Writers at Rest

Taking a break from producing fiction? A couple of reads that offer ridiculous, pathetic, sad, witty, funny–fun–looks at the fiction-writer’s life include The Visiting Writer, a short story from Matthew Vollmer’s collection Gateway to Paradise, and Chris Belden’s novel, Shriver.

The Visiting Writer delivers us into the world of literary aspiration, a lament on the lack of success, a self examination, perhaps, of the baser cravings and realities of scribes too early in their careers to have realized lasting achievement: “As an untenured professor, I depended upon a world of illusions to sustain my artistic legitimacy…” He’s an “emerging” writer (though emerging from what, not even he could have said). Oh, he’s published a novel but its worth just a cent on eBay, and his work’s appeared in print, but in those places that pay two contributor copies, and in all honesty even his current position with the university is a gift grafted onto his wife’s teaching contract. He amounts to so little in the world, in fact, that even the bathroom faucets fail to register his existence.

So what happens when the visiting writer seems to signal the possibility of a fling? It’s an innocent dinner with a woman old enough to be his grandmother, yet the allure is there. A willing participant, he grinds the butt of her cigarette against the sole of his shoe, literally her human ash-tray. She invites him to escort her to her room, with a purpose, and puts her card “into—and out of—a slot”. The human ash tray thinks, “As idiotically self-destructive as it was, I couldn’t help wonder what it might be like to open up a hole in my life, to slip into a darker realm where I would be utterly—and no doubt deleteriously—transformed.” In ways the reader might not predict The Visiting Writer gives us aspiration, humiliation, abject failure, and a reality more soul-crushing than a mailbox full of generic rejection slips.

Chris Belden’s Shriver, meanwhile, might be called a book about a novelist who wrote a book called Goat Time which everybody seems to enjoy but nobody seems to have read, at least not entirely, including not the author Shriver himself. Add to this nonsensical loop a few day’s worth of swarming mosquitoes, a crate or two of whiskey, and a parade of cheerleaders, lurking shadows, and self-centered artists through a mid-western college town and voila: a quick, witty parody of modern-day writerly conferences.

Shriver, reissued late last month by Touchstone Books, manages to be witty without pretense, absurd without hopelessness, a literary romp roiling with characters who are simple yet evolved, endearing and funny. Best of all, they are fun to be around. Read more about it here.

Review-Gateway to Paradise

The six stories in Matthew Vollmer’s Gateway to Paradise (Persea books) plow dark furrows across the landscape, furrows at once unified yet unique, parallel channels promising individual reward. The unifying darkness is subtle, distinct, reassuring in its way. It is a darkness that blooms rather than dooms, mesmerizes rather than terrifies, reveals rather than obscures. As for what keeps each story fresh and unique: Vollmer’s dark field flowers with the supernatural, the steadfast, the ridiculous, the sublime. Salvation. Penance.

Downtime traffics in a widowed dentist’s experience with the supernatural while Probation probes steadiness amid despair; The Visiting Writer explores the ridiculous through a wry self-awareness and Dog Lover gives us one woman’s heart-quickening effort to hit that spot long overlooked by her husband. Scoring shows how easily we can cave to flattery and the concomitant need for salvation, while the title piece, with its great potential for total blackout, veers into a penance no reader could predict.


Probation impressed me most of all. Vollmer crams so many disturbed components into the story that it’s impossible to look away. Try putting it in a sentence. A cuckold named Abe on probation (not for avenging his wife’s infidelity in the grocery store break room with a geriatric named Hogsed who wears a braid to the waist, a video of which fornication has gone viral across a small cracker town), drives around in search of the 12-year-old daughter he fears is the victim of an age-mate sexual predator while narrating for his son what he did to wind up on probation in the first place, a story involving an FBI chopper haunting the mountains in search of abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, a laser pointer, and some bad judgment.

Full review


Chris Belden’s Shriver might be called a book about a novelist who wrote a book called Goat Time which everybody seems to enjoy but nobody seems to have read, at least not entirely, including not the author Shriver himself.

Add to this nonsensical loop a few day’s worth of swarming mosquitoes, a crate or two of whiskey, and a parade of cheerleaders, lurking shadows, and self-centered artists through a mid-western college town and voila: a quick, witty parody of modern-day writerly conferences.



Readers of Shriver will encounter a range of characters from aspiring author and overweight corndog consumer Delta Malarkey-Jones to Blotto, the delivery boy and drunken cowboy professor T. Watzczesnam. We get talked down to from on high by arrogant playwright Basil Rather, yet may find some titillation in his well-endowed assistant, Lena Brazir (well endowed above and below the waist). We may learn to appreciate the personal pain of Native American Poetess Gonquin Smithee, even if it means making room for Ms. Labio, her puckered lover.

Fortunately, Belden doesn’t toss us in among this rabble without a right-minded guide or two, from grad student Edsel Nixon to Shriver’s beloved Professor Cleverly. Even Shriver himself is a form of sanity, on those rare occasions he hasn’t lost his marbles or drown himself in whiskey. But who wouldn’t go nuts or seek blind drunkenness in a world that features the Outer East Coast Inner Critics Circle Award, the Church of Pornocology, the Dusty Rose Rodeo Museum, and other points of interest in an unnamed whistle stop college town on the Black River?

Full Review

Review–When You Cross That Line

The short line-up of characters in Sam Slaughter’s collection lead lives you’d rather not lead yourself, and therein lies the charm.

The unnamed narrator of When You Cross That Line is moving to Florida when he has a run-in with an alligator salesman. The episode turns from odd to ugly, leaving the narrator in search of a swamp, hopeless of finding normalcy in his new adoptive state.


Next James and Grunt get out their power equipment to take care of a facial tattoo, and later the sword-wielding Mr. Gordon strips off his kimono in the middle of the street, forgetting to take his sword with him when he’s shooed back inside.

I empathized most with World War II vet Paul, who fought for your freedoms and will gladly smash your face in if you abuse them. Stupid mid-day drunken salesmen.

The final story, A Bear in the Trunk, works least well. But there’s a guy named Tonka and a drug dealer named Clyde who gives away beer at Gary’s Saloon. Again we aren’t privy to the narrator’s name but it hardly matters: things don’t turn out too well for him, and I’m not convinced the ending really works. I’m not convinced it doesn’t.

And that’s the nature of this short collection of clear-eyed writing. The prose is under control, the characters are unusual, and the reader is grateful to observe from afar: “I bet none of your northern friends have ever held a gator. Be the first.” He pushed on the word northern like it was an intruder.

Strong writing about wart-covered characters, straight out the swamps of Central Florida.

The Short Happy Life of Cecil the Lion

In Hemingway’s masterpiece The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, the eponymous American who goes off hunting lions in Africa is really just a pathetic cuckold pretending at manliness. And when he does man up at the end of the story, he gets cut down by a real predator. It seems he’d taken his eyes off what was truly dangerous.

Now, I’m sad as the next guy that Cecil the lion got shot. I’m sore as hell that he was shot by a freaking dentist. And don’t even talk to me about the fact that Cecil’s dear sweet cubs will be offed by their mother’s next likely suitor. That’s the law of the jungle, after all.


But honestly? The most troubling part of Cecil’s death in Zimbabwe is the bloody loud hue and cry about Cecil’s death in Zimbabwe. If we are going to cry about misery and death in Zimbabwe, why don’t we cry about human misery and death? Why don’t we spend some grief and sorrow addressing human rights abuses by a geriatric, repressive regime, or on the death of children from preventable problems like malnutrition?

Is that also the law of the jungle: that we become inured to the suffering of mankind to such an extent that we care more about the freaking death of Cecil the lion at the hands of a dentist playing Great White Hunter in Zimbabwe?

I would like to thank all the media organizations, nutty celebrities, and selfish politicians who are turning the death of a lion in Zimbabwe into an international tragedy, while they ignore the chronic misery of 14 million humans. These folks remind me of a certain weak-kneed protagonist, Francis Macomber, showboating on safari while they ignore the real danger.

Wattpad: Library, Roller Rink, or Click Farm?

Ok, it’s time I got this outta the way. I’ve put off posting my thoughts about Wattpad because I prefer the positive when it comes to writing. But what positive thing is there to say about Wattpad?

Well, there’s this: Wattpad is like the local library combined with a 70’s roller rink. The core concept is cerebral, but the net result is disco. It’s nerdy but its “cool”, lame but fab. It’s literacy dressed up in strobe lights and unvaried counter-clockwise motion. Tens of millions of people are doing it today, but in 30 or 40 years everyone will stand back and hold their noses. “I can’t believe we did that!” we’ll say, shaking our sad grey hair, or whatever’s left of it.

Chicago's Gerry Murray, (L) and Brooklyn's Annabelle Kealey collide with the rail, 1946. Credit http://www.vintag.es/2015/01/32-interesting-vintage-photos-of-roller.html

skaters collide with the rail, 1946. Credit http://goo.gl/bTOHcs

That’s the best I can say about Wattpad. Here’s the rest.

Simply put, Wattpad is a click farm. From what I’ve seen of the work posted there, users are little inspired to put up quality writing. They are inspired, instead, to click. Click to view. Click to vote. Click to comment. It’s get busy writing, or get busy clicking, and everybody’s busy clicking. Click, click, click.

I get it—their model for success mirrors the rest of the Internet and social media in general. Clicks beget clicks. Rise to the top on Wattpad by having other users click your stuff because you clicked theirs. Click me and I’ll click you. It’s a clickotocracy. Clickety clack. Click my back, I’ll click yours. Misery loves company, and this is some miserable company.

This isn’t to say I didn’t try clicking. I tried to find things to click on, stories to view, writing to vote for. Nothing struck me. So I wrote a few comments, in hopes of some decent exchange. But I soon felt out of my depth, a lonely pedant, an awkward old man shushing the kids in the library. I felt like a high-brow killjoy, a grumpy old fart. Worse, I began to feel like a trench-coated old perv among children at the roller rink, a giraffe on skates.

I took note of examples but they’re not worth posting: anybody who wants to see the gore resulting from this roller derby collision will have to look elsewhere. I won’t insult your eyes with the tripe: the misspellings, the awful grammar, the awkward construction (“…she was sweet yet innocent…”). A quick browse through the cover art will leave you feeling dirty and in need of a shower.

I feel so bad to have orphaned my story, One Dead Cop, to a miserable place like Wattpad. Poor Sammy Darko, the one clean cop murdered by his corrupt cop brethren. Art, as always, mirroring life.

One Dead Cop: the Wattpad Experiment

My Wattpad experiment comes to an end. I’ll publish my conclusions next week. For now, here is the rest of One Dead Cop. Pick up where you left off below, or read from Part I.

One Dead Cop

4 Palm Massacre

Darko’s voice comes hushed and urgent over the phone. I have something for you.

An accident? Fitch asks the Deputy Commissioner. A baby’s crying in the background. Fitch asks, How’s the kid?

Godwin’s fine. But accident? No. Your young American… CID’s at the Royal Palm Hotel investigating four dead Obroni. Darko means white foreigner


It is not known.

Dead how?

Massacre. Wild gunfire.

Does CID have suspects? Witnesses? Anyone in custody?

Can’t talk now, Darko whispers. I can meet you at the Palm. But you have to be discreet. It’s a drugs case. CID Chief Bonsu himself is there. Four bloody corpses, not African. A load of powder. Coke or heroin, is not yet known.

Fitch hangs up feeling hinky. The cable has Gordon, Jr. traveling from the Palm. And if Bonsu’s involved, another crime’s about to be committed: cover up.

He calls Poltz and fills the embassy security chief in. Poltz emerges from sleep and rises quickly to rage.

Poltz howls, GPF doesn’t know how to investigate! CID’s totally corrupt. When this place goes narco, it’ll be thanks to CID. Government can’t pay what the traffickers pay.

Easy, boss.

I’ll meet you at the Palm. Have you called the Peace Corps? Call Mimi Rogers. Tell her I’ll stop by for Gordon’s photo.

Already pulled it, boss. Fitch feels the storm clouds gathering, an impending confrontation between his boss and the head of CID. Their mutual loathing, come to near blows on earlier cases, already epic in the tabloids.

The rest.

Heat Advisory: Interview with Preston Lang

I recently pretended to sit down with good friend and acclaimed crime writer Preston Lang to talk about a few things. We covered the emotional intelligence of peanut eaters, the role of fire hydrants in the government’s summer emergency plans, and the collected work of Franklin W. Dixon, among other things.

If you’re eager for more Preston Lang when you finish, check out his recent novels: The Carrier and The Blind Rooster.

Skipping the small talk and heading straight to it:


BE—You’ve published two novels. Why?

PL—Yeah, it does seem hard to defend the decision at times. I like to think they get out there into the world and people read and enjoy them.

That’s really all I can hope for, because my books aren’t particularly educational and they don’t exactly expand the boundaries of what a novel can do or anything like that. There might be a hidden agenda in my writing. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

BE—Sure, no hidden agenda, but still very fun, very entertaining to read. I thought The Carrier’s finest asset was its various shades of low-key humor, deadpan delivery, and bizarre juxtaposition. I liked the contents of sex offender Danny Chin’s apartment for example: “…Other than a clarinet and a red cape there was nothing that really indicated this was the residence of a pervert.” You should give yourself a little more credit.

PL—Fair enough. Next question?

BE—I understand you’re a talented pianist. So which gives you greater satisfaction: music or writing?

PL— I don’t play as much as I once did, so it’s pretty much writing at this point.

BE—Why is that?

PL—I’ve got issues with neighbors, and my fingers have become thick and oddly shaped.

BE—That’s troubling. I heard something this week about people aging at different speeds. Maybe they also age in different body parts. I wonder if your thickening fingers is part of the natural aging process for you. Or maybe its a factor of diet. What’s your favorite low-fat food?

PL—I like peanuts a lot. They’re a very important part of my life. Are they low in fat?

BE—No, not at all. They’re high fat, but it’s the good kind. I say that because peanuts are natural.

PL—I once read that there’s a sharp divide between people who like peanuts and people who like pecans. The pecan people are arrogant, disingenuous elitists. The peanut people are decent, emotional, but a bit cryptic.

There are more of us Peanuts, but the Pecans are wealthier and better supplied. When it all goes down, choose your side wisely.

BE—Sometimes I add crushed pecans to our Saturday morning pancakes, but I prefer and more often use walnuts. Never peanuts. I do eat a lot of peanut butter, though. Tell me more about what you’re working on. When are you going to write a book about cigarettes?

The rest

Carnival Fiction

I’ve got some new short fiction over at Revolution John, a sample from my latest project: church shorts. Who doesn’t love the annual church bazaar?



Full story 600 words.

Time to Write

Blog entries about writing I enjoy most treat the craft as work. Those I enjoy least lament a thing called writer’s block. For all those writers who suffer some form of blockage, I submit this photo from 2007.


This neurotic-looking ledger of hours and minutes was my go-to mechanism for avoiding “the block.” I used it to ensure a workmanlike integrity when it came to putting in the hours. I didn’t wait for Inspiration to drive the process. I was beholden to Time.

First thing I did upon sitting at my desk was flip open the back of the journal and jot the hour and minute. When I finished, I wrote again the hour and minute. Some days I was lucky enough to do this only once for a long period. On Thursday of week XXXIV, for example, I wrote from 1:35 a.m. until 3:13. An hour 38 in one sitting!

Other days I wasn’t so lucky. The week before, it took me three tries to reach 1:32. Mondays…

As the years passed (2007 was far from the first year I used this technique; 2008 was the last) I added up the weekly totals and calculated the averages in five-week blocks. Some periods I averaged 10:41 for each of the five weeks; others only 5 hours a week. In a box somewhere is the original ledger bearing witness to my annual averages–3+ hours a week in 2001 and ever better from there. My goal at first was 7 hours a week; towards the end, 11. I wanted an hour a day for weekdays and 3 a day for the weekend. I never attained it over the course of a year, but there are five-week segments with 14-hour averages.

One noteworthy point on all this neurotic calculating: I didn’t cheat. If I started at 10:12, I wrote 10:12. An hour 38 minutes didn’t get rounded up to 1:40. Maybe, in a rush, I would note that I’d written for only 12 minutes without having put the start and stop time into black and white. Maybe those days I knew I just didn’t have the time.

Another point: I abandoned the technique years ago. A decade later, writing had become my native state. The turning wheels upstairs were configuring perceptions as if on the page. I had gone from “aspiring writer” to Writer. I had made myself a writer.

When I’m mid-stream on a novel, daily perceptions matter less. I’m focused on plot, which every day demands new material. If I’m not focused on plot I’m editing. Daily perceptions have little bearing on the process. When, as now, I’m between novels, the turning wheels matter more. Am I jotting some new short fiction? Am I reviewing a book? Am I posting my views on the latest freedom of speech rally, irksome advertisement, or miserable hip-hop artist?

I’ve discovered my life is more orderly but more stressful when I’m mid-novel: stress over the passing of time as the story remains within. When I’m off the beat, I feel footloose but scattered. Either way, writing is central. I’m always writing. There’s no taking note of the hours and minutes.

Boiled down, all a writer really needs is a workspace, a writing instrument, and time. The first two are easy. This post offers a remedy for finding more of the third.


25 filled Moleskine Cahier ledgers from 2007-present, and the warm invitation of a fresh one!