Page Views This Month

Page Views This Month

Friday, 4 September 2015

Where is the professional development for mid career writers? - Alice Jolly

In most careers there is something called 'professional development.' This is the training offered to people who are who are already qualified and doing the job but who, nevertheless, need to refresh their skills, develop, focus on doing their existing job rather better. But if you are a published writer then what opportunities are there for professional development?

The training opportunities for aspiring writers are, of course, many and various. I look back with a certain nostalgia to the time when I could take advantage of those opportunities. Courses through The Open College Of The Arts and The Arvon Foundation were cosy and comforting (photo below - actually me teaching at Arvon but the warm atmosphere is there). I made friends. We were all in the same situation - learning, hoping to get our work published, supporting each other as we developed.

But now that I'm a published writer - what is there? Well, nothing much, as far as I know. Currently, this is a problem for me as I'm starting to work on a new play. I have had my plays professional produced but I know that I'm not good enough to get to the next level. I need to learn more, to write better.

So what I do? I have seriously thought about doing a Masters' Degree but I'm forty nine years old and I already teach on a good creative writing Masters' Degree. I know from my own teaching experience that having people who are over qualified on a course is awkward for everyone.

I feel myself to be in a No Man's Land. Too well qualified for most courses - but not good enough to move forward with some aspects of my work. Do other writers feel like this? And what is the solution? I feel that what I need is help from other people who are also in this No Man's Land. But how would that be organised?

And would other writers want to help? Perhaps on a reciprocal basis? Maybe - but maybe not. The truth is that once you've moved beyond 'aspiring writer' then you are in a competitive world. Cosiness and comfort can be found - one Authors Electric friend has been tireless in offering both.

But sometimes writers can be wary of offering 'the competition' too much help. And I can't blame them for that. People do have to look after their own careers.

Do other writers understand what I am saying? Is there a solution? What do you think?

Here are links to reviews of Dead Babies And Seaside Towns:

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Hold the Front Page! - Umberto Tosi

Those were the days, my friend. We thought they'd never end, when printing was industrial and newspapers weren't media because we never heard the word used that way. Editors chomped on cigars. Reporters rat-tat-tat-tatted on their Remingtons and Underwoods, cigarettes dangling from their lips, their white shirts open-collared and striped tie loosened. They'd yell, “boy!” when they ran out of copy paper, or were on a deadline and needed me to run their their hot sheets up to the city desk as they typed furiously.

Teletype machines clattered incessantly in the glass-walled wire room – AP, UPI, Reuters, INS – spitting out news of the world by the ream. The copy boy – me – had to step lively to keep up. Armed with a straight-edged length of leading, I would tear off stories as the machines inched them out relentlessly – short and long – and sort them quickly – local, state, national, international – each destined for the wire basket of their respective editors, No. 2 pencil at the ready. Red edges meant time to switch out the fat roll of paper while trying not to to miss a line.

Linotype operators in a typical
newspaper composing room of the early
to mid 20th century.
Every so often, a teletype machine would pause, then ring-a-ding-ding-rrrring-rrring-rrring madly as a stuck doorbell to announce an incoming “bulletin!” I'd run bulletins to the editor – but only if I deemed them “important” – not every damn one of them, or I'd get a dirty look and a dismissive snort, because the wire services were always overreacting. God help me, though, if I missed a big one. “Use your common sense, boy!” They didn't teach any of this in journalism school. In fact, editors looked askance a peach-fuzzed j-school grads. They much preferred English or history majors, or better yet, a talented dropout who had been around – by thumb and tramp steamer – worked on a small paper or two. For example, it was said that the legendary ScottNewhall, flamboyant editor of the San Francisco Chronicle at that time, would demand that prospective writers to show him novels-in-progress rather than resumes.

It was 1956, and I was a copy boy for the Los Angeles Times, a major metropolitan newspaper,
known at the time for running the most editorial and advertising lineage of any in the world – and it seemed to me that I was running through molasses in a dream world whose distortions I'd only glimpsed in comic strips and movies. The copy boy, as we knew it, is extinct. Nowadays they would call me an intern and allow me the privilege of working for nothing. I'd probably need an advanced degree to be a coffee gopher at what newspapers continue to exist. But back then, I, at least, got minimum wage and health insurance – enough to take care of an equally clueless young wife and unplanned baby. Progress.

Grizzled copy editors sat at a horseshoe table marking up stories that the slot man, with a sandy handlebar mustache and green-eye-shade, rolled up and sent pffmmp-clank-clanking up into a ceiling maze of pneumatic tubes destined for the composing room where rows even more grizzled, lightening-fingered Linotype operators rendered the news into lines of hot, silvery lead that clattered from their Rube Goldberg machines. As press time approached, I got to run last-minute corrections directly back to composing, where the production man pored over block-type beds that he could read upside down and backwards. Soon they let me write squibs and fillers. Then I got my byline on a story - a brief, police blotter account about a truckload of molasses spilling on the Hollywood Freeway. After my shift, I took a freight elevator to the cavernous subbasement and climbed out on a catwalk to watch the giant rotary presses printing the edition, glassy-eyed as the sheets whirled by with my little story, somewhere amid the blur of a million copies.

I know. It sounds like a scene out of Ben Hecht's “The Front Page (1931),” or my favorite film adaptation of same, Howard Hawks' “His Girl Friday” (1940) with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant.
Of course, it wasn't snappy dialog all the time. There were spells of tedium. We lived amid the na├»ve, cold war callus calculus of the 1950s, its despised materialism, red baiting and largely unacknowledged discrimination too many thought only happened down in Dixie. There was only one female reporter in the city room and her job was the go out and cover “the woman's angle” on breaking stories. The city room was a sea of white faces that didn't begin to include black and brown until the mid-1960s.

I feel no nostalgia for the 1950s, during which I spent as much time as I could reading forbidden texts, trying to be cool in Venice Beach beatnik coffee houses and watching art house films in French, Italian and Russian. I don't much like movies about the 1950s, even the good ones, and few books. I find “Mad Men” too irritating to be entertaining in the least. I can't help but resent its slick Hollywood coating of cool that never was.

One thing, though, for all its faults, the L.A. Times of the 1950s – like many of the paternalistic family owned papers of that day – wasn't corporate in the faceless way we know today. It wasn't yet infected by Wall Street or Madison Avenue in the way that major papers, TV and radio stations and big publishing houses owned by giant communications conglomerates are today. Newspapers then were a haven for oddballs and misfits, even radicals, not media careerists. You wore ties, but weren't expected to be conformist – at least not unless you worked upstairs in advertising, circulation and accounting. The paper still was the flagship of the Chandler family – a clan of old time of robber barons invested in the growth of sprawling Los Angeles to be sure. The family's energetic scion, Otis Chandler, had just become its publisher, with a burning desire, it was said, to make it the best paper in the world and plenty of money to make his dream come true. That set up a competitive dynamic – prideful to be sure – no longer seen in today's short-term profit-driven corporate empires.

Several of these magnificent misfits came to be among my best friends as I moved slowly up the
Gene Vier
editorial food chain at the Times – most memorably, the late, exquisitely eccentric writer, copy-editor, radical and gadfly Gene Vier. Lots of writers, authors in my circle and beyond – including Hollywood – have Gene Vier stories. He only talked to those he liked – had few social graces and never played office politics. He drove a broken down car, with boxes of hand-written notes – observations of live, fragments on stories and books – in the trunk and back seat. He was an often unkept, wiry man with a greying crew cut, thick glasses and a sometimes annoying nasal voice, a staccato laugh, and quick wit, a mind for connections, an enthusiastic conversationalist and, most of all, an intent listener.

He had encyclopedic knowledge of literature, politics, history, theater, films, art and especially, tennis, which he played devilishly well against various movie actors – only those he respected – at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. If you said something particularly insightful, he was known to pull out a notepad from his pocket and write it down. We used to call him our phantom historian, picturing future archaeologists someday discovering Gene's notepads and pondering what they were about. He lived in genteel poverty from his copy editor salary and a small inheritance from a French-German family that he never talked about. Peter Falk based his memorable TV series LAPD detective “Colombo” character on Gene at the suggestion of their mutual friend, director John Cassavetes, with whom Gene played tennis regularly and hung out with at the redoubtable West Hollywood hangout, Dan Tana's restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Gene authored a voluminous history about the Los Angeles Times and its place in the history of
California, plus biographies of tennis greats Bobby Riggs and Don Budge, but he never aspired to fame or fortune. When I first met him, as a matter of fact, he had been going through a financial patch, and was secretly living in the Times-Mirror building complex where we worked. He would do his copy desk shift, go out for dinner, and hang out with friends, then return to the times after all the executives had gone home, let himself into the publisher's suite, shower, brush his teeth and sleep over on the publisher's big leather couch, slipping out early, just ahead of the big cheeses.

He got away with this for many months – having reached an understanding with the janitor – until one late night a new cleaning lady came upon him and screamed, to which the startled Gene fell off the publisher's couch, yelling for his life. He very likely would have been dismissed outright in a a 21st century corporate environment. Instead, he got a only a reprimand and the employee assistance office helped him find an modest apartment.

I could fill pages about Gene and many of the other characters I encountered as a stripling writer coming up at the L.A. Times, but I'll save those for future posts. Many of those remembrances have found their way into my stories, for example, Our Own Kind, my novella of love, politics, newspapering and assassination set in 1968 L.A.

City rooms – those that remain – are carpeted cubicle warrens nowadays, filled with earnest young
professionals wearing ear buds clicking their pads and electronic keyboards No time for eccentrics. A Gene Vier would be as out of place in our contemporary corporate publishing world as a Linotype machine.

What I find most remarkable, looking back on these experiences, is the sense of permanence everyone seemed to share in the status quo – even in the face of daily, possible nuclear obliteration. The machines, the typewriters, the bells, the wire-photo machine miraculously transmitting pictures. Imagine! The senior staff had done things the same way all their working lives, as, it seemed, had those who preceded them behind those cigarette-burned oaken desks. The post-war 1950s world may have been changing – what with TV nationwide, in color, even showing overseas Olympics and British royal doings.

Little did I realize that I was witnessing a world that was about to die – and transform even more radically than Gutenberg's press changed the medieval world. I would spend my adult career, not behind a clunky Underwood typewriter, but riding a huge rolling wave through so many changes, one that has deposited me here upon the shores of digital publishing along with legions of like minded writers around the world, all of us, at first on the leading edge, then riding the wave, then becoming mainstream – and still trying to figure it out as we go along.

Print remains with us, of course, as do paper books, magazines and newspapers on which I've worked aplenty. Print isn't even mechanical anymore – except in fine art reproductions. Commercial printing became a digital process in the 1990s and is now completely so. Books are rarely, if at all, run off on rotary offset presses. They are coughed up as needed by super-glorified photo-copy machines one-at-a-time on demand. The rest, you know, is digital from conception to writing, to editing, to consuming and reading. And here we are.

But before I lull myself into thinking that this is it, I have to remember those clanging teletype machines, and realize that this too shall morph and morph again, into what will be... One thing, however, will remain a constant. We still write and we still read. Maybe – at least until androids start doing so along side  us. Then who knows?
------------------------- -
Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia Rising.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Front to Back - Mari Biella

I’m currently in the process of giving my books a facelift. I’m not reworking the actual contents (apart from clearing up a few minor typos and formatting problems), just trying to make them look more attractive and professional. The process so far has given me a thumping headache, and a renewed respect for publishers. Getting a book to look all lovely and slick – in both its print and eBook manifestations – is, let it be said, no easy matter. A thousand perils lie in wait for the unwary.

This is sort of how I feel at the moment... © Phil Date / Dreamstime Stock Photos

Still, I’m encouraged by the fact that achieving a nice professional look, though difficult, is eminently possible. Here I am, sitting at the kitchen table and thumping away at an ancient laptop that’s probably not even good for spare parts any more, but with attention to detail, hard work and a smidgeon of luck I might just be able to turn out books that are at least acceptable. Still, it’s tricky. The nuts and bolts that authors once left to publishers still have to be taken care of, and one of the nuttiest nuts is the not-so-small matter of front and back matter. Here’s what I’ve learned so far. I’m still a novice, but it may come in handy to someone out there ...

Print Books

If you’re a keen reader, you’ve probably been flicking through front and back matter for about as long as you can remember. Unless you’ve an unhealthy eye for niggling little details or a burning desire to work in the publishing industry, you probably haven’t paid much attention to it. If you’re self-publishing, however, you might just have to become a front-and-back matter nerd. Those needing expert help – and that’ll be a lot of us, I imagine – can consult either the New Oxford Style Manual (for those who favour British English) or the Chicago Manual of Style (for those on the other side of the Atlantic). Both of these manuals clarify industry standards, and might therefore appeal to anyone who wants to emulate the big publishers. Failing that, you could of course just study the books on your bookshelf.

© Daniel Gilbey / Dreamstime Stock Photos

In general, print books will contain all or at least most of the following in their front matter:

  • Half Title Page: only the book title appears on this page; the rest is blank space.
  • The Title Page: full title of work (including subtitle), author’s name. May also include the publisher’s name and address.
  • Copyright Page: copyright notice, edition information, legal notices, disclaimers, and so on.

The front matter might also include dedications, epigraphs, a Table of Contents, a foreword, a preface, acknowledgements and so on. Back matter might include a postscript, appendix, notes, errata, and a list of contributors where relevant. Pick up any print book and you’ll see how the publishers have arranged all this information, which is good as you’ll always have a pretty solid basic model to work with.

So far, so (reasonably) straightforward. Unfortunately, it won’t remain so for much longer, as we now have to consider ...


This is where it gets altogether more tricky. An eBook requires quite a different layout to a physical book, and what works well in print does not always lend itself to the eReader.

First of all, front matter. Customers flicking through a physical book in a bookshop can just skip through all the front matter and dive straight into the story. For those browsing the electronic shelves over at Amazon or the like, however, this is an altogether more laboured affair. EBook retailers usually allow readers to try out a free sample of the book – anything between 10 and 30% – before they buy. The more of the story they read, the more they’re likely to (hopefully) want to read. For this reason, most people advise keeping front matter short and simple.

This is especially true of shorter works. I once read the free sample of a novella – sort of. The problem was that, by the time I’d clicked through the title pages, Table of Contents, dedication, foreword, disclaimers, and so on, the actual amount of the story itself I read amounted to no more than a few sentences. The novella itself might have been brilliant, but sadly I’ll never know.

It's a question of style, don't you know. ©Daniel Gilbey / Dreamstime Stock Photos

Having said that, there are certain things that you’ll want to include in your front matter: the title of the book, the author’s name, the ISBN (if any), copyright information, and disclaimers. Excerpts from some rave reviews might also look good here, though other authors prefer to keep these for the back matter. EBook distributors often have quite clear ideas about what should be included in the front matter of a book, and are able to offer advice. The Smashwords Style Guide can be downloaded free, and is useful whether you distribute with Smashwords or not. Amazon, meanwhile, offers some handy hints to authors, such as these.

Something of a question mark hangs over the question of where to place your Table of Contents, or ToC. A ToC is an essential component of an eBook, of course, enabling readers to locate what they want quickly and easily. EBooks without a ToC – and I’ve read a few, including some from big publishing houses that really should know better – make me want to scream (What do you mean, I have to scroll through the entire book to find the bit I’m looking for?!) Many authors include the ToC at the front of their books, but you can also
include it with the back matter; as long as it’s there and it’s navigable, I doubt it really matters that much.

The back matter of your book is a good place to include information about your other books. This could take the form of cover images, blurbs, favourable reviews, or excerpts (maybe the first chapter, for example). It’s a good idea to keep this relatively short, however; if it amounts to more than about 15% of the total, some readers may feel cheated when they get 80% of the way through a book only to find that the story suddenly ends.

Other things that might be included in your back matter might be a request to readers to post reviews, your author biography, and links to your website, and Twitter and Facebook profiles. You might also include information on how to sign up to your mailing list, if you have one. If you’re really ambitious, and not ashamed to show it, you might even consider author interviews or book club questions. Also best kept for the back matter is that information which might be important to the author but is rarely of much interest to the reader, such as dedications, acknowledgements, notes, and so on.

Of course, nobody can cater to everyone’s tastes, and self-publishing gives us a certain level of freedom, so authors can experiment and see what works for them. What is most important, perhaps, is simply that readers are rewarded with a pleasant reading experience. My books might have been put together on my PC, with the aid of absolutely no specialist skills or equipment, but I hope that by the time I’ve finished they’ll be able to rub shoulders with those published by the big boys and not look like the poor relations. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015


Cracking crime!
A while back, in this very blog, I came out as suffering from, or perhaps reveling in, Multiple Publishing Disorder. After making my name first of all as a poet, reducing, ditching and deleting to enrich my work, I then became a novelist. How to make a story that long, without padding! Ulp.
Poetry, crime fiction, comedy fiction, stage and radio plays (of all lengths, and some including original songs), scientific articles, prose polemic/non-fiction, and a nice line in science-themed textual kinetic art installations became my lines of work: in other words, it was a shorter story to say that I wrote everything but short stories.
Ooh missus! 
As a reader, I love short stories (brilliant, intense, funny, scary, eg Char March's 'Something Vital Fell Through' or Saki's) and hate them (interminable inner monologues with long descriptions of cigarettes lit, coffee made and drunk, eg far too many I’ve been subjected to at spoken word events and had to go to a happy place in my head to prevent me gnawing my own leg off). Anyway, I’m here to confess that I am now a published, nay, commissioned, writer of short stories. How to make a story that short, without losing the plot… And like my long fiction, so far my published short stories, all two of them, cover both crime and comedy.
What's wrong with just 'Once'? Cut!
At the top you can see the new book of short stories by six luminaries of the crime fiction world who form the Murder Squad (including Cath Staincliffe of TV’s ‘Blue Murder’, and ‘Scott and Bailey’, and award-winning big hitters Margaret Murphy and Martin Edwards) and six of their ‘accomplices’. Squaddie Ann Cleeves (of TV’s ‘Vera’ and ‘Shetland’ series) chose me for her partner in crime for this special assignment, commissioned by Welsh publisher Graffeg. Each story was to be inspired by a photograph of the Welsh landscape by David Wilson. I said yes, thank you, lovely, I will, and then later, alone, OMG me and my big gob. But one of David’s superb atmospheric photographs turned out to be of somewhere I’d spent an eventful, even dangerous at times, part of my early adult life, the beginning of many enduring relationships, and suddenly I was there, among tall young Viking-descended farmers all armed to the teeth. ‘The Starlings & Other Stories’ is launched this week, and a lovely, deadly thing it is, crammed with treats both visual and fictional by some top names and some newbies, like moi.
Erm, perhaps I've cut the dialogue enough now...
A crime short story can’t be like a novel – you can’t have masses of sub-plots, characters, endless twists and turns – not really enough time or wordcount to focus on the investigation, so instead, writers may concentrate on the crime itself, or the run-up to it, or an aspect of it, though the rules about not cheating the reader and giving them a fair batch of clues still apply.
Our new anthology, so electrifying, you need rubber gloves to handle it!
The other call to (short) arms was from within Authors Electric itself, for a new anthology from my various and multi-talented colleagues. Again I said yes without thinking too hard about it, and used an idea from a sketch I’d written for a surreal yet satirical comedy story, in 'A Flash in the Pen' in both ebook and soon, paperback incarnations, tales of suspense, horror, fantasy, history, and indeed just about anything you can think of. It’s a dream pub quiz team of a book.

Already, a certain wippit-wrangling colleague is after another one for the sequel. The hounds are on the scent.

So to cut a long story short –

Find out more about my various projects and productions on 
Some of my thirteen books are now on Kindle UK US, iBooks UK USKoboNook and more, on all platforms worldwide.
Follow me on Twitter @ValerieLaws or find me on facebook 

Monday, 31 August 2015

The Great Gorino - by Richard Rapaport

"Hello, this is Gore Vidal," the sardonic East Egg baritone from the receiver rendering identification redundant, "is Richard there?" I stammered a return greeting and his voice continued, "I read your story," and then halted.

That previous Sunday in June 1982, a story of mine about Gore Vidal's campaign for the California Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, had indeed run. The early '80s boom in newspaper classifieds at least partially explained the luxuriant length of my "perspective" piece entitled The Plight of the Writer in Politics which keyed off the upcoming Democratic primary pitting Vidal against soon-to-be-ex-Governor-and-later-to-be-Governor-again, Jerry Brown.

For most of an hour the novelist, screenplay-writer, wit, social critic, television personality, movie actor and, what few seemed to recognize, very much the politician, held forth. We talked about his Senate campaign and the primary election several weeks hence; Jerry Brown, the eventual party nominee and ultimate loser in November to Republican Pete Wilson, was leading. Polls, however, showed Vidal running a noble second. We talked about the premise of my story that in 20th Century America writers seemed institutionally disqualified from serious consideration for political office.

In the piece, I referenced Vidal alongside writer/politicians like Benjamin Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle. The bulk of the story was dedicated to a comparison between Vidal and Upton Sinclair, the famed socialist, writer and "muckraker's muckraker", who had terrified California's establishment by nearly winning the Governorship in the deep depression year of 1930.

Tinkling all the right xenophobic keys, the Republican right ran one of history's muckiest campaigns, complete with Hollywood-produced newsreels seemingly featuring every extra in Los Angeles portraying grimy, wild-eyed, boxcar-riding Reds on their way to pillage California and not coincidentally to vote for Upton Sinclair. I tried to make the point that, sixty years later, Vidal was fighting the same prejudice that marred Sinclair's run: "Upton was beaten," one of his opponents famously remarked, "because he wrote books."

Through the course of our phone conversation, Vidal never did expand on his cryptic remark, "I read your story". I decided, however, that this must be writerly shorthand for approval. Bearing the interpretation out, Vidal made what to him might have been simply a pleasantry but to me a grand invite indeed. "Oh yes," he said with the polite diffidence once characteristic of the American ruling class, "if you happen to be in Europe this summer, why not come visit us in Ravello?" La Rondinaia, Vidal's cliff-top aerie on the Amalfi Drive near the ancient city of Paestum. La Rondiaia was also where the “A List” gathered, figures like Princess Margaret, Nureyev, and Tennessee Williams and others of this meeting place for America's shrinking pool of literates and other celebrities. I quickly made up my mind that the coming summer I certainly would "happen" to be in Europe.

During the campaign, I had achieved a certain hanger-on status. Ever the freelancer, I deemed it unnecessary to mime the reductio skepticism of the "real" reporters. Vidal would thus occasionally communicate to me his disappointment at the varying degrees to which other political writers would sup at his brainy banquet and then question his electoral bonafides. Inevitably, a news-desk-pleasing campaign appearance would be chilled by the stopper, "but really Mr. Vidal, are you serious?"

Serious, Mr. Vidal really was. Over the course of the campaign, he repeatedly proved so by devouring Jerry Brown's political lunch at a series of joint appearances and debates. Vidal would convulse the brighter bulbs, and genuinely perplex poor Jerry when he cited the Governor's seven major campaigns in little over a decade as example of what he considered a major shortcoming of American electoral politics; that, as Vidal would retort, "you never get a chance to think."

According to Vidal, "if you sat Jerry Brown down and asked him why are you running, are you mad?" Vidal quizzed this queried one evening that summer in Ravello, "I bet he would go absolutely blank." The proposition seemed to me true enough, because, as Vidal maintained, "you're not supposed to ask them why they run. They run because it's a compulsion."

Fast-forward a quarter century. So many things circa 2012 have changed beyond recognition. Include among these was Gore Vidal's departure from the world he loved so to hate at the exorbitant age of 86. No more will the roaring lion-of-the-left grumpily survey the acrid fruits of American political life about which he has so long and so exquisitely complained. Among that bitter harvest certainly count the latest turn in the career of the now once-again California Governor, the-one-and-the-same Jerry Brown, against whose campaign mania Vidal so long ago counseled. From his now heavenly haunt, Vidal must surely be amused but only just the slightest bit.

How different are today's campaigns, including Jerry Brown's latest successful races for California governor from Vidal's 1982 Senatorial run. Now there was a campaign that lived at a level of rollicking thoughtfulness as dodo-dead as it was leagues beyond the expected campaign yuck and yack. Vidal's was one of those gaudy, effervescently liberal crusades, reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson's runs for the Presidency, Gene McCarthy's 1968 "flower-power" campaign and indeed Vidal's own unsuccessful 1960 run for Congress from Duchess County, New York. In that race, the titular head of the campaign was Vidal’s friend and mentor, the sublime Eleanor Roosevelt. It was Mrs. R. who instilled in Vidal the upper-crusty, good-government notion that "one speaks to the people to educate them."

Twenty-two years and a dozen books, screenplays and collected essays later, Vidal was once again testing that goo-goo proposition, although few actually understood how precisely Vidal fit the founding fathers' model for a United States Senator. Raised in Washington D.C., the grandson of the sightless Democratic Senator from Oklahoma, Thomas P. Vidal, Gore Vidal – he changed his name in Prep school to the more literary Eugene Luther Gore Vidal- he had literally led the nation's most noteworthy blind politician on and off the Senate floor. Through that familial, familiar lens, Vidal viewed the upper Federal Chamber as had the founders had, as a forum where the nations wisest, most accomplished and secure could serve their Republic, impart lifetime lessons and then, damn it, just go home.

Semi-stepbrother of Jacqueline Kennedy, a Camelot intimate (at least until an-entirely-unclear-on-the-sexual-identity-concept Robert F. Kennedy assaulted the Gay Vidal paying too much attention to Jackie), Vidal had spent the intervening years thinking deeply and writing well about the American polity. In 1982, however, it was once again impossible to ignore that harping inner voice instructing him to do what he was seemingly born to do, run for office.

For Vidal, the campaign compulsion grew more onerous as it rolled along. "It's terrible for the character," he told interviewers about the toll of campaigning. He would then wait that famously precise quarter note beat before adding puckishly, "My own is deteriorating right before your very eyes."

I didn't happen to think so, but someone who did was a writer from the San Francisco Chronicle named Randy Shilts. Randy billed himself as the nation's first openly Gay mainstream newspaper reporter, and would soon gain fame as the author of "The Mayor of Castro Street," as well as "And the Band Played On." The latter, a 1987 deconstruction of the ravening AIDs plague would ironically and tragically precurs Randy's own demise from the disease.

Somewhat blinded -- I felt - by the light of his coming-out-hood, Randy had confronted Vidal over his refusal to declare himself, as Randy insisted he should, as America's first openly gay Senatorial candidate. Vidal had asked me to remain on several occasions as he took Randy aside and patiently explained that “although it’s no secret,” my sexuality was not a thing gentlemen of my generation comfortably advertised and his own Goddamned business.” About his Gayness, and everyone else’s for that matter. All Vidal would puckishly add was that 1) There was no homosexuality only homosexual acts and 2) you should take every advantage of every chances to get laid and to appear on television.”

Randy took it all badly, and then took it upon himself to pillory Vidal with some unnecessarily nasty reportage. I made it my own brief to explain to Randy that his behavior and critique were neither fair nor particularly professional. Between us, several noisy confrontations occurred, though to little effect. His Chronicle reporting continued to damage Vidal's campaign and ultimately helped, I felt, diminish any small chance he might have had to win the nomination. I was again reminded of that confrontation when, last year, Vidal included a piece of mine as a chapter, attributed of course, in his then-latest memoir the well-named "Point to Point Navigation."

It thus happened, however, that on a quiet, torrid Sunday afternoon in July 1982, I "happened" to be standing on the Piazza Garibaldi outside Naples' Centrale train station looking for a car to drive me up to Ravello. As we climbed the stony, scary Amalfi Drive switchbacks, my cab driver ascertained my destination as La Rondinaia. This knowledge caused him to shout out in great mirth "ah ha, you go to see Il Gorino!"

I learned that Ravellans liked to refer to the man they thought of as their very own celebrity American writer as what roughly translated into "the Great Gorino." The following year, in fact, Ravello made Vidal an honorary citizen. That week in July, I discovered a different Vidal from the glossy, self-consciously measured Senatorial candidate I had covered.

Staying at the house that week were two guests, Kathleen Tynan, widow of the recently deceased theater critic, Kenneth Tynan, and New York Review of Books co-founder, Barbara Epstein. In the evening, Howard Auster, Vidal's long-time companion, filled our glasses in La Rondinaia's vaulted book-lined study, while Vidal asked us to fill him in on happenings in the "States". Unsurprisingly perhaps, one of the world's great talkers turned out to be a highly accomplished listener.

Rather than hold forth, Vidal would sit quietly on a couch in the study, and insisted “we entertain him". This could be daunting. The library opened onto a deck beyond which was a heartbreaking view down the Amalfi coast. It was a stretch to keep your logical train on track while the smoldering Neapolitan sun extinguished itself behind Capri.

One afternoon, Vidal hired an ancient vaporetto and its nearly as-ancient skipper to transport us up the coast. The little yellow-canvas-canopied craft languidly putt-putted along, we swam, and dined on fruite de mer at a restaurant carved into a cliff on the Gulf of Salerno. Vidal, who as a candidate hid his physique inside of exquisitely cut suits, was a good swimmer and led us into a fantastical, cobalt-dappled grotto etched out by the sea. When we returned, Vidal noticed that Barbara Epstein was having trouble debarking and literally cradled her in his arms as he carried her ashore.

The nights were devoted to outdoor bistros on the plaza in Ravello, where the tomatoes were luscious and the local green wine viciously unfiltered. Seated at the table's head, Vidal played every bit the seigneur, greeting the townspeople, dozens of whom would come by to pay their respects. It was hard not to reference his acting in the final scene of Federico Fellini's 1972 film, "Roma," which catches an effusive, younger Vidal seated in a cafe along the Via Veneto. "What are you doing in Rome?" the off-camera voice of the filmmaker queries in English. To which Vidal shouts back, "If the world is coming to an end, what better place than Roma?" The mornings in Ravello just felt like the end of the world, lost as they were to the hot-poker-to-the-forehead result of matching Il Gorino glass for glass of the deadly local brew.

Irrespective of hangover, Vidal would descend the steps down the Ravello hillside for his daily sea swim. On the final day in Ravello, Vidal walked me down to the sun-drenched piazza in front of the Positano cathedral. As I waited for my taxi, Vidal spoke about his now-completed California campaign, my nascent career as a pundit, the fate of California and the ongoing wages of empire. About to depart, I posed a question that stilled puzzled me about the campaign. As an author, I asked him, did he mind that his writings had been fair game for the opposition. Il Gorino smiled a tight, regretful smile, and responded just a little dreamily, "wouldn't that have been wonderful."

As a veteran investigative journalist who loves biography, RICHARD RAPAPORT inhabits a realm in which poetry, culture and politics not only coexist, but inform and strengthen one another. His latest book, California Moderne and the Mid-Century Dream: the Architecture of Edward H.Fickett, was published earlier this year. He is currently at work on Joe’s Boys, about the friends and enemies of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s Red Scare, due out in 2016. He has written extensively for national magazines, including in-depth stories about high-tech and culture in Ireland, China, Israel and Bosnia for Forbes Magazine.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Newfoundland Vampire - Charles O'Keefe

While I’m not usually the most profound person (and I don’t think the Material Girl is either) there is a line from a Madonna song that goes an unexamined life is not worth living and I have to agree with her. I think one of the best parts about being a creative person is the ability to look at your own life and imagine how it could have been different. What if you had gone out with that woman from residence instead of meeting someone online? What if you had taken that job out of town instead of playing it safe with one close by? What if vampires were real? What if you met one, would you want to be turned?

Obviously some questions can go more into fantasy that just what ifs but my point is that for me writing The Newfoundland Vampire wasn’t just an exploration of the vampire nature (along with some geeky fun, sex and plenty of action of course), it was also a journey down memory lane, with a twist. If you had the chance to make different choices, would you? For me I think my life could have turned out very different with different choices made and while in reality I can’t change the past, in a fantasy setting like my novel, I could do whatever I wanted.

I’m not saying I’m unhappy with my life but like most people I wonder, think about the road not taken. I think if a certain sexy redheaded vampire was real, I would have followed her anywhere. Aside from all this introspection, I also wanted to produce something using my imagination and be recognized for it, have people appreciate it and even make a little money.

Letting your imagination take off and bringing a story to life is a great thrill, one that couldn’t have happened without Kathy (my editor at Distinguished Press), friends, family and my own determination. Putting out a novel isn’t easy, it’s a labour of love but one for me that was well worth it in the end. Joseph, my alter ego and main character of the book, gets to do things I never will (as well as things I would never want to do). I wanted to express my feelings and ideas on topics both fun and serious, my love of Dungeons and Dragons, board games and Star Trek. The importance of helping others, helping the environment, being a vegetarian and caring for your family and friends is all in there too.

Writing this book was the best way I could think of to express my thoughts, feelings and my imaginary world. I hope you’ll spend some time there, it’s something I want to share with everyone and it’s a place where I hope you’ll have as much fun learning about as I did creating.

Oh and don’t worry, there’s more stories to come, book two should be out in November and book 3 is already written. Thanks for stopping by and I hope to hear from you sometime in the future.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Avoiding the scaffolds: N M Browne

Image from BBC News Plymouth web page
So, I have an apology to make: the last time I blogged I lied. 
 I thought that once my submission draft of the book-of-strange-directions was finished I’d have lots of useful tips to share on becoming a best seller, breaking the internet and tweeting up a twitter storm. As you, dear reader, have yet to hear from me, you may safely assume that none of the above has actually happened. Maybe next month.
 In lieu of sharing the secrets of my yet-to-be-achieved success, I can confess that I am clearing the decks for an academic project.  I won’t bore you with the details of that except to point out that the prospect of academic writing has made me realise how much I adore making things up all day. So, as I tidy my desk and try to refigure my brain, I am drawn inevitably to pretty well  anything that isn't study. Obviously it would be stupid to start something new when I’ve a lot of clever intellectual stuff to be doing, but refining something old, slightly rejigging the odd character, surely there’s time for that?
  As all writers know, that way madness lies. If I haven’t time to write something new, I definitely don’t have time for something old.
  Something old and unpublished inevitably needs the literary equivalent of a wrecking ball.
 I am a fan of ‘Grand Designs’, the TV show, which documents, in humiliating detail, the tribulations of would-be homeowners overseeing their own building project.  If you’ve ever watched it, you will know that rebuilding and preserving an existing building takes twice as long and costs three times as much as starting from scratch. We long time viewers, observe with shameful schadenfreude  as the bright eyed, optimistic enthusiasts of the opening sequence, with their plans and their budgets and their intact marriages, are reduced to gibbering near-ruin. They camp in leaking caravans in the rain when some technological key stone gets stuck in Germany for months, foundations sink and the bespoke glass imported from one small factory in Iceland is three centimetres too small. Let me tell you: rewriting is worse than that.
At least in rebuilding you are unlikely to end up with a one bedroom bungalow when you hoped for a four bedroom semi. Not so with rewriting: if you are suitably critical of your own prose it is not un likely that a hefty 600,000 word trilogy could be radically repurposed into  a 2,000 word short.
I have a couple of books that need that kind of overhaul: a nice little third person chick lit romance in need of a much funnier first person voice, a ghost and maybe a new love interest and don’t get me started on my menopausal demon novel, which is funny in all the wrong places and plotwise several sandwiches short of a picnic.
However, because I am an experienced writer and an avid viewer of 'Grand Designs' I am not going to mess with either of them. I’m going to step away from my keyboard, pick up my new student’s back pack and walk very deliberately to the library.  Honest.