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!


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.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Book cover: Queen of Spades

One of my ideas for a book cover for Michael Shou-Yung Shum's upcoming novel Queen of Spades, centered around a Seattle gambling casino, was to design the book to look like a package of playing cards. The prominent spade on the pack of Bicycle cards, like the one shown here, works beautifully with the book's title, and I had a lot of fun putting together a very precise homage to one of their classic boxes, before I realized we probably had a trademark issue on our hands and there wouldn't be time to contact the Bicycle folks and ask their permission.

Sure glad I took the time to get the whole thing completely designed before that occurred to me...

Luckily, it wasn't my only idea, so I refocused my efforts on what was, actually, my first concept which was to create a designed card back in the tradition of these.

Aren't they great? Think how fun it would be to be an artist whose sole job was to make these.

It was a lot of fun gathering samples and studying all those lovely designs. And I think one of my favorite things about graphic design is attempting to create something as an homage to something else. In a way, what I like most is not creating but recreating. That's why some of my favorite jobs have been ones like City of Weird (old weird fiction magazine covers), Jamie Yourdon's Froelich's Ladder (old books), and Stevan Allred's A Simplified Map of the Real World (maps). And one of my favorite projects ever, actually, a CD cover I did for a very indy collection of music played on a Wurlitzer theater organ, because I got to design it to look like a 1930s movie poster.

The big challenge with Queen of Spades was finding the best way to fit all the elements of a book cover into the layout: title, author name, blurb and the words "a novel." It's a lot to squeeze into a design that already takes up a lot of space on the page. I didn't want to obscure too much of the classic card elements, the background pattern, the ornate border, the [usually double, right-side-up-and-upside-down] centerpiece.

I was particularly happy with how I worked in the blurb.

The card went through a number of iterations. The poker chips in the corners of the border were sometimes chips, sometimes simple card suits (heart, club, diamond, spade), the filigree morphed as I needed it to for spacing. The lettering of the title kept getting more and more ornate, thanks to publisher Laura Stanfill's prompting.

One of the things I experimented with was doing Michael's name upside down. After all, card designs are usually done that way. While it was a fun approach, Laura and I felt it was up to the author to decide whether his name would be presented in a way that would also, of course, make it less immediately readable.

Michael chose right-side up. It makes his name more readable but it also fits the space better. And he's the one to thank for the deep blue background color. Originally I'd been playing with the gold shown just above, and I experimented with a number of other colors, but Michael's suggested blue makes the red and white card pop in a lovely way.

I love that collaborative part of the process, and I'll gamble that what the three of us came up with together has made this book cover a lovelier thing.

Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost had this to say about Queen of Spades.

“A magical debut—literally. This tale is both spare and sprawling, gritty and otherworldly, both an homage to the complex psychology of gambling and a cautionary tale for those watching from the rail. A ridiculously satisfying read.”

Here's a taste from the book:

Chan wandered to the employee lounge, where two fellow pit dealers pulled a chair for him to join them. Leanne and Bao were friendly and gregarious, and after fifteen minutes of chatting about their respective dealing pasts, Chan asked them about the old woman he had seen leaving the casino. They were only too happy to respond. He learned that no one knew her real name, and that she was referred to by all the regulars and the staff as the Countess.

Every evening, Leanne said, she could be found playing Faro in the High Limit Salon. She arrived at ten p.m. in a long, silver Rolls Royce limousine, and would gamble for three hours—no, it was four, said Bao. Until two a.m. precisely. All the while, her chauffeur, a young man who never spoke a word, stood stiffly by her side.

“She’s sort of the queen of the Royal,” Bao explained.

Queen of Spades comes out in October of this year. More info is here.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A partial list of what I learned about a man I'll never meet and a country I may never visit while on the phone four hours to computer support yesterday

He's 24 years old.

He's been married for a year to his high school sweetheart who he's known for 10 years.

The city he lives in, in India, rarely gets very cold or very hot. In the mornings, it's misty, and then all day it's sunny, and in the evening it's cool, but "a nice cool."

He currently works a graveyard shift and sleeps in the daytime. His wife works days and sleeps at night. They see each other on the weekend.

They both work in the tech field, but, "when I see her, I say something sweet to her instead of talking technical."

Growing up, he wanted to be a famous soccer player. "I wanted to be a star." But to get that good, he believes you need to practice at least 6 hours a day, and he had to work. To become a soccer star, you have to come from privilege.

Though he couldn't be a famous soccer player, he found many other interests to make him happy. Like geography. He can tell anyone anything they need to know to have a fantastic trip when they travel anywhere in the world. He doesn't make enough money to travel.

He learns all about other cultures by talking to people on the phone while running programs to flush the malware out of their computers.

He had a golden retriever but it died when it was 5 or 6 years old. He had a cocker spaniel puppy, but after he'd had it for just two months, someone stole it from his yard.

He hopes to have enough money to have a house and children some day. "I believe this will happen...? No, yes, it will happen." He hopes to not have to work as long hours and to have a better schedule so that he can spend time with his wife and kids. "Work when you are young, relax when you are old." He doesn't think he can stand the heartbreak of having another pet.

It's hard for him to sleep in the day with all the light and knowing that the weather is so beautiful outside. It's hard for his body to get tired. When he gets off work, he tries to wind down, he works out, he plays some soccer, he tries to sleep.

He is in favor of the Prime Minister, even though many people are very unhappy with him because of what happened with India's money. When the old currency was deemed illegal and the new currency came, people who had cash had to stand in "queues" for days to exchange their money. You had to provide proof of how you earned that money, and if you were unable to do this, you had to pay twice the amount in order to exchange the cash. He is paid through direct deposit and always uses his card so he only had to exchange money once, for his landlord, and his "sweet mom" offered to stand in line for him.

He has a friend who lives in Chicago, who called to say that, on his first night there, he heard a gunshot. The tech guy asked me how safe Portland is and whether there are ever gunshots here, and I said some, yes, but that it was relatively safe as far as cities go. He seemed completely perplexed by my answer, that some gunshots could constitute a safe city. He said he lives in one of the largest cities in India and shootings never happen there.

He was equally perplexed when I told him I had a good job but not a college degree. He said in India education is the number one thing. Jobs are very competitive and if you want one, you have to have the best education.

His schedule changes monthly. He never knows from month to month what shift he's going to have and what days are going to be his weekend. This month he shares the weekend with his wife, so on those two days, he tries to stay up all day and sleep at night, which causes an adjustment period when each new week comes. "I think this might be bad for my health, but I want to spend time with my wife."

If he does anything his wife doesn't like and she says so, he will stop doing it. He says she has complete say in all things. Except that she can't tell him not to play soccer. He will never let anyone make him not play soccer.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

City of Weird Contributor: B. Frayn Masters

B. Frayn Masters is one of the off-the-top-of-her-head funniest people I know. Recently we did a City of Weird event up in Longview Washington, and Stephen and I offered to carpool a couple of the readers. Frayn was one and Jason Squamata, who wrote "Aromageddon," was the other, and having those two in the backseat - I'll just say that driving to another state for a reading is so much more fun when you bring along Abbot and Costello, or... well, I'm not even sure I think Abbot and Costello were funny. How about Lucy and Ethel high on chocolate and given their own radio show? It was like that. At one point, Frayn was doing animal impersonations. I made her repeat the rooster at the end of the City of Weird reading event just for the hell of it.

Frayn was one of the few writers I invited outright to write me a piece for City of Weird. I knew what to expect from her: something funny and smart and totally weird. OK, I absolutely did not know what to expect from her. I just knew it would be funny and smart and totally weird - and it was. She delivered a hilarious and thought-provoking story about a, well, a sentient and somewhat sex-starved volcano. At least that's how I read it. I invite you to be the judge. But suffice it to say, Mount Tabor plays a part.

Lying on their backs in the middle of the park, not far from the statue, Henry said, ”It’s so groovy that Tabor is a volcano.” He had no idea the industrial-sized can of worms he’d just opened. 

Minerva’s grandmother was a volcanologist and Minerva had lost many a friend and potential lover to droning on a bit too much about the specifics of cones and calderas. But she couldn’t resist blurting out a few facts. “Tabor was formed, like, two million years ago and is twice as old as Mount Hood—suck it, Hood—and even though scientists say it’s dormant—because none of its vents have been active for 300,000 years—I’ve got it on good word that scientists don’t actually know shit about if and when a volcano might just change its mind. I mean, did you know that Yellowstone is a supervolcano and erupts every 600,000 years, and because it’s a supervolcano, when it does erupt again it will wipe out a large portion of North America?” As her fact rant trailed off and up into the night air, it met up with all the other words being spoken by all the other people of the world. 

Minerva’s eye caught a squirrel swinging between two trees. She rolled onto her stomach and spread her arms wide, digging her fingers into the dry August ground. Barely audible, she said, “Hug the volcano with me, Henry. Your Queen commands it.” Henry dutifully hugged Tabor.

When Frayn shouted "suck it, Hood," I believe she scared off a table of old ladies who were there for the reading, but, no offense to them, it was kind of worth it. Not only is Frayn an expert writer, she's an expert performer, who won Best Spoken Word / Storyteller in Willamette Week's Best of Portland in 2015. She's the creator, executive director and host of the super popular Back Fence PDX, a live storytelling event that you can read more about here.

Their next show will be January 21st - Back Fence PDX Russian Roulette! With storytellers Jason Sauls, Bri Pruett, Dylan Reiff, Kahlie Towle, Mellish, Camille Rose, and Eden Dawn.

And a show I'm really excited about, on January 27th at Revolutionary Hall, they'll be doing Super Women in Tech, Frayn told us about this on the way back from Longview, Washington. As the title explains, this performance highlights some super women in the tech field, including Dominique DeGuzman, Melinda Campbell, Maria Webster, Leah Siddall, Saira Weigel, and Brook Shelley. Storytellers in the Back Fence tradition tell their stories using no lies, no notes, and no memorization. For this particular performance, Back Fence is teaming up with Vox Siren, and more info about it is here.

Not only is this show going to be amazing, they're putting together a coloring book in conjunction, which highlights the super women in the show along with ten more badass ladies in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields throughout history: Katherine Johnson, Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and more. Written by B. Frayn Masters, illustrated by some fabulous artists, the book will be for sale at the event and will come free with VIP tickets.

You can watch a cool teaser video about it here and info on how to buy tickets or the book is here.

Here's a story of Frayn's up on Spork.

Frayn is fabulous and her story for City of Weird, "Queen of Tabor," contains the phrases lick a worm and ski lodge porn. I think I've said enough.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

City of Weird Contributor: Adam Strong

I've known Adam Strong and his writing for years. We shared space in Tom Spanbauer's Dangerous Writing workshop through drafts or partial drafts of two novels a piece. One of the best examples of the weird magic that reading submissions blind had on my story-choosing experience for the City of Weird anthology was that I didn't recognize Adam's voice when I read his submission. Later, after I'd accepted the story and was dipping into the editing process, I couldn't believe I hadn't recognized that voice. It was so him. Not only that voice but that story. They say as writers we're always writing one particular story, just in different ways, and the story embedded in "Always" is so Adam Strong that I'm truly amazed I didn't pick it out as his.

What I focused on, when first reading, was the tone of the piece. It's an intensely moody story, with this heavy, relentless music punctuated by the narrator's use of the name of the woman he is addressing, the woman he's telling his story to.

Shaneen, it’s late. Almost closing time at Kelly’s Olympian, and once again I’m waiting for you.

I was struck by how obsessive that music felt, and how that obsession wound around all the lush and particular imagery in the piece.

I know you love Kelly’s because of all the neon. Kelly’s written in an arc, above Olympian, on top of the symbol of a club, wings and 1902, the year the bar opened. This town, Portland, is all neon. I only come out at night, so neon is how I find my way around this place. Neon signs, for off-track betting, or liquor, famous crawfish or silver dollar pizza, a vacancy sign that’s never been on.

Very early on, I realized that I wanted "Always" to be the very last story in the collection. I'd like to tell you why, but that feels way too spoilery. But it was one of the very first decisions I made about the shape of the book, before I knew which story was going to come first, before I knew I was going to break the book into sections and what those sections and themes would be.

Along with "Always," Adam has had stories and essays published in Noisehole, The Class Who Fell in Love with the Man, Our Portland Story, Intellectual Refuge, and elsewhere. In fact, here's one of those elsewheres: Nailed Magazine, with a standalone piece called "Deadbird Redbird," excerpted from his novel Bella Vista

Adam also curates a quarterly reading series called Songbook PDX: a Literary Mixtape, in which writers read stories they've written about music that has terrified or inspired them. I've read at one and sat in the audience for others, and it's a total blast, because after each writer finishes reading, Adam plays the song the essay is based on. It makes for a wonderful night of story and music and the music adds a lovely personal touch to the experience of each reading. The event takes place at American Legion Post 134 in the Alberta Arts District.

Here's a cool blog post fellow City of Weird contributor Sean Davis wrote about his experience writing for Songbook PDX.

Adam does other great things, too. He's a husband and father. He teaches digital arts to high school students. He's a videographer, including an ongoing stint as house videographer for the Burnt Tongue reading series. Some of his work can be found here.

Adam will be reading "Always" for the City of Weird event coming up on Friday, January 13th, at Post 134. The Post is open right now, through Monday, as an emergency warming station for the homeless, so folks interested in coming are encouraged to bring donations of canned food, socks, hats, gloves, or blankets to donate to the guests of the Post.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

City of Weird Contributor: Linda Rand

Kevin Meyer submitted his City of Weird story at the eleventh hour - specifically, twenty after eleven on the very last day of open submissions. I'd like to award him the "Last Submitter" award, especially since waiting until the last moment is my own strategy, but I can't. The "Very, Very, Completely and Utterly Last Submitter Award" goes to Linda Rand, who sent me a Facebook message at 12:14 AM on April 16, 2015, technically fourteen (fifteen? I don't do math) minutes after endgame.

"hi gigi! i hope this isn't a huge faux pas," she wrote. And she explained that she'd had trouble getting her submission to go through on the Submittable page we'd set up. Finally admitting defeat after midnight rolled over, she'd decided the only thing she could do was send the submission to me via Facebook. She looked up my name and sent a message. I didn't know her at the time and wasn't Facebook friends with her. It's very lucky that I got the message at all, that it didn't just languish in my "other" folder, which I don't even think I knew existed at the time.

"I'm thinking this is particularly wrong because it was a blind reading...*sigh*" she said. What she meant by blind is that the rules for submissions specified that submitters were not to put their names on their manuscripts. Knowing that I was friends with many, many Portland writers, knowing that it would be hard to be objective if friends sent me stories, I had asked publisher Laura Stanfill to police my submissions and keep the writers' identities from me. Essentially, we'd said that if a writer put their name on their submission, they could be disqualified. Linda couldn't help but disqualify herself by appealing to me through a Facebook message with her name right there. She pasted the story, in full, into the message.

I'd spent that last night of open submissions working on a book cover design and periodically watching the Submittable page, as there had been more writers than just Linda and Kevin who gave it until the last day to upload their stories. I felt kind of ceremonious and festive on this last night, so I was also posting random images on Facebook for good measure, images of old Weird Tales magazines, like this one: the clutching hands of DEATH.

Here's my hastily-jotted commentary from my diary the next day:

A fun night. Periodic posting of old, campy illustrations on facebook, and watching submissions come in while I worked on Ellen’s back cover and listened to Suspense old time radio shows. My last submission was from a woman who apparently used to work at the Blue Monk, which I saw on her facebook page after she appealed to me through a facebook email at 12:15ish after her story wouldn’t go through on Submittable at ten till midnight. It’s a sweet, little flash piece.

I remember when I read her piece for the first time, I laughed out loud. Flash was definitely a plus for me. I'd so been hoping for some flash fiction and hadn't gotten much. Another plus, beyond the story being short and funny, was its landmark, the Blue Monk, a bar that used to be on Belmont but now is no more. And her otherworldly element, a gorgon, was completely different from any of the tropes used in the other stories.

And luckily the question of the blind didn't matter. I didn't know who she was. In the end, not only did I take the story, I also gave it one of the eight illustrations in the book, which I made as separators for the anthology's different sections.

Linda Rand is both a writer and an artist. Her artwork has been included in PDX Magazine and the book Oneira: I Dream the Self, curated by Peggy Nichols of Studio C Gallery in the Santa Fe Arts Colony in LA. Her writing has been published in Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, by Ariel Gore, in the anthology The People’s Apocalypse, edited by Ariel Gore and Jenny Forrester, and most recently in the Unchaste Anthology, Volume 1, edited by Jenny Forrester.

Here's a beautifully written story of Linda's up on Nailed Magazine.

Not only all that, but this past year, Linda's been making a human! I mean, how cool sci-fi otherworldly is that!

Here's a taste from her story "Stone Cold Monk." It's hard to keep from including the whole thing since it's so short and lovely, but I'm going to make myself cut it off. She will be reading it in full at American Legion Post 134, Friday, January 13th. The event starts at 7:30.

“Linda, what’s with the Medusa when I walked in? It can’t be good for business.” My friend Vaslav rolls his gray eyes, finding this yet another annoying factor at the Blue Monk. For someone who says he hates jazz and hipsters so much, he still manages to visit me a lot. I note he dyed his hair a becoming champagne blond. 

 “What?” I’m coming out of the walk-in with two trays of fruit for cocktails, balancing the cherries so the juice doesn’t spill. “I’m happy to see you but I’m totally running late.” 

Then I see a stone statue toward the center of the room. Just a guy. A statue of some guy. It looks like he is about to duck into a booth, his hand on the dark table, mouth a perfect O of unhappy surprise. With his 1950s glasses, beard, and skinny jeans, practically a uniform in this town, I have to peer in super close to see if I recognize him. There are no tattoos and I wonder if they would even show, as I stare at each perfect stone eyelash. I decide I don’t know him, but with the lack of color, it is a guess. 

The door to the basement is slowly closing, but before it does, I think I catch a glimpse of drab muslin and maybe scales disappearing into the gloom.

Monday, January 9, 2017

City of Weird Contributor: Sean Davis

When I put together these profiles of the authors who contributed to City of Weird, I'm usually
talking about them as writers - naturally. But the stuff I could say about Sean Davis, who contributed the story "The Fixer," runs so far beyond writing that I don't have any idea where to start.

How about the fact that, as commander of American Legion Post 134 in Portland, he has totally transformed it into a thriving community center that hosts workshops, meetings, and literary events, collects food and clothing for the homeless, and more. As I'm writing this, he has the Post open as an emergency warming center for the homeless during a period of frigid temperatures and ice storms.

How about the fact that he spends his summers fighting fires?

How about the fact that he teaches writing at Mt. Hood Community College and Clackamas Community College?

How about the fact that he was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in the National Guard in Iraq?

How about the fact that this past year, he ran for Mayor of Portland, garnering loads of respect for his drive and his community organizing skills and his views on what should be done to support our city? And as a side-note, how about the fact that he also won the Portland Mayoral Doughnut-Eating Contest?

Yes, I took a picture of his page in my voter's guide. Guess who I voted for.

How about the fact that he periodically goes out on the hunt for Bigfoot?

How about the fact that Sean worked as the veteran's service coordinator for the war-and-PTSD-themed opera The Canticle of the Black Madonna (A story he wrote about it is here.)?

How about the fact that he was honored with the 2016 Emily G. Gottfried Human Rights Award for Emerging Leader?

Like I said, I usually talk about my contributors as writers, and Sean has plenty to talk about there, too. His book The Wax Bullet War was published by Ooligan Press in 2014, and he has written and edited many other large and small works, as well as being an accomplished painter.

The story he submitted for City of Weird (complete title "The Fixer: a Serial - 1 - The Duchess") was right up my alley. Framed as an old time radio show, it somehow mashes up the seemingly disparate themes of mid-Twentieth-century noir narratives and Revolutionary Russian history and modern day America and throws Bigfoot in there for good measure. This spring, the story will be made into an actual radio show and it, along with a handful of other City of Weird stories, will make its radio debut live from the UFO Festival in May.

On Friday, January 13, Sean will be reading from his story at Post 134. In fact, the bar at the Post is the Poppy Lounge, where the very first scene of "The Fixer" takes place. This past year when the place was under renovation, someone stuck a balloon configuration that looked quite like a blue octopus on Poppy Lounge's ceiling. I don't know why - but City of Weird does have a blue octopus on its cover. Coincidence? I think not. OK, maybe, but still.

Here's a taste from the opening of "The Fixer":

Her lips are the color of a fresh scar and she has the kind of eyes that hit you harder than one of my long-pour Manhattans. Straight brown hair flows over her left shoulder and down over her low-cut white blouse. A dulled copper locket hangs on a long chain between her healthy breasts. There’s no reason in the world a dame like her should be in a dive like the Poppy Lounge. It makes no sense, and when things don’t make sense, that puts me on edge. 

I’m cleaning the last bum’s slobber from a pint glass, getting it ready for the next bum, as I watch her glide from the door to the bar. She’s at least five-foot-ten, maybe six-foot, but with those long getaway sticks, it’s hard to be sure. There’s no doubt that she could be the death of a man, but that man would still be lucky, in my book. 

I ask her what she needs and her only answer is a sultry smile. Finally, she says in a Russian accent, “I’m looking for the Fixer.”

More info on Sean Davis is here.