April Books

Apr2016books

I made a couple of bookstore visits this week, both of them regular stops on my book-buying rounds. First up was my buddy Nissley’s bookstore in Greenwood, where I came upon all unexpected-like the cosmic nexus of my Penguin and SF loves: a box set of 100 Penguin science fiction postcards. For a look at what it contains, check out the indispensible Art of Penguin Science Fiction site. I tend to a more restrained aesthetic with these, and would have liked to see more covers from the 50s and 60s, and fewer of David Pelham’s and Adrian Chesterman’s garish 70s pop-art monstrosities. But there’s still plenty here to love, and the cardstock feels nice and sturdy. Some of the Wyndhams and Stapledons will end up framed on the wall.

Next up was a visit to Magus Books in the U District, my favorite used bookstore anywhere. I’ve been collecting the Penguin Critical Anthologies series, though only for writers and poets I’m actively interested in reading criticism about. So far I have Spenser and Dickens; and just last week I was reading Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” and thinking I’d like to get my hands on the Marvell edition of the series. (Make mine Marvell! as Stan Lee or someone used to say…) This one’s in great shape — it feels like the spine has barely been cracked — and edited by John Carey, a really sharp critic of 17th-century poets especially.

Another find at Magus was Fancy and Imagination, which caught my eye because the terms represent an essential dichotomy in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetic theory that I don’t feel confident I totally understand, even after reading Volume 2 of Holmes’s fantastic Coleridge biography last month. Speaking of Coleridge, I’m also (finally!) finishing John Livingston Lowes’s charming and comprehensive Coleridge study The Road to Xanadu, almost certainly one of my ten favorite books although I haven’t finished it yet — I read the first three parts about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a few years back, but never got to Part Four, which deals with “Kubla Khan.” Lowes’s investigation into the sources of Coleridge’s poetry, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes utterly obscure, is an amazing piece of literary detective work.

Did I get off topic? I got off topic. The last book I picked up at Magus was a beautiful 1963 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Lord of the Flies, which I haven’t read since high school but have been eager to look into again after reading The Inheritors, Golding’s haunting portrayal of Neanderthal man at his apocalypse, a few years back. This one came with an unexpected bonus: inside the back cover there’s a smart little caricature, obviously drawn from life during a rail journey, of napping passengers.

lord-flies-sketch

The notation reads Julian Hall / 5 Bateman St. / Cambridgepretty swank digs judging from the internet.

Clarion West 2014 – Holy hell in a fucking flower market

Now that Clarion West is over I’m having trouble knowing what to make of it. I’m still processing it. Certainly it was a huge boost for my writing — I learned tons, and personally felt like the stories I produced the last three weeks were miles better than what I wrote the first two. (Week 3’s story felt weirdly transitional — it’s probably salvageable but it has deep flaws I need to work on in revision.)

Really the whole experience was a hell of a lot more intense, exhausting, and exhilarating than I expected. There were plenty of days when I felt like I was just in a constant explore-my-own-shortcomings loop, often in my writing but even more so just personally — in my character and temperament and disposition, in how I relate to people and how I apprehend them. There were some nights I just felt defeated by myself, by the messes in my head. It’s weirdly unsettling being around people you really admire.

On the other hand I feel like most of the time I provided, at least externally, a stable presence for some other folks who were going through the same peaks and troughs I was. I even sort of adopted a tattoo’d, bepierced Australian daughter, Marlee, who’s a wonderful person, a trusted friend, and a fantastic, inspired writer.

There were in fact a lot of really, really good writers there. I think if I were younger I might have found the skill level of some of them a bit disturbing, but as it was I could admire it without any sort of ill will or jealousy, and just enjoy their work as a reader.

The stories I wrote while I was there were:

  • Week 1 – Periphilia (1300 words)
  • Week 2 – The Iterations (4100 words)
  • Week 3 – Round About the Keel With Faces Pale (4500 words)
  • Week 4 – Worspect Hobbing (2100 words)
  • Week 5 – Harrower (1000 words)
  • Week 6 – What Would Blackshaw Do? (1200 words)

There’s a definite inverted-V shape in the wordcounts there. My week 4 story was a breeze to write, but after that I found that I just couldn’t get myself to do the work of constructing characters for a 4k-5k length piece. As I was writing a conventionally structured Week 5 story, I realized at 10pm of the night before it was due that I just couldn’t do it. I had too much head-weather aside from the effort of writing careful characterizations, evocatively described settings, etc. So I scrapped it and wrote it in the style of Beowulf over the course of three or four hours, and I was pretty happy with the results. (The title of this post is a quote from it — gotta get that alliteration into your Anglo-Saxon epic any way you can…) My fellow student Shannon (super-talented) said “When you don’t give a fuck you produce stuff like this,” which is pretty apt. I think she meant it in a positive way…

I came out of the whole experience reinvested in writing — not just in novels, which is what I’ve always been working on, but in short stories as well.

Some other stuff:

  • I quit coffee while I was there. It was combining with the rich food (we had a chef making lunch and dinner for us Monday through Thursday so, uh, poor us) to murder my stomach, and not slowly either. So I whittled my intake down day by day until I eventually gave it up altogether. I feel really good now and have no plans to go back to it. I did take up rum-and-cokes while I was there, but I’m now giving those a wide berth as well.
  • It was the first month I didn’t read a book cover-to-cover since at least 1987. In other words, I’ve read at least one book a month since at least seven of my classmates were born. Yikes, man.
  • The instructors were uniformly great. Paul Park got replaced at the last minute by James Patrick Kelly because Paul’s eye was going to explode, and Jim did a great job jumping in and helping us through the inevitably weird first week. Kij Johnson is crazy awesome in pretty much every way, Ian MacDonald is an avuncular shaman, Hiromi Goto is a sure-eyed diagnostician and a joy to be around, Charlie Jane Anders is full of good ideas, and John Crowley is a great guy to talk books with as well as being a master teacher.
  • My classmate Curtis signed with a literary agent while he was there. Congrats, Curtis!
  • We played some fun games I’d never played before: Cards Against Humanity, Fiasco, Dixit, the Things, telephone pictionary. If you get a chance to play The Things with Jim Kelly, by all means do so. But don’t play with Alison — she has a lot of great qualities, including being a super-talented writer and artist, but screaming when she’s tapped to become a Thing is not one of them.
  • I was luckier than a lot of folks in that I could see my family pretty regularly, since I live here in Seattle. My wife came to most of the parties, and my son even came to a few. I also spent a few nights out of the Clarion West house with them, which helped me to keep a steady heart when I really needed it. In the words of Bruce Wayne:

luckyoldman

Clarion West on Dagobah

Clarion West starts on Sunday; today I start picking folks up at the airport. Right now I feel pretty relaxed about the whole thing but I suspect that’s like Luke at the start of his Jedi training.

This blog will probably be pretty quiet from now through July. I suspect that, at six weeks, the workshop is longer than Luke’s training period on Dagobah, considering that, while he’s there, Han and Leia just fly around amid the asteroids for a day or two before going to Bespin (though granted without hyperdrive, somehow) and hanging out there long enough to wonder where Threepio got off to. I’m guessing that whole part of The Empire Strikes Back adds up to…a month? Maybe?

Seattle, Independents, and Amazon

Interesting article today in the NYT about bookstores vs. Amazon in Seattle — though maybe vs. is the wrong word, since the article’s slant is more about how the two are coming into an uneasy co-existence.

elliottbayThe article pretty firmly triangulates my working life. I worked in independent bookstores, both in California and here in Seattle, for six years before taking a job at Amazon, where I worked for a whole slew of years until I left last July to take some time off and pursue writing. I can confirm, for myself and plenty of Amazon folks I know, that we do indeed shop regularly at local bookstores. I can also confirm that the members of Amazon teams that focus on books (as opposed to diapers, pliers, mascara, etc.) are avid and engaged readers.

Certainly I’ll be shopping at Phinney Books, which, as featured in the article, is my buddy Tom Nissley’s new bookstore, opening in May in Seattle’s Greenwood/Phinney Ridge neighborhood.

Clarion West 2014

clarion-west

So this is great news that I can now share: I got notified a few weeks back that I was accepted to attend Clarion West this summer. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a six-week writing workshop with a focus on speculative fiction, held here in Seattle. (There’s an affiliated workshop that’s basically the same thing held annually in San Diego, confusingly just called Clarion). By all accounts it is the absolute shizzle shizazzle for folks who write SF or fantasy and want to get better at it.

This year’s lineup of instructors looks great: Kij Johnson, John Crowley, Ian McDonald, Charlie Jane Anders, Hiromi Goto, and Paul Park. I’ve read work by some of them, and obviously I’ll be checking out the others’ writing in the next few months.

Apparently it’s a pretty intense six weeks. Folks come from all over the US and from other countries to attend, though fortunately for me it’s only about four miles away: I’ll be living at the UW campus for the six weeks with the rest of the group — in a sorority house, apparently — but I should be able to visit with my wife and son occasionally. It’ll also be great to be hanging out in the U District again — I worked at the University Book Store right off-campus for three years in the mid- to late-90s. Good times. All in all I have to say I’m really looking forward to this whole undertaking.

S.T. Joshi in the NYT

Two things I didn’t know but am now aware of, thanks to the Times profile of S.T. Joshi:

Quote #16 – Super Bowl Edition

end-zone“You know what to do,” he said, and his voice grew louder. “You know what this means. You know where we are. You know who to get.”

We were all making the private sounds. We were getting ready. We were getting high. The noise increased in volume.

“Footbawl,” George Owen shouted. “This is footbawl. You thow it, you ketch it, you kick it. Footbawl. Footbawl. Footbawl.”

– Don DeLillo, End Zone. Good luck Seahawks!