Sunday, November 29, 2009


Last week I was contacted by Fiction Magazine. They accepted a story of mine for publication. This is, of course, great news. Fiction magazine is carried by better independent bookstores, such as Brookline Booksmith, has been around since the early 70s, and backs up a wonderful history of supporting "new, emerging voices."

The story behind getting into Fiction is worth telling. I sent them my story almost three years ago, in February 2007. The story was fashioned from an outtake of a novel I was working on at the time. It was a stand-alone chapter that dealt with the second love experience of my teenage protagonist, and it didn't fit, so taking it out didn't upset any balance.

Separate from the framework of the novel, and after some revision, the piece stood on its own. Except for the ending. The original ending trails off. The stand-alone version couldn't trail off, it needed a concrete finish. This is the toughest part of shaping novel excerpts or outtakes; you must rework them so that they still make sense outside of the context of the novel. Because this was an outtake, I wasn't worried about maintaining the original spirit of the novel and could make it into what ever I wanted.

I reworked the ending to summarize the bittersweet end of a summer-long teenage relationship. I wasn't sure it worked, so I kept the ending brief; not overwriting, hoping not to call attention to any shortcomings. I sent the story out to Fiction. I must not have been confident with what I had written because I didn't send it elsewhere, and I never revised it.

When I opened and read the acceptance email, it took a couple minutes to realize what I was looking at. Most magazines/journals today will tell submitting writers that if they are not interested in your submission, you will not hear back. So it's heartening to know that us writers are not sending stuff out into an anonymous event horizon. That time waiting for a response isn't time wasted. And that if you sent a story out last year, the year before, or even the year before that, there's still hope. That somebody is spending late nights and weekends reading submissions from the slush pile in hopes of finding an unsung story, an unsung writer, another emerging voice.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Criterion Collection: An Appreciation

I'm not sure when it started for me. The sudden, very real infatuation, hinting at obsession, for The Criterion Collection. I've always been a film buff. Ever since I studied cinema as an undergrad, I always wanted to own as many great, life-defining films as I could find. Discovering the Criterion Collection has helped me start realizing this goal.

Criterion restores and releases classic and contemporary films for home viewing. They add a few movies to the collection every month, and give each one thoughtful and loving preservation, packaging, and contextual supplements. They champion forgotten or disregarded filmmakers, like Samuel Fuller and Paul Morrissey. And while you expect such reverance for obvious film study mainstays as The 400 Blows, Wild Strawberries, and Breathless, they also make room for popular commercial movies like Spinal Tap, Robocop, John Woo's Hard Boiled, and Michael Bay's Armageddon. Most editions include inserts or booklets with essays and interviews that make a book collector like me not feel guilty for spending money on a DVD.

Sure, these editions are pricey (most run $20 to $40; more if you buy boxed sets), and they sooner run out of stock then sell at discount. But if a film you love finally gets the full-on Criterion Collection treatment, 35 bucks for a 2-disc version that includes a new, restored high-def digital transfer supervised by the now-aged director who came out of seclusion just for this; well, it's is enough to make you forget your soaring credit card interest rate. I only own nine movies from Criterion, but these are movies I expect to watch more than a couple times, and whose special features I enjoy as much as the film itself.

For example, take The Killers. Based on the story by Hemingway about two hit men on the trail of a doomed boxer, this DVD contains two discs and features three very different film adaptations of the story. You get the 1946 Robert Siodmak version, starring Burt Lancaster in his debut, and a young Ava Gardner. Then there's Don Siegel's 1964 version, starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and John Cassavetes. If you just can't get enough, they include a student film version directed by Andrei Tarkovsky from 1956. Tucked away in the case are two essays by Jonathan Lethem and Geoffrey O'Brien, from which you can garner tidbits of context and gossip. Like how Don Siegel's version was originally shot for TV, but deemed too brutal for prime time and got a theatrical release.

Most editions include beautifully bound booklets or inserts. The 2-disc version of My Own Private Idaho comes with a 60-page booklet that is full of color photos and includes essays by Amy Taubin and Lance Loud, and an interview with director Gus Van Sant by the great literary imposter JT LeRoy. There are conversations between Van Sant and River Phoenix and a joint interview with Phoenix and co-star Keanu Reeves, both from 1991 Interview magazines.

My most recent purchase was Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique. This handsome 2-disc set came with a booklet that includes a series of sublime movie stills, many of actress Irene Jacob, essays by Jonathan Romney, Slavoj Zizek, and Peter Cowie, plus an excerpt from Kieslowski on Kieslowski.

Okay, it's not all sunny brilliance. Their version of Fellini's 8 1/2 includes some additional short films that highlight one very over-indulgent filmmaker (beware Fellini: A Filmmaker's Notebook). And it's not like I want to own every movie they release. If I need to see Chasing Amy again, I'll Netflix it. And I can't imagine slogging through Passolini's The 120 Days of Sodom, let alone owning it.

Already a fan of the Criterion Collection? Which of their films are part of your collection? If you're not a fan, check them out. They just might be releasing that long lost classic you've been pining to see again.

Here's a promo of some of their 2009 releases which gives a good overview of the disparate films they offer:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Books in My Lobby 9

This week we have for you some Great American short stories. From Hawthorne to Hemingway. I didn't grab this one. But, what if I had? Then I'd be experiencing Amazon's mighty description firsthand:

"Beginning with well-known stories by Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, this diverse and colorful collection includes tales by Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Sherwood Anderson, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, and Mary Wilkins Freeman. From Sarah Orne Jewett’s portraits of rural Maine to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant tales from the Jazz Age, these stories span the breadth of the American experience."

Not that I don't love a good American story, but I already have a number of great anthologies that help scratch that story itch. Like The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. And The Complete short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Finca Vigia Edition. The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. The Collected Stories of Richard Yates. Great Esquire Fiction: The Finest Stories from the First Fifty Years. And representing the ladies: Like Life, Stories by Lorrie Moore. That should do me for awhile.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music for Writing

I write better to music. It helps my concentration, keeps me focused. I listen to music whenever I can during the day. During my commute. At home after work. Hanging around the house on the weekend. I have a job that allows me to use my iPod much of the time, filtering out the noise of cube-city and the nearby printing station. Silence is fraught with random pops, bangs, and clicks. It drives me up the wall if I'm trying to concentrate. That's why I go on the counter attack to create my own noise.

Classical music and jazz don't always work for me, unless the pieces are low-key and consistent. Erratic melody interrupts concentration. Instrumentals work best, or music with the lyrics well buried. Buried under what? A wall of consistent, impenetrable sound. I cannot write, or read for that matter, to any music where the vocal tracks are front and center. This includes most pop and rock songs, all rap, r + b, ballads, and standards.

I've put together a series of mix CDs (which, when I went digital, became playlists) that I listen to when writing. They are top heavy with music by bands and artists like Cocteau Twins, Robin Guthrie, Thievery Corporation, Ulrich Schnauss, Brian Eno, Bethany Curve, Air, Lush, Readymade, Slowdive, Engineers, Ride, Chapterhouse. These bands perform music that contain melodies wrapped in guitars and reverb, or mellow beats and airy, atmospheric vocals that sit way back and watch the show, or walls of guitar distortion and effects that allow me to sink into my writing. Most of my output is due to these and other similar-sounding bands.

Here's a sampling:

Here the Cocteau Twins throw down probably their biggest 'hit' (I remember seeing it featured on MTVs 120 Minutes), Carolyn's Fingers, which mixes their dreamy blend of pop sensibility, shimmering guitar, reverb, and Elizabeth Frazier's otherworldly voice singing nonsensical lyrics. This falls right into the category of instrumental music, since I don't know what she's singing about except for an occasional phrase in English.

Robin Guthrie was the guitarist for Cocteau Twins, and he went on to release mostly instrumental music much in the vein of the Cocteau Twins' later output. It's like hearing the Cocteau Twins, minus the instrument that is Elizabeth Frazier's voice:

Thievery Corporation are a bit different, since they use multi-vocalists and meld many different styles, such as salsa, Latin, African, among many others. Not all their stuff is writer friendly, but they are consistent within songs. I know what to expect when a song comes on and can always skip it if it features some inappropriate vocals. Here's a good example of their beat-heavy, but still mellow (chill, if you will) stuff that features delicate female vocals and a dreamy soundscape:

Ulrich Schnauss mixes the best of all worlds; his stuff is mostly instrumental electronica, with harmonies, and perhaps a guitar or two (who can tell?), and the songs that feature vocals have them buried in waves of multi-tracked soundscapes. His music achieves a thoroughly integrated, fugue-like sound. It's especially good to listen to at work; when I have some really dry material to read or write about, I just click on old Ulrich and I'm lost for hours in concentration.

Brian Eno is the father of modern instrumental ambient music (or at least the older brother) and so I find that I can listen to most of his output interchangeably, whether it's his early stuff from the 70s, through to his gorgeous work on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks in the 80s, or his poppier 90s efforts.

Here's a selection from Atmospheres and Soundtracks:

I discovered Bethany Curve on a website devoted to shoegazer bands. Popularized in the late 80s and early 90s by bands like Jesus and Mary Chain, Slowdive, Ride, and My Bloody Valentine, shoegazer literally refers to some moptop dude or dudette staring at his/her shoes while playing guitar. The music is marked by a wall of guitar distortion and reverb, propulsive drums (sometimes), buried vocals (my favorite kind), and often extended song lengths. Bethany Curve is part of a second or maybe third wave of bands to follow the lead, or continue the cause, since most of the original shoegazer bands are MIA. When I'm feeling less mellow but no less writerish, I'll put on a little shoegazer for the soul.

Slowdive was part of the first wave of dreamy shoegazers, heavy on the echo and thick guitars. Dense but pretty, they never quite got the respect paid to My Bloody Valentine. Or maybe I just made that up. Singer and guitarist Neil Halstead went on to form Mojave 3 and later record solo.

My Bloody Valentine started the whole shoegazery thing. Not always perfect for writing, but occasionally, when I need to go deep, I'll throw on Loveless and the writing time just floats on by and 50 minutes later I'll surface and notice the sunlight and take a breather. Loveless has been influential enough to be beget a book in the 33 1/3 series.

Here's a clip from their recent successful reunion tour:

Do you listen to music when you write? What kind? Or do you need complete silence?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Writing Group Plug - Autumn Edition

Short notice (especially if you live on another continent), but tomorrow night get yourself over to Porter Square Books to hear novelist and poet E.B. Moore read from her latest book, New Eden. I've taken Grub classes with E.B., and earlier this year enjoyed the benefit of her calming, practical commentary during our writing group discussions. She's a wonderful reader, and she writes in a vivid, evocative, concise style.

Porter Square Books is located at the Porter Square Shopping Center, 25 White Street, Cambridge. Reading starts at 7 PM. Christine Tierney the opens the reading.