writing on the edge or, perhaps, over it

In The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy writes of a man in the throws of sex with his wife, shouting “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”

If I read such a thing on Facebook, I’d probably say, “TMI.” But it’s typical Conroy, obvious in most of his books, writing on the edge describing the most strange, outlandish, sick, and horrific moments in the lives of his characters, moments we can’t un-see, would be shocked if we thought of such things, and having stepped over the edge with a writer who is “out there,” we are drawn “out there,” too, and for my money, nothing beats the mind’s confusion of such prose that’s better than torrid sex (“thank you, Jesus”).

I am in awe of anyone who can write on (or over) the edge and remain mostly sane.

Conroy’s inclusion of such moments in his plots is heightened by the fact they do not comprise a farce, but a balanced interaction between the most absurd and the most beautiful, and between the best of sin and the best of grace. Writing also in The Prince of Tides, he says:

“I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater. My soul grazes like a lamb on the beauty of indrawn tides.”

The Prince of Tides is my living Bible of how to write well from well-formed characters to well-formed locations. I keep the book close at hand on my desk next to my copy of Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel which–if read carefully– teaches prospective writers how to write on the edge or, perhaps, over it.

Some say Stephen King’s On Writing is better.  Perhaps, but it doesn’t speak to me because I want writing books that show me how to jump off cliffs and walk through fire and say things that cause readers to blush and shout, “TMI.”

There’s a danger to writing at the edge: “it might kill you.” But what if it doesn’t? You look down, read what you have written, and find blood on the page. If you can see your blood holding the words together, then the edge didn’t kill you. Maybe tomorrow, but today the words are wonderful and they sing songs the world needs to hear.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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This is a terrific story, filled with fabulous characters, some definitely nastier than others, and great fun, too, at least in parts. Others are still horrible to contemplate from our slightly more secure seats nearly 70 years on. Reader Review of the audiobook.

Comfort food

Comfort food is food that provides a nostalgic or sentimental value to someone, and may be characterized by its high caloric nature, high carbohydrate level, or simple preparation. The nostalgia may be specific to an individual, or it may apply to a specific culture. – Wikipedia

The pandemic sent many of us in search of comfort food. Some of it was actual food, a plate of French fries, a banana split. Some of it was food for the mind, a favorite movie or book, or good a conversation. Some of it was food for the spirit, a walk in the woods, swimming in saltwater at a forgotten beach.

The social media were filled with conversations about comfort food, edible and otherwise. People compared notes, despaired over what wasn’t available (restaurants, pubs, movies). Described what worked for them, complimented others who confessed their new guilty pleasures. And generally found ways to be together while they were physically far apart.

As a typical introverted writer, the seclusion didn’t bother me. Send me a bottle of Zinfandel and a good book, and I have all the “comfort food” I need. Our cats provided comfort–whenever they felt like it. And my wife and I had fun ending our evenings with a YouTube episode of the show “What’s My Line?” We saw many of those growing up and though they’re very dated compared with, say, Rob Low’s “Mental Samurai,” they met our definition of comfort food.

Through poetry, essays, and first-person stories, pandemic people often spoke of the power they discovered (or re-discovered) of solitary pursuits. They found they could be alone without being lonely and saw that there was a great power in that. Sitting on a front porch beneath a sparkling night sky. Walking–anywhere–but nowhere in particular. Listening to music after shutting off their cellphones. Meditating one way or another. For some, the beauty of this was a revelation; for others, it was a return to the less-hectic days before they were ensnared by the commuting/9-5 job where the office was often more home than home.

As people become vaccinated and various restrictions are relaxed and the trappings of our pre-COVID lives are available again, I hope we will remember what we discovered about alone time, how freeing and renewing it can be. The pandemic has taught us many lessons. The power of being alone is one of them.

–Malcolm

My comfort food.

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Some books go nowhere fast

“I’m currently reading a book published by one of the major companies, and nothing happens. Well, that’s not exactly true. Stuff happens. Then more stuff happens. And even more stuff happens. But I am now three-quarters of the way through the book, and all I’ve gleaned from the story is that a lot of stuff happens.” – Pat Bertram

Years ago, we might have labeled such books as “nowheresville” and said that their authors had it “made in the shade” financially speaking because readers were being lured into their novels with catchy titles that never delivered the goods. For one thing, there probably weren’t any goods. Or, if there were, they (the goods) went bad in the first draft and got worse during the revision process where the introduction of lovely scenery, philosophical debates, backstories about characters with no substantive roles in the story, and sex scenes in flea-infested cat houses failed to turn up a storyline. Reviewers could at least say, “All the smoke and mirrors were pretty.”

As it turns out, somebody dropped a gun in a bunch of finger paint.

Recently I’ve been reading novels with seductive titles like When the Grim Reaper Smiles, The Quantum Murder Syndrome, and Terror Strikes in The Old Familiar Places, and I’ve discovered that when the author doesn’t have a clue about a plot, he fills the books with backstory bios of all the bad guys, apparently to impress us about just what the good guys are up against. What they (the good guys) are up against appears to be the fact that they haven’t done enough significant stuff to merit a Wikipedia page, much less a starring role in When the Grim Reaper Smiles.

Perhaps they say something snarky like “ask not for who the grim reaper smiles, it’s just gas.” Well. I really don’t want to pay $14.95 for a novel where that’s the high point of the story. Using my best Jack Nicholson impression from “A Few Good Men,” I want to say (to the author), “Please tell me you have more to offer your readers than a few lines that are so lame they can’t even walk with crutches.”

In the old days (whenever the hell they were) prospective authors were told to create a list of characters and write down a list of physical attributes and a résumé of their lives prior to the beginning of the novel. Somewhere along the line, authors started sweeping all these notes into the manuscript without adding “the goods.” Sometimes the authors added a lot of statistics about military hardware and what the bad guys might do with it should anything happen in the novel.

Look, I read novels to escape from the sins of the world. When they don’t help me, even during a lost weekend, I feel cheated and want to leave a -5 star review on Amazon. After becoming an addict to one drug or another, I want to sue the author for creating my need to escape the sins of his or her novel. Now, suddenly, I’m going nowhere fast and can’t find a book to save me.

Frankly, I want to read novels that go somewhere and tempt me to come along for the ride.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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One reviewer said that while the book was funny, it was just an excuse for a lot of sex and booze. No kidding!

A rare interview with Malcolm R. Campbell

We found the reclusive Mr. Campbell at a mostly forgotten Bandit’s Biker Bar that fell on hard times when Hell’s Angels switched over to IHOP. Wearing his traditional Levi’s and a navy blue polo shirt, Campbell was halfway through a bottle of Talisker Distiller’s Edition Scotch when we arrived. He consented to talk to us as long was didn’t ask why he left the gigolo business for the low-paying career of a writer.

Newspaper: Do you come here often?

Campbell: It’s my second home.

Newspaper: You’ve done wonders with the place.

Campbell: My designer loves the concept of belligerent neglect.

Newspaper: Now that we’ve gotten the ambiance of our setting out of the way, do you have any secrets you want to tell us?

Campbell: I’m not the same guy who raced cars in the U.K or the guy who wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Newspaper: We didn’t think you were. Got anything else, something that will make a scandalous headline?

Campbell: I was an Eagle Scout.

Newspaper: Good Lord, are you serious? You’re such a badass, nobody would suspect you once worked on merit badges and gone on camping trips.

Campbell: You’re the first person I’ve told other than my mother.

Newspaper: So, now that you’ve finished Fate’s Arrows, what are you working on now?

Campbell: A tell-all about how to use time travel for fun and profit.

Newspaper: Aren’t you afraid most people will think it’s another contemporary fantasy being released under the fiction that it’s really nonfiction?

Campbell: Most of the world’s nonfiction never happened. Most novels are true. So in this case, readers who think the book is really fiction are ahead of the game.

Newspaper: What game?

Campbell: The game we’re playing right now where you ask me questions, I tell you lies, and you print them in the feature section of your newspaper as God’s honest truth. 

Newspaper: So, when it comes down to it, this interview is a farce.

Campbell: Pretty much. But it serves a need. The readers think they know more about me than they did before even though they suspect they’re being played for suckers.

Newspaper: One is born every minute.

Campbell: More than that, I think.

Newspaper: Are you this messed up in “real life”?

Campbell: If there were such a thing as “real life,” I would hope so. But there isn’t, so I’m not. Readers who suspect “real life” isn’t real are drawn to my books because they want to know why everything is always in a mess, so the best I can do is offer them a way to escape the illusion of the daily news.

–Stargazer News Service

 

 

Have you stopped beating your wife, senator?

That question is so old and so lame that it’s become a dark humor method of describing bad reporters, usually those who are full of themselves and/or have a nasty agenda.

If you answer “yes” or “no” to that question, you’re screwed. If you aren’t thinking and say, “Who told you I’m beating my wife?” then of course it looks like it’s true and you want to know who ratted you out.

大坂 なおみ

I’ve been thinking about bad reporters and bad questions ever since Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open rather than face another typical barrage of lame post-match questions or continue to be fined for refusing to talk to the press.

Osaka said those questions are often like “kicking people when they’re down.” One news story said that “Rafael Nadal himself criticized a journalist in 2019 for asking him if his form on the court had been affected by getting married.” Huh?

Even long-time stars like Serena Williams have said that these pressers, as they’re called, cause a lot of anxiety. And yet, the tennis establishment forces them on the players purportedly because those Q&A sessions help sell tickets. Perhaps, but I doubt it. After being asked why she wasn’t smiling after beating her sister Venus, Serena said, “To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here.”

A reporter once asked Coco Gauff if she was being compared to the Williams sisters because she’s black. If I were Coco, I’d simply say “no” and wait for the next stupid question.

One problem here comes from reporters, officials, and the public who think they should have been told years ago that Osaka suffers from clinical depression. It’s none of their business. If that had been on the table, she would have been asked every time she had trouble with a match whether it was depression or bad hand/eye co-ordination.

We–those who support sports stars and movie stars and others in the public eye–somehow feel that because of our support, we own them and have a right to know their every thought and their every private moment. The reporters know this, and since they do, they can keep asking “When did you stop beating your wife?” and other inane and/or trick questions.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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This novel is a satire about bad newspapers, bad reporters, and bad city officials.

Sometimes a muse dares an author to write a book

Sarabande bled on the leading edge of the Angel Wing while the moon was dark. The grey-green rock at the summit accepted her flow without complaint. Yesterday, Gem said sky wasn’t a fit place of renewal: dark woods and tents served best for bleeding. “Tccch,” she said without finesse, “why expose yourself on that strange spur of rock at the high end of the valley? You’ll catch a cold sitting on unforgiving stone above that cold glacier.”

Indeed, but it suited her.

from Sarabande, Copyright © 2015 by Malcolm R. Campbell

My muse, who is named Siobhan, is a Huna practitioner from Hawai’i. She’s almost a real person, perhaps more real than I am. She’s appeared in several of my books. So it is that in her opinion when she dares me to write a novel, I more or less have no choice. (Never cross a Kāhuna sorcerer.)

The problem: Sarabande is the novel’s protagonist and the story is told from her point of view. She first appeared in The Sun Singer which was told from protagonist Robert Adams’ point of view. That’s normal: a male writer writing a novel from a man’s perspective. Writing from a woman’s point of view is tricky for a man, especially when that woman is attacked and abused–more than once.

Sarabande lives in the universe next door where The Sun Singer is set. Robert Adams saved her life there. Now that she’s having trouble with a magical ghost, she comes to our world in search of Robert because she believes he’s the only person who can help her. Finding him proves to be more dangerous than she suspected. Ultimately, Robert agrees to return with Sarabande to her alternate universe where they find the challenges are almost beyond his ability to circumvent. 

Finding Sarabande’s soul and her voice were difficult. I read a great number of “women’s journey” books before I was ready to write. Perhaps Siobhan served as a guide because it seemed more often than not that I was writing on instinct. So the best compliment I received after the book was published came from a female reviewer who said that she had to keep reminding herself that the book was written by a man.

This is, perhaps, my favorite novel, though saying so is about like looking at your children and saying “I like that one best.” 

–Malcolm

A Glacier Park Novel – Audiobook Edition

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Writing some books feels like destiny

A note from the sponsor (yep, still me).

I wrote my first novel (The Sun Singer) in 1980, found an agent who liked it, left the agent when she said a few weeks later that I’d have to wait until she finished working on Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, and then couldn’t find another agent for it and finally self-published it in in 2004. Maybe I shouldn’t have left that agent, but if you know Jean Auel’s work, you know it’s been highly successful, so I’m not sure the agent would have ever finished working on it.  (I taught Auel a lesson: I never read any of her books.)

The story I told in The Sun Singer had been messing with my dreams since I was in elementary school. Then, in 1963 when I worked as a seasonal hotel employee at Glacier National Park, I found the perfect place for my prospective contemporary fantasy.

 

I don’t really believe n destiny, not as an outside force seeking to run my life. But the persistent dreams about this young man named Robert Adams wouldn’t go away until I wrote the book. This endless prompting made me wonder if I was wrong about destiny or perhaps that destiny came from within and became something we were bound and determined to do.

Glacier National Park quickly became my favorite place on the planet. It still is. So my dreams went from being precognitive about all manner of things to a new prescient focus about the mountains, lakes, and trails in the Montana park. I think I wrote the book in self-defense. Knowing things in advance is a bit awkward unless you want to open a fortune teller booth at the circus. I didn’t, mainly because I don’t believe the future is engraved in stone.

Like the novels in my Florida Folk Magic Series, The Sun Singer was also a joy to write, partly because (as a Florida boy) I was so stunned by the beauty of the mountains, partly because the story was fun, and partly because the writing of it was getting all those dream-state glimpses of the future off my back–or, at least, out of sight and out of mind.

After it came out and surprised me by being a book of the year finalist, publishers started asking me about it. But they were slow in deciding what they wanted to do because they specialized in nonfiction. Yes, I finally found a publisher and the book did fine until many of that publisher’s authors began seeing things we didn’t like. So, like the agent many years ago, I left that publisher and the book is now self-published again.

Wikipedia Photo

What a strange road writers often follow. The road began when I saw the famous Sun Singer statue at Allerton Park in central Illinois, became a dream journey, and ended up with the published novel. Now I’m a senior citizen looking back on it all and wondering if on this path the truth is stranger than the fiction.

–Malcolm

Glacier Park Novel

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Review: ‘The Rebel in Autumn’ by Michael Shaara

This gem of a novel is an accurate immersion into campus life in the 1960s, especially the protests and the discussions of university censorship of student materials. Inspired by an event at Florida State University (FSU) in which the president banned a short story from the college literary magazine due to the use of a few “dirty words,” the story begins with a grim sense of reality.

Shaara (1928-1988), who taught creative writing at FSU at the time would have known about the incident as well as the machinations within a university faculty. The true event was resolved more amicably than the fictional event in “The Rebel in Autumn” which, for readers, presents an opportunity to see how in a time of national stress over the Vietnam War, segregation, and other issues a relatively mundane matter can spiral out of control to be the point of a looming threat of violence.

The characters–both students and faculty–are well developed and display multiple points of view about the prior restraint (pre-publication censorship) that had generally vanished from the American scene (except within student publications and college administrations).

Just how to “fix” the situation is more difficult than it sounds when you have a university president following the letter of the law that says he is the publisher of all student publications and can restrict what is released. As one faculty member said, the president had the power to ban the short story, but not the right.

Every character in the book is at risk one way or the other. Faculty members can be fired or demoted; students can be expelled. Anyone can be harmed if outside agitators or the National Guard (as we saw at Kent State in 1970) appear on campus. Shaara paints the evolving sense of danger perfectly down to the dramatic conclusion.

Kudos to Shaara’s son Jeff and daughter Lila for overseeing the posthumous publication of “The Rebel in Autumn” as well as other Shaara novels that had gone out of print. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Killer Angels” (1974) has remained in print. The family chose to publish “Rebel” as is rather than second-guessing the changes Shaara might have made during the editing and revision process that occurs once a manuscript is accepted. I agree with their decision with one exception, that being the lack of a blank line or a printed separator between scene changes; this would have reduced the confusion that occurs when scenes run together.

Disclaimer: I was a friend and a student in Shaara’s creative writing class at the time he was working on this novel. I didn’t know about the novel then, but students and Shaara had many discussions about censorship and other issues both in and out of class. My potential bias is enhanced because I was fired from a college after a long-running debate about its censorship of student publications of which I was the academic advisor.

–Malcolm

Some books are a joy to write

(A word from your sponsor (AKA, me).

If you hike, jog, kayak, or so anything else that requires effort and stamina, you know that when everything within you (mind and body) is functioning optimally, you reach what’s called a flow state–in the zone, some say. Writers feel that flow state as well when the words are coming off the keyboard and onto the screen without struggle. There are multiple sensations here, but they can be summed up as joy.

I felt this way while working on the four novels in my Florida Folk Magic Series set in the panhandle near the Apalachicola River (shown above). While writing in a flow state, I saw in my mind’s eye a movie of the stories unfolding and typed up what I saw. I loved the characters, the locations, and the themes, so I felt that I was working on a view of the 1950s’ racial tensions in the sunshine state that needed to be told.

I began with Conjure Woman’s Cat and quickly discovered I was writing about my childhood and all the days I lived in Florida starting in the first grade came flowing back to mind. I was writing this book for myself but happily found out that others liked it, too, and that AudioFile Magazine loved the audiobook edition with a great review and an earphones award. 

Melinda, my publisher, asked if I’d thought about a sequel. No, not really. Funny thing. Once she asked the question I began seeing a movie of the book that would become Eulalie and Washerwoman. When Facebook friends found out I was working on a second book, they said, “nothing better happen to that kitty (Lena).” I promised that the conjure woman’s cat would be okay. Having people check in and ask about their favorite characters was a new experience for me and added to my flow state.

So now I’ve written four books, including Lena and Fate’s Arrows. It’s time to stop. I remember my creative writing instructors warning us not to write past the ending. Fate’s Arrows, the only book in the series that isn’t told from Lena’s point of view, seems to be a natural place to stop inasmuch as the conjure woman is feeling her age–older than dirt–and the protagonist (Pollyanna) is moving from west Florida to Tallahassee (where I grew up).

I’ll always be tempted to search for that flow state again with these characters. Never say never, right? 

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Save money on Kindle with the four-book set.

Writers: Hell’s Angel in a China Shop

In the novel I’m reading, somebody notes that those in a college English department who write about writing are well paid and respected within the academic world while anyone in the department who actually writes is branded as dangerous and is considered definitely outside the safe and stifling confines of the brick walls that house literature. Since I’ve been there and done that, I’ll say we are viewed with the same horror as Hell’s angels in a China shop.

My favorite college writing instructor was in a similar position. When we (students of his) got together with him outside of class at a campus watering hole, we talked about this. Some people saw the English department paradox as similar to having a battle-scarred general on the staff of a military school who is treated with less respect than those who learned battlefield tactics by reading books.

The best we could determine is that wiring requires heavy use of the imagination and that teaching literature (pronounced li-tri-chure by the snobs) requires logic. And never the twain shall meet. Those who pride themselves on logic don’t like those who rely on spontaneity and imagination. Logic is favored in our science and technology world over intuition and magic, so naturally, writers don’t fit into the consensus reality of the university, much less the English department.

So, as I read this novel, I recognize a lot of things from my life as a student en route to becoming a writer and suffice it to say I’m getting angry again about the way prospective writers were/are treated by their English departments. And yet, all these years later, I wonder what the logic-focussed non-writers in the department thought we were going to do after college. Write or teach, I guess–and teaching was more stable, salary-wise, and respect-wise.

I hope there will come a day when magic and imagination and intuition are respected in writers and others who can sense how the world works without a calculator.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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