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Surrey International Writers Conference

I spent a lot of time thinking about the Surrey International Writers Conference this week after attending 20-22 October. It’s been a long while since I last attended. I always thought it was a great opportunity for writers of all kinds to get together and discuss art, craft, technique – the beauty of writing and the blunt facts of earning money at it. If I were asked to give a quick evaluation of noticeable changes in the event, I’d say it’s even more nurturing than ever. I’d really like to name all the board members here and compliment them – and their corps of volunteers – in order to thank each one specifically. In truth, however, that would defeat the massive teamwork involving all hands who create the structure; everyone deserves full credit for all of it. Nor is that team alone in providing such a welcoming environment. The presenters are unique in their accessibility. Maybe the usually glint-eyed attendees are instantly afflicted with acute polite canadianitis when they register; one can only wonder. In any case, they treat the presenters as mentors and advisors, not as ogres hoarding all access to treasure and fame. I’m sure there are fevered pitches delivered in obscure corners, but not once did I hear the grisly squeal of agent/editor tendons being twisted.  As a result, the presenters are affable and helpful and the attendees seem to respond by discussing their writing reasonably and sensibly. When you see authors of such talent (and fame and there are plenty I’m not naming, unfortunately) as Diana Gabaldon, Bob Dugoni, Rhys Bowen, Jack Whyte, and Mary Robinette Kowal standing around in impromptu discussions, encouraging the newbies, you realize this outfit’s different. And, in my frequently-wrong-but-never-humble opinion, the best.

THE WAY THINGS GO

I recently found myself in a part of town that’s always had a bad reputation. It’s one of those places that doesn’t really grow; it just sort of accumulates. It’s like it popped out of the ground, fully formed and crumby, and never got off the downhill track. If you wanted to buy sleaze of any order, that’s where you went to get it – and you knew you’d be overcharged. People who couldn’t afford better or had lost interest in better lived there. As soon as they could, they moved out. Or, if hope somehow forced its way back into their lives, they packed up and went looking for a place where hope might survive. The thing that was most depressing about it, though, was the sense that people living there believed that’s the way things had to be. Not how things should be, but had to be. It was if every member of that particular community heard the same voice telling them You’re not like regular folks. You deserve the gangs, the dealers, the pimps, the streets full of trash, and the gunfire. Don’t bother trying to clean up the joint, either, ’cause the guy next to you’s going to mess it up faster than you can push your broom.

What I saw this last visit was so small a change it could easily go unnoticed. In fact, the major impact was from something I can’t describe. It’s just a sense of things, of something different. It’s still no Disney movie set and there are a lot of guys on the street you wouldn’t ask to hold your briefcase while you feed the parking meter, but you know something new is happening. The only solid evidence of change is the graffiti. It’s not gone. No one’s sent workers around to scrub off the gang signs and the other tags. Someone, though, has very deliberately and blatantly painted them over. Not all of them (I don’t think there’s that much paint in the stores), but a surprising – and very encouraging – number are just flat-out eliminated.

That’s courageous. If you haven’t lived in a place where you can get shot dead for wearing the wrong color clothes – or skin – then you might want to consider the bravery of a person who does live in that environment and refuses to be intimidated. That disappeared gang tag said “We rule.” That paint blob covering it says, “Like hell you do.” What’s taking place is civilization. It’s ordinary, decent people affirming their right to live ordinary, decent lives. The man or woman wielding the paintbrush is scared spitless; you can bet on that. They know they’re confronting a tyranny no less vicious than any other. Brute mentality operating on a cash basis is pretty much indistinguishable from brute mentality exercised in the name of a higher cause. If you think facing down the people who work that way aren’t dangerous, give it a try. As a nation, we’d rather just make sure the doors are all locked, twitter, and fulminate about sweeping social changes and noble goals. In fact, however, those neighbors breaking the bonds that have constricted their neighborhood for so long are the ones making progress. Tiny steps, for sure, but progress. They know more about self-government and honest democracy than all the deal artists we send to D.C.

JUST READING THE PAPER…

For those who don’t already know, Stephan Pastis created Pearls Before Swine, a wickedly funny cartoon strip. He constructs long, intricate puns that make me laugh out loud. This disturbs me because everyone knows puns are the product of devious, disturbed minds. If I point out that Mr. Pastis also likes to tweak those who’d censor his rather pungent view of humanity, we can all assume the combination is no coincidence.  As a case in point, one of the strips recently dealt with a man in fear of a kick in the hoo-hahs. One assumes this is a euphemism; no search of respected literature shows any anatomical feature remotely like hoo-hahs. In that regard, Mr. Pastis has been exceeded. A recent article in our local paper declared Woman kicks attacker in Snohomish, escapes. Disregarding the fact that the woman is courageous beyond description and the crime is the sort that begs the reinstatement of flogging, we now have another wink-wink-nudge phrase for Mr. Pastis to dance with. Can we anticipate harsh language wherein one is dismissed as He ain’t got the Snohomish for the job?  Or (for better or worse) praised as The Snohomish-y kind who gets things done?  Perhaps. Worse yet, however, can the inventive Mr. Pastis create a pun involving the word Snohomish?
Forget that.

SPEAKING OF COINCIDENCE

I’ve been reading about the North Korean antics and wondering if the little freak really wants to see his entire country under glass. Even though I have no doubt he’s as crazy as spit on a hot stove, I doubt he’s suicidal. Even less do I believe that the trolls around him are suicidal. After all, the elite in North Korea know they’re living a life as close to Heavenly as they’ll ever get; they’re not anxious to swap that for terminal radiation.

What’s really puzzled me is the literally non-responsive outlook by our local newspaper, and I was talking about it with my son yesterday. I think the press here is remarkably attuned to the natural hazards of this part of the world. Our weather-guessers get full rein to analyze and report on our weather conditions. We’re not just told there’s a bad storm coming, we’re afforded information on why, how, and what, as well as when. We get constant input about earthquake and volcanic threats – what actions to take to minimize the effect, what supplies we should stock to get past the initial breakdown of infrastructure, and so forth. But no one’s addressed the fact that a lunatic creating a nuclear power has plainly said that the US is in his sights and it might be a good idea to consider steps to at least help us survival such an attack.

Amazingly, the Seattle Times article that appeared on this very subject today explains that it’s against the law for us to do that. However, Seattle, the most likely target, has “an all-encompassing disaster plan called the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan” and a wary eye out to “…pay more attention if it (nuclear attack) becomes a more imminent threat.” We had a similar plan back in my day, albeit at a much lower level. Our plan consisted of someone yelling “Incoming!” and we’d all dive for cover. It was elegant in its simplicity, but  the sound of the explosion sometimes overwhelmed the shout (not to mention the shouter), so it wasn’t always as effective as we wished.

I have no idea how one could even hope to minimize the effect of a nuclear attack on a city like Seattle, barring burying it under our hills. I’m not a community planner and I’m simply unequipped to criticize the lack of any specific measures in the matter. I do believe, however, that it’s beyond passive to look out at world where a maniac can threaten nuclear war as if it was the equivalent of walking on your grass and not take whatever steps the community can manage. Personally, I believe the whole mess will blow over. If it doesn’t, however, and I’m one of the ones who doesn’t come out the other side to tell everyone “I told you so,” I’m going to be really peeved.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CONGRESSMAN WHO FAILED TO BARK IN THE NIGHT

Let’s get a couple of things straight right up front.
1. Most activists give me the cold robbies, as Pogo would have put it.
2. The only political party that interests me is the one where the winning candidate sets up an open bar to celebrate.

Which clears the decks for me to comment on Congressman Nunes, (R) of California’s 22nd District. He’s a duly elected representative. He’s also a couple of centuries out of place. Congress Nunes is actually Courtier Nunes, somehow or other transplanted from the court of the Bourbon kings to California. He’s proven he owes allegiance to no one or nothing beyond his master. He has literally betrayed a sacred trust. A man in his position is sworn to uphold the national interest. His actions do not suggest blind partisanship, they suggest treason. I’m not suggesting he actually committed treason. For all I know, he and his secret source discussed nothing more dangerous than a recipe for secret sauce. I suspect otherwise. Nevertheless, unfounded suspicions are without merit. “Without merit” obviously brings us back to Congressman Nunes. Sidestepping his own panel members in order to give his master time to set up damage control is, at the very least, as unethical as larceny. But secret conversations with an unidentified source about the Russian efforts to subvert our electoral process? In the face of certain knowledge already in existence that Russia meant to influence that election? What is that if not treachery? What assurance do we have that Courtier Nunes wasn’t the secret source himself, rather than the other way around? If he received information, what did he impart in return? In the midst of all the ragblag about Nunes covert creeping about, where is the suggestion he be denied access to any further meetings? Forget his voluntary recusing. Kick the bum out. Then investigate him like the conniving sneak he is.

In the meantime, what’s a poor activist to do? If you don’t actually own Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat, you can forget headgear entirely. No hat’s going to trouble no congressman. Send him letters containing sharp language? Do you really believe he reads them? How could he? It’s dark under his rock. His staff will welcome the scratch paper. But the Congressman lives in a real world, where real people vote. And earn a living. If it became apparent to those voters that sponsoring – electing, if you will – Mr. Nunes leads to a loss of customers, how long do you think they’d continue to support him? Mr. Nunes depends on donations from corporations and such to pay for election campaigns. How many of those entities are going to stand by him if activists boycott them? Every politician in this country owes his/her office to wealthy donors, usually corporate. If you want to rid yourself of people like Nunes – not to mention those who want to poison our water or turn our crops into cancer vectors – do what any good detective does; Follow The Money. Then dry it up.

SMALL WORLD

We had a really interesting Small World moment concerning the re-release of TARGETS. Granddaughter Caitlin enlisted a friend to pose for the cover illustration photo and, during the shoot, the young man’s girl friend was involved as consultant and perfectionist-in-chief to assure he looked his best. ( Cultural Note: No male should ever have his picture taken without a woman present to tell him what’s wrong. Two women is even better, although not mandatory. Yet. ) Anyhow, when the book came out, Cait gave a copy to the girl friend, who read it and then recommended it to her mother, who looked at it and said, “I already read that.” Then she pointed at her bookshelf and added, “I’ve read all his books; they’re right there.”  A person doesn’t have to be a writer to be gratified and energized by that sort of confirmation. Still, sometimes we get caught up in numbers  and forget that it’s the approval of one reader at a time that determines the public perception of our efforts. I’ll permit myself a quick brag here: TARGETS is doing nicely on Amazon’s charts. ( Way to go, Cait!) I’m truly grateful for the reminder that my audience – every writer’s audience – is made up of individuals engaged by the story. I’d wish every writer a similar Small World moment. I’d wish every reader authors who make you glad you picked up his or her book.

THE QUESTION NEVER CHANGES. THE ANSWER NEVER COMES.

We’ve had lots going on around here. Anyone who’s seen the FB postings lately knows that my granddaughter, Caitlin, has my first novel ready for re-issue. She put the whole effort pretty much in perspective a bit ago. A friend asked her how it all works and she told him, “He writes the books. I do everything else.” She nailed it. My understanding of all things electric is that the less I mess with them, the less likely I am to get knocked on my butt. Electricity is not my friend. We nod in passing. We’re civil. I rebuff all attempts to narrow that gap. (I’m madly in love with my defibrillator, but that’s whole ‘nother thing.) Anyhow, as the official do-er of everything else, Cait’s put together a stellar new book jacket, worked out all the kinks in print-on-demand, scanned and proofread pages to within an inch of her life, etc.etc. What’s surprising and really amusing to me is that I’m almost as excited about this re-release as I was the first publishing. There won’t be anything like the fanfare, but the hooraw that accompanied that initial event involved all manner of people I didn’t even know. This is family, and it’s a lot more fun. When TARGETS came out the first time, I hustled up the best bottle of Champagne I could find for Carol and me. Come to think of it, that moment was precursor to the present system, only sort of mirror-image; whereas Cait does all the heavy lifting on getting the book out, I did the hard work finishing off the bottle after Carol had her sip. And because there’s so much family involved in this effort, there’s a warmer, richer feeling of accomplishment that goes with this.

Time has a lot to do with that, as well. When TARGETS was first published, the Vietnam war was still an open wound on the American body politic. Everyone assured me that no one wanted to think about it, much less read a novel about it, particularly one that dealt with the even darker underside of that piece of misery. It’s hard for me to grasp that that was almost two entire generations ago. Even so, the novel went on to be the first one about that war to be selected by the Book Of The Month Club and be granted generally favorable content in other quarters. What excites me about this re-lease is how pertinent the story is to the events of the present. I watch the fumbling, confused behavior of my country in this apparently endless Middle Eastern inferno and I see every stupid mistake from the Vietnam era repeated – not occasionally, but incessantly. It also fascinated me to learn that Ken Burns, a man I believe is the most distinguished maker of historical documentaries ever, is releasing his examination of the Vietnam war in September. Perhaps – perhaps – enough people will watch it and learn from our history so we don’t have to keep repeating it. The original intent of TARGETS was to illustrate that war, no matter how many people are affected, is a matter of individual involvement. When we hear of armies clashing we see only furor. It’s when you get down to one man killing another (or woman killing woman, in our modern equal-opportunity savagery) we confront the truth. When death is given numbers it becomes mere arithmetic. It’s face-to-face where the work gets done. No one comes away from it the same as he went in. I tried to write a novel that gave war a human context. In that worst of environments, we fall in love, we laugh, we win and lose petty, pointless arguments, we exult, we writhe. The second release of TARGETS gives me one more chance to go to readers and say, “This is what it was like for the people who lived where steel met steel every day, every night.” I want them to experience that place and, hopefully, find a way to prevent people living like that ever again.

Different Path, Different Times, Same Old Hell

In a couple of weeks or so we’re releasing the first novel I published. It’s about the counterintelligence war in Vietnam. Today not many people are even aware that battle was fought, much less the constancy and intensity of it. That underscores the fact that the Vietnam war is as misunderstood today as it was then. I’m convinced that historians of the future will look at the swamp that is our present-day state of the nation and trace it directly back to that debacle. The book, TARGETS, is a microcosm of the times and the actions of those caught up in them. I haven’t changed a word of it for this new release. It wouldn’t be fair to me, much less to the reader. I want people to read the book in order to know the thoughts of the participants of that time. For anyone who lived through all that worldwide tumult, our perception of everything, including ourselves, was forever changed. I hear constantly that America lost its innocence in WWI. Similarly, I’m told America became a world power in WWII. I believe the Vietnam War stripped America of its sense of community. The novel explores how the characters change, just as the culture that produced them was changing. We seem to have shifted from a nation of individuals proud of our ability to work together into a nation of factions determined to rule. In that sense, TARGETS may present a clearer image of the war and the times than would a novel of firefights and massed troop engagements. The thoughts of a man advancing through hostile fire do not linger long on (nor do they probe deeply into) mankind’s role in the universe. Stalking another human being, on the other hand, provides one far too much free time to consider not only that man’s dreams, but one’s own.

Essentially, that’s the goal of the work, an examination of how professionals and amateurs, Americans and Vietnamese, responded to the cauldron of the Vietnam experience. In reviewing it for this release I was surprised and excited to recognize several themes paralleling today’s political upheaval. The decisions made by our most recent leaders are almost perfect replications of the stupidity that created the Vietnam war and led to our eventual loss there. Perhaps someone will read the book, recognize that rather nasty coincidence, and do something about it. That’d be nice.

 

Around Here It’s Always Your Turn

I read a couple of columns recently that jarred me. I’m not always in accord with all she says, but I’ve found her to be a rational progressive. She’s the sort of person about whom one can always say “Her heart’s in the right place,” even when one feels her mind may have skipped out for a bit. On this occasion she extolled the wonders of modern China. It reminded me of another writer, Lincoln Steffens, who wrote similarly about the Soviet Union. His most famous quote is “I have seen the future, and it works.” I thought about Mr. Steffens’ bright-eyed myopia, and wondered if the China columnist ever read any history. Just as no one can deny China’s accomplishments. no thinking person can look at them and not wonder at the tyranny responsible for it. All that accomplishment came from the sweat and blood of people with no voice in any election, no right to assemble, no right to protest working conditions and near-universal corruption, and God help the man who tries to exercise free speech – assuming that  man has government permission to believe in God. The column glowed with reference to China’s high-speed trains. Airports were orderly; the restrooms were clean. I lament America’s rush to third-world status when it comes to our denial of the fact we have an infrastructure that crumbles a bit more every day. My contempt for our own politicians is already beyond measure, yet they manage to increasingly disgust me in ever-new ways. But is the lockstep mass we call China any sort of role model?

Actually, that question is the heart of my disappointment about the newspaper column. I’m not worried about China. It’s huge and belligerent and malevolent; it’ll cause massive agony before its own excesses bring it down. That’s how it went for Mr. Steffens’ glorious empire. It’ll happen again. My concern is that we’ll forget who we are. We’ve appointed ourselves as the doctor to the world, here to cure everyone’s problems. In the meantime, we’ve seen our own middle class – which was the crown of America’s achievement – ground to dust. We elect fools who’re so intellectually stunted they can’t spell USA, much less care about it. On top of that, they’re lap pets for the creepiest oligarchs since Rome went aground. The working stiff who goes to work, does his best, raises a family, has no more chance today than a buffalo did before Teddy Roosevelt came along. The really ironic thing about that is, yeah, Roosevelt saved the buffalo; he also broke the trusts that were bent on turning the American working man into a cipher like today’s average Chinese. So it bothers me when someone even hints that a tyranny has lessons for us. We’re a nation in trouble. If we’re going to deal with it properly, we ought to look at ourselves and figure out how we skidded into the ditch while we were riding off into our future. We need to work on America’s problems. Let the rest of the world work on theirs. We don’t need any Maos or Stalins or Cromwells. We need us, plain old us – voters, volunteers, contributors, neighbors. I believe “Americans” is the word I’m looking for here. Don’t tell me immigrants are destroying America. We’re all immigrants. The new guys didn’t come here to package up your job and ship it overseas. The guy – or woman – you voted for set that up. Don’t tell me Republicans are stupid. Don’t tell me Democrats are stupid. Just get off your whiny butt and help someone make things better. You’re not going to change the world, but instead of moaning about setting suns and such, you can certainly ask yourself at the end of a day “Did I take a minute to live outside myself today?” and, if you don’t have a good answer, try harder tomorrow.

Discovering The Unexpected

I just got back from a trip deep into Baja California. Like most North Americans who visit there, I’d seen Tijuana and on down to Ensenada, which is on the order of visiting El Paso and thinking you’ve seen Texas. This time I flew to a town called Loretto. It’s on the east coast of the peninsula and it took me back to the Mexican communities I remembered from seventy years ago. Forget the new cars, the (semi) supermarket, and the occasional phone addict wandering the streets. There was the imposing church looming over the clean-swept, tree-shaded square with its the bandstand. The old hotel to one side featured antique door timbers thick enough to reject cannonballs and walls that looked older than the western mountains. The shops were a revelation. You want souvenirs and trinkets? You can find them. But the people of Loretto don’t seem even faintly interested in turning over their economy to the tourists. Friendliness comes first – the need to make a peso is never forgotten, but it has its place. We left Loretto that same afternoon to drive north a hundred miles (on a well-maintained highway) to my cousin’s beach house. When you read about “starkly beautiful,” the phrase was invented to describe Baja California. The house is located in an area that was once a stomping ground for Hollywood stars. The luxurious hotels they frequented are deserted now, like derelict elite who’ve seen their popularity turn to dismissal. The new development – in economic terms – is a trickle of travelers who want sun, sand, clear, clean water, peace and quiet. There are dozens of wonderfully comfortable houses in the area, built by people from all over the world, who need a place to get away from crowds. They bring their own electricity (it’s a desert; solar does a lot of the heavy lifting, generators the rest), consume bottled water by the cubic yard, and provide their own entertainment. That’ll change, unfortunately, although Baja’s a far larger hunk of real estate than most of us gringos realize; it’ll take a while to mess it up properly. For now, however – and for me, in particular – I’m glad to have seen it as it is. My hat’s off to those turistas who treat the place with such grace and consideration and especially to the people of the land, who welcome them with such openness and warmth.