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.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

His Eye is on the Sparrow at Portland Center Stage


I was glad I knew nothing about Ethel Waters before going to see His Eye is on the Sparrow in the
Ellen Bye Theater at Portland Center Stage Friday night. Oh, I knew she was a singer who had popularized wonderful old songs like "Stormy Weather" and "Am I Blue." I knew she played Berenice in The Member of the Wedding. But I knew nothing about her life.

It was wonderful to sit in that intimate theater and watch her story unfold through narration and song. His Eye is on the Sparrow, written by Larry Parr, is essentially a one-woman show (I say essentially because she's accompanied by a piano player), in which Ms.Waters, played by Maiesha McQueen, guides us through her troubled childhood, her sad young life as a grudging teen bride, her surprise rise to stardom accompanied by feelings of inadequacy in the face of the racism and sexism all around her, her seclusion as an older woman followed by her return as a gospel singer - and most of all, her songs.

Fabulous songs. "Heatwave." "Old Man Harlem." "Franky and Johnny." "Black and Blue." Songs beautifully performed by Maiesha McQueen in a voice that ranges from sweet to deep to playful to mournful, and a performance that, above all, rings authentic. One of the biggest pitfalls of a show like this one is inauthenticity, and McQueen's performance is not a modern take and not a pastiche. It's the real deal.



I loved the whole of McQueen's performance. She's funny and heartbreaking and brassy and dynamic and again, again, so authentic. Authentic to the time period(s) and authentic to the human experience.

I have to admit I don't tend to be interested in stars or the lives of stars. Packed houses on concert tours and actors' searches for that perfect movie role aren't stories that move me. But His Eye is on the Sparrow is not a play about stardom. It's a story about human relationships, the struggle to make connection. It's a story about race, and the ways people internalize the unfair inequality around them. It's a story about womanhood.

And OK, yes, I lied: it's a story about stardom. But what that particular thread in the production said to me had little to do with stardom, per se.  Stories about stars are often about persistence. How they struggle to realize their full potential, how they persevere to reach that place in the spotlight. The Ethel Waters I saw last night at Portland Center Stage seemed to have the spotlight handed to her in a gift-wrapped box, and the persistence that marked her life centered around other things. Real things. Most of all, simply the struggle to feel equal in the world.


As I left the theater, a phrase kept playing in my head. She was a star, and she just wanted to be on par.

Silly rhyme notwithstanding, this was the takeaway that stuck with me the most. She had achieved so much - stints on Broadway and the concert stage, appearances in the movies and on TV, record contracts; she was the second African American woman nominated for an Academy Award (Pinky) and the first African American  woman to have a lead role in a television series (Beulah) - and she still felt less than. Less than her fellow man. Less than her fellow White man.

When she persisted, she was called difficult. And perhaps she was. But these were difficult times for Black women. Still are. I can't help it: my mind goes to the recent Senate Judiciary hearings on Jeff Sessions and two women's voices (Elizabeth Warren's and Coretta Scott King's) silenced in their attempt to speak truth about racism. Nevertheless, she persisted. This is what Ethel Waters does throughout her story. She persists. Not toward the kind of achievement that wants to be measured in Academy Awards and television ratings and Twitter followers, but toward authenticity.

Somewhere in the second half, I was compelled to fish a pen out of my purse and scribble on the back of my program a line Waters says. She's describing White people and the line is both biting and sympathetic. "Their souls have been pushed down somehow."

This felt so true and so ironic. With all the efforts, conscious and unconscious, that White America has made to put themselves - ourselves - above, our souls have been pushed down.

But what happens during the play: you feel lifted up. By Ethel Waters' music, her truth, her hilarious barbs, her persistence. And it isn't just her. I said before, His Eye is on the Sparrow is essentially a one-woman show. Maiesha McQueen's partner on stage is Darius Smith. Beyond being musical director of the production, he plays the piano for her performance beautifully, but his presence is more than that. From the way he escorts her through the theater in the opening of each act, to his quiet attentiveness to her performance, Smith seems to be some sort of opposite Greek chorus. Rather than commenting on the action, telling the story for her, he listens. He sits back and actively lets her tell her truth. He attends with grace and respect, and with this, he seems to represent that something that Ethel Waters always deserved.



His Eye is on the Sparrow runs through March 19th. More info is here.

Thank you to Patrick Weishampel for the photos. Theater poster designed by Julia McNamara. The picture of Ethel Waters from Wikipedia Commons.

Monday, February 6, 2017

a moment in the day; or, a short transcript of the introduction to some old radio show i was just listening to while trying to escape from the horrors of reality


Come in!

Welcome.

I'm E. G. Marshall.

"We are all doomed!" said one philosopher.

It is inevitable. It is fate. It is destiny. Our lives hang on a slender thread from one day to another.

We place our daily existence in the hands of total strangers. And pray for the luck of the draw.

We do it when we drive down the highway.

When we fly in an airplane.

We do it when we elect a president.

...