In Which I “Interview” Jon Stewart

Good morning, Jon. Thank you for being here this morning.

Thank you for having me.

I didn’t know you also did morning programs.

Actually, I think I just stayed up too late. What time is it?

jon stewart_rect

Let’s get right to it, shall we? After 17 years of attacking the schmucks in the media and in government, there are still so many schmucks in the media and in government. That must feel pretty discouraging.

You don’t know the half of it.

I mean, how’s it feel to wake up every morning, having spent the previous day stropping your razor against the neck of stupidity, only to find that the damn thing just won’t die? That the stupidity just won’t go away? That it just gets bigger, dumber, louder than ever… How’s that feel?

You’re talking about Fox News?

Pretty much. Of course, there are others.

CNN? All of Congress?


It feels lousy. The shouters are still out there. The thoughtlessness. The crudity. I could go on. And, so yeah, after 17 years, waking up every morning to find the media and political landscape is still so completely rotten, that doesn’t feel too nice. I mean, look at how we’ve started the year. You’ve got Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly caught grandstanding instead of reporting. You’ve got intoxicated Secret Service supervisors driving cars into their own White House ‘suspicious package’ investigation. You’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got this latest congressional scandal with Aaron Schock–the narcissist!

Well, but isn’t his resignation a good news story?

A very good news story. Good reporting by the Washington Post and the AP outed this guy for his horrible taste in decor and for fraudulently billing his constituents to drive around town in his constituent-paid Chevy Tahoe. I have to admit, that’s pretty awesome. They’ve removed a cancer at a very early age.

The youngest ever to resign! How proud! You see, the media still has a role to play in our Republic.

Yeah, but for every story like that, there’s another story like CNN’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of Selma. They droned on and on about their drones. Their coverage was coverage of coverage. For a news organization that calls itself the first draft of history, they aren’t very good at history.


Tell me, how do you know if your program’s been worth doing all these years?

Continued stupidity notwithstanding?

Continued stupidity notwithstanding.

It’s when I see clips of my show on Eric Wemple’s blog, or catch a comment here and there from fans. You know what they tell me? They say the show’s given voice to their rebuttals, a sort of daily rebuttal.


Ok, you got me there. I could have done more, been a little more diligent over the years. But what did you expect of the guy who made his living by basically televising the role of the class clown?

I didn’t expect much, to be honest. But you pulled it of, Jon. You pulled it off every time.

Thank you. So it’s all about the rebuttal. That, I think, helped so many people to feel like they weren’t alone in their disgust and contempt for what they’ve seen the media and the politicians do. In exposing media manipulation, in sharing our vulnerability to political abuses, in articulating our disgust, I think I’ve allowed a lot of people to sleep better at night so they could wake up with a fresh start to their day.

You vented their spleen.

(Pause). Yeah. I guess. I guess I’m just some kind of medieval surgeon with a rusty scalpel and a sense of how to keep the humors in balance.

I didn’t mean literally, Jon. I didn’t mean that you went in and cut people up. But, honestly, you really cut us up. You cut us all up to pieces. It was great. Thank you.

You’re welcome.

You know what, this was fun. I’ve delayed putting it up here since you announced your impending departure because I feel like there’s so much more to say.

There is. There certainly is more to be done.

So maybe I’ll have you back some time.

jon stewart_daily_show_16x9_992

Any time, Ben. Any time.

Crime Fiction: The Cost of Doing Business

Jonathan Ashley crams a lot into The Cost of Doing Business, from ghetto shootouts with Tec-9s to sociological laments about middle class norms. It’s got elements of the tough-talking hood narrative, and the book is entertaining in places, but ultimately much of the action is muddled by drawn out sentences and the narrator’s distracted observations.


What Ashley does well is provide an inside look at the criminal underworld between Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. We get everything from the street-level hood to the big drug capo, from the accidental user-turned-dealer to the strung-out junkie, from the dirty shakedown patrolman to the PD Captain who takes orders from crime bosses rather than the chief of police.

He casts much of his tale on the border between urban decay and seedy gentrification. His part of Louisville is “The best of New York City Bohemia packed into a two mile strip… the tattoo parlors, the coffee shops, and record stores… ethnic joints and five star restaurants…” All this set beside the “Undesirable neighborhoods… where black and white children in hand-me-down underclothes block the middle of the street playing with hula hoops and deflated soccer balls, avoiding whatever horrors their parents perpetuate in the shotgun shacks on either side of the blacktop.”

In this environment narrator Jon Catlett and his manager-cum-buddy Paul pass the time selling used books and hosting yuppies to live music. Here he sets the opening scene, an accidental homicide that sends Catlett’s world crashing down around him.

Full Review

Lang Speaks

Just stumbled upon Stuart Beaton‘s podcast featuring my old buddy Preston Lang. The conversation between the two is thoughtful and funny, a mirror of Lang’s writing. If you like noir, pick up The Blind Rooster; if you like crime fiction, it’s The Carrier, both released last year.

As for this podcast: Do we really need a 90,000-word book about Lionel Ritchie? Mr. Lang, what have you got up your sleeve?

Reading Preston Lang’s The Blind Rooster (Crime Wave Press) feels a lot like people-watching at the laundromat. The major figures resemble coin-op types, people resigned to the vague indignity of paying to have their underwear tumble around in a public washer. And don’t take your eyes off them for a moment—they’d just as soon pinch a quarter from your pocket as take your favorite pair of jeans from a hot dryer. (Full review)

Preston Lang’s discreetly funny debut crime novel The Carrier (280 Steps) is an amoral story about semi-decent, semi-depraved, mostly-human people who eat and argue and screw genuinely enough as they pursue their proverbial pot of gold in parts unknown of the U.S.A. Some get what they got coming, some get less, others more, but always around the corner is another day and another twist of the knot and who knows if it’s money, drugs, gold, or death that awaits (Full review).

What strikes me most in Lang’s work is the casualness of his narrative voice, an understated tenor, a manner of delivery that allows him to present the utterly random alongside the marginally droll alongside the plainly silly alongside the brazenly vile, all without ever changing pitch. There’s no shrill emotion or overbearing melodrama or manic activity. His narratives move fluidly from one moment to the next, and between the minds of his characters, each of them vying for first place as the least remarkable person in all of crime fiction.

Foggy Bottom

From DC’s skyline to it’s underground rail system, one has to wonder how the capital of our great Republic has come to symbolize so much decay and brokenness. Escalator outages pervade Metro, clogging the human flow. Congress teases us with shuttering the Department of Homeland Security, even in the face of recent threats. These perversions and abuses gave me reason to revisit this discard from my current WIP, a reflection on the great federal furlough of 2013.


Oscar Keye rode backwards on the train. Behind him, in the direction towards which he moved, all of Washington lay deep in a fog. His eyes returned to the sign: IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. And there, on the stained carpet at his feet, the black bag with no obvious owner.

The shaking railcar slowed, stopped. The usual commuter panic ensued: doors opened; passengers squeezed out; passengers pushed their way in. Crammed like cattle, Keye thought, even during the shutdown. The doors closed and the train started off.

Keye rode backwards contemplating the threat of an ownerless black bag at his feet, an unfunded position at work, and a mortgage he might not be able to pay at home. He glanced at the Washington Express on his neighbor’s lap.




Distracted by the bag, Keye couldn’t get past the headlines. He submitted to the shake and roar until they reached his stop at Foggy Bottom. A barely audible recording announced, “Passengers are reminded that safety and security are everyone’s responsibility. Please report unattended bags or suspicious behavior to Metro Transit Authorities by calling…”

The doors opened before Keye heard the number. He disembarked, clutching the plastic bag that contained his lunch. Ahead of him the human mass backed up on itself. Commuters bumped him from behind as he slowed to a crawl.

I see something suspicious, Keye thought. All around him, people staring at telephones, plodding forward without seeing where they went, risking a tumble on the escalator.

Which, it turned out, wasn’t working.


Why Criticize Williams But Not O’Reilly?

O’Reilly is not a journalist. He’s not worth my time. My criticism of Brian Williams, by contrast, was a necessary purge. I’d liked his work and trusted it, so felt betrayed, let down, disappointed.


As far as O’Reilly is concerned, the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman put it best:

Brian Williams got suspended from NBC News because his bosses feared that his tall tales had cost him credibility with his audience, which could lead that audience to go elsewhere for their news. O’Reilly and his boss, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, are not worried about damage to Bill O’Reilly’s credibility, or about his viewers deserting him. Their loyalty to him isn’t based on a spotless record of factual accuracy; it’s based on the fact that O’Reilly is a medium for their anger and resentments.

Of course Fox News isn’t worried about a “loss of credibility”. Credibility is not their aspiration.

And O’Reilly, a channel for the anger of his median-72-year-old audience: Not worth my time. (ok, this was 30 minutes well spent).

“Writer’s Block”: You Don’t Have It

I’ve been known to comment on various blogs: “I’ve never had writer’s block. I have no shortage of things to write about or the desire to write them. If I’m not writing, I’m chewing on it.”

Ok. In January I blew through 20 chapters of a first draft. Four weeks and done, rough edges and all. February wasn’t so kind. I hit the wall at chapter 12, a nut that took 10 days to crack. I couldn’t deliver background on a lesser character. Frustrating, because I could easily write what I wanted to write. But it was information my narrator couldn’t have known.

I faced options: cut the material; drop the character; change the narrative position; re-write, re-write, re-write. It sucked. It was basically 10 days of 100 words here, 100 words there, a bleed on the train, a grueling transcription by night, one step forward, two steps back. It was hard. It was hard work.

Writing isn’t easy. Writing is hard work. It’s mental and it’s physical. Do yourself a favor: don’t belittle the craft by referring to tough moments in craven terms. If you’re really writing — not just not-writing-while-wishing-you-were-a-writer-and-calling-it-writer’s-block — try thinking like an athlete.

You’re the fighter on the ropes. The Ironman in Kona’s crosswinds. The Mavericks surfer getting pummeled ’til your lungs split.

Writer’s block? You’re fighting off blows, pedaling against resistance, climbing to the surface because the next wave’s coming and you need air. Don’t kid yourself. Writing is hard. It can be physical, just as endurance sports are mental. You might achieve some kind of glory, if only in your mind. But there are going to be grueling days and nights and weeks when your production hits a wall.

That’s not writer’s block. That’s writing.

Banned Reading

Did you know that Popular Online Vendor X bans “distasteful content” from honest reviews of the very books they’d be happy to sell you? That’s right: reviews of books full of obscenities sold on their site won’t be posted if those reviews contain the same profane, immoral, or distasteful content as the product they want you to buy.

I tried for two weeks to post my review of Robert Bruce Cormack’s hilarious (and not at all distasteful) You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) only to have it rejected time and again. Finally last night, after five attempts, I found the magic formula. Boy did I have to censor the shit out of it.


First, I took out references to pot brownies and weed-smoking security guards. Next, I removed all the “stiffies” (also known as boners, woodies, chubbies, hard ons, etc). Finally, on the advice of industry insiders, I removed a reference to Zack Galifianakus, Catch-22, and A Confederacy of Dunces. Why these last? Because I’d learned that (REDACTED) might consider their inclusion to be a promotion of other products, including celebrities, and I was done taking chances.

I shouldn’t complain too much. (REDACTED) has a good track record of accepting my returns without question. And they did publish my review, despite a barb directed at them. They even allowed a promotional link to my blog. But I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth after swallowing certain words that a dumbass like me enjoys using when writing about certain intelligent, funny, colorful books.

One thought, though, for the robot censors at (REDACTED): you might catch the easy shit like “Show me some titty-action”, but you’ll never tell the difference between sarcasm and your asshole. Nor will you understand the hypocrisy of blocking my best reviews while peddling material like this (which is a f*ckin’ hoot, by the way):


(REDACTED) reserves the right to remove reviews that include:

  • Obscene or distasteful content (Bye-bye, mynah repeating “Gimme some titty action!”)
  • Profanity or spiteful remarks (So long, “shitcanned”)
  • Promotion of illegal or immoral conduct (Sayonara, pot brownies and weed-smoking security guard)
  • Promotional content such as Sentiments by or on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product (so, really?, no references to an actor who might play the role of a protagonist, or similar type of book?)

Posted to (REDACTED)–self-censorship in red

Robert Bruce Cormack’s You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is a picaro’s tale with brilliant dialogue miscues straight out of (a satire about bombardiers during World War Two) and an unsung genius—Muller—who might have wandered in from (another hilarious picaresque set in New Orleans with a protagonist named Ignatius J. Reilly). Cormack’s story centers on Sam’s reintegration into a world that’s passed him by during 30 years writing advertising copy and which, to his understandable dismay, requires that he coach his live-in son-in-law on (his bedside manner) while simultaneously wanting to (teach him a lesson) about (breaking one of the ten commandments).

Original–the funny shit’s in blue

With little more plot than that Robert Bruce Cormack’s You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is a picaro’s tale with dialogue miscues straight out of Catch-22 and an unsung genius—Muller—who might have wandered in from A Confederacy of Dunces. Cormack’s story centers on Sam’s reintegration into a world that’s passed him by during 30 years writing advertising copy and which, to his understandable dismay, requires that he coach his live-in son-in-law on working up a stiffy while simultaneously wanting to choke him dead for coveting another man’s wife.

Full Review (uncensored!)

Peace Corps Writer Awards 2014

Vote for your favorite Peace Corps Book of 2014. People in the Peace Corps community know well the agency’s three goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  • To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans


Support the writers who support Peace Corps’ Third Goal–read their books. Peace Corps Writers has opened nominations for its 2014 Awards in all categories:

The Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award

The Maria Thomas Fiction Award

The Award for Best Poetry Book

The Award for Best Travel Book

The Award for Best Children’s Book

The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Memoir Award

The Award for Best Photography Book

Editors Special Awards

Brian Williams, Dan Marino & Milli Vanilli

A lot of excuses have been made on behalf of Brian Williams since his fabrications went public last week. None of them are good. None of them can buy back the credibility every journalist requires as their professional stock in trade. But I was surprised to find one of the worst excuses in The New Yorker on Sunday, a piece titled Brian Williams and the God Complex.

AP Photo/NBC/Dwaine Scott

AP Photo/NBC/Dwaine Scott

I take exception to more than one point Ken Auletta makes along the way, but here’s his worst:

While the spotlight is on Williams’ transgressions, a word about the complicity of NBC and the other networks’ marketing machines. The networks have a stake in promoting their anchors as God-like figures… On his helicopter in Iraq, Williams was accompanied by an NBC crew. Did they not speak up to correct the record for fear of undermining the powerful anchor?

First, nobody is to blame for Williams’ transgressions other than Williams himself. He made these falsified claims on numerous occasions over several years, statements made with bloated self-importance and the intent to convince a viewership of his heartiness and bravery. But now we find in him the opposite: cowardice… he remains afraid of the truth. His performance last Wednesday, far from heartfelt apology, was just more spin, insincerity, and excuse making.

Second, in what hierarchical structure does “the crew” have latitude to “correct the record”? Does Auletta suggest that a cameraman should come forward publicly on his own, putting his livelihood in jeopardy? Another crew—the military crew flying Williams’ Chinook—had already been howling publicly for years about the falsehoods, to no avail. It might be fair to ask if a crewmember approached the NBC brass about the issue, but we’ve already learned from Auletta’s own argument that the network would have no interest in such claims. After all, he says, they have a stake in Williams’ God-like status.

Another excuse Auletta offers is that “The anchor is treated as the citizen’s trusted guide to the news. As a result, they can feel expected to dominate discussions, to tell war stories, to play God. It’s a short distance from there to telling fantastic stories—and maybe actually believing them.”

Maybe this pop psychology is true. But believing one’s own lies through repetition does not excuse mendacity. And in the case of an anchor—a journalist—it flies in the face of a core professional value. Rather than excuse Williams, this line of reasoning should serve to shame him further. A “trusted guide” is a position of humility, not omnipotence. It is a position of responsibility, not power.

None of this should have surprised me given the thin gruel with which the article began. At the outset Auletta compares Williams’ situation with that of former Miami Dolphins Quarterback Dan Marino: “I’m reminded of Marino because he just appeared on my TV screen as a pitchman for Nutrisystem”. So, this piece is driven by whimsy? By the chance appearance on TV of a disgraced celebrity? There is barely the thinnest of connections between an NFL star’s off-field philandering, and subsequent cover-up, and a trusted journalist’s blatant, repeated disregard for his professional code of ethics while on the job.

No, Williams’ case is less like Dan Marino’s, and more like that of Milli Vanilli, the 80’s pop stars who hopped around in black tights while pretending to sing, “Girl you know it’s true…” All performance, all show, all sizzle and no bacon. And now, we know, it just isn’t true.


To Bleed or Not to Bleed–(the Writer’s Question)

I don’t plan on writing porn any time soon. Probably never. But this article from today’s New York Times Magazine, about the life of one prolific pornographer, had me thinking about what I write and how I write it. The piece helped me calibrate the struggle against my greatest bane: The lack of time. I’m a career man with a job I enjoy; I’m a family man with a wife and two sons I love; I’m a baseball coach, a soccer father, a runner, biker, surfer, swimmer. My busy life makes demands even as my current novel reveals itself to me and requires my devotion. So I wonder, how much more could I produce, how much better would my writing be, if writing were my only pursuit?

Chris Offut’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I extract here the portions relevant to the question above. They provide a glimpse into one writer’s process, and a moving tribute from a son to his father.

Chris and Andrew Offutt at home in Haldeman, Ky., in 1994 from NYTimes Magazine

Chris and Andrew Offutt at home in Haldeman, Ky., in 1994

Offut recalls the process of clearing out his father’s office, a deep mine of written and graphic material gathered over a lifetime that produced more than 400 novels. We get a glimpse into the mass-production of literature (or, if you prefer, “literature”). A bleeder myself–carving and re-carving words, agonizing over sentences and paragraphs, cutting and moving whole pages and chapters and sections for literally YEARS before my work approximates a novel–I’m astounded at the prospect of churning out a book in three days.

Dad’s writing process was simple — he’d get an idea, brainstorm a few notes, then write the first chapter. Next he’d develop an outline from one to 10 pages. He followed the outline carefully, relying on it to dictate the narrative. He composed his first drafts longhand, wearing rubber thimbles on finger and thumb. Writing with a felt-tip pen, he produced 20 to 40 pages in a sitting.

His goal was a minimum of a book a month. To achieve that, he refined his methods further, inventing a way that enabled him to maintain a supply of raw material with a minimum of effort. He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections into topics.

Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days.

But the article gives us much more than reflections on process. It also touches on–and moved me deeply with–a father’s estrangement from his children as they grow older.

When we were young, Dad played board games with us, taught us poker, hearts, and spades. He had a vast capacity to make us laugh. We adored him and begged him to play games after supper. He made our evenings fun. But as we got older and more mature, Dad remained the same. The humor slipped away from his oft-repeated gags. His deliberate naughtiness — when a dice roll came up six, he’d call it “sex” — evolved to outright sexual comments that produced a strained silence instead of laughter. Dad missed his attentive audience, but the old ways no longer worked. One by one we did the worst thing possible: We ignored him. I believe this hurt him deeply, in a way he didn’t fully comprehend and we certainly could not fathom.

Four hundred books is a lot of books–porn or not I admire the prodigious output. But I’m not Henry Ford. I am not making cars. I love my family and want to be just as relevant to my sons in their adult lives as I am to them at 6 and 4. I’ll choose to bleed, and hope to produce great books.

Sorry world. You’ll just have to wait to meet McDaniels Walter, the federal contractor whose tie gets stuck in the office shredder and nearly pulls him to his death.