Monday, September 29, 2008

Interview: author Deborah Blake

I was lucky enough to read “Dead and (Mostly) Gone” before its publication in The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction. Deborah Blake, author of two non-fiction Pagan themed titles (Everyday Witch A-Z and Circle, Coven and Grove), created a compelling heroine and told a brilliant story in her first published fiction, which also won second prize in the Llewellyn/PanGaia Pagan fiction contest. I was honored to both read her story and have mine included along with it in the collection.

I asked Deborah some questions about "Dead and (Mostly) Gone":

Alex: How does it feel to have the lead-off story in the anthology?

Deborah: Actually, it was a wonderful surprise. I had no idea until the book landed on my doorstep that my story was first. To be honest, I did a little "dance of joy" around the living room. I know it shouldn't matter, but who am I kidding: I love it! Of course, this entire project has been a joy to work on--this is just the icing on the cake.

Your story takes place in the future, and verges on science fiction. What made you choose that setting?

I didn't choose it, exactly. In fact, the entire story came to me in a dream. I woke up one morning a couple of years ago with Donata's story in my head, threw food at the cats and sat down at the computer. Five hours later, I hadn't eaten or gotten dressed, but the story was written. (Interestingly enough, while I have dreamed parts or beginnings of story ideas before, this was the one and only time the whole thing ever came to me in such a way. I guess it was just meant to be.)

Beyond Donata's powers and career, what pagan precepts and ideals did you deliberately seek to portray?

That having gifts and abilities beyond the norm can be cool, but also a burden that carries with it the responsibility to use them wisely and for the greater good. That these abilities, whatever they might be, can be strengthened by using them in a ritual setting and by asking the gods (however you view them) for assistance. And maybe the need for wider understanding and acceptance from the public at large.

Donata isn't respected or trusted by her peers, but is treated as mostly a necessary evil. Do you think that's the best pagans can ever hope for?

Not at all. In fact, in my own life I have been reasonably well accepted despite being quite obviously out of the broom closet. This story was much darker than my usual writing. If I were ever going to write a follow-up, my guess is that Donata would finally have an office upstairs, out of the basement:)

You can read both Deborah Blake's story ("Dead and [Mostly] Gone") and mine ("Draw Down") in The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction, available now at all major outlets.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book release: The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction

My short story "Draw Down" is one of 13 included in The Pagan Anthology of Short Fiction, available now from Llewellyn Books. The introduction is by noted author Diana L. Paxson.

Monday, September 22, 2008

In defense of Superman Returns

Over at the science fiction blog io9, hardly a week passes that doesn't involve a dig at Bryan Singer's 2006 film Superman Returns. For example:

Warner Brothers Takes the Time to Make a Superman That Won't Suck.

Next Superman Movie Will Have Actual Superheroics.

How to Make You Believe a Man Could Fly Again.

While some criticisms are valid (a too-slavish devotion to Richard Donner's interpretation, an emphasis on "rescue-action" instead of a superheroic throwdown), I think the good folks at io9 do the film a disservice. And I have a different idea about why the film might not work for the average audience thrilled with Iron Man and The Dark Night. I think it's because Superman Returns is the first superhero film to really deal with adult issues.

Consider the plot stripped of its super-ness. A well-intentioned but somewhat naive hero has a one-night stand with the girl of his dreams, then gets some news from home. He leaves without saying goodbye, and is gone for five years. When he returns, his dream girl has moved on to a long-standing relationship with another man with whom she now has a son. This new man is decent, loves her and the boy, and more importantly has stayed around when our hero skipped out. In a crisis, this new man proves every bit as courageous as our hero, so that when the boy's true paternity is revealed (to only the mother and our hero), our hero faces his toughest choice yet. Should he reveal the truth and risk ruining everyone's lives? Or should he suck it up, accept that the situation is entirely his own fault and keep his mouth shut to spare good people more pain?

That's the core plot of Superman Returns, and it's a very specific dilemma for our hero. It's also a very specific dilemma faced by blended families throughout the world. As both a father and a step-father, it speaks to me with more emotional clarity than any of the so-called moral dilemmas in a film like The Dark Knight. In that film, Batman and the other characters have to choose between right and wrong; in Superman Returns, Superman has no "right" choice. That's much more like the real world than any other recent comic-book film.

And I don't think this sort of dilemma connects with the average vocal, blog-commenting super-hero fan, the ones who made The Dark Knight the second-biggest film in history. At the risk of being smacked for generalizing, most are young, most are probably not yet parents, and the majority of their toughest life choices are ahead of them.

I love Superman Returns, and I'm not ashamed to say so. Even if Bryan Singer, Brandon Routh and company are kicked off the next film and the entire series is rebooted to be more in line with the "dark" trend current among these movies, I'll still think it's awesome. And when little Jason runs back to give injured Superman a kiss, I'll still choke up every time.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Imbibing The Stornoway Way

It's rare to find a novel with passages you want to underline as you read that's also heart-wrenchingly sad, let alone one that has such a specific sense of time and place that it reveals some painful universals. But Kevin MacNeil's 2005 novel, The Stornoway Way, does all these things.

It's a first-person narrative, ostensibly told to MacNeil by "R. Stornoway" (i.e., "arse torn away"), a would-be artist and musician who has returned to the small town of Stornoway on the island of Lewis off Scotland's west coast. He piddles with art and music and dallies with girls, but what he does mostly is drink. A lot. And he makes pithy observations about himself and the people around him. My favorite bit regards the Gaelic mafia: "The Gaelic mafia is a touchy subject in Lewis. Outwith the Highlands it is said, 'The Gaelic mafia made me an offer I couldn't . . . understand.'" He also includes various Gaelic terms as footnotes, some historical and some newly-minted, as in Griais: when your finger automatically presses 9 before dialling [sic] a telephone number from home.

But while the first two-thirds is as eminently underlinable as early Douglas Adams, MacNeil is not being funny for its own sake. He's setting us up for a sudden turn to seriousness that jars the reader as much as it does R. Stornoway. And when Stornoway discovers unsuspected depths in himself, he also realizes the size of the emptiness inside him. Here MacNeil's poetic bent (he's also published the poetry collections Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides and Be Wise, Be Otherwise) provides imagery of absolutely aching beauty (I won't quote anything since it would be a bit of a spoiler, but pp. 223-224 would break the stoniest heart). The final pages are painful, both to the character and the reader, and leave one feeling as numb and battered as "R. Stornoway" himself.

At the core of The Stornoway Way is alcohol: drinking is what the narrator and his friends do. And it's what the natives of Lewis have done for generations. (I'm from a town of 300 deep in the swamps of west Tennessee, and we have a similar culture; he gets all the motivations exactly right). McNeil does a good job drawing the reader into this lifestyle without being didactic about its dangers. And what finally undoes R. Stornoway is not alcohol, but the realization of what the alcohol is hiding.

In his review, The Independent critic Brian Dillon calls The Stornoway Way "an entropic tale of energies sparked to life and quenched by landscape, language and culture." Okay, if you feel the need to phrase it that way, I guess I agree. I'd call it an extended meditation on what the island culture of Lewis does to its people, especially its young. By dealing with these specifics, MacNeil connects with some universals about the loss of a sense of purpose, the hurt we inflict without really meaning to, and the hopelessness that can seem, in its depths (depths found symbolically at the bottom of a bottle), to be masquerading as hope.

Here's a recent interview with author Kevin MacNeil.

Thursday, September 11, 2008 the Road to Hell: Interview with Cynthia Curnan

A couple of days ago, I blogged about my affection for the 1984 film Streets of Fire, and my excitement at learning a follow-up, Road to Hell, was in the works. While Road isn’t an official sequel (the makers term it a “dark tribute”), it does have Michael Pare' back in that duster, and promises a unique riff on the original.

Screenwriter Cynthia Curnan was kind enough to speak to me about the project, and patiently endured my endless fanboy speculation.

Alex: The film Streets of Fire took its title from a Bruce Springsteen song. Does Road to Hell reference the Chris Rea tune?

Cynthia: I had not heard Chris Rea's song until reading your question. I told Albert [Pyun, director]; he knew of the song but hadn't heard it either. We just looked it up on YouTube and we both love it.

You brought back the characters of McCoy, Tom's sister and Ellen. Why not Raven as well?

The Road to Hell characters are their own people; they are not resurrected from Streets of Fire. Viewers expecting this will be disappointed. That said, when you see the movie you might notice a small indication of a family tie.

You mention on the official website that "Albert thinks it (Streets of Fire) is the most romantic film ending ever. I thought the ending was tragic and wanted them to get together." I confess I share Albert's view, especially in context: to me the climactic song, "Tonight is What It Means to be Young," comments ironically on Cody, who seems doomed to be stuck in perpetual adolescence. After all, Ellen was willing to give up her career and run off with him, but he "ain't the kind of guy to be carrying your guitars around." How do you read the original film's climax, and how did that give you a jumping-off point for Road to Hell?

This difference of opinion about the ending to Streets of Fire might just be a guy/girl thing. It was a tragedy for me because star-crossed love causes me pain. But I did understand why they could never get together. That said, I saw both of their futures, without each other, as ultimately tragic.

In the song "Tonight is What it Means to be Young," Ellen heads straight for the next best thing. If she can't get an angel she can still get a boy and a boy is the next best thing. I see Cody as an angel, not from Ellen's world. My Cody is not a 'Peter Pan' boy; he's larger than life. Cody came arrived on an empty subway because he came from another dimension to which he must return.

As much as he might want to stay with her he knows he can't. She was willing to give up her career because she didn't yet know what that would mean to her or to them. He knows Ellen's situation better than she does. She has stardom in her future and if he tried to fit in, carrying her guitars is all he'd be doing. He knows it's too soon for her to know what she wants; he can't let her make a deal neither of them could live with. But if she ever needs him, he'll be there.

I think you underestimate Tom Cody; at least my Cody. Back to the guy/girl thing: Maybe I fell in love with Cody and you fell in love with Ellen?

You've got two new characters described as "spree killers." Can you describe them and how they fit into this world?

Road to Hell takes place in its own world. The spree killers fit in that world.

Finally, I'm a huge fan of Michael Pare', and according to the website this film sprang from a conversation you and Albert had with him. Was he involved in the writing process at all? How did he feel about the way you saw the character a quarter-century on?

Michael Pare' was not involved in the writing process but he was involved in the character development. He understood that Albert wanted to see him return to his iconic roots with characters like Eddie [from Eddie and The Cruisers] and Tom Cody in a story reminiscent of early noir thrillers.

Michael Pare's performance is astonishing - much darker, more nuanced and mature than Tom Cody's character from Streets of Fire. He's less pretty, more handsome and sexier because he's more dangerous.


Thanks to Cynthia Curnan for taking the time to talk to me. Road to Hell is currently in post-production with the release date to be determined.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Interviewed with other reviewers from Guys Lit Wire

Over at Innovative: A Word for the WriTeen, I'm interviewed along with some of the other ace reviewers from Guys Lit Wire.

Stop by and leave Gabrielle a comment!

Monday, September 8, 2008

From Streets of Fire....

In 1984, director Walter Hill was riding high on four successes in a row: The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort and the mega-hit 48 Hours. Having earned carte blanche, he used it to create a strange, one-of-a-kind pet project that blended genres, eras, and musical styles in what he termed a "rock and roll fable," Streets of Fire. His high concept description: "The Leader of the Pack kidnaps the Queen of the Hop, until Soldier Boy comes to the rescue."

And how did it do?

It tanked. Man, did it tank. Produced on a then-hefty budget of $14 million, it took in a paltry $5 million at the box office. It confused critics and audiences alike. I saw it during its theatrical run, and could feel the audience around me having a collective WTF moment.

I loved it. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. I mean, hell:

it's a musical....

...with a sledgehammer duel.

Here's the trailer:

And time has been kind to it. Whereas in 1984 the contemporary influences (clothes, hairstyles and music) jarred against the Fifties retro elements, they now blend seamlessly; after all, twenty-five years and sixty years both qualify as "old." The main musical numbers by Jim Steinman, of Meat Loaf and "Total Eclipse of the Heart" fame, now sound bombastically timeless instead of crassly contemporary. Ry Cooder's buzzing guitar score, sadly unreleased to this day with the exception of one track on a compilation, rocks harder than any comparable soundtrack. And the film has acquired an all-star cast: subsequent Oscar nominees Diane Lane, Amy Madigan and Willem Dafoe, as well as Rick (Ghostbusters) Moranis and Bill (Titanic) Paxton.

More crucially, even nearly a quarter of a century later, the film remains unique. Nothing else has come close to this combination of music, action and filmmaking style, which doesn't so much embrace MTV cliches as sidestep them and approach the same sort of material as if from a parellel universe. In fact, to my knowledge no one has even tried.

Until now.

Director Albert Pyun and screenwriter Cynthia Curnan are putting the finishing touches on Road to Hell, what they term a "dark tribute" to Streets of Fire. Only Michael Pare and Debra Van Valkenburgh return from the original cast, but the other main characters (sidekick McCoy and rocker Ellen) are back, played by new actors. Jim Steinman songs will again be featured. And while it's not an "official" sequel, it's as close as we're likely to get, and more than enough reason for Streets of Fire fans to get excited.

Click on the links to read exclusive interviews with Road to Hell screenwriter Cynthia Curnan and director Albert Pyun.