Confetti #4

These are FB posts of mine from various threads. They are, in effect, little mini essays in response to what the thread presented. Though they are also self-contained thoughts.

Perhaps by self-appointed literary cognoscenti, but to assume any kind of bright line between genre & literary is intellectual malpractice. At their extremes, you can say literary is where not much happens but a lot goes on, and genre as evoking the question: what happens next? The reading experience is broad, and joy, pleasure, intellectual satisfaction, thrills, profundity, etc. do not exist in a hierarchy.

Confetti #3

These are FB posts of mine from various threads. They are, in effect, little mini essays in response to what the thread presented. Though they are also self-contained thoughts.

Rebecca, your point is really interesting, especially for writers. Here are some random thoughts… Emotions are essential for survival value, deep brain stuff that allows us to reflexively respond to threats real or imagined; even positive emotions like love serve that purpose, e.g., allow us to bond with mates and communities—again, important to our survival. How much emotion is appropriate? IMO, that’s a function of our rational mind’s perception (read: measure) of threat. Also, the expression (release) of emotions are cathartic when emotional pressure has built up to such an extent it may induce irrational behavior which, again, is counterproductive to survival. Given that we must exist with mates & society, we all strive for emotions felt and expressed which are appropriate to the circumstance though there’s a large subjective element to that—what frightens me may not frighten you and vice versa, or what we love…etc. The trick is to train ourselves to the extent possible that the feelings we have and express are consonant with a “realistic” measure of the stimulus in front of us. A lot of that is rational, e.g., we’ve looked under the bed enough times to know nothing is there but sweatsocks and dust bunnies.

Confetti #2

These are FB posts of mine from various threads. They are, in effect, little mini essays in response to what the thread presented. Though they are also self-contained thoughts.

Trouble is, too many people conflate “faith” with “church.” Churches are institutions run by people, as such, are vulnerable to all the vagaries of the human condition. On the other hand, the best part of church is to guide us into faith, sustain our faith, provide rites and rituals and theological and moral insight gleaned by millennia of priests and rabbis and philosophers who study such matters. But also, as we know, many church leaders and members are all too “human.” Faith on the other hand, does not depend on church. It is a simple recognition of a higher being that is all powerful and benevolent, and to whom we “pray” when we are troubled, and in so doing, become comforted. We of faith believe it is a gift, and I, for one, pray that mine stays strong since it has served me so well in so many ways. Sometimes I wonder if we are god, meaning there is some unknown part of ourselves, our psyches, that contains the cumulative wisdom of all who came before us and is available to dole out guidance and comfort. Or if it’s not ourselves who are god, then it is within us that God resides.

Why I Love Shawn Cosby’s Work

Raw. Raw fear. Raw rage. Raw passion and love. Real life. We don’t read a book, we feel it. Or don’t.

Shawn Cosby’s work gives us the life that feels rather than the so-called writerly “showing”of bit lips and drumming fingers, mere mini portholes to the soul covered by translucent shades lest anybody be uncomfortable. They’re intended to guard against vulnerability and be acceptable to a crowd equally alienated from its own feelings—strangers in a strange land of the head in which abstract thinking is a substitute for living, yet as insubstantial and ephemeral as a synaptic pulse. Such characters, be they writers or fictional or Fred next door, bore; their inner landscape is moon-like with interesting mountains and valleys but ameliorated by layers of dust feet thick.

I have argued against death-of-the-novel rhetoric by claiming it to be the best art form to capture the human experience in all its complexity, its scope amenable to getting to the inside of the inside of the inside. I try to do that in my stories. So does Shawn. He does it really well.

So keep going, my friend, because when you’re on the right track, every station you go by is the right station.

Confetti #1

These “Confetti” are FB posts of mine from various threads. They are, in effect, little mini essays in response to what the thread presented. Though they are also self-contained thoughts.

What made this country the place much of the rest of the world envies & would like to emigrate to is our institutions, form of government, culture, economic system, etc. Nobody claims we are or have been perfect, simply the best there is or has ever been. And though we are a nation of immigrants which enriches our culture, it is expected that after a generation or two or three immigrants become “Americans.” Our systems have brought more people out of poverty and want the world has ever known. Our power, though sometimes misdirected, has frequently saved much of the world from disaster. We are the most charitable nation on earth; we are the policeman for the western world; we check world domination by evildoers; we welcome more immigrants than any other place in the world. Ours is the only nation in world history created from whole cloth and the idea of freedom being inherent to people and deriving from God rather than government. We were not conquered, annexed, converted, dominated or influenced by any religious or political power other than the power of ideas laid out in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and explicated in the Federalist Papers. Diversity keeps our culture rich, but the idea of America keeps us free, wealthy, and powerful. The cornerstone of what we are is on our currency: E pluribus unum; in God we Trust; and Freedom. Now why would anybody want to change that?

Review: Hiding Among the Dead by Chris Bauer

The story lines of illegal organ harvesting, crime scene cleanup and bare knuckle boxing were easy to make hash out of, but Bauer does a masterful job weaving those plot lines together in this excellent crime thriller. It is tightly written and amply researched, providing the kind of detail to keep you glued to the page and eager to turn to the next. As for the characters, there is enough detail to make them multi-dimensional but not so much inner landscape as to slow down a thriller. Bauer’s voice is snappy & sprinkled with occasional irony. For purposes of this review I spot-checked individual pages for writerly lard and found none. This is simply the best thriller I’ve read in the last couple years.

Writing Characters III

All writers have their own process. Mine begins with character(s). They present early on. I pay no mind to back-story, physical characteristics, or even their role at this initial stage; rather, I contemplate how their emotional construct impels their actions. Writers recognize this as: What does the character need? What motivates him?

Where I part company with some is to require a refined sense of what that need is. Saving the world, getting vengeance, finding love, etc. arise from a constellation of experiences and mental, emotional, and often cultural constructs before emerging. For example, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” There is a lot of back-story packed into that Big Bang of an opening line from “Pride and Prejudice,” such that it led to attitudes, feelings, assessments, strategies and inter-character dynamics unfolding throughout the entire, fascinating novel.

I am not referring to the best way to reveal or mete out characters’ motivations; I am saying I need to comprehend the underlying geology before I can explain a volcano’s eruption.

When I created Eddie Matthews, the despicable bad guy in “I Detest All My Sins,” I wanted to humanize him, so gave him a violent childhood. But it wasn’t enough to confer complex emotional depth beyond expected anger and violence. He wants his captive, Louise, to want him emotionally and sexually. He’s more than willing to handcuff her in a closet and abuse her in the meantime, yet he still longs for her. He’s by no means sympathetic; he’s otherwise self-serving, evil as hell, and a little ego parading as a big ego. But who can’t identify with feelings of longing? It contributed to the favorable Kirkus review of the book, including the remark, “…there’s an appealing neatness to the author’s careful psychological studies.”

            The more clarity we possess regarding our own inner landscape, the easier to project it onto our fictional characters; yet not simple. We have defenses, ways of rationalizing unpleasant events and feelings about ourselves that may arise from them. I’m no shrink, but I frequently pause at the keyboard, lean back, and conjure my own history before I can imbue it into a fictional character. Perhaps this is why writing is often cathartic.

I am fascinated by training in method acting, i.e., techniques to access long-ago emotions locked in a closet out of self-protectiveness for use on the stage—crying real tears when the scene calls for it—then putting the grief back into the closet when the klieg lights go off. There, the actor isn’t “acting” per se, but in that and other moments “becomes” the character.

Finally, not everybody needs to plumb depths of their own psyches to create fascinating, complex characters. Some have great radar or are blessed with intuitive understandings of psycho-dynamics. Me? I need to dig within myself. I need to access feelings of fear, longing, love, hate, frustration—the panoply of emotions attendant to being human—and bring them to the surface, examine them from all angles, recall what they meant to my life and how I reacted for better or for worse, and what the consequences were.

Once I do that in me, I can put it in a book.

 

The Pitch: It’s a Bitch

Like most writers, I’d rather be writing stories—lost in images, worlds, words, characters and their conflicts—instead of pitching my work.

We’re pitching all the time, aren’t we? We pitch to agents, publishers and readers.  Our query letters are pitches; we develop an “elevator pitch” to answer the question, “What’s your book about?” Then, when our book or story is published, we’re pitching to everybody who can get our work into the world. We pitch to bloggers, book reviewers, sponsors of literary events, podcasters, and even fellow writers who may have a yet unthought-of entity to pitch to. We pitch our damned brains out.

I hate it, and every other writer I know hates it too. We are artists, not salespeople. But it’s a built-in conundrum: Part of what makes us artists is we feel we can express something through craft and resonate with others. We don’t write in a vacuum, we crave that resonance. We want to send beauty and thought and feeling into the world; we think we can do it in a unique way and need others to see it. It’s why we write: to touch others, but ain’t gonna happen without the pitch. Lots of them.

I came to writing late in life and chafe against pitching as much as anybody, but why am I surprised at having to pitch? Haven’t I been doing it all my life?

To begin with, I’m a second-born. For all you non-first borns, you know what that means, don’t you? It means competing for attention from minute-one—to have my picture taken too; be first at the ice cream; to establish my own identity…in short, searching for the spotlight. And how is that done? Strategies vary, but in a world in which we or our writing aren’t ipso facto recognized, (“My oldest’s birthday is September 22nd; Lanny’s is sometime in the summer”), we found a way to do it. Been tap dancing all our lives.

We pitch to the colleges to gain entry; we pitch to professors for an A instead of a B; we pitch to employers to hire us; we pitch to bosses to buy our program; we pitch woo to the opposite sex; we pitch ethics to our kids…it never stops. Then, some day, we’ll be facing the grim reaper. You know what that means, don’t you? About Kubler-Ross? The “bargaining” phase? You got it: Another pitch.

So relax into it. You’re an artist. Get your work out there. Pitch whoever can help do that, then pitch some more. Make your query as good as you can; pitch at conferences; pitch your friends for reviews. But don’t be boorish about it. Stop now and then and exhale, maybe have a drink, kiss your kids or your dog or cat. Don’t let the need to pitch feel so onerous, because friend, if you’re reading this at all, if you got this far in your life, you’re already good at it.

Lanny Larcinese

Noir Fiction: Why I Love It

I love noir fiction and movies. So do millions of others. Why is that?

For me, it’s clear: Noir comes closer than any other genre to capturing the human condition. You won’t find superheroes in noir, and redemption only occurs by the cubic centimeter. When it does, it’s more likely that bad intentions get their comeuppance than a person changed for the better and now doing good for humanity. What would you expect from stories populated by damaged protagonists, femmes fatales, and enough double-crosses to line the Appian Way?

The noir protagonist is usually a put-upon person. He likely emanates from an environment that robbed much of his hope, perhaps done in by poverty, war, prison, trauma, booze or drugs or being jilted, and reckons he deserves better. He’s different from your basic bad guy. He still has a glimmer of goodness and believes someday, after his ship comes in, he’ll get himself on the right track. Meanwhile, he’s on the wrong track, so every station he goes by is the wrong station. He doesn’t see things through a moral prism; he comes from hunger. He may not even know what he’s hungry for. It’s why he’s vulnerable to the double-cross and the femme fatale. He gets outwitted; he is like a puppy in traffic and why we pull for him despite his flaws.

The most interesting relationship in noir fiction is between the protagonist and the femme fatale. What man cannot understand the magnetism of a beautiful woman? What woman cannot understand that in a world where institutions are run by men, most of whom are also physically stronger, you use everything you got? Neither the femme fatale nor her unwitting victim is a good person.  Each uses the other for nefarious ends. They are in a dance like the mating of praying mantises: You may get her, but better take wing before you lose your head; she’ll have it digested before you notice your body stops at the neck. So character flaws and their consequences propel noir stories. They tell us less how to be than how not to be; they are less morality tale than lay open the human soul to expose desire, need, unfairness, and powerlessness.

It’s said that sci-fi monster movies and books of the 40s & 50s were an artistic response to the public’s inchoate fears of nuclear annihilation. I speculate the current popularity of noir may derive in part from anxieties caused by the explosion of social media—a phenomenon with which we have yet learned to cope, given its unleashing of raw hostility and unfettered antagonisms. Noir may well be a response to our nihilistic fears, thirst for redemption, and tribal comfort through privity to alienated and alienating lives—in other words, misery loves company. As a writer of crime fiction, I have always taken a cue from Faulkner: “The work of the novelist is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Noir gives you a double feature: two hearts in conflict—each with itself as well as another.

Lanny Larcinese

Fire in the Belly

Work In progress — a story based on the 1985 Philadelphia Police bombing of a cult’s fortress in which eleven died, including five children, and sixty-one row houses allowed to burn to the ground.

FIRE IN THE BELLY

(Draft)

By Lanny Larcinese

Prologue

    The forensic investigation unit of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office had seen corpses eaten by rats and roaches before—usually people who died alone, in anonymity, maybe buried under three feet of a hoarder’s detritus or somebody’s grandma outliving everybody except a landlord discovering her body while attempting to collect rent.

    This body was different. This was no middle-aged man keeling over in the brush from a heart attack while jogging, and hadn’t been dead all that long. His eyeballs were gone and he displayed bite marks from small, narrow teeth. The holes dug into the front of his body at first looked like hollow-point bullet wounds, but their uneven shape suggested some animal got to him. A quick call to Rat Control confirmed that yes, rats did inhabit the remote wooded area known as the Forbidden Drive beside the Wissahickon Creek. A lot of them.

    When the body was turned over and traces of peanut butter found smeared on it, it was clear this was a murder, probably by knife. But gnawing vermin made knife wounds hard to identify, especially since peanut butter had been stuffed into them. It wouldn’t be the first time a murderer recruited wildlife to eat the evidence.

    No identification was found near the nude corpse. The forensic team began surveying for missing person reports while awaiting the full autopsy.

    It didn’t take long to identify the partially eaten V.I.P. cooling in the fridge.

 Chapter One

Jamin Baker’s eyes popped open when the brittle static of loudspeakers silenced the chorus of sparrows in the leafy Parkside district adjacent to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. The prospect of Lucinda War’s voice set Jamin’s nerves humming like a tuning fork.

The scratchy static was the 6:00 a.m. prelude to Lucinda’s morning rant — her shrill soprano enough to vibrate window glass — berating neighbors not to play into the hands of authorities by complaining about vermin multiplying throughout the neighborhood, etc. etc. The blaring racket would go on for hours, preaching various parts of Project War’s manifesto.

“As Jackie War teaches us,” she would say day after day after day, “all life is precious, and these little creatures have more of a right to be in this pathetic neighborhood than y’all.”

Eight loudspeakers were fastened to the corners of the decrepit, four-story Queen Ann in the middle of the block. Project War had taken the house over – first as squatters and later at auction – from a city hoping to buy peace from the bizarre and hostile group. Four more speakers were attached to nearby trees, including in front of Jamin’s apartment building. No way could he escape the annoyance.

Shortly after the amplified tirades began, he had used every ounce of his six foot six, two-seventy to bang on their door to restore order to the peaceful, middle-class, black neighborhood. As a natural leader, Benjamin Baker – “Jammin’ Jamin” to his friends, for his muted, soulful trumpet solos lilting from his open windows on sultry summer nights – had been block captain for three years prior to the intrusion of the militant group. The neighbors would expect him to handle the problem, and he could hardly wait.

Lucinda War had answered the door. A Nina Simone look-alike, she was tall and slim with satin, onyx-black skin and close-cropped hair. Her posture leaned forward like a reed in a delta pond, but her delicate look belied the virulent rhetoric spewed daily through the heated and hated loudspeakers of Project War.

She invited Jamin in and offered him a seat. He refused, said he’d only need a minute. Cockroaches openly scurrying over the sofa and walls signaled Jamin they were used to having their way. Two naked children, a boy and a girl about nine, alert faces framed by long dreadlocks, sucked on thumbs and peeked shyly around a half-opened pocket door.

“What can we do about those loudspeakers?” Jamin had asked Lucinda. “They’re making all us neighbors crazy.”

“Nuthin’. Nuthin’ can be done. It’s important to get Jackie War’s message out, and y’all motherfuckers better listen instead of fightin’ it.”

All Jamin could do was grit his teeth.

The whole town knew of Jackie War by now. He was flouting the law, trying to make Philadelphia into Detroit. But when it came to law and order, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Hank Marazzo made Detroit P.D. look like a Buddhist commune.

Project War had been handing out mimeographed pamphlets on street corners and blasting their message through loudspeakers for years. Its membership doubled after ’79, after a cop died in a shootout at their former headquarters in North Philly. The confrontation was over the service of a subpoena for L&I violations. A cop’s death over a lousy property matter threw more acid between the police and the black community – already eroded enough – and injected a kind of polio into a city administration able to talk but paralyzed by political stalemate.

Five War members had been convicted and were doing time. Now, in some twisted logic that Benjamin Baker couldn’t comprehend, Project War added neighbors to its declaration of war against the world, and stood ready to do whatever necessary to get the brothers freed.

*

    Jamin sat on the edge of his bed and covered his ears. The usual hostile words over the loudspeaker bled into one, long, piercing screed. Not even his legendary will could blunt the racket from leaching into his head. In a fit of rage some months prior, he had ripped the speakers out of the tree beside his building, only to have two men from Project War threaten to hurt him bad if he did it again. Maybe Dawn, too.

“Only Jackie War decides when it’s quiet time,” they had said. Jamin could have broken both of them in half, but he had Dawn to worry about.

Frustration overwhelmed him every time he saw his young niece talking to the Project War people on their porch. He had warned her they were not to be befriended, but she protested in her fifteen year old way that they were nice, that none of them was ever mean to her. And she wasn’t afraid of no big bad wolf. They had even asked her to read to the children who occupied the compound. She agreed, as long as the children put on clothes. They were usually naked running through the  neighborhood.

“I think they’re poor, Uncle Benjy,” she told Jamin. “All they ever eat are raw vegetables and onions.”

By twelve, Dawn had grown to a skinny five-foot ten, but by fifteen she was taller yet and almost fully built out. She looked more like a woman than she was, and Jamin’s promise to her father – his dead brother – to look after her pressed against his skull like a brain swollen with fever.

He lacked the instincts of a natural father, so it was work to scare away frisky high school boys. He even had to give one of her male teachers comeuppance when the teacher’s after-class tutoring ended with a hug and his hand on her bottom.

Jamin, a well-read bus driver and part-time security guard, undertook her tutoring himself. He had to. She was precious though painfully reticent, and her father was dead because of him. Maybe he should have told her he was her father.

When she found out from a cousin at ten years old that her father was killed in an accident that Jamin caused by driving drunk, she became more distant yet. At first, Jamin wrote it off as the work of pre-adolescence, but when actual adolescence arrived, her reserve became armor he couldn’t penetrate.

He slipped into his ratty slippers and brown terrycloth robe with the underarm torn away. He shuffled into his niece’s bedroom and gave her a gentle shake on the shoulder. She didn’t stir.

“Dawn, honey, wake up.”

Barely squinting, she opened an almond-shaped, hazel eye and aimed it toward her uncle.

“What time is it?” she said in a thick voice.

“Time to get up is what time it is. C’mon now girl, shake yourself awake. I’ll get us some coffee.”

He had vowed when she was a two-year old orphan that he would never shout for her to wake up. He would never jerk her awake. He would never reprimand her or nag her about anything upon awakening. Instead, he would wake her gently, then bring her a simple breakfast in bed, and when she was old enough to drink coffee, that, too. He wanted each of her days to begin gently, feeling she was cared for. It was the least he could do.

He went into the kitchen, tore open a package of Pop-Tarts, put them into the toaster, and reached for a package of Folgers while the coffeepot filled under the spigot. He carried her breakfast back into the bedroom, set the tray on her nightstand, and shook her awake again.

“C’mon now, you got to get ready for school.”

He sat at her bedside. He would stay there until she embraced the coffee mug in both hands and took her first sip.

Jamin was usually chatty driving her to West Philadelphia High, although was always unsure if she got benefit of his counsel during those early morning rides, or whether she was still in a sleep-deprived haze or within her own emotional igloo.

Nor could he tell if her, “Yes, Uncle Benjy,” or “No, Uncle Benjy,” or worse, “I dunno,” was in response to something he said, or butter to ease the chafing of adult wisdom grating against adolescent resentment.

“You still seeing that Bernard boy?” he asked as they got rolling.

“We’re friends. I have lots of friends.”

“Maybe you’re friendlier to some than to others,” he said.

“What does that mean? What are you trying to say?”

“Why don’t you bring him home, tell him not to be afraid?”

“Why should he be afraid?” she said.

“He should be afraid because he don’t treat you respectful, he deals with me.”

“I know how to take care of myself.”

“Maybe. Anyway, bring Bernard around. I’ll get us some Popeyes.”

She didn’t respond. It made Jamin crazy when she did that. Who knew what went through her head? Not long ago he didn’t want to hear about boys; but lately, he hated that she was finding excuses to visit those crazies next door.

The time to choose the less worse thing had arrived.

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