
David: My thoughts on this are - exactly! You got it. That's the most wonderful thing I can say about his poems, that they leave you with a sense of loss and fulfillment at the same time. In his writing Henguchi is not a nihilist–but–there is the sense that we've all experienced losing something important. But even with loss and destruction, our pain is something rare and beautiful, admirable, and a source of strength and a sign of life. That's what drew me to Henguchi, and that loss is there and life is full of it, but we are still alive, and hungry, and passionate, even in a whirlwind of sight and sound where we can't catch everything no matter how hard we try. Maybe every once in a while we catch the wind in our sails, and maybe we don't know exactly just what that wind is, but it's there.
We have no use for your
crumbs. Me and the girls, see, we
tore the S off Superman’s chest.
Hung it on a hanger, stuck it in a closet.
But the damned S glows there.
Underneath the door at night,
a thin strip like a memory.
This poem was originally published by the journal Mindfire.
Your body was so big,
it filled the house
as if we lived in a doll’s house.
We kids bumped into your arms,
tried to avoid your fists,
were often smashed
And when you rolled over in bed,
we thought we were dead.