Wednesday, May 17, 2017

City of Weird contributor: Andrew Stark


I hadn't known Andrew Stark before accepting his story "A Code for Everything" for City of Weird. My reaction to his submission was one of those instant love affair things. I probably fairly knew I'd accept it from paragraph one. The story does all the things that make my brain happy. It's a wonderful mix of nerdiness and heart. It plays with science (yum) and and philosophy (yum) and language (yum), and is told through the lovely deadpan voice of a robot dog named Barney.

It's a story that took a little extra care for publisher Laura Stanfill to typeset as it contains phrases like:

w0+w1∑j=1tγt−jCRj+w2∑j=1tγt−jEVj+w3∑j=1tγt−jRPEj

and

産業技術総合研究所

Another example of the delicious nerdiness in the piece: Barney the robot dog and his companion (also named Barney) live in various homes throughout their life together, and Barney the dog describes each of these homes down to the exact latitude and longitude. As an example of just how nerdy I also am, when I was editing City of Weird, I created a Google map and plotted out every landmark and plot point I could think of in every story. It helped me to root out some errors in a couple of the stories and it allowed me to track how much of Portland I was covering, but mostly it was just me nerding out on this book I was gathering together. Along with finding and plotting out such City of Weird landmarks as Kelly's Olympian, the clock tower at the Amtrak station, Powell's City of Books, the Poppy Lounge, the unnamed haberdasher in Jonah Barrett's "Alder Underground," and the site of the former haunted Burger King on Burnside and Broadway (along with LOTS of other landmarks - I really nerded out), I was able to paste in such spots as:

45.522202° N, -122.618054° W in Laurelhurst

and

45.496224° N, -123.121649° W outside Forest Grove

and find out where Barney and Barney lived. And of course, these places were exactly where they were supposed to be.

"A Code for Everything" is the only story in City of Weird that unquestionably takes place in the future, and it is one of a handful of tales in the collection that would consistently make me cry.

Andrew was raised on the Ojibwa Indian Reservation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He has lived and worked in Chicago, Montana, Los Angeles, and Portland. I met him briefly when he lived in Portland during the creation period of the book, but by the time it was published, he'd moved out of state again.

His work has appeared in various publications, and he is co-founder of LOST WKND, the international literary arts and culture publication based in Minneapolis. You can check out LOST WKND here.

Recently Andrew's story "A Code for Everything" was one of four City of Weird pieces to be adapted into radioplays by Cynthia J. McGean, and produced and directed by Sam A. Mowry of Willamette Radio Workshop. The first live performance of these plays was on stage at the Kiggins Theater in Vancouver, Washington, and the pieces were beautifully adapted and performed. Sam A. Mowry, also a radio actor for WRW, gave an expert performance as Barney the robot dog, voicing him exactly as I have heard him in my head, and pacing the piece beautifully, getting lots of laughs from the audience and bringing the story to a heartfelt close.



The second and final live performance will be this Saturday, May 20, at 3 o'clock at the UFO Fest in McMinnville.

I didn't even know we had a UFO Fest! I'm excited.

In the meantime, here's a taste of Andrew Stark's lovely work:

The child, Barney, names me after himself. He seems timid at first, when his parents bring me back to their 2,350-square-foot Cape Cod at 45.522202° N, -122.618054° W in Laurelhurst. They walk me in and set me down. My olfactometer picks up 1,622 different odors, including jojoba in the woman’s perfume, and alarm pheromones emitting from the child. He peeks from around the corner; I wag my tail and yip. Although I understand fifty languages, my communication is limited to barks, howls, and mammalian semiosis. Eventually, he approaches and strokes my head. The tactile sensors lining my skull allow me to respond, and I close my eyes. Likewise, a number of sensory corpuscles near the surface of Barney’s hand send discriminative sensations traveling up the posterior columns in his spine and into the medial lemniscus of his brainstem, causing the electrical membrane potential of certain cells to rise and fall, opening channels and allowing for an inward flow of sodium ions. Once the sensations reach his medulla oblongata, a number of axons synapse with a number of neurons in his gracile and cuneate nuclei. He smiles.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day journal entries early in my life (or the entries from the dates most close to Mother's Day) with spelling errors intact


1978 
May 17—I went to a piano odition then out to lunch then to a supermarket.  i was in the Toy area with Shena and a cloun junped out and scared me.

1979 
May 15—Today we got out of school 12:00 AM.  Lené came to my house today.  Hector died.  He suffered.  We don't know why.  I'm getting a new one.
[Hector was a hamster.]  

1980
May 11—Today I got in another comercial.  I was a background. We made a mound of sand for friendly the wolf to sit on.  Shena, Heather, Tom, Edina, Mara, Ryan and I walked in the background while friendly the wolf talked.  We went home.  I watched video taped movies.
[The campground where we were camping was filming a commercial and we kids hung around and made a general nuisance of ourselves until they told us we could be in the background of the commercial in order to get us to go away. I was thrilled. Friendly the Wolf was a puppet.]

1981
May 23—Heather came over we went to Jan's and Sarah's house and there we rode ponies and rowboats.  Jan Struck works for Mom in the French Pantry, Sarah's her dauter.
[The French Pantry was my mom's restaurant.]

[bonus] May 27—Jamie got her period.  I'm jealous.  Mom says she'll get me some things just incase I do.  She might get me a bra soon too!

1982
May 9—We came home.  Shena & Mara are spending the night.  We got to listen to Beatle music in the car.

[bonus] May 19—I dreamed I went to Paul McCartney's house.  The Beatles were there.

1983
May 8—Happy Mother's Day!  We swam, sunbathed & played with frogs.  I was reading "Will there really be a morning?"  I saw the "Billie Jean" video like Mom wanted me to.  We came home.  We had more Heather presents.  Heather went home.  Mom, Edina, & I had a talk.  We had lobster for dinner.  Happy Mother's day.  I made mom a card with a picture of the "I [heart] you" sign on it.

1984
(May 7th)  I had my 1st period on Friday and Mom made a big deal about it.  I can understand why but still I didn't think it was any big thing.  I was raving at the time.  I was burning mad for many reasons that summed up to—life.  I was pounding my fists against my bed until I noticed I looked like a maniac.  I didn't know about my period until I sat down on the toilet.  We once again went up to the lake.  I began a book of short stories—I have finished now, 'Box of Forgotten Hope." 

1985
[When I talk about my "town," I'm talking about a game we used to play where we each created a town out of little toys and dolls. Lloyd Hailey and "the tooth brush one" and "Toybox" were stories I wrote.]
 I gave Mom a Beatles tape and we listened to it the whole way home—really loud, because Mom’s ears were plugged with a cold.  So, I was singing my loudest along with it.
            I brought home with me the tape on which I taped the music for my little “I don’t care” song.  I was listening to it.  It is somewhat better than my old songs on that tape of mine, but…
            I remember when my dream was to be a singer.  I actually thought I had it in me.  Oh God, was I wrong.
            I don’t understand my having that dream.  And, pieces of it still clutter up in my brain.  I still write my little songs, even record them.  And, what talent do I have?
            Oh, yeah!
            People used to tell me I had talent for music.  So, I took 6 years of piano lessons, took a tiny course in classical guitar, and thought I had it.  I wrote songs—slow ditties where I strummed my guitar and sung my little, un-trained throat out.  At best they were the style for the dippiest musicals.
            Well, now my style (what style?) is alittle better.  I have a beat now.  My few songs are less mellow.  But, still, I have nothing great.  And, I have an awful, untrained voice.  I can only strum my guitar and mess up chords.  I also use my Yamaha or the organ at the lake—so, I’m cheating.
            I’m begining to wonder what my talent is.  It is obviously not music—I can’t even dance.
            Writing?
            Right!
            How did I get started on that writing?  I made a play for my town called “Marna Terrace” and I could not do it that way because of the special effects needed.  So, I decided to write it, and Heather decided to join me and write one of her own.  Thus began my huge obsession with writing.
            Heck, I’ve got to face it.  Nothing I’ve written has been better than “Shows potential”.  The books I have scrawled down in my little journal books are all awful.  “Lloyd Hailey” has been disregarded.  My little toothbrush one won’t win—no way.  And I don’t even want to look at “Toybox.”
            I wrote a poem for Mom for Mother’s day, as I usually do.  It went something something, something… these things make up motherhood…  It was really stupid.  When she read it outloud, I had to leave the room.  Then, she thanked me for it, and said it was good. She said that she wanted me to write it out in caligraphy,

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

City of Weird author: Karen Munro


When I put out the call for submissions for City of Weird, there were a few authors I gave nudges to in hopes that they'd submit. Karen Munro is one of them.

I first read her work when we were both contributors to a lovely anthology called the Pacific Northwest Reader, edited by Carl Lennertz and published by Delphinium. Karen's was hands down my favorite essay in the book, and I've followed her work with delight ever since, including great otherworldly stories like "The Cure," published on Midnight Breakfast and told from the point of view of a reluctant werewolf:

I should have known something was wrong when I woke up naked on the kitchen floor next to a half-empty bag of puppy chow, full as a tick.

Karen is particularly good at working the confluence of two emotions, as she does with loneliness and humor in "The Cure."

I went back to Heather. I know. I wasn’t her husband anymore. And she wasn’t my wife. She owed me less than nothing. But the junkyard where I chowed on the dog was in her neighborhood, and I was sure that wasn’t a coincidence. When I changed, something drew me there. Sooner or later I was going to wake up at her doorstep, and after that—maybe I’d wake up in her apartment. Full, bloody-mouthed. I wouldn’t be the first guy who went after friends and family when he turned into a wolf. And it wouldn’t be the first time I’d caused her pain.

Karen deftly navigates the intersection between need and horror in "Pringreen," published on Split Lip Magazine:

That’s Pringreen. There—that mantis of a man propped on the corner with his hand in his pocket, fondling something. A dent in the top of his stovepipe hat as if someone put it there with a single outraged blow. The tails of his coat dusty and soiled. I think he’s looking at you. If he is, if he comes this way, I’ll go.

But perhaps he’s just considering the bakery sign behind us, or that scruffy fellow on the curb. Perhaps I’ve misjudged the angle of his gaze. You seem a regular, a decent sort of man. Not one of Pringreen’s. But it’s so hard to tell what secrets a man has heaped up inside.


So, yes, I nudged Karen about submitting a story for City of Weird. I was so impressed with her imagination, which is both beautifully fanciful and incredibly brainy. I knew she was the perfect candidate for this collection, and when I finally made my decisions about the story submissions I'd received and had my publisher take the blinders off and could see who had written the stories I'd chosen, there she was.

Karen's story "The Color off the Shelf" deals with many fascinating, intersecting themes and topics: the power of books, race and the whiteness of Portland, the allure of the impulses that scare us. Malcolm, a young black college student working on a dissertation about the African American tradition of toasts and boasts, is drawn to a section of Powell's City of Books that he never knew existed, a dank basement labeled as "Deep Storage." Down there, he discovers an old, deeply racist book.

The grown up Negro partakes, as regards his intellectual faculties, of the nature of the child, the female, and the senile White . . .

The passages that Karen included in her tale are so offensive they seem unreal, yet she took them almost word for word from actual existing books that made up a genre known as "scientific racism," a pseudoscientific study of techniques and hypotheses meant to support or justify belief in racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority.

I got together with Karen one day to chat and eat cake, and she surprised me by telling me that the impetus for her story was the fact that H. P. Lovecraft, the man commonly known as the godfather of "weird fiction," the genre celebrated in City of Weird, was a notorious racist. Like really, really racist. And it's in his  stories. It was a fact that I hadn't known. I loved finding out that "The Color Off the Shelf" was a direct reaction to that. Karen drew on the old African American tradition of toasts and boasts, a form of narrative poetry: another thing I hadn't known about before Karen gifted me with her story. As Malcolm enters the mysterious "Deep Storage" he recites one of the most famous toasts to calm his nerves.


Looking for any imagery I might find surrounding toasts and boasts, I came across the above album cover for a recorded version of a book called Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Tradition. More info on the book is here and the CD here. I don't know where the image is from, but it depicts a scene from the very toast that Malcolm turns to...

“Shine was downstairs eating his peas,” he began. His favorite toast, the ballad of “Shine and the Titanic.” The wily, smart black man escaping the white man’s shipwreck. The walls of the staircase seemed to be getting narrower, and he needed to concentrate on something. At first his arms had been almost fully extended—now they were bent at the elbow like chicken wings. A sour smell curled up the stairs to meet him. 

“When the goddamned water come up to his knees.” The staircase had an angle to it, he was sure. A kind of disorienting cant, as if a giant finger had flicked it from one side. 

“The captain said, ‘Shine, set your black self down.’” He paused and looked back. Behind him, the stairs soared like a sheer wall. Inconceivably distant and far above was the little wooden door he’d come through. He swallowed. “‘I got ninety-nine pumps to pump the water down.’”

The book that Malcolm finds at the bottom of the nightmarish staircase grabs onto Malcolm and won't let go - or is it Malcolm who won't let go? "The Color Off the Shelf" is about the ways in which we can be drawn to the things that terrorize us - but it also mirrors the way we as readers, film-watchers, art-lovers can let our appreciation for art cloud our judgment. We don't want to admit to the racism of people like Lovecraft because we so enjoy the other things those imaginations have churned out. Is it OK to love the art if the artist is so deeply flawed, if the deep flaws carry through to the art we love?

What I love is that the power of books works both ways. We can't change the fact that such an important figure in horror fiction's canon (and many more figures beyond that) held such offensive beliefs and embedded his art with it. But an artist like Karen can come along and turn that dark magic into something beautiful.

Karen will be reading from her story at the last official City of Weird launch reading, Monday, April 17th at VFW Post 134 in Portland, where one of the stories takes place. More info on it is here.

An interesting article about Lovecraft's racism is up on Salon here.

A little more info on toasts and boasts, with a rendition of "Shine and the Titanic," as well as the toast "The Signifying Monkey," a children's tale about a lion and a monkey, is here.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Book cover design: Alex Behr's Planet Grim


Recently I had the honor of designing a book cover for Alex Behr's upcoming collection of short stories, Planet Grim. Alex's writing is beautifully particular, darkly funny, and deeply moving. I fell in love with her work when I first heard it at a fabulous Portland arts salon called JAM. Hers is the kind of writing that makes you fall in love with the mind that penned the words. Sharp, edgy, quirky, and profoundly real. I thought her publisher's description of the book described it beautifully:

In twenty-eight stories that will draw blood while making you laugh, Alex Behr’s debut collection Planet Grim is a vivid, unsettling portrait of the gritty fringes of San Francisco and Portland, where complicated characters long for connection just out of reach. Behr is an idiosyncratic, unpredictable prose stylist who will remind readers of Miranda July and Mary Gaitskill, and her edge and willingness to cut to the bone make her writing truly original.

"Planet Grim," Alex quipped the other day. "I named it before the election."

The title was actually the source of a lot of mulling for me as I was brainstorming ideas for a cover design. Both words, planet and grim, are quite loaded. Planet, in particular, had me wondering whether it would be good to actually play on imagery of the earth - after all, there's a sense that the phrase "planet grim" refers to both the particular world of Alex's characters and the wider world of all of our lives.

I did play around with some earth-related ideas, even going so far as to, on impulse one day, build myself one of those schoolchild models of the solar system out of dowel rods and Styrofoam balls, for a sample. Never let it be said that I don't like to get down and dirty with my book design.

But I also played with concepts that, rather than focusing wide and cosmic, pulled in close and personal. Which Alex's collection does so well, zeroing in on what makes us human. One very rough sample I offered during the concepting phase used Alex's own beautifully evocative picture of her son in a superhero cape.

In the end, Alex and her publisher Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books (whose press name I have repeatedly embarrassingly screwed up as 7.15 and 3.17 and π [OK, not π] over and over in my back cover and spine samples) decided upon the sample that they felt got to the moodiness of the collection the best.

Recognize the person in the picture? Here's the original.

That's Alex herself (photo by Lewis Watts) which I did some color and texture work to, then slanted a bit and, obviously, blew up really huge.

For the original rough sample, I created the text in Adobe Illustrator, but Alex wanted something whose execution looked more actually hand-rendered. So that's what I did. I got out my paints and brushes and recreated the lettering on an acetate overlay. Here's a very bad picture of that acetate piece, which I only include here because look at the cool shadow it made on the wall when I  took the picture!


In the end, I liked the texture and painterly-ness of the hand-rendered lettering but the smooth edges of the vector art, so I photoshopped the two versions together. It was a fun process which gave us, finally, a finished piece that we all liked. I hope it's a cover worthy of the beauty and uniqueness to be found on the inside of the book.

Here's a taste from the story "White Pants."

I held up the white pants in front of me, judging that they’d fit. They had rhinestones down the sides. I ducked into a bookstore to put them on. It was next to the café where the Mission’s Red Man sat all day, his face covered with a thin sheen of red face paint.

I put on the pants, forcing up the zipper, and followed a girl who also wore white pants. I followed people for sport, not loneliness. She had bleached white hair, like Debbie Harry, and wore high heels with a white blouse and white pants. All that white blinded me. I felt like I’d met my twin, only someone with more sex trapped in fabric and leather shoes. I crossed in front of blatting scooters and cars, not pausing, knowing the vehicles measured their speed based on mine, and I was matching hers.

I followed her as far as a tamales cart and I let her go. She was looking back at me, and I had nothing to say.


Planet Grim will be out October 12, 2017.

More information about 7.13 Books is here.
More information about Alex Behr is here.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

City of Weird author profile: Art Edwards


Art Edwards was one of the early submissions I got when I was reading for City of Weird. I had him in my maybe pile for a long time because I truly didn't think it would be possible to publish his story. I really, really wanted to publish his story. It was different from what I'd been expecting from my submissions - it didn't contain a classic monster or ghost or spaceman, not even one whose trope had been used in an unexpected way. Instead, it had Alex Trebek mysteriously appearing, one day, standing stoically, nearly catatonically, outside a guy's apartment. That's pretty much all he does - stand there - or, rather, crouch there, waiting for something, and though people start tossing trash at him, having rowdy parties around him, decorating him, he just crouches and waits. When the narrator steps in to keep him company and clean up the messes people make on and around him, magical things begin to happen.

It was definitely one of the weirdest stories in the slew of tales that came across my submissions pile, and even if for that alone, I wanted it.

But you can't publish a story about Alex Trebek without getting permission from Alex Trebek. And, as should be obvious from the description above, Mr. Trebek isn't treated all that well in the course of the story.

Publisher Laura Stanfill wrote to the producers of Jeopardy!, and we let Art know that we loved the story but that its acceptance hinged upon getting permission, and I think all three of us pretty much wrote it off as never-going-to-happen.

On June 12th (two days before my birthday... coincidence?) we got an email back from the Jeopardy! representative. Alex Trebek had received the request. Alex Trebek had read the story (!). And, yes, he was giving his permission to us to use his... what would you call the non-visual version of a likeness?... in the book.

Laura forwarded the email to me along with one simple sentence, all in caps: OH MY GOODNESS!

The best part of the message was the fact that Alex had given us an edit. There was one sentence, likely a simple typo that I hadn't even yet noticed, that he wondered about.

"One note/question Alex had was in the fourth paragraph, the sentence “A breeze rustled craggily maples at the complex’s entrance.”, did not make sense to him, so he wanted to point that out."

Right you are! Craggily - - > Craggy. Done.

Of course, once the story had been accepted formally, it went through a regular course of edits from me and copy edits from our copy editors, but we were all kind of tickled that Alex had given us an edit, himself. I joked that I could see a cover with "Edited by Gigi Little" on it, and in tiny type underneath "(And Alex Trebek)."



When we told Art, he said, "Alex Trebek. What a hoot! I write these things thinking no one will read them, and then Alex Trebek reads one. Someone in my writing group said I should use 'edited by Alex Trebek' as a blurb."

When City of Weird came out more than a year later, Booklist called "Waiting for the Question" "a gritty urban fantasia." One of the things I particularly like about the story is its sly, understated humor, as in this segment. To set this up, the narrator's kind of a slacker...

I called my brother Rex in Beaverton, who’d worked the same job for fifteen years. 

“I need $1,100.” 

I felt the pause on his end, cutting me with every second. 

“You need $1,100.” 

“They’re going to evict me.” 

“Where’s Grandma’s money?” 

I couldn’t answer. He sighed. 

“I can’t find a job.” 

“There’s a guy in Hillsboro hiring people to do phone surveys.” 

“That’s not my field.” 

“Your field?” 

“Yes, I have a degree.” 

“What I’m getting at,” Rex said, “is where was the urgency a few weeks ago when you could’ve done something about it besides call me?” 

I had no answer for him, so I said, “You know, Alex Trebek is camped out at my apartment complex.”

"Waiting for the Question" was a long time coming. It began its life all the way back in 2011 with a different title and a different ending. In fact, it was a different tale altogether. Art tells the story of this story in a very interesting article he wrote for Necessary Fiction, called "Waiting for the Answer." You can check it out here.

Art will be reading from his story at Another Read Through, a fabulous indy bookstore, on March 11th. It's a Saturday, so this event begins at 1:30. Facebook event page is here.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake


Heading out into the lobby of the Keller Auditorium at first intermission of Swan Lake last night, Stephen said, "The corps de ballet is very... together, very..."

Looking for the right word and I anticipated it and jumped in with that tiny pride you have every time you one-up your partner in linguistic prowess.

"Tight?" I said.

"Yes, tight. That's the thing you often hear in reviews, that the principal dancers are good but the corps de ballet was sloppy. I was very impressed."

"So, corps de ballet...?"

"That means the members of the company who dance together in a group, as opposed to the soloists."

"Can I use that term in my blog post? I'm going to use that term in my blog post!"

So, there's my full disclosure: Linguistic excellence? Balletic knowledge? Not so much. But I love ballet, the skill, the beauty, the strange magic of learning a story almost completely through movement, and I particularly enjoyed Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of Swan Lake. The word I kept using to describe things last night as we were leaving the theater, a word that sprang easily to my tongue, was delightful.



It's an interesting production because it is not the classic Swan Lake based on the 1895 revival with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and it's not the classic Tchaikovsky ballet updated with completely new choreography. Artistic Director Kevin Irving's adaptation is an amalgam including input by Petipa and Ivanov and modern choreographers Nicolo Fonte, Kevin Irving, Anthony Jones, and Lisa Kipp. Not only that, but the storyline has been changed to add a completely new element and that takes the story in a completely different direction and toward a different ending.

I'll only say that about the changes, because I hate spoilers, but what I can say is that I felt all the aspects of OBT's Swan Lake, the old choreography and the new, the classic story elements and the new, were assembled beautifully so that the whole production felt seamless and integrated.

And the orchestra under the direction of Niel DePonte was - I'll use my initial not-very-ballet-chic word again - tight. Beautiful. And the dancing, led last night by Xuan Cheng and Peter Franc, was quite good, with particularly lovely use of the corps de ballet. The white swans swirled and churned like a murmuration across the stage. At times, to me, they seemed to symbolize more than enchanted swans, becoming, here, a hint of storm, there a spread of fog as a night moved toward morning.


One of the most surprising things to me was the humor. The scene of the ball in Act 2 is rife with it, fashioned beautifully through the use of both choreography and storyline. I didn't know I could laugh so much in a ballet. And there was one particular moment I never thought I'd see in a ballet - and of course, that spoiler thing, again: I can't say what that moment was. I wish I could. All I can say is that between that moment and the burst of laughter that followed was a half second of silence in which I think the only sound in the auditorium was the surprised "Oh!" that jumped out of my mouth.

Here are three final words in my parade of words about OBT's world premier production of Swan Lake: go see it. It's a gorgeous and delightful evening and you don't need to know any fancy ballet terms in order to come out of the theater feeling smart and full of a little more joy.

More info and tickets here.

Photos of  Xuan Cheng and Peter Franc and the company members of Oregon Ballet Theatre courtesy of Randall Milstein.