Friday, December 21, 2012

Larry and the Whorehouse

Writer Larry L. King has passed away.  He'd been living and working for years in Washington, D.C.  But he was a Texan born and bred, and one of the great characters of the Lone Star State

Even if you never heard of him, you've probably heard of his most famous piece of work: the Broadway musical Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.  He got a credit for the book on that one, but his history with this (mostly) true story went back to 1974, when he wrote an article about the closing of one of Texas's most famous whorehouses, the Chicken Ranch, for Playboy Magazine.

If you don't know the story, here's the basics:  while prostitution was illegal in Texas by the 1970s, there were still plenty of whorehouses around.  One of the most famous ones was located outside La Grange, Texas - halfway between Austin and Houston.  It was called "The Chicken Ranch" because during the dark days of the Great Depression, they would accept chickens or other livestock in lieu of cash.

Everyone seemed to know about the Chicken Ranch; it's clientele included football players from the University of Texas and politicians from the state capital, Austin.  In his Playboy article, Larry L. King claimed that many politicians could drive from Austin to the Chicken Ranch “without headlights even in a midnight rainstorm.”

But in 1973, a crusading Houston television reporter - KTRK's Marvin Zindler - broke the story on air.  Despite the support of the local county sheriff, the public embarrassment forced the government to close the Chicken Ranch for good.  When Zindler encountered that county sheriff, the lawman broke two of Zindler's ribs and tore off his white bouffant toupee!

(I lived in Houston for about seven years, and I recall Zindler well.  Every Friday he broadcast the Houston Health Department inspections of local restaurants in what Zindler called his "rat and roach reports."  He loved to bellow, "And there was SLIIIIME in the ice machine!")

In 1978, King's Playboy article on the Chicken Ranch was made into a very successful Broadway musical.  It was radically altered into the 1982 film version starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds.  King hated the film, but it helped make him financially independent.

Of course, these three events - the Playboy story, the Broadway musical, and the movie - took up only a fraction of Larry L. King's career.  (Four things, actually: King released a collection of articles on the entire affair in 1982 called "The Whorehouse Papers.")  I'll talk about the rest of his career in my next post.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Jane Austen Death Match

Even though I was first published over twenty years ago, I still get my share of rejection slips (or emails).

And every fiction writer has "problem" stories, that no one seems to want to publish.  This is more common when the story doesn't fit neatly into a single genre.

I've read this story, "The Jane Austen Death Match," several times in front of live audiences.  I KNOW it gets a good response.  But no one wanted to publish it.

Until today.  It's now online at Clever Magazine.  You can read the story here.

Now to tell the literary journals who were considering this story that it's no longer available.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Dodging a Bullet

A freelance writer is always on the lookout for the next writing gig.  An article, a column, a book, a ghostwriting gig...whatever pays the bills.

But you don't take every offer (unless you're desperate).  As I was going through a box of magazines today, I found one that reminded me of a job offer I did NOT accept - not at the salary I would've been offered.

I'm not going to name names, but I was once offered a job with a small publisher who was a legend in his field.  As an audition, he asked me to take a grammar test and to rewrite a badly-done article.  I aced both.

Once he decided he wanted me to work for him, he turned on the charm.  He told me what a shame it was that I wasn't working full-time as a writer.  And he offered me a job.

The job would have required me to move to his city.  I thought about it, then sent him a note with the salary I required to make the move and work for him.

Evidently, I named too high a salary.  He never even responded to my note.

The magazine I found today had an interview with someone else who worked for this publisher.  He describes the publisher as a megalomaniac on par with movie producer Robert Evans.  And in addition to being an overbearing, controlling, self-aggrandizing slave driver, this publisher was cheap.  He never would have paid me what I asked for.  He actually paid highly-trained, college-educated employees at minimum wage!

So I dodged the bullet on that one.  But, at the time, when the publisher didn't even try to negotiate with me on a salary, I was depressed for weeks.   I told myself, "if I hadn't asked for so much, I could've worked for a legend!"

Now I'm glad it turned out the way it did.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Blog Post Per Day

I did it!  I wondered if I could manage to post an entry on my blog every day in November.  Did I have thirty things to say?  Thirty satisfactory blog entries?

It turned out that I did.

(OK, a few posts went up after midnight, not on the designated day.  Close enough.)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Goodbye, Kurt Vonnegut

My friend Jay Black gave me a copy of We Are What We Pretend to Be: First and Last Words by the late Kurt Vonnegut.  The book was released just last month, but Jay is such a Vonnegut fan that he read it immediately.

The volume contains an unpublished early (if not necessarily the first) short novella by Vonnegut, and the uncompleted book he was working on at the time of his death in 2007.

No one has much to say about the novella.  It's workmanlike.  There are some clunky turns of phrase.  It stretches credulity at several places.  The Vonnegut magic wasn't there yet.  The consensus seems to be that it went unpublished because the work's antagonist is a foolish General, a veteran of the First World War, who thinks he can command his family and run his farm the same way he ordered his troops about.  He even thinks he can bully his horses into submission!  Since this was written in the late 1940s or early 1950s, magazines weren't in the market for anything that poked fun at the military.  And it's an inconvenient length: too long for most magazines which published short stories.

The controversial work is the unfinished novel (which is listed in the book as a novella).  It is called If God Were Alive Today, and its protagonist is a stand-up comic named Gil Berman.

And here is the problem: Vonnegut writes comedy material for Gil Berman.  The material is supposed to be both thought-provoking and funny.  It sometimes succeeds at the former, but rarely at the latter.

Which is to say: it's not funny.  Not for stand-up comedy, which is designed to elicit an out-loud laugh from an audience approximately every fifteen seconds.

Oh, an extraordinarily charismatic performer might be able to deliver this material.  And it might get a few laughs.  But the character of Berman is already independently wealthy AND a genius.  For him to be charismatic as well would beggar belief.

Now, my friend Jay Black happens to be a stand-up comic.  One of the best comics in the business, in fact.  He and I met in through the comedy business.  And when someone, even someone as august as Kurt Vonnegut, writes stand-up comedy, Jay and I have a very high standard.

And Kurt Vonnegut didn't meet our standard this time.  Too bad.

By the way, if you happen to be in South New Jersey on Saturday 15 December, Jay Black will be performing at the Marlton Comedy Cabaret He's worth seeing.  He can even make you forget about Kurt Vonnegut, at least for awhile.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Engaging the Senses

Two of my writing mentors - Jonathan Maberry and Kelly Simmons - have reminded me that long-form fiction should include examples of all five senses being engaged.  It's not enough for the characters in a novel to see, to hear, and to touch.  They should (at least once) smell and taste.

In fact, Maberry does a final edit of his novels in which he makes sure there are instances in which characters (or at least the protagonist) smells and tastes something.

At present, I'm turning an old, unsold screenplay I wrote into a YA novel.  (That's Young Adult.)  I'm trying to add smells and tastes as I go along.

It's not as easy as it sounds.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Fun Night at the Bookstore

We had a great time tonight at the Chester County Book and Music Company, where the Main Line Writers Group held a reading.  Let me express my thanks to:

The Chester Count Book and Music Company, for allowing us to hold an event which earned them no money.

Gary Zenker, for acting as MC, and Bernie the timekeeper, who made sure no one went over.

The 21 people in our audience who showed up on a very cold night!

And to all the participants!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bookstore Reading Tomorrow, Wed 28 Nov


There will be a reading on Wednesday 28 November - tomorrow night - at the Chester County Book and Music Company in West Chester, PA, USA.

The readers will be members of the Main Line Writers Group.  We will start at 7 pm and end (we hope) around 8 pm.  Each writer will get a maximum of ten minutes to read.  In addition to myself, the scheduled readers include:

  • ALIZA GREENBLATT, a local author whose work will appear in the 2013 anthology "Main Line Voices."
  • JASON POLLOCK, an actor and stand-up comic.  He is best known as "Bigfoot" in Judah ("30 Rock") Friedlander's How to Beat Up Anybody.
  • JULIA SCOTTI, a writer stand-up comic who was a finalist in the 2012 national "Ladies of Laughter Comedy Competition."
  • NICOLE VALENTINE, who just received her MFA in Creative Writing.  She is on the board of the online community FIGMENT, and has a story in the anthology "Chester County Fiction."

The Chester County Book and Music Company is located at 975 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA 19380.  It is in the West Goshen Center at the intersection of Route 202 and Paoli Pike, so it is easy to find.  Sadly, this bookstore has announced that it will close in the near future.  The loss of this enormous independent bookstore will be a great loss to the Philadelphia area.  And, since it will be closing, this may be our final event here.

This event is free and open to the public.  The bookstore does request that you call them to say you plan to attend, so that they can put the appropriate number of chairs out.  Their number is (610) 696-1661.

Hope to see some of you at the reading!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Waiting for Snow

Here in the Philadelphia area, we never know how much snow we'll get over the course of the winter.  Some years it's a lot.  Sometimes we don't get any at all.

Right now, we're waiting for our first appreciable snowfall of the season.  The forecast is for up to three inches by tomorrow.

When you don't live in a terrain of constant snow, its imminence is powerful.  There is an exquisite anticipation in waiting for snow.

You remember being a child: hoping that there will be enough snowfall to cause school to be canceled.

You remember walking in a snowfall at night: the astonishing quiet of it, the way the snowflakes only become visible as they enter the cone of a streetlamp.

You remember playing in the snow.  Personally, I never understood the appeal of sleds - they looked unnecessarily complex to me.  I always preferred the simplicity of a toboggan.

Of course, the year I asked for - and received - a toboggan for Christmas, it never snowed that year.

But that's winter in Philadelphia for you.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Brief Political Obsevation

The zombie series "The Walking Dead" is on tonight.

I've heard that Democrats feel that it is necessary to impose laws because individuals are basically dangerous - evil, even.

Republicans, on the other hand, believe that individuals are basically good.  Thus, they want to keep laws to a minimum.

In "The Walking Dead," the remaining humans are just as dangerous to each other as the zombies.

So, does that mean that "The Walking Dead" is a Democratic show?  With a Democratic world view?

Just asking.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tomorrow: Writers Coffeehouse Meeting in Willow Grove

Sometimes it seems like I go from one writer's event to another, leaving me barely enough time to do any actual writing.

That's to be expected when one is on a book tour or at a writing convention, but not in daily life.

Nevertheless, I have another writing event tomorrow, Sunday 25 November, from noon to three pm.  It's free and open to everyone, so stop by if you're interested.

(Once again - for those of you reading this in Croatia - this event is in Pennsylvania, USA.  Just in case you have a "Willow Grove" in Croatia.)

Here's the information:

Join us for a FREE 3-hour networking and discussion about writing and publishing at the Writers Coffeehouse hosted by THE LIARS CLUB 

Location: Barnes & Noble Willow Grove (102 Park Avenue, Willow Grove, PA 19090)
Time: Coffeehouse Sunday, November 25, 2012, noon to 3pm
The Writers Coffeehouse is open to everyone.
ABOUT THE COFFEEHOUSE: It's a bunch of writers sitting around talking about writing…with coffee. No agenda…just chat about the latest trends in the industry, about the craft of writing, about markets, about pitching and selling, about conquering frustration and defeating writers block, and about all of the good things that come from the community of writers. No previous publishing experience necessary…the Writers Coffeehouse attracts everyone from absolute beginner to award-winners and bestsellers. We're all writers. The Coffeehouse is a regular event which meets on the last Sunday of every month from noon to 3pm. Grab a cup of coffee and join us in the meeting room in the left rear corner of the store (next to the music section).
NOTE: There will be NO Coffeehouse in December.
For more information, drop me a line at
And join our free Message Board online at
A group of professional writers from the Philadelphia area who give talks, workshops, signings and events in support of bookstores, libraries, literacy and the love of books. The Liars Club lineup includes Jonathan Maberry (New York Times bestseller and multiple Bram Stoker Award winning author and Marvel Comics writer); Gregory Frost (best-selling fantasy author); Solomon Jones (Daily News columnist and crime novelist); Jon McGoran (author of forensics thrillers for Penguin as D H Dublin); Kelly Simmons (women's contemporary fiction author); Ed Pettit (book reviewer and renowned expert on Edgar Allen Poe); Dennis Tafoya (celebrated crime and thriller writer); Don Lafferty (publicist, social media guru, and magazine feature writer), Marie Lamba (literary agent and author of Young Adult novels); Merry Jones (mystery novelist and humorist), Keith Strunk (actor, playwright, historian and children's storyteller), Keith DeCandido (author of dozens of science fiction, fantasy and media tie-in novels), Stephen Susco (Hollywood screenwriter and director), and our newest member -- novelist Chuck Wendig.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Authors at Chester County Book & Music Co

My plans for the evening have changed, so I'm free to put in an appearance at the "Authors Say Thank You to Chester County Book & Music Company" event, tonight from 6 pm to 9 pm.

The Chester County Book & Music Company is one of the largest independent bookstores east of the Mississippi.  After 30 years, rising rent and declining sales have led the owner to announce its closing.  Author Kathye Fetsko Petrie has arranged this author get-together to thank the bookstore for all they've done for local authors.

Authors scheduled to show up include:

Jan Mulligan
Jessica Dimuzio and her Papilion/canine co-author Johnny Angel

If you're nearby, come out and meet us!  The bookstore is located at 975 Paoli Pike in the West Goshen Center, West Chester, Pennsylvania, 19380 USA.  The bookstore's phone is (610) 696-1661.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

To all citizens of the USA who are celebrating today's holiday, I wish you all a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

To the rest of the world: my apologies that the economy of the USA was virtually shut down today.  If that that costs you money, I apologize.  But if this really is the Asian Century, soon you will have to deal with economic shutdowns on both Diwali AND the Chinese Spring Festival.  So it's going to get worse.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Weaponization of Social Media

I read an interesting article on about the high tech aspects of the 8 day Israeli-Gaza conflict.

Of course, there are the drones and the Iron Dome antimissile system.  But the real innovation is the militarization of social media.  This is the first war in which Twitter was used.  The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson tweeted, both to the public and to the enemy.  Look at this threatening tweet from the IDF to Hamas:.

This use of Twitter has some worried.  Futurist Jamais Cascio worries that social media is being used as an enabler of political violence
"Twitter and similar media had the potential to serve a role similar to the radio stations used to drive the 1990s Rwandan genocide," Cascio recently wrote.
Another term for it would be the "weaponization of social media."  These are interesting times we live in.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brandywine Valley Writers Group Meeting

Great session tonight with New Media Guru DON LAFFERTY at the Brandywine Valley Writers Group meeting in West Chester, Pennsylvania, USA.

What did you miss?  Well, you can download some of Don's information on Social Media Starters for Authors here.

But you won't get to ask Don questions on a download.  So I suggest you come see him when he speaks to the Main Line Writers Group in 2013.  It's definitely worthwhile.

Main Line Writers Coffeehouse

The Liars Club of Philadelphia - a group of professional authors - has been sponsoring free meetings for writers for several years.  Currently, they meet on the last Sunday of each month at the Willow Grove Barnes and Noble.

That meeting has been getting larger and larger over the past few years.  Lately, it's been drawing as many as 70 people - too many to comfortably fit in the room.  So the Liars Club has branched out, offering meetings in Center City Philadelphia; Claymont, Delaware; and Rosemont, Pennsylvania.

I attended the Rosemont meeting this past Sunday.  This group - known as the Main Line Writers Coffeehouse - had two meetings in the upstairs room of a coffee bar which they quickly outgrew.  So they started meeting in  a much larger space in Rosemont.

The first meeting of the Main Line Writers Coffeehouse in this new location drew around 20 people.  But this Sunday's meeting had only 7 people!

Mind you, it wasn't a bad meeting.  It was rather like sitting with some friends in a bar.  There were THREE members of the Liars Club there to run the meeting: Gregory Frost, Merry Jones, and Kelly Simmons.  All professional writers.

Again, I'd happily spend two hours in a bar with any or all of these writers.  That's not the point.

But, with the Main Line Writers Coffeehouse drawing just 7 people, it's not going to serve its purpose of reducing congestion at the main meeting in the Willow Grove Barnes and Noble.

(And since I've been an officer in several writers groups, I should clarify - I am not a member of the Liars Club of Philadelphia, nor do I have any official job in their meetings.)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

My Story "Potemkin" to Be Published

Good news!  One of my newer short stories, "Potemkin," has been accepted for publication in The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine!

The publication date hasn't been announced, but I will be sure to mention it in my blog.

My thanks to the members of the Brandywine Valley Writers Group and the Main Line Writers Group, who critiqued an earlier version of "Potemkin."  And to the Chester County Book and Music Company, which allowed me to read it at an authors' event there!  (We are going to miss this place terribly when it closes down!)

Few stories are perfect when they come out of our printers.  We need critique groups, listeners and editors to catch our missteps.

And a big THANK YOU to the audience members who laughed in all the right places!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Art of Nonfiction by John McPhee

If I live to be one hundred, the Paris Review is never, ever going to interview me about "The Art of Nonfiction."
Fortunately, Paris Review DID interview the inestimable John McPhee about it.  Should I mention that, while I've greatly enjoyed his writing, I've never met Princeton's John McPhee on any of my trips to that University?

Now that I think of it, it doesn't matter.  I could've been bribed to recommend this interview, and it would STILL be worth you while.

Friday, November 16, 2012


The Philadelphia Marathon is this weekend.  So, naturally, tonight's Philadelphia traffic jams are the worst in recent memory.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I write a lot of short stories.  Some of them work, some don't.

Some time ago I started a short story about an injured man who was led to safety by a pig.  (It was set in Texas, of course.)

But it wasn't working.  Too much of the story was just a lost man with an injured ankle hobbling along after a pig in a storm.  That part of the story wasn't really interesting.

So I put the story away and forgot about it.

The other day, I was listening to a radio interview with neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.  He was plugging his new book, titled Hallucinations.

Sacks noted how people in extreme peril sometimes hear a voice giving them advice.  Sacks himself once experienced this.

And it hit me: THAT was how I could make the long trudge interesting!  The PIG would TALK!

(Or, more precisely, the injured narrator would assume the voice came from the pig.  I love what writers call "unreliable narrators.")

So I brought up the story, and made the pig talk, telling the injured man to keep moving.  Since the narrator is a good ol' boy from Texas, he imagines the pig talking like an educated Yankee.  (He says, "the damn pig sounded like Thurston Howell III from 'Gilligan's Island.'")

As far as I can tell, it works.  I'll find out once I bring it to one of my critique groups.  Thanks, Oliver Sacks!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reading from My Work on Wed 28 Nov

There will be a reading on Wednesday 28 November - two weeks from tonight - at the Chester County Book and Music Company in West Chester, PA, USA.

The readers will be members of the Main Line Writers Group.  We will start at 7 pm and end (we hope) around 8 pm.  Each writer will get a maximum of ten minutes to read.

The Chester County Book and Music Company is located at 975 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA 19380.  It is in the West Goshen Center at the intersection of Route 202 and Paoli Pike, so it is easy to find

Sadly, this bookstore has announced that it will close in the near future.  The loss of this enormous independent bookstore will be a great loss to the Philadelphia area.  And, since it will be closing, this may be our final event here.

This event is free and open to the public.  The bookstore does request that you call them to say you plan to attend, so that they can put the appropriate number of chairs out.  Their number is (610) 696-1661. 

Hope to see some of you at the reading!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Main Line Writers Group Meeting Tomorrow

The Main Line Writers Group will meet tomorrow, Wednesday 14 November 2012, at 7 pm.  The group usually meets on the third Wednesday of each month, but this month will meet a week early due to Thanksgiving.

The group will meet at Michael's Restaurant at 130 Town Center Road in King of Prussia, PA.

This month's meeting is called "Tools for Writers," and will feature a show-and-tell of items, techniques, and computer programs or websites that help the members write. 
 Most of our meetings have either a guest lecturer or feature a critique session, so this is a departure for us.  We will find out how successful it is.

If you're in the area, feel free to stop by!  Many of us arrive at 6 pm to eat dinner before the meeting.  Please note that Michael's Restaurant allows us the use of the room only as long as each attendee spends at least $10 apiece.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Defending Plagiarism

And now for something completely different: The New Yorker ran a contest asking its readers to suggest what a dog would tweet.  (If, of course, dogs COULD tweet.)

The winner they picked submitted an answer that was uncomfortably close to the caption of an old Gary Larson cartoon.  (Of course, ALL Gary Larson cartoons are old - he retired his strip "The Far Side" in 1995.)

Defending its decision, The New Yorker declined to disqualify its winner because of the number of times the word in question was repeated.

Sorry, it's still plagiarism.  Repeating the word doesn't make it different, unless it's in a foreign language incomprehensible to the reader, and the joke is how often the word is repeated.

Somehow, this reminds me of that episode of "Seinfeld" in which Elaine gets a cartoon accepted by The New Yorker, only to discover that she stole the caption from a "Ziggy" cartoon.

And, if you want a much more clever answer to the "What would dogs tweet?" question, go see Philadelphia stand-up comic John Kensil perform.

OK?  OK?  OK?  OK?  OK?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day, Or, Why You Don't Want Me Navigating the Ship

I can't get through a Veterans Day without wondering how my life would've been different if I had lasted in the military long enough to be considered a veteran.

Not long after I graduated from High School, I was accepted as a midshipman at Kings Point, which is officially known as the United States Merchant Marine Academy.  It's run much like the other military academies: West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs and New London (that's the Coast Guard Academy).  Sorry, the Marines don't have their own military academy.

I went into Kings Point's version of boot camp shortly after the Fourth of July.  I left in November, shortly before Thanksgiving, after the grades for the first academic quarter came out.

By then, it was obvious that I would have made a terrible officer.  (Graduates are commissioned as a Lieutenant in either the Naval or Marine Reserve.)  Back then, Kings Point offered only two academic tracks: Deck Officer or Engineering.

I am heavily dyslexic with numbers and directions, have ADD, and am afflicted with multiple sleep disorders.  I couldn't sleep (except in class), couldn't concentrate, and have difficulty telling left from right.

The ONLY way I could follow directional orders when marching was to cross my forefinger over my middle finger.  When I did, I could feel the writer's callus on my right middle finger.  THAT was on my right!  "Right face?" Turn towards that finger!

We marched in parades every Wednesday and Sunday.  To this day I hate parades.

On the basis of my dyslexia alone, I should've been excluded from being a deck officer - a job that is heavily involved with navigation.  Yes, that was me: a navigator who didn't know port from starboard!  Being a dyslexic engineer wasn't much safer.

Oddly, one of the classes I flunked was English.  But I've always been a procrastinator, and it was made worse by sleep deprivation.  The Kings Point English Department had a strict policy on turning in papers late.  My exasperated professor returned a paper I wrote on "King Lear" with this note:
This is the best paper I've received from a student all year.  But, because it's late, I have to grade it 'F.'
I wasn't surprised.  I knew the department's policy, and already knew I was good at English.  The other midshipmen asked me to proof their papers before they turned them in.

(By the way, dyslexia, ADD and sleep disorders are medical conditions.  But I've always considered my procrastination a moral failing - the sort of thing that one cures by reading Marcus Aurelius or Zig Ziglar.  They didn't help; procrastination is something I still struggle with, day after day.)

Once the grades for our first academic quarter came out, it was obvious that this wasn't going to work out.  I was allowed (encouraged?) to resign my commission.

But at least I tried a military career.  If I hadn't, I'd still be wondering.

Happy Veterans Day!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Jesus in Starbucks

I spend a lot of time writing in coffee shops.  And I see my share of odd things in them.

For example, at a shop in a college town, I know I'm liable to see all sorts of fraternity/sorority rush weirdness.  Not long ago, I witnessed three college girls hopping over each other while saying "ribbit" while a fourth filmed them.

But today is one for the books.

I'm having a bad day with my knee.  I'm limping; I'm in pain; I'm using a cane.

I'm in a Starbucks in a Philadelphia suburb.  You often hear customers speaking Hebrew in here.  It's that kind of neighborhood - a suburb built by Jews in the 1950s, back when they were restricted from buying houses in other suburbs.

So the last thing I expected to encounter in here was a faith healer.

I'd just limped over to my table and fired up my computer when a young woman approached me.  Blond, fairly attractive.  She asked if she could sit down.  I said "sure."

Then she went into a speech about how Jesus spoke to her and told her to heal that man.  She asked where the pain was, then she asked if she could lay hands upon it and pray!

Despite being an atheist, I had two reasons for letting her do so:

1)  I'm a writer.  If you don't do odd things, what are you going to write about?

2)  Hey, I'm a guy.  If an attractive young woman wants to put her hands on my thighs, I have no objection.

So she did.  Having grown up Catholic, I'm disappointed by impromptu prayers in English.  I'd be more impressed if she prayed in Latin (or Hebrew, for that matter).  But she sounded sincere, and that's worth something.

When she was done, she asked me to stand and try my knee out.  I did.  No change.  She wasn't daunted - maybe it was God's will that me knee be healed later.  I wonder if she thought that Jesus was going to restore my knee to its youthful flexibility, or that God would install a titanium knee replacement.

I didn't ask her that, though.  I just gave her my favorite salutation from Hamlet:
Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.

She didn't understand.  Apparently her Jesus doesn't put a premium on a classical education.  I told her it was from Hamlet, and that she should look it up.

Just another day in Starbucklandia.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tales of the Battleground State of Ohio, Part Three

I've been blogging about the powerful short story collection "Knockemstiff" by
Donald Ray Pollock.

As I mentioned, this is an amazing compilation, but it's crafted only in the darkest hues of human behavior.  Many of the stories involve children, and I can't recall a single parent that you'd call admirable.  Generally, the fathers are drunk and abusive, and the mothers are beaten into submission by their husbands.  Even single mothers don't get to be admirable: the single mother in the story "Giganthomachy" seems to be inciting her only son to have sex with her (although it hasn't happened by the end of the story).  I don't even have a name for her psychopathology.

All the stories take place, wholly or partially, in or near the rural Ohio town of Knockemstiff.  The author has generously included a hand-drawn map.  There are 37 houses, bridges, stores and other landmarks drawn on the map.

For no good reason, I wondered if I could correlate the perversions, abuses, and bad behavior in the collection with the 37 images on the map.  In other words, are there 37 perversions in these 18 stories?  And, if so, could I match them up with the 37 locations on the map? (Gay-bashing at Todd's Fish Camp!  Incest at the Dynamite Hole!)

The answer: not even close.  By my count, I went past 37 before I got halfway through the book.

In the second story alone, there is: incest between underage children, homelessness, blasphemy of a sort I'd never imagined, a peeping Tom, severely disturbed war veterans, trapping a man and killing him via poisonous snakes, rape and child murder!  Oh, and a man mimes a sexual encounter by holding a dead copperhead to his face and kissing it.  All this in a 10 page story!  (One of the best stories in the collection, by the way.)

So "Knockemstiff" is not for the faint of heart.  But it is a hell of a collection.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Tales of the Battleground State of Ohio, Part Two

To continue:  I was absolutely gobsmacked by the first few stores in Donald Ray Pollock's collection "Knockemstiff."  The first story, "Real Life," opens like this:

My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.  It was the only thing he was ever any good at.

Pow!  Now THAT is a great pair of opening lines.  They not only make you want to read the story, they make you want to read everything Donald Ray Pollock has written!

And, if you're a writer like me, it makes you want to give up writing.  Why bother?  Donald Ray Pollock has already done it better than you ever will.

The next story is great, too.  But if the characters are anti-social in the first story, those in the second story are absolutely depraved.  If they were real-life characters instead of fictional, a psychiatry student could write his or her dissertation on them.


It keeps going on.  In every story, almost every character is on drugs or abuses alcohol or engaged in criminal acts or perverted - or a combination of the above.   Only outsiders have any money.  Everyone in the town of Knockemstiff is barely getting by or homeless.

Eventually, you realize that Pollock is painting with a limited palette.  There's no joy in Knockemstiff.  The closest to pleasure these characters experience is sex or the oblivion of drugs.  It's like a genre without a name.  Call it Literary Noir.  (Most of the stories originally appeared in small literary journals, like Sou'wester or Third Coast or the Berkeley Fiction Review.)

And that realization is what got me out of my funk.  Yes, Donald Ray Pollock is an amazing writer.  Maybe I'll never be as good as he is.  But he doesn't write humor, or travel, or about people who aren't one step away from destitution.  I do.  There's room for both of us in this world.

Tales of the Battleground State of Ohio, Part One

The big election is over, and once again pundits claimed that the road to victory went though the state of Ohio.

Now, I've been to Ohio many times.  I know people from Ohio.  But lately, my view of Ohio is colored by a collection of short stories by Donald Ray Pollock The collection is called "Knockemstiff," which is the actual name of a rural town in Ohio.

To my fellow writers: did you ever read something so good, so powerful, so well-written, that you wanted to give up writing?  That's how I felt when I read the first two stories in "Knockemstiff."

I won't give it all away, but bad things happen in "Knockemstiff."  Very bad things.

And if these stories are truly representative of Ohio, and our election hinges on Ohio...well, all I can say is, we're in trouble.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Night!

I had planned a post on writing that I hoped would be of interest.  But let's face it: it's the night of a presidential election in the US of A.  There's nothing I can post that is of more interest than that.  Even if you aren't a citizen, the US President has an effect on the entire world, for better or worse.

So go follow the election results as they unfold, state-by-state.  And if you come up with a new drinking game - like, downing a shot every time someone says the word "bipartisan" - let me know!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Guy Fawkes Day

Tonight, the 5th of November, is known as Guy Fawkes Day in England, which commemorates the failure of the gunpowder plot.  An English King suggested that the anniversary of his deliverance should be celebrated with bonfires and fireworks.  Over time, however, Guy Fawkes (the best-known conspirator of the gunpowder plot) became a folk hero in his own right.

Whatever its origins, the night of Guy Fawkes is celebrated throughout the UK.  One of the most memorable aspects of the holiday are the poems, or ditties.  One of the oldest, from 1742, is this one:
Don't you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
'Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made'em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away.
And even though it's close to freezing outside, I'd rather be outside tonight by a bonfire, enjoying a good British beer, than inside and watching the Philadelphia Eagles lose once again on tv.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Two Out of Twenty

Well, Hurricane Sandy hasn't stopped every editor from working.  I got two rejections this past week.

But October was a very productive month for me.  I sent out six short stories to twenty different markets last month.  So I have eighteen more chances from October - which doesn't include what I'll send out this month.

Nevertheless, every rejection hurts.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

We've Had Better Weeks...

It's a grey, depressing day to end a relentlessly depressing week.

Aside from some relatives in Florida and friends in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Houston, everyone I care about lives in the East Coast area hit by Hurricane Sandy.  Even a niece going to college in West Virginia, far from the coast, had to deal with a heavy, wet snowfall.

So let me turn to one of my favorite contemporary authors to depress us some more:
All this had to be accepted.  Living did not mean one joy piled upon another.
It was merely the hope for less pain...
- Lorrie Moore, "Referential," published in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker

Now, Lorrie Moore isn't a hopelessly depressing author.  On the contrary, many of her stories are very funny.  But she doesn't seem to do the literary showmanship she once did - putting in weird phrasings or constructions that take the reader out of the moment.  For example, in the collection "Self Help," the narrator, a woman, notes that her boyfriend is "stirring the spaghetti sauce but not you."  This construction is called a syllepsis or zeugma, and involves using a verb with multiple meanings to incorrectly modify two words.  I love those sorts of things, but they do tend to make the reader stop to figure them out.

But Lorrie Moore's "Referential" has no such grammatical leaps.  It's marvelously well done, but I defy you to read it an not be depressed.

Which makes it perfect for this day, and this week.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Modest Proposal

Mayor Bloomberg has just canceled the New York Marathon, which was scheduled for this Saturday.  It seemed inappropriate to hold it when so many New Yorkers are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

How about this" Instead of canceling it, we make those marathoners run on treadmills, hooked up to generators?  Get the lights back on, if only for a few hours!

The winner will be the first contestant to generate enough electricity to DVR all the episodes of "The Walking Dead!"

Thursday, November 1, 2012

My Best Laugh Today, Provided by Joe Queenan

It's been a grim week.  Even though, except for some short power outages, I personally escaped Hurricane Sandy, plenty of my friends have not.  Some are still without power, and several have probably lost their vacation homes at the New Jersey shore.

So I was surprised to hear myself laughing at the NPR radio show "All Things Considered" today.  They were interviewing the notoriously sardonic writer and critic Joe Queenan.  A self-described "well-paid bastard," Queenan was plugging his new tome One for the Books.

Queenan is a big, grey-haired, Irish Catholic from Philadelphia.  As he says, "I look like a cop."  He doesn't look like an author, or even someone who belongs in a bookstore.  And he's become used to being dismissed by the typical bookstore clerk - what he calls "the irony boys."

Now, I've never been to Paris.  But I always wanted to visit the legendary English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company, which was James Joyce's home bookstore during his years in Paris.  Queenan's description* of his visit there made me laugh:
When I was in Paris and I was 20, I used to go to Shakespeare and Company.  You always hear about what a great place that was.  They were horrible to me! 
Most of the people who'd go in there were poorly shod.  They looked like they hadn't eaten in a long time - they looked like they were at death's doorstep.  So you knew that they'd gone to Phillips Exeter!  You knew they'd gone to Andover!

No doubt it made me laugh because I'd been similarly dissed by haughty store clerks.

Anyway, if you'd like to listen to his interview, go here.  And here is Joe Queenan's list of must-read books:

Darwin - Marx - Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, by Jacques Barzun
A History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
Père Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Emma, Persuasion or Lady Susan, by Jane Austen
Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift
The Iliad, by Homer
Source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2012, NPR
* This was my transcription of Queenan's interview. It's probably not 100% accurate.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hunkering Down

I'm awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Sandy.  It's not my first hurricane, and I'm well positioned: 35 miles west of Philadelphia, so I'm inland; and atop a hill, so I have no worries about flood.  There's always to possibility of wind damage, of course.  The electricity and internet will probably go down.

But hunkering down does give me even more time to read and write.  Reading the minor stories in today's paper, I learned a new word: "ovine," meaning "of, relating to, or having the appearance of sheep."  It was in an AP story about a shepherds' protest in Madrid, Spain.  As long as I'm learning, I figure the day hasn't been wasted.

And I can always write longhand by candlelight!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

St. Crispin's Day

Today used to be the Feast of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, who have not fared well in modern times. No one remembers Crispin's brother, Crispinian: folks just call it "St. Crispin's Day." Then, at Vatican II, their feast day was removed
for insufficient evidence that they ever existed. (The French and the English tell completely different stories about the brothers.)

Today, we probably wouldn't remember St. Crispin's Day at all were it not for William Shakespeare, who wrote one of his most stirring speeches for "Henry V." Even folks who have never seen the play have heard lines from Henry's speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.

Back when I was doing stand-up comedy, during our invasion of Panama, I noted how unlikely a military leader George H.W. Bush seemed to be. I dramatized the point by doing an impression of Bush doing Henry V's "St. Crispin's Day speech." (Is it any wonder that I never became a headlining comic?)

If you'd like a hear the "St. Crispin's Day speech" done the way it should be done, here's a link.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Letter - and a Check - from Robert A. Heinlein

This was posted on Monday by a service called "Letters of Note."  Since I know there are other Heinlein-lovers out there, I'm posting it as well.  Personally, I have good friends who are writers...but none who would send me money.

Posted: 01 Oct 2012 07:40 AM PDT

In 1962, as he gave his Guest of Honor speech at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon delivered the following anecdote about writer's block and fellow novelist, Robert Heinlein:
"I went into a horrible dry spell one time. It was a desperate dry spell and an awful lot depended on me getting writing again. Finally, I wrote to Bob Heinlein. I told him my troubles; that I couldn't write—perhaps it was that I had no ideas in my head that would strike a story. By return airmail—I don't know how he did it—I got back 26 story ideas. Some of them ran for a page and a half; one or two of them were a line or two. I mean, there were story ideas that some writers would give their left ear for. Some of them were merely suggestions; just little hints, things that will spark a writer like, 'Ghost of a little cat patting around eternity looking for a familiar lap to sit in.'

This mechanical, chrome-plated Heinlein has a great deal of heart. I had told him my writing troubles, but I hadn't told him of any other troubles; however, clipped to the stack of story ideas was a check for a hundred dollars with a little scribbled note, 'I have a suspicion your credit is bent.'

It is very difficult for words like 'thank you' to handle a man that can do a thing like that."
The incredibly generous letter in question — sent by Heinlein just two days after being asked for help and directly responsible for two of Sturgeon's subsequent stories ("And Now the News" and "The Other Man") — can be read, in full, below.

(Source: Speech excerpt via And Now the News, letter via 'New York Review of Science Fiction No. 84'; Image: Robert Heinlein in 1976, via Wikipedia.)

Colorado Springs, Colorado

11 Feb 1955

Dear Ted,

What this job really calls for is a meeting of the defunct Mañana Literary Society. Almost all writers need cross-pollenation—myself most certainly! (I am at present stuck on p.148 of the best set-up for a novel I ever had in my life and I cannot get the Goddam thing to gel!) The M.L.S. used to give ideas such a kicking around that a man went out of there with notes enough for three months; when Jack Williams, Anthony Boucher, Cleve Cartmill, Mick McComas, and several others all got to snarling over the same bone, something had to give.

My only regret at living in this idyllic ivory tower surrounded by snow-covered mountains, deer, Chinese pheasants, tall pine trees, and silence is that while a writer needs a lot of silence, he also needs stimulating talk.

But I will do the best I can at this distance. I must say that I am flattered at the request. To have the incomparable and always scintillating Sturgeon ask for ideas is like having the Pacific Ocean ask one to pee in it. By the way, did I tell you that I bought a copy of MORE THAN HUMAN in Singapore? Or that I didn't get home with it because a Dutch ship's captain borrowed it from me? If you happen to have a spare around you might send it to us, inscribed.

Mmm...Sturgeonish ideas—Well, here's one that might be Campbellish: a society where there are no criminal offences, just civil offences, i.e., there is a price on everything, you can look it up in the catalog and pay the price. You want to shoot your neighbor? Go ahead and shoot the bastard. He has a definite economic rating; deposit the money with the local clearing house within 24 hrs.; they will pay the widow. Morality would consist in not trying to get away with anything without paying for it. Good manners would consist in so behaving that no one would be willing to pay your listed price to kill you. Of course if your valuation is low and your manners are crude, your survival probabilities are low, too. Down in Paraguay murder is a private matter, the government figuring that either his friends and relatives will avenge the deceased, or he was a nogoodnick and who cares? There is another culture in which if a man kills another man, accidentally or on purpose, he must replace the other man, even to taking his wife and his name. Obviously our own pattern is not the only way of looking at crime; maybe we are prejudiced.

This idea, developed, should appeal to JWC. He hates all government, all authority, even though he is not fully aware of it—and he thinks money can do no wrong.

Here is another Campbell-type culture: why should government enforce private contracts at all? At present you can go into court and sue—and (sometimes) force another man to conform to his contract or wrest damages from him. Is there good reason for this to be a function of government? Should it not be a case of let the contractor beware? Why should society as a whole give a hoot whether or not the private, civil promises between two men are kept?

What are the minimum, indispensable functions of government? What functions are present in all human societies? Is it possible to name anything which obtains in one society which is not differently just the reverse in another? Or not done at all? Has there ever been a truly anarchistic society? The Eskimos, perhaps? We have an anarchist running a newspaper in this town, who is opposed to public roads, public schools, public anything—he maintains that it is not ethical for a majority to do anything collectively which each individual did not already have the right to do as an individual. This is an explosive notion; a corollary is that all taxation is wrong, all zoning laws are wrong, all compulsory education is wrong, all punishment by courts is wrong. In the mean time he lives in a well-policed society, his own considerable wealth protected by all these things he deplores. But on thing is sure: many of the things we take for granted are not necessary to a stable society, but we take them for granted. You could get a Campbell-style story out of doubting the most sacred of sacred cows—except big business, of course; John does not tolerate outright heresy.

We know very little about multiple personality, despite the many case records. Suppose a hypnoanalyst makes a deep investigation into a schizoid...and comes up with with the fact that it is a separate and non-crazy personality in the body, distinct from the nominal one, and that this new personality is a refugee from (say) 2100 A.D., when conditions are so intolerable that escape into another body and another time (even this period) is to be preferred, even at the expense of living more or less helplessly in another man's body.

Or do it this way: hypnoanalyst hypnotizes patient; second personality emerges and refuses to go away. Original-owner personality is a nogood, a bastard, a public enemy, a wifebeater, etc.; new personality is a real hero-type, good, smart, hardworking, etc. What is the ethical situation? Should the analyst try his damnedest to suppress and wipe out the false personality and give the body back to its owner? Or should he accept that the world is improved by the change? This could be made quite critical.

What is a personality? A memory track? A set of evaluations? A set of habit patterns? What happens to a soul in a transorbital lobotomy? Is it murder to kill a man's personality, sick though it may be, in order to make his body a bit more tractable for ward nurses and relatives?

The central problem of philosophy, of religion, of all psychology is one so pervasive and so hard to come to grips with that it is largely ignored, just as fish ignore water. The solipsists deal with it and so did you in ULTIMATE EGOTIST (and so did I, quite differently, in THEY). It is the problem of the individual ego, the awareness of "I." There you sit, inside your skull. How long have you been there? Always. How long will you be there? Always. Environment changes—even your body, even your penis and balls, are nothing but environment. The "I" remains, the one unchangeable thing...and a thing utterly unaccounted for in all philosophy, all religion. Of, the double-talk on the subject has endless, but but that is what is has been: double-talk. Until we know how consciousness hooks onto matter and why and where it comes from, we don't know anything. And we don't. But the problem permits infinite variation in fiction.

I have had a dirty suspicion since I was about six that all consciousness is one and that all the actors I see around me (including my enemies) are myself, at different points in the record's grooves. I once partly explored this in a story called BY HIS BOOTSTRAPS. I say "partly" because I touched on one point only—and the story was mistaken by the readers (most of them) for a time-travel paradox story...whereas I was investigating whether "the wine we thought we swallered could make us dream of all that follered...but we was only simple seamen so of course we couldn't know."

But it still is no solution of the problem of ego to discover (as we may, or may not) that the snake eternally eats its own tail. We still haven't accounted for the snake. Korzybski has pointed out that a fact needs no "why." This gives rational adjustment to the world we are in...but it does not solve philosophical problems.

Nor does it do any good to dive into your own belly button, like JWC and Ron Hubbard. It is sane to state the questions; it is not good to kid yourself about the answers. Incidentally, all of the respectable religions these days are founded on point: that it is virtuous and obligatory to kid oneself about the answers, i.e., you must have "faith."

Merde!—squared and cubed. The answers are not to be found by singing hymn number forty-six, with the Young Men's Bible Class coming in on the chorus. Not yet by the battles with straw men that the formal theologians indulge in. How did I get inside my skull?

You could have a hell of a hassle in a society in which there were a group, large or small, of illuminati who really do know what happens after death (as compared with the fakers we now have) and who in consequence have different motivations and different purposes from the others who are the way we are now. Just for a touch, they might try a man in absentia for suiciding to avoid his obligations...then maybe have some one else suicide to go after him and carry out the sentence. (But hell, Bill, I don't have to tell you—just some of your usual hoke that Dick Burbage can get his teeth into. We start rehearsals Wednesday. Quote and unquote).

Science explains nothing. It merely formulates observed data.

A statistician in the Department of Commerce is fiddling with the new digital computer, running some data from the last census. No doubt about it; the machine says that there are more red-headed babies than there ought to be. Must be some mistake in the data; the machine can't be wrong. The enrollments in dental schools are down, too. And appendectomies have decreased. Should the reports of parthenogenesis be rejected as impossible? Why so many of them?

"June 28—The new bull calf looks better all the time. Met a leprechaun today. Nice little guy. I'm going to have to drain the south forty."

This character is absent-minded. When he day dreams his reveries are very real. He is especially likely to do this in public transportation; he can be riding a bus, catch a glimpse of a house which reminds him of one he knew in another city. Trouble is that when he gets off the bus he is like as not, if he is still absent-minded, to get off in the city he has been day-dreaming about, instead of the one he was in. When he was a kid and had not been anywhere, this simply got him scolded and he had a reputation for being too dopy to notice that streetcar he was getting into. But now that he is grown and knows many cities (instead of just neighborhoods in one city) it is downright embarrassing, as he is likely to get on a bus in Cincinnati and wind up three-quarters of an hour later in Seattle with one dollar and thirty-seven cents in his pocket.

One day his ability to recapture other places moves him not only to another city but back to the Taft administration. Well, maybe it is all for the best.

The bloke sells dreams, in pills. Euphoria, along with your fantasy, is guaranteed. The pills are not toxic, nor are they harmful the way narcotics are, but they are habit-forming as the euphoria dreams are much better than reality. Can the Pure Foods & Drugs people act?

This guy sells soap and cosmetics, door to door like the Fuller Brush man. She tries their beauty soap; she becomes beautiful. So she tries their vanishing cream...

A little cat ghost, padding patiently around in limbo, trying to find that familiar, friendly lap...

Story about two countries fighting not with men, not with robots, but with mutated-animal soldiers. Fighter-pilot cats (all the gadgetry automatic, but the piloting done by the supercat), Rhino tanks, ape paratroopers, sea lion "frogmen" etc.

Fundamentalist congregation, convinced that faith can move mountains, concentrates on Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills—and the greatest neo-Egyptian sculpture ever carved disappears, mountain and all. Should the Public Works Administration sue the church? Or is that suing God? Or should they ask them to pray it back? Or should they systematize this into a new form of theo-engineering? If so, civil engineers will have to have divinity degrees as well in the future. What is faith without (public) works?

A Hollywood stunt man kills himself getting a really fine effect. They cut it out of the picture. Will he haunt the producer?

A man is troubled by gophers in his garden. He digs into their burrow, finds a nest with baby gophers in it, kills them. The gophers really move in on him now, undermine his house, flood it, wreck it completely, while he tries to save it.

A seeing-eye dog growing too old to do his work...

There is something important other than rest in the notion of sleep. In sleep we almost catch the secret, almost understand what it is all about. It might be possible to abolish sleep; we might develop a race of able, smart, hard, efficient people who never need to sleep. Only they wouldn't have any souls.

Once there was a man who could not stand it. First he lost the power to read and then the headlines did not bother him any longer. Then he lost the power to understand speech and then the radio could not bother him. He became quite happy and the wrinkles smoothed out of his face and he quit being tense and he painted and modelled in clay and danced and listened to music and enjoyed life.

Then a clever psychiatrist penetrated his fugue and made him sane again. Now he could read and listen to the radio and he became aware again of the Cold War and juvenile delinquency and rapes and rapacity and et cetera ad nauseam.

He still couldn't stand it. He killed quite a number of people before they got him.

There was this man Flammonde who came to our town and grandly borrowed what he needed. Edward Arlington Robinson has dealt well and fully with Flammonde in verse but he has not been described in prose. The power that Flammonde had was to make everyone around him happier, richer in experience, greater in his own self-esteem. Naturally a man like that would not have to work. It is a neat trick.

What exact knowledge of how human beings work can enable a man always to make other people happier simply by his own presence?

Cats have made a racket and a good thing out of this knowledge for seven thousand years without even bothering to flatter the recipient of the pleasure.

Ted, I have about run dry and Ginny has just announced dinner. We hope to take a freighter for Constantinople about the first of May. We don't know whether we will be sailing from New York or from New Orleans; we have applied both ways and have no firm booking as yet. One way we might see you soon; the other way we would not. But let us hear from you when pressure permits; it has been too long and the short visit in New York last spring merely whetted my appetite.

Best to you, your wife, and kids—


Monday, October 1, 2012

Willow Grove Writers Coffeehouse, 30 Sept 2012

Since we lacked an official secretary at the Willow Grove Writers Coffeehouse today, presiding Liars Club member Marie Lamba asked if I would write down my notes from the meeting.  I do take notes, but I don't make notes on there may be some gaps in the coverage.  Feel free to add anything I missed as a comment.

1)  We began with a list of upcoming events.  They are, in chronological order:

Today is the start of Banned Books Week - read a banned book!

Friday 5 October, 7 to 9 pm: Author JONATHAN MABERRY will speak on "The Ticking Clock: Constructing a Nail-biter of a Thriller."  The event is hosted by Arcadia University's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and will be held in the Rose Room of Grey Towers Castle.  The Castle is located at 450 S. Easton Road, Glenside, PA.  This event is free and open to the public, and is offered in affiliation with the Philadelphia Writers' Conference free forums.  For more information, email Contact Professor Joshua Isard at or

Friday 12 and Saturday 13 October: Philadelphia PUSH TO PUBLISH at Rosemont College.  There are two workshops on Friday: "A Day with an Agent" with SHERREE BYKOFSKY, and "Wonder in First-Person" with KEVIN McILVOY.  Saturday is an all-day writing event: $75 gets you agents, panels and lunch!  For more information, go to the Philadelphia Stories website or contact Christine at

Tuesday 16 October, 7 to approx. 8:30 pm: This month, the Brandywine Valley Writers Group presents award-winning science-fiction author MICHAEL SWANWICK, speaking on "The Craft of Fiction."  The author has won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.  The Brandywine Valley Writers Group meets UPSTAIRS (sorry, not handicap-accessible) at Ryan's Pub, 124 West Gay Street, West Chester, PA.  Bring quarters for the parking meter!  This event is free and open to the public.  (And thanks to last month's terrific presenter, Liar's Club member KEITH STRUNK! )

Wednesday 17 October, 7 pm until done: The monthly meetings of the Main Line Writers Group alternate between presentations by guest authors and critique sessions.  This is a critique session.  To have your work critiqued, bring seven typed and double-spaced copies of your work (maximum of five pages).  We will break into small groups and review everyone's work.  Also: a brief discussion of the tools you use as a writer.  This event is open to the public, but only paid-up members (annual dues $25/year) may bring their work for critique.  We meet at Michael's Deli and Restaurant at 130 Town Center Road in the Valley Forge Center, Route 202, King of Prussia, PA.  NOTE: the management requires everyone to spend at least $10 in food or drink.

Saturday 20 October, 7 pm until done: Musehouse presents MARIE KANE, the 2006 Bucks County poet laureate.  Musehouse is located at 7924 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19118.  You can phone them at (267) 331-9552.

Saturday 27 October: Two free events at Rosemont College.  Horror novelist BRIAN FRANCIS will speak on "Horror and Dark Fiction" at 9 am.  Director of Rosemont's Criminal Justice Program JIM KERN will discuss "The Ins and Outs of Crime Scene Details."  There will be plenty of time for Q&A.  This event will run from 1 pm to 2:30 pm.  Rosemont is located at 1400 Montgomery Avenue in Rosemont, PA  19010.  Please RSVP to Carla Spataro at

2)  In addition to being a writer and member of the Liars Club, Marie Lamba is an Associate Litarary Agent with the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.  The Agency also has a presence in Hollywood for selling books to movie studios and an agent who specializes in selling rights to foreign countries.

Some typical mistakes that Marie sees over and over include:
  • Queries that get her name wrong
  • Cut-and-paste queries with obvious mistakes
  • Queries for genres that she doesn't handle
If you wish to submit something to Marie, make sure you comply with her submission guidelines.

Marie emphasizes that you should research agents before you query them.  Subscribe to their blogs.  If they are a writer as well as an agent, check their author's page on Amazon and Facebook.

3)  On ebooks:  Marie reminded us that agents are rarely interested in representing an ebook that has already been released.  She says that authors sometimes query her after they have exhausted all efforts to sell their ebook.  That's a waste of everyone's time.

Marie used for her ebook Drawn; it has a good royalty rate.
Popple used, which apparently isn't as generous but is very easy to use.

Every ebook program has a community.  When you have questions, search on the community forum.  Someone has probably asked that question before.  Links:  Lulu forumCreateSpace forum.

Kathryn Craft can recommend some people who can handle turning your manuscript into an ebook for you.

4)  Giveaways and Promotional Items: We discussed if it's worthwhile buying things to give away to potential buyers/readers when you are in a bookstore.  Authors frequently have promotional bookmarks printed up...and these don't excite anybody.

Marie Lamba remembers buying chocolate candy to entice readers over to her book table.  They wouldn't come over even to get candy!

On the other hand, Carol (last name?) recalled success with some sort of giveaway egg with a baby dinosaur inside.

Marie related that the most audacious promo she's heard of came from author and self-proclaimed "Angry-Ass Black Woman" Karen Quinones Miller, who would visit bookstores, find her competitors' books, and insert well-produced promo for HER book inside! 

Tony Conaway noted that the most cost-effective giveaway he ever saw came from mystery novelist Leighton Gage, who writes novels set in Brazil.  At readings, he passes out short lengths of ribbon, mentioning a Brazilian superstition that your wish will be granted if you tie (with three knots) a length of ribbon around your wrist - but you must leave it on until it falls (or rots) off.  There's not much cheaper than 8" of ribbon!

5)  Member News:

Ruth Littner has a story in a soon-to-be-released anthology in the "Not Your Mother's Book" series.

Kathryn Craft has a post titled "Memoir of a Book Deal" at, in which she details the process of creating a memoir.  The techniques are also of use to every writer.  She is also starting a new column at the Blood-Red Pencil.  She expects to post a new column, titled "Countdown to a Book," on the first Friday of each month.  She also asks you to "like" her Facebook author page.

Tony Conaway had two readings this past month at the soon-to-close Chester County Book and Music Company.  He also had two stories printed in the Chester County Fiction anthology.  This proved so successful that some of the profits were used to give an iPad and a large selection of books to the IHM Family Literacy Center in Coatesville, PA.  There's a photo of Tony, the other authors in the anthology, and two IHM nuns.  Take a look and play "Is that a writer or a nun?"

Finally, Marie reminds us that we should all be supporting each other online.  To start with, please "like" Marie's Facebook page, and follow Tony Conaway's blog (the one you're reading now)!

Thanks, and hope to see you all at October's Writers Coffeehouse meeting!

Tony Conaway

Friday, September 28, 2012

Chester County Fiction Anthology, One Year Later

One year ago, local writer Jim Breslin put out an anthology called Chester County Fiction.  I had two short stories in this collection.

There was doubt as to the viability of an anthology which would, presumably, be of local interest only.  The contributors weren't paid, but Jim promised that, if he made his investment back, we'd have a party for the authors and donate some of the proceeds.

Well, the anthology did surprisingly well.  And this past Wednesday night, at a reception at the historic General Warren Inne in Malvern, Pennsylvania, we donated books and an iPad to the IHM Family Literacy Program in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

(No, I'm not going to identify everyone.  But there are two Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns in this photo.  Can you guess which ones they are?)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Full Time Reporter, Part Time Extortionist

Harry Karafin isn't a name you hear much these days.  He was before my time, too.  Back in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, though, he was the most feared investigative reporter in Philadelphia.

People had good reason to fear him.  In addition to being a reporter, he was also an extortionist.  He would "suggest" to businessmen - especially shady businessmen - that they should hire the public relations company Harry Karafin ran on the side.  If they refused, then an exposé about their business would appear in his paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer.  That was usually enough to force the victim to start paying Harry Karafin.  If it wasn't, there would be follow-up stories, usually demanding an official investigation.  His articles could - and did - result in hearings and arrests.  Investigations from state officials from Harrisburg, not the Philly officials who could be bought off.

Harry Karafin never extorted organized crime figures.  He was too smart for that.  Harry knew - and interviewed - the Godfather of Philadelphia's mob, Angelo Bruno.  Harry's prey were crooks who weren't connected: aluminum siding salesmen, real estate scam artists, shady home repair businesses, encyclopedia men.  The guys who promised much, got people who couldn't afford it to take out loans, and delivered little if anything. They made their money from the loans - the paper - not from the businesses they were supposedly in. 

I saw the name Harry Karafin in The Inquirer yesterday.  It was mentioned in the obituary of another reporter, Gaeton Fonzi, who just passed away at the age of 76 down in Florida.

Gaeton Fonzi, along with his late writing partner Greg Walter, was the man who exposed Harry Karafin.

This exposé of Philadelphia's most feared reporter didn't appear in The Inquirer, of course.  In those days, The Inquirer ran a distant second to The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.  (Like most evening newspapers, The Bulletin is long gone now.)  The Inquirer had been gutted by a thirty-eight day strike in 1958.  There were hardly any experienced reporters left after the strike.  Former copy boys were promoted to reporters.  Harry Karafin was one of the only experienced reporters left.  In essence, he was The Inquirer's entire investigative journalism division, and management didn't look very carefully at how he got his stories.  And Harry Karafin had the best connections in Philadelphia media, from city hall down to the mob guys.  He could walk into the Philadelphia District Attorney's office and look through the files without restriction...which helped him pinpoint the shady businessmen that he could extort.

There were plenty of rumors about Harry Karafin.  He was a braggart, and knew nothing about hiding his ill-gotten gains.  On a reporter's salary of less than $11,000 a year, Harry somehow gave his wife expensive jewelry and furs.  He bought twin Buicks - even though he was the only one in his house who knew how to drive.  He paid a builder $30,000 to build him an expansive house in the far reaches of Northeast Philadelphia, putting down $19,000 cash.  Then he and his wife filled the house with $20,000 worth of furniture.

Harry Karafin didn't hide any of this.  He figured he was too big to take down.  He even boasted that he was so connected that his daughter's engagement party at Palumbo's (one of the city's top clubs) didn't cost him a dime.  The notorious Walter Annenberg was the publisher of The Inquirer in those days.  Harry Karafin liked to introduce himself as "Walter Annenberg's hatchet man."

The exposé of Harry Karafin didn't appear in any of Philadelphia's newspapers.  Gaeton Fonzi and Greg Walter worked for Philadelphia Magazine.  The magazine published the exposé, in April of 1967, despite legal action by Karafin to suppress it.  In fact, that article is considered the start of investigative journalism in regional magazines.

You have to wonder if a magazine would print such a story today, when faced with a lawsuit.

The exposé worked.  The Inquirer was forced to fire Harry Karafin, and a year later he was convicted of extortion.  You can read Fonzi and Walter's article here.  They wrote longer back then: it's seventeen pages long.  But it's well-written, with a nice button at the end.

Harry Karafin is still mentioned in journalism circles.  I never went to journalism school, although I have written for several different papers.  I first heard of Harry Karafin in fiction.  Back in 1981, mystery novelist Richard Hoyt wrote a newspaper-based mystery called 30 for a Harry, about a newspaper extortionist.  It was a good book, but it's long out of print now.  If you run across it in a used bookstore, this is what it looks like:

It's an enjoyable read, although not Hoyt's best work.  I'd pick Fonzi and Walter's exposé of the real Harry Karafin any day.