Saturday, April 11, 2015

Dostoevsky - Grandfather of the Zombie Apocalypse

It's not often that one is able to discover something in a 149-year-old book that no one else seems to have caught, but I have, and the internet confirms that I am the only one to realize that Fyodor Dostoevsky originated the idea of a zombie apocalypse in his novel Crime and Punishment.


In the epilogue of the book, when the main character Rodion Raskolnikov is finally enduring his "Punishment" he has this dream:
He [Raskolnikov] dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.

A "plague" of "microbes" that affects human behavior, making them "at once mad and furious", driving them to kill; not just to kill, but to "fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other." With the exception of some early stories that uses radiation as the culprit, the majority of zombie lore show the cause of the "plague" as some form of "microbe." [ex. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later]

The outbreak moves fast, and spreads wide: "Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection." [ex. Night of the Living Dead]

It evokes a military response, "They gathered together in armies against one another..." [ex. World War Z]

He shows the confusion and breakdown of communication among the survivors: "The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew." [ex. The Walking Dead]

He shows how our priorities would change: "The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned." [ex. also The Walking Dead]

And he shows the dangers of survivor against survivor: "Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other." [ex. Zombieland, and again, The Walking Dead]

Civilization moves to the edge of destruction: "There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further."

Until finally, there is a glimmer of hope that all the death and destruction cleansed the earth for a better future: "Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth," before the inevitable dark, hopelessness of humankind closes in: "but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices."

So Robert Kirkman, Max Brooks, Colson Whitehead, Isaac Marion, and other writers who have expanded the zombie mythos, make sure you give thanks to the one who first put the zombie apocalypse into our literary consciousness; as one that is currently writing a zombie novel, let me pay my dues here: "Thank you, Fyodor. Without your idea of a microbial plague that decimates civilization, our society would lack the awesome stories this idea has generated."

Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Unfortunately Outdated Interview with M. Allen Cunningham

In this, the third of my blog idea housecleaning, I present an interview I did with M. Allen Cunningham back in 2012, after he had launched his micro-press Atelier 26 with its inaugural release Date of Disappearance. I tried to get the interview published, and had high hopes after I received my first personalized rejection, and then heard nothing else ever from the other dozen places where I submitted it.

In the years since that initial book release, Atelier 26 has published two more books by Cunningham, with a third forthcoming, as well as adding three other authors to their list. Buy there books now here.

Why don’t we start by discussing your shift from traditional publishing at the small press Unbridled Books, to going indie? What do you feel happened between the publishing of Lost Son, and the submission of your third novel, The Silent Generations?

Do you have some time? This might take a minute.
            OK, I guess I should start by noting that Unbridled is, in fact, indie. That is, they’re unaffiliated with corporate publishing, they’re decentralized, and they don’t even keep offices in New York. All good things.
            What I can say about my latest novel, The Silent Generations, is this: it’s finished and ready for print. It’s been ready for more than two years now. An offer was made on the novel back in 2010, and this offer remained in place (generously, amazingly) even as I elected, for various reasons too personal and complicated to go into here, to see what other interest the book might attract. I felt, and my agent agreed, that I had reason for optimism. Then, after a little while, owing to numerous and mostly private factors, there was no longer any offer.
            Meanwhile, the book was making the rounds of big and medium-size publishers. Or, as I came to see it, the book was brushing up against the distinctive silliness of largely New York editors — a few of whom turned out to be barely matriculated twenty-something neophytes appallingly tasked with manning the gates. As their replies rolled in, I got used to hearing obnoxious comments about the author’s “track record,” the inability to make him a “breakout,” etc. — all of which seemed pretty irrelevant. And I began to understand to what extent BookScan does most authors a grievous injustice, not to mention its effect on the overall literary health of the publishing marketplace.
            Generally, too, I came to see what scant reading most of these New York people had done in my manuscript — wholly misinterpreting it through obvious (and faulty) skimming. Amazingly enough, this did not deter most of them in their perceived prerogative to offer so-called editorial insight about a novel which, in their descriptions of it, hardly resembled mine.
            Do I sound offended? Should I not take it all so personally? My position now is that most writers should get more offended. Our publishing culture needs an earth-shattering shakeup (and e-books are not the answer).     
            I’m talking about a serious rejuvenation of editorial sensibility, an old-fashioned passionate readerly sense of mission! It did exist in this country once, even in the warrens of Manhattan.
            These feelings were all components of my decision to launch Atelier26, certainly.
            Anyway, as I say, The Silent Generations is finished and ready for print. I and my incredible agent stand by it. And I am still, for the most part, keen on it going to a traditional publisher. Which is not to say that I won’t publish it my own damn self if necessary. Anybody respectable out there want a chance at it, though?

So, amid your struggles to get The Silent Generations published, came Date of Disappearance. How did you get involved with USA Projects, and why did you choose Date of Disappearance to be your first self-published / micro-press project?

Last summer I was invited to a reception here in Portland introducing artists to USA Projects. I thought it was brilliant to apply the Kickstarter fundraising model in an online venue dedicated exclusively to the arts and geared toward a community of arts supporters. Brilliant, too, was USA’s offer to match funds for each project. But I was also highly skeptical about the usefulness of the platform for the purposes of my work (or any writer’s work actually). Writing seemed to me all but impossible to present in the visual-dynamic way that the USA site favors: the artist’s video pitch, etc. It just so happened, however, that I’d had this finished short story collection on my hands for a few years, and that my artist friend Nathan Shields had recently finished illustrating it. My plan was to publish it on Lulu or something (never through Amazon, though!). After the USA reception, it occurred to me that the visual component of this book could really help me overcome that challenge of attracting support online for literary work. And if I could amass funds this way, I could publish the thing more on my own terms (design specs, etc) and under my own imprint. Date of Disappearance turned out to be the first wholly literary project on the site, and the fundraiser’s success astonished me!

Preparing Date of Disappearance for print gave you a chance to see the publisher’s side of bookmaking. What did you enjoy about the process of publishing Date of Disappearance?

The process was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, including the initial fundraising effort, which tapped into some entrepreneurial instincts I didn’t even knew I had. I liked working with the illustrator, Nathan Shields, on cover design, laying out the flaps, etc. I liked poring over the printer’s paper samples. I liked consulting with the page designer on the font, the illustration spreads, the interior. I liked receiving and opening the cartons of finished books — I’m in love with them, they’re beautiful. I liked wrapping and packaging the first shipments of copies to go out to my donors. I liked stamping each copy’s parcel paper with the Atelier26 logo. I’ve really enjoyed bringing copies around to independent bookstores and talking with booksellers. I like selling the book myself — I never really could have anticipated the level of gratification this would bring. Beyond the incomparable royalty margin (which is itself gratifying) there’s an indescribable pleasure about handing (or mailing) a book directly to a customer. That’s certainly something that’s hard to come by outside of the self-pub model (except at book-signings, to an extent). The whole enterprise has had an old-fashioned, hand-crafted, village merchant quality that gels nicely with my value system as a person and my aesthetics as a writer. I imagine the fun and gratification will only increase when it’s another writer’s work I’m ushering into the world.

Let's discuss Date of Disappearance. In addition to the previously published stories collected in the book, there was the story “Summer.” The notorious film Faces of Death acts as a coming-of-age experience in the story for your young main character. I'm curious, had you seen the film yourself at a young age? The narrator, Harris Gerber, confronts the fake sexual passion of pornography, and the alternately fake and real deaths in Faces of Death - did you have any formative cultural experiences similar to Harris's?

I did see “Faces of Death” at some point in mid-adolescence, under circumstances similar to Harris’s viewing, i.e., a samizdat VHS was obtained by an older sibling. Pretty much everything I remember from my own viewing went into “Summer.” It’s sort of odd for me to talk about this now, because while working on this story and making the allusions to “Faces of Death,” I had no reason to believe that anyone else had ever heard of the movie, let alone seen it. Is it really “notorious”?

I think in the VCR era when we grew up Faces of Death did have that notoriety. I had heard about it being seen by what passed for the underground at my high school. In college I remember a large group huddled around a small dorm-room television watching a scratchy dubbed copy, alternately laughing at the absurdly faked deaths, and feeling doubtful squeamish about the ones that seemed real. “Summer” would be a very different story if set in the Internet age. What I'm wondering is, were there any bits of culture that you experienced that catalyzed you to action as a young man?

I have an old friend I first met in the sixth grade, and to this day he likes to recall my early predilection for heavy movies. I guess it’s true. I dragged him to see “JFK” when it first came out — we must have been in seventh grade by then. The film compelled me to undertake some extracurricular research into conspiracy theories: I remember promptly buying a copy of Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins. What I carried away most vividly from that particular movie, though, was the kick-in-the-gut morbidity of the actual assassination footage shown in the courtroom scene when Kevin Costner (as Garrison) says: “Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left,” while replaying over and over the frames showing Kennedy’s head exploding. That image was so horrifically primal, especially knowing that it was real. Around that same late-adolescent period, I watched a number of other films — Dead Poets Society, The Remains of the Day, and (a little later on) Shadowlands — all of which also indelibly reinforced in me the understanding that I was going to die someday. It was a keen understanding that I never managed to shake, not for a single day. And yes, it made me — and still makes me — want to do something with the time I’m given. Thoreau’s phrase, “…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” which I first heard in Dead Poets Society and later committed to memory along with great chunks of Walden, has been a stern and freeing catalyst for many years. The making of things in words has proved to be, for me, a good way to channel all that life energy. “Summer” is certainly about this kind of frightful awakening moment in one’s youth, and in that sense is highly autobiographical (though I hope the story is funny too). For that matter, my first novel The Green Age of Asher Witherow is also about a young man’s formative reckoning with mortality, his ardent struggle to find something lasting to hold onto.

What was your intention in setting “Summer” before the instant access to titillating and disturbing content brought by the Internet age?

It was a mostly unconscious intention, I think, but now that you bring it up I do see how important it was to the nature of the story as a coming-of-age vignette. First there’s the samizdat quality of the Faces of Death videotape. It has a certain significance as an artifact, a hard-to-come-by thing won by cleverness and stealth — and only for a limited time. This elevates the video’s stature and so increases its impact on the kids watching it. Somehow, if they’d just been able to find the same footage on YouTube (which I suppose one can probably do, now, with Faces of Death), the ease of access would dissipate the punch. In this sense, the leveling effect of the Internet is a sort spiritual/aesthetic problem: when everything is so readily and instantaneously available, nothing is particularly special. We pay less attention. We’re desensitized not only to the horrible stuff, but our capacity to be wonderstruck is diminished. I can’t really put myself in the shoes of today’s youngster who “grows up online,” as they say. It’s so foreign to me. I tend to suspect the daily experience is one of total oversaturation, a wash.
            It was supremely important to require young Harris Gerber to agonize about making the equally pined-for and dreaded phone call to the girl he worships. There is so much wrestling of mind and soul that goes into that simple action. Were “Summer” to be set in the present, he’d have the option of breaking the ice via Facebook, a flirtatious text, or something. With middle school crushes of this kind, it used to be a choice between direct contact or nothing. There was the anonymous love note, sure (a medium Harris employs). But the phone call, or the tête-à-tête was the biggee. Whatever the epistolary preludes, we all knew they didn’t really count. What counted was the direct contact — you couldn’t get anywhere till you had that. As most of us pre-Internet folks recall, that was a delicious — and meaningful — kind of torment. It yielded all kinds of pain, longing, and social- and self-development. Now, given the multitudinous methods of mediating contact, the default of the text message or the act of “Friending,” where does all that juicy youthful experience go? Maybe it’s been translated into that SMS somewhere, but I can’t see it. Is puppy love today flattened by over-mediation, just as kids’ access to culture may be a problem of oversaturation?

USA Project contributions not only helped publish Date of Disappearance, they helped you found the press to publish it. Can you explain your vision, and what is next, for Atelier 26?

From the start I envisioned Atelier26 as a beaux arts, belles lettres kind of enterprise. Completely boutique in nature, and yes, necessarily quixotic. Hence the emphasis, with Date of Disappearance, on the finest design standards, the incorporation of visual art, and the book as being a personal, keepable art-object (signed and numbered). Add to all this, too, the very important element of making Aterlier26 titles available for retail exclusively through indie bookstores (no Amazon!).
            It’s been great fun to produce my first title, a volume I can be proud of in all these respects. But my main and most passionate objective with Atelier26 is to champion the fiction of other writers. At the moment I’m in the early stages of working with my first author, an accomplished novelist whose work I hugely admire. It’s extremely exciting to me.

You have been quite vocal against the rise of e-readers and electronic publishing. How has publishing a short story in e-book format changed, or confirmed your opinions?

I wouldn’t say I’m on any kind of cultural campaign against e-reading devices, per se (though I do detest them personally). What I’m against, if anything, are the dogmatic technophiles — or, more often, technocrats — who tend to dominate the conversation about where reading, writing, and publishing is headed. This is a conversation being had, if at all, online — which explains its common “rah-rah gadget!” substance. The technocrat’s dogma holds that the world is destined for the absolute conquest of the screen and its pixels over the page and its ink. Why it must be a question of conquest, rather than useful and reasonable co-existence, no one ever says. It’s a tiresome, self-serving, empty, and ultimately scary kind of hallelujah.
            While we’re on the subject, I might as well say that I’m also against the abject surrender of some readers who accept that other default perspective on this subject, which goes like this: Books are wonderful, we love books, but they’re doomed, like vinyl, to become scarce, overpriced specialty items. That, to me, is a scenario that ought to give any self-respecting reader the dystopian creeps. (C’mon readers, put some fight in those dukes!)
            E-books have their virtues, and there’s a place for these, they should not be discounted. But digital text will never be an adequate wholesale replacement for the printed page, for about a bazillion reasons. My main concerns around the rise of e-books have to do with:
            a) the creepy atmosphere of “inevitability” that has been, let’s face it, socially engineered by technologists through online mass media — I’m referring to the instilled consumer belief that every aspect of life ought to revolve around a digital gadget, that books are simply old media in need of updating, etc. (see Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies);
            b) the widespread neural restructuring effected in readers as they adapt to the digital intake of text, and the ways this may considerably weaken (as neuro-scientific research indicates it does) the important cognitive processes long fostered by print reading (see Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows);
            c) the unavoidable issues of privacy violations — wherein digital content providers know exactly what we’re reading, how much time we spend reading, where we stop reading any particular work, etc.; (see Amazon’s Kindle privacy policy)
            d) the effects of c. as a market-research phenomenon and a determinant in what books — print or digital — the increasingly timid publishers of today choose to publish (witness the innumerable abundantly gifted and seasoned novelists who can’t get their latest books published);
            e) the evolutionary move toward an outright confusion of literature and data (see item d);
            f) the extreme manipulability, or as Jonathan Franzen has called it, “radical contingency” of digital text. Here today, vanished tomorrow. Words that say this one minute, and that the next. The dangers posed by such an unreliable, disembodied medium goes mostly unremarked (but see Orwell’s Ministry of Information);  
            g) the leveling of independent bookstores and, by extension, the disappearance of the kind of vibrant idiosyncratic local culture a great bookstore can encourage (see your own neighborhood);
            h) the further empowerment of Amazon. Consumer passivity in the face of this rapacious company and its frightening CEO has got to end!
            It’s worth noting that none of the above issues show any sign of going away.

            I did recently publish my short story “Sight Unseen” as an e-book. Doing so hasn’t really changed or confirmed my feelings. It’s been fun to know that the story is now available to people instead of simply sitting in a drawer. There’s much to be said there about e-books. They do offer, in a way, a certain empowerment to writers. Except that they also serve to depreciate the perceived price value of a book … oh, but I could I go on forever. …

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Danger of Attempting to Describe the Creative Process

There comes a time in every writer's life where he or she has the urge to find a creative way to describe their creative process. This should be avoided at all costs, for while this exercise is fun to think about and write, invariably the product will be pretentious as hell.
Example: the following was originally planned as part of a series of blog swaps with author Nath Jones in early 2013. The intention was for us to begin in a void that we would each bring ideas and props in to discuss and examine and let it evolve before us. This contribution of mine pretty much derailed it...

Welcome to our void. As all voids long to be filled I have lent the void some materials from my mind. Let’s head over to those flashes in the distance; they’re not as far away as they initially seemed.
Here we are. Before us are five swirling clouds, each about the size of a baby whale, each a different color, each with flashes of image occasionally crackling in their foggy interior.
The first cloud is the brown of rich earth, well composted. It is memory.
The second cloud is variegated greens; the green of young shoots ready to be guided up the structure of a pole, and also the garish green of weeds that infect the garden. This cloud is dreams.
The third cloud is the flickering dance of yellow-orange campfire light, of candlelight, of brightness amid the dark, of the hypnotic quality of a story well told from the moment the log alights to the final coals that stay buried beneath your surface, waiting to kindle other stories. This cloud is every story I have read
The fourth cloud is a cool blue, at once electronic and photonic. Its images project out of the cloud like crystals of light. It is every story that I have watched, in film, or on television, or participated with in a video game.
Each of the first four clouds is at a level that I can reach into them, save for the fifth. This last cloud is hanging above me like a Charlie Brown raincloud, only it is red. Right now it is red and flashing like an emergency light. This cloud is my anxiety over writing. When I am being productive the light dims from an angry red to the sweet pink of bakery boxes—of old school soda fountain booths. But many things can inflame this red: if I read something too good, something I feel I can never match—or, conversely, if I read something by a successful writer that I feel I could write better; if I have spent too long idle, or absent from writing; or if I am frustrated with the work I am doing, and long for the mythic “writer’s life;” these sharpen the tone of urgency in the red.
It’s flashing like an emergency light now because I have been meaning to write this for a while, so the anxiety to see it written, to check it off the “To Do” list, has been building.
This is how I use the clouds.
There is a piece of paper suspended in air before me. I scoop a handful from each cloud until I have a rainbow cotton candy cloud floating in front of my paper. I then take a jar of India ink, and throw through the cloud, onto this paper. It dries quickly, but I always get some on my fingers: I like this though, as I like to get paint on my fingers, and graphite, and stone dust, for I can look at these stains afterward and have tangible proof that that day, I managed to do something creative.
Next, I skitter my fingers over the paper, performing the magic that pulls all of the ink out, and breaks it down until it is an ordered construction of electrons. From this state I can reorder the electrons at will. I used to send jets of ink through these electrons to rebind them to paper—either to throw more ink from my jar onto it (which I find I’m doing less and less), or to send them as offerings to holy men and women (which I never do any more—now I just send them the electrons).

That’s all there is to it.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Happy Anniversary to Me

Ten years ago the self-appointed designation of ‘writer’ was legitimized when I received a copy of my first published story. Printed in Illya’s Honey, a lovely little journal published out of Dallas, words I had set in order were printed under the name I had chosen for myself.

I remember receiving the letter of acceptance. Back then every submission consisted of a sheaf of papers – never stapled together upon pain of rejection (I have always preferred those pretzel-shaped ideal clips) – with a self-addressed-stamped-envelope that you charmed to repel form rejections. In the garage somewhere I have half-empty return address mailing labels for three different addresses. Today young writers would have to print out their rejection emails to have a collection from the world’s great literary journals to nail above their writing desks – I have actual paper rejections from Esquire, Playboy, Ploughshares, and more.

When that first acceptance came I immediately became a cliché: I had become so acclimated to no’s that I had to read it more than once to believe that it was a letter of yes!

Since that first yes I have received nine others, placing an additional pair of stories in a series of anthologies. A dozen stories released from my mind and accepted as worthy of publication by like-minded strangers. Eighteen other stories are either cruising around looking for a home, or back in the garage waiting for a tune-up. Here's hoping the next decade sees more of my stories find acceptance.