Tuesday, July 28, 2015

GUEST POST: "7 More Questions For: Author Hugh Howey"

WARNING: This post is a little more adult than most of the content of this blog. As 80% of my readership is composed of adult writers and publishing professionals, this warning only applies to the younger readers who find their way here. If you're mature enough to want to read this post, you're probably fine, but check with your parent or guardian first so they don't get ticked off at me:)

Today’s post is very special, Esteemed Reader, and it’s one of my most favorite posts in the history of the blog. If you’re not familiar with Hugh Howey’s work, what have you been doing with your time!?! Clearly not reading this blog as I never shut up about the guy:)  

If you really don't know anything about him, you should maybe start with Hugh Howey's original 7 Question Interview. Then maybe check out my review of Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue.You should definitely read Wool as it's a modern classic, although I think I like its sequel Shift even better and I, Zombie is my favorite of his books so far (naturally). Although, truth be told, I think I like his nonfiction writing at least as much as, possibly more than his fiction.

I made gratuitous references to Wool in All Right Now: A Short Zombie Story and in the acknowledgements of that book I wrote, "It was Hugh Howey's example of indie authorship that showed so many authors what was possible and I can think of no one who gives back to the indie world more. Heroes are hard to come by, but Hugh Howey is one."

I've never actually met Hugh in person, but he's had a far more significant impact on my life than many of the writers I have. It's dangerous to make heroes of humans as all of us have feet of clay and I'm aware he's just some dude in Florida who wrote some books, but that's what I like about him. This isn't blind admiration, which I'm a little old for, or even hero worship.

When I ran into the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of racist publishers rejecting my book and I felt like quitting writing altogether, Hugh's blog filled with revolutionary publishing advice (at least, for me at the time) was there. Here was a writer taking on the traditional publishing machine and winning. It's not just that Hugh says smart things on a regular basis, it's that he DOES smart things and leads by example. 

I don't want to be Hugh Howey (I get seasick in an hour, so living on a boat would not suit me) or even to be exactly like him. For better or worse, I'm me, Esteemed Reader, and you're you and Hugh's Hugh, so that's who's who:) But I learned early in life that one of the easiest ways to compensate for not being especially brilliant is to watch brilliant people, try and figure out what they're doing and why, then use that to improve what I'm doing. Why else do you think I've been collecting all these writer interviews over the years?

Fortunately for me, Hugh is currently publishing his Wayfinding series, which is literally his advice on how to live a better life. I've been hooked since the first volume and can't recommend these books strongly enough. Today is Middle Grade Ninja history as Hugh is about to become the first  author I've ever asked an additional 7 questions, and it all came about because I was pestering him to please, please publish more Wayfinding with a quickness.

I left organized religion behind more than a decade ago, yet each Wayfinding installment feels like a Bible study devotional--but with like facts and science and common sense and you're allowed to disagree:) I can read them with my coffee and spend my morning pondering some weighty issues in ways I haven't seen them presented elsewhere and I don't have to take any of it on faith because Hugh isn't using information I can't easily verify (such as divine inspiration). It should be noted that Wayfinding is far more respectful toward religion and individual beliefs than I'm being--it's a bad habit of mine.

The topics of each volume vary and though it's clear to me an argument is being built, I'm not sure exactly where Hugh's going and I'd be happy if this series were to continue on for years. I've read my share of self-help books and as a rule, I don't care for the genre. Wayfinding is different because Hugh states emphatically throughout that he might be wrong, so you know I and other Wayfinders aren't going to end up in a compound somewhere:) He's just giving his opinion on better living and even when I disagree with him, I feel my own outlook is enhanced by having at least considered his point of view. At a buck apiece, or free for Kindle Unlimited users, you owe it to yourself to try this series out. 

I've been eating healthier for a time and exercising more and though I started that before Wayfinding, I honestly feel the series has helped and my belt has tightened a couple notches as I've been reading, probably because I stopped eating movie theater popcorn. My word count is also up, which is good news for those of you Esteemed Readers who've been craving another nasty horror novel (details coming soon). The story is now partly about multiple character's inherent lack of willpower because Hugh focused my attention on the subject, which means he'll probably pop up in the acknowledgements.

Because I somehow routinely get really lucky when it comes to talking with famous writers online and because Hugh is so very gracious with his time, I was able to ask him some questions about writing and Wayfinding. Not only did he carve out time for me in less than 24 hours from my asking, he gave some of the most honest, genuine answers to questions I'm not entirely sure I had any business asking, but I did and it's my privilege to share the results with you now.

Enough preamble. Let's do this thing! 

And now Hugh Howey becomes the first author ever to face 7 More Questions:

Question Seven:You’re breathing rarified air in that your writing is widely praised and you appear to have achieved enough financial success that you don’t have to write anything more unless you choose to. You could sail away forever  now (please don’t), and Wool (if not your entire cannon) will still be considered to be on a level with Ender’s Game, Battlefield Earth, and other Sci-Fi classics, and will probably continue to generate substantial royalties forever. By many writers’ definition, “the dream” appears to have come true for you. Does it feel as good as you thought it would back when you started your first manuscript? What’s been the most surprising thing about your success? What’s been the most challenging thing?

It’s funny that you mention my not needing to write unless I choose to, because that’s been my stance from the day I started writing. For twenty years, I chose to write first chapters and then quit. About six years ago, I finally chose to finish a novel. Writing has been a choice ever since. I imagine I’ll keep writing until I physically can’t. It brings me so much joy, now that I know how to complete what I start.

My view of dreams and happiness is that both are realized through striving, not through having or achieving. You get used to your condition, within reason. Having a lot of money was never a goal of mine; I’ve lived simply throughout my success. Living on a sailboat means a lifestyle of frugality and going without many comforts. For me, the secret to staving off funks and depressions is to remain in a state of mild struggle. You need to have something to push against.

When I worked for billionaires in the yachting industry, I saw in some of them that life had stepped out of the way. There was no more resistance. Nothing to exercise the will. And so they slipped into an emotional coma of sorts, a silent flailing for something to do in order to have meaning in their lives. I worked for one guy who had more money than God, and he spent his days sitting at his kitchen counter, clicking through the internet. We all like to think, “I wouldn’t get like that,” but all the people who get like that said the same thing. We should be careful what we dream about, in my opinion. I took time to really appreciate and enjoy the years I spent roofing, and the years I spent pulling wire through home construction sites, and whatever I was doing while alive and sucking in a full breath.

Question Six: Despite your success, you continue to run an amazing blog where you share advice for writers, you co-run authorearnings.com where you provide much needed market data for authors, and now you’re publishing the Wayfinding series with advice for readers to improve their lives. There’s no way you’re doing all this and not ticking off some “publishing professionals” and encountering online haters.  Assuming your appetite for money and fame have been satisfied, what motivates you to stay so busy when you can clearly afford a PS4 and a really big TV and save yourself the aggravation? Do you worry that you put yourself or your books at risk by being so outspoken about the publishing industry?

Sure, I’ve thought about the consequences of voicing my opinions. But to me, the private consequences of staying mum are far greater. I’m no expert on the things I blog about, but I have some experience in the industry from a lot of different angles (bookseller, reviewer, reader, writer, publisher, Big 5 author, small press author), and I think the more voices we have in the mix the better. Probably why I’m such a huge advocate for self-publishing. I also feel like my success requires passing something along. Others helped me out. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the advice of people like Joe Konrath, Kristine Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and so many more. Maybe I’m wrong in my opinions; if so, I hope people will point out where and how I’m wrong, so we can all learn.

Question Five: In Wayfinding, you discuss the infamous experiment in which rats were given levers that flooded their brains with dopamine and chose to press them repeatedly for pleasure, while ignoring food, drink, sleep, sex, children, and all else. You draw the metaphorical parallel that most of us have levers we press for immediate pleasure at the expense of our long-term well being. You give as examples your own previous addictions to cigarettes, porn, social media, and videogames. As a fellow recovered smoker, I’ve learned I can’t have even one cigarette without wanting the entire pack, but I can play an hour of a videogame after my work is done and then put it down. Do you find you have success enjoying your vices in moderation, or do you have to completely abstain? How do you know which type of vice is which? Do you find vices you’ve kicked being replaced with other vices, and if so, how do you deal with that? What’s been the hardest addiction cycle you’ve broken?

The toughest addiction cycle has been cigarettes, for sure. The only other drug I’ve ever tried is pot, which I’ve smoked twice. I’ve been drunk twice. The last time was back in high school. I’m a control freak, which is why I can’t stand feeling like those rats, pressing their levers for an easy rush. And maybe this is what I replace my vices with: The vice of too much control, or too much self-experimentation.

On my 23rd birthday, I went out with a girl on a first date, and we ended up back at the marina where I was living on a sailboat at the time. We had sex in the marina pool, and I asked myself what in the world I was doing. I went to a college with far more women than men, and so much of my time was spent hitting on or being hit on. Probably a normal amount, honestly, but to me it felt like my time was being misspent. Time that should've been spent reading and studying was being spent flirting. So I stopped having sex for three years. That was difficult. I dated some really nice people during this time, and they didn’t think I was for real, and they broke up with me over this decision, which I totally understood. What I was doing was strange. I think you can try to conquer vices in unhealthy ways. Moderation is key.

In fact, I think if you want to know what someone’s secret sin is, listen to what they rail about. Freud obviously had something for his mother. People (even Freud, who should’ve known better) make the mistake of thinking their secret is the same secret everyone else is keeping. But all our secrets are different. The pastor who rails against homosexuality is found with a man in a motel room. The politician who makes prostitution his number one priority is using taxpayer dollars to buy sex. Over and over we see that whatever someone is really wary about in others is something they are wrestling with themselves.

When I realized this years back, I realized that I’m no different. I’ve railed against extremism my entire life. For a while there, I was one of those angry atheists who made fun of religion. Or I would be extreme in my political views. The entire time, I went off on extremism. When I had this revelation about how we externalize our inner demons, I realized that I’m an extremist. Which is why I come down hard on those with the same issue.

This really softened my attitude toward things. I realized that I’m a lot like the very people I was acting out against. They were wrestling with the same things as me. I tried to see how many issues I could approach softly and see if my mind was capable of being changed. It was. It just took awareness of what was happening and a desire to not fall into traps like this. Part of being a control freak was to learn that it’s okay to feel deeply. It’s okay to open up to people. We don’t have to be perfect, and we don’t have to make the world agree with us.

As for determining which vice to embrace and which vice to abstain from, I search for regrets. Writing is a vice, but I never regret writing. Or reading. Or spending time with family. I was one of those obnoxious dog owners who would do anything for his pup. I never regretted that vice. I think it’s pretty simple to tell which ones are good for us and which ones aren’t. How do we feel in the hours after we’ve entertained those vices? Do we feel good about what we did? Do we wish we hadn’t? That’s the easy part. Changing our behaviors is hard. That’s what Wayfinding is all about.

Question Four: You’ve stated in Wayfinding that the sad truth is “the meaning of life is to survive, reproduce, and see that our offspring survive.” I’d say that’s pretty much air-tight:)  But supposing you, Hugh Howey, had the power to decide what the meaning  of life SHOULD be, what would you decree?

That certainly seems to be the biological meaning of life, where “life” refers to all of mother nature. As for the meaning of our individual, human lives, I think this is something we should arrive at through discourse and deep thought. I wish it was the sort of thing people enjoyed talking about at length. I geek out over questions of morality and ethics. We should have talking heads on TV debating Objective Moral Truth and questions of code of conduct. That would be awesome.

What would my meaning of life be? 42, obviously.

Okay, if I had to lock one meaning down, it would be to leave the world the best person you were capable of being, while spreading as much joy and illumination as possible, so that the pocket of air you passed through, and the land around you, and the people you touch, are all the better for you having existed. That would be my meaning of life.

Question Three: You’ve written, “the greater our cognitive dissonance, the more creative our rationalizations.” Presumably, no one is better at concocting rationalizations than a truly creative person. What’s been your most difficult self-induced rationalization to dispel?

This is without a doubt the most difficult question anyone has ever asked me in an interview. And it’s not even close. The answer to this question will be something I chase for the rest of my life. Because I rationalize so much. I do it all the time. I think we all do.

Probably the most difficult rationalizations that I’ve dispelled were my various excuses to continue smoking a pack a day when I knew it was going to kill me. I’d make up all kinds of creative stories to get my fix. It’s been over ten years now without a puff, and at least nine years without a single craving, but I’m still scared as hell of that feeling, where you’re like a zombie, watching yourself do something horrible, and making up excuses to keep doing it.

Question Two: You’ve said you’re nervous about publishing the Wayfinding books, as you probably should be.  In the Food and Fitness section, for example, you recommend embracing “being a little hungry” as this is a natural state for the human species that is not living in the same world for which our bodies have evolved. I thought this was a smart claim as it made sense to me, but it also terrified me for you at the reactions you’ve opened yourself up to. What is your biggest fear in publishing these books? What is it about these books that makes them worth overcoming that fear and opening yourself up to potential judgment and criticism?

My biggest fear is that I’m completely wrong in my advice and that I’ll do more harm than good. I don’t think this is the case, or else I wouldn’t be publishing the works. These techniques have helped me, and they’ve helped others that I’ve shared them with. I’ve told two people, only after they approached me and asked about my fitness, how I approach eating and exercise, and both of those people transformed their bodies and their health using these simple concepts. So I’m torn between sharing something I think is useful and the criticism that I’m no expert, so I should just shut the hell up.

What helped me publish these works is realizing that none of us are experts and all of us have something useful to share. As for the judgment and criticism, I get enough of both not to notice any more, and I get so much more love and kindness not to fret over the people with anger in their hearts. It’s true that our natural state is to allow a word of negativity wipe out a thousand words of positivity, but we don’t have to stay in our natural state. We can practice believing words of kindness more, learning how to accept praise with humility and openness, and how to see those with negativity with more pity and love than with fear and hate. It’s not easy, believe me. But practice helps. It is possible.

Question One: If someone were only ever going to read one of your books (which would be a mistake, but let’s suppose they’re moving to another planet after one last  read and they can’t take any books with them), which one book would you want them to read and why?

Right now, I’m going to say the BEACON 23 series. I don’t know if every reader will see what I’m trying to do with the work, as I’m not good at telling when I’m being heavy-handed vs. too subtle, but I really want to explore some serious universal truths in this series, and so far the writing process has been impactful for me. But maybe I’m always partial to the work I’m hip-deep into. Another candidate for this question would be I, ZOMBIE, which might be my best work to date. I purposefully made that book difficult to read, I think to hide all the autobiographical truths that are hidden in there that I wasn’t comfortable sharing.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

7 Questions For: Author David Ezra Stein

Award-winning children's author and illustrator David Ezra Stein was born in Brooklyn, NY. By the time he was three, he was asking adults, "Wanna come to my room? Read books?" This love of reading grew into a love of telling stories, and then, writing.

David Ezra Stein’s Interrupting Chicken was awarded a 2011 Caldecott Honor, as well as many state awards. His picture book Leaves won the Ezra Jack Keats award and was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, a Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice, and a School Library Journal Best Book. Booklist called his book Monster Hug! “a cousin to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.” Pouch! (Putnam), was a 2010 Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book. His books have been translated into Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, French, and Finnish.

Click here to read my review of Pouch.

And now David Ezra Stein faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Top-of-the-head three: Lord of the Rings (counting as one work), The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Watership Down.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

Nowadays, Writing?…maybe ten hours. 

Reading?…maybe three hours. 

Wow, that doesn't seem like a whole lot. Well, I am busy building an art and writing studio, so once that's finished I'll have more time to actually write.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

I always wrote for myself, but never dreamt of doing as a living till college. I went to art school and majored in illustration, which is basically storytelling with images. In senior year I took a children's book elective, with author/illustrator Pat Cummings as my teacher. I rediscovered my childhood love for the picture book, and decided to try to be a children's book writer and illustrator. 

As a matter of fact, I nearly sold a book while in college, but eventually the publisher let on that they wanted someone else to illustrate, so I turned the deal down.

After graduation, I read about writing picture books, and I went to see quite a few editors here in NY. 

I would sit at the dining room table every day, and write stories and draw pictures. I call it my "grad school."  Four years later, I sold a book—Cowboy Ned & Andy—to Simon & Schuster.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

Writers are basically readers, and story lovers. When I was little, a lot of people told me stories and read to me. I began to make up my own stories, in imitation of the ones I was surrounded with. In my quest to become better at writing, I have kept my ear out for every kind of writing around me: television, songs, movies, operas, plays, advertising, cereal boxes, comics, etc., etc. 

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

Writing is an act of discovery for me. Trying something new each time can be totally exciting, and terrifying. You can't force an idea to be something it's not. You can only walk with it and get to know it well. That is the upside and downside of the profession.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Don't judge your own work while you are busy making it. Just get it down. That is the work of writing or painting. 

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Preferably a living one, since a dead one would make me lose my appetite. I would have lunch with Richard Adams, on a hillside in the setting of Watership Down. Grass waving, rabbits peering out here and there. Or maybe I would have tinned sardines and cold chicken for lunch with Kenneth Grahame, on the river with Rat and Mole. Or cucumber sandwiches with P. G. Wodehouse at some country estate. Aw, well, can't pick just one. (Maybe lemonade and chocolate chip cookies with James Marshall...)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book of the Week: POUCH! by David Ezra Stein

First Paragraph(s): When he was a brand-new kangaroo, Joey lived in the pouch. Until one day...

...he peeked out and saw the world, and his mama smiling down at him.

Mama, said Joey, I want to hop!

I'm so excited this week, Esteemed Reader, because David Ezra Stein is going to be here to face the 7 Questions on Thursday. This is going to be a great week at the blog, not because Mr. Stein is my most favorite author, although I'm quite fond of his work, but because he's my one-and-a-half-year-old son's first favorite author and Pouch! is my son's first favorite book.

Really, that's all the review you need. We've read and reread many of Mr. Stein's books such as Interrupting Chicken, Tad and Dad, and Dinosaur Kisses. But Pouch! is the book I have memorized because it's the book Little Ninja most often carries across the room and smacks my knee with until I read it to him. In fact, on a couple occasions when he's had trouble sleeping and I didn't want to turn on the light, I've been able to recite the story of Joey the kangaroo without needing the book.

The trouble with writing a review of a picture book, which I've only attempted once before, is that my average review is three to four times the length of the book (but nowhere near as carefully considered). Likewise, I can't finish by listing some of my favorite passages as is my usual custom without reproducing 50-75% of the book, which I'm pretty sure Penguin's lawyers would find uncool:) Let's see how they feel about me posting a full two-page spread, which far more captures the spirit of this book than my quoting the text directly:

So what is it about Pouch! that makes it stand out to my son above so many great books, including his second favorite, Tickle Time by Sandra Boynton? This is a question I've spent a lot of time mulling over. I've often joked that having a son of my own is both a little bundle of joy and market research. People often laugh at that, but not Mrs. Ninja. She knows I'm mostly serious:)

My first thought was that it must be David Ezra Stein's unique artwork, which looks casual and fun, almost like pictures a child might draw. There are pockets of white around dark lines and the watercolors bleed intentionally over lines, as though they were finished coloring book pages. The pictures are soft and soothing.

I'm very jealous of Mr. Stein's artistic ability and I'm convinced his illustrating his own books sets him neck and shoulders above other picture book authors. His illustrations not only match the story, but tell the story so that if the child audience doesn't understand all the words, they can still follow the plot. After all, Mr. Stein doesn't need to spend a lot of words telling us Joey is scared or instructing parents how to read the word "pouch" when he can draw this:

To my delight, it's not just the artwork my son loves. It's the story. And why not? A story about a baby kangaroo who wants to explore the world around him, but is often scared and wants to rush back to his parent could not be more relatable to my rugrat who spends his days doing the same. And as a parent who is constantly being assaulted by a little boy rushing back to me when he gets nervous, I relate to Joey's mother.

Mr. Stein builds suspense by establishing a pattern of Joey exploring something new, page turn, and... Joeys is frightened back to his mother's pouch. It's a simple concept, and it totally works. My son laughs when Joey meets the bee or the bird or the rest of them because he knows Joey is going to be afraid on the next page, and he relates to Joey. That laughter assures me that even though Little Ninja only speaks about twenty words, the time we spend reading books is not wasted. He understands and follows the plot and is as captivated by David Ezra Stein as I am by Michael Crichton.

Fatherhood has brought with it many wonderful moments and opportunities to be proud. The first time my son was captivated by an author's story was courtesy of Pouch! and so it will always have a place of honor on my shelf even when Little Ninja moves on to more complicated reads. If you have a young child or if you enjoy picture books, you need Pouch! in your life.

No favorite passages today, but here's a link to David Ezra Stein's website in which he writes about the making of Pouch!

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

NINJA STUFF: Too Many Movies

Do you love movies, Esteemed Reader? I know it's long been fashionable for literary types (and you're here, so I'm assuming you at least like books) to hold television and movies in disdain. And this is natural. They are direct competitors to novels, as are video games and any number of other entertainments that eat up the hours consumers might otherwise spend reading.

But this is a first-world problem if there ever was one and I say it's a wonderful time to be alive that we have so many entertainments available to enjoy in moderation. It's the "in moderation" part I sometimes struggle with, whether its the new Hugh Howey I'm reading instead of writing or all 12 episodes of Netflix's Daredevil that demand to be watched the same weekend they're released (it's the Breaking Bad of superhero shows and not to be missed).

However, this year I may have lost my taste for most movie-going. A family member gave me a corporate card allowing me two free tickets per day at a theater located conveniently halfway between my home and my day job. I work a modified schedule to allow me to write (more books coming soon) and take care of Little Ninja, so I keep strange hours and am often out the door past when my family is asleep and just in time for the late show.

It's been the perfect storm allowing me to watch more new release movies this year than I have in the last 7 years combined. Some parents have famously taught their children not to smoke by forcing them to smoke a full pack (a dubious method at best), and I feel I may have inadvertently done something similar to myself with movies. The year is only half done, but I have already over-indulged and I need a break.

Don't get me wrong. I love movies and I'll see more. The few seconds of Han Solo and Chewbacca together again at the end of that The Force Awakens trailer awoke in me a deep-rooted childhood need to see that movie as soon as possible. And the second Batman V. Superman trailer is the finest 3 minutes and 39 seconds of film I've seen all year and it made my heart swell up and explode and I may never again witness something that so fulfills my child's dream of what a movie might one day dare to be. In fact, let's enjoy it together:

I'm savoring that trailer because I've learned that when it comes to big summer movies, more often than not the trailer and the anticipation are the best part. I'm old enough to remember losing my stuff over the trailers for The Phantom Menace only to reach the cinema and realize that despite the hype, it was just a Star Wars movie (and probably the worst of the existing six). I can't remember ever being more amped for a flick than sitting in the theater watching the opening credits of Superman Returns with its soaring John Williams score and its title cards coming out of the screen from space the way they did when I was a toddler. The movie that followed could've never lived up to the movie in my imagination.

When I walk into a theater, the smell of popcorn hits me full in the face from the fans blowing it there like the bait of a trap. It's intoxicating and enticing, the olfactory equivalent of the siren's song. At the beginning of this year, I didn't have the will to walk past that counter without a little something. The popcorn itself is divine through the top layer, greedily finished during the previews and usually shared with a friend. The middle layer is eaten automatically as the movie either casts the spell of story or at the very least, blows something up real good. The bottom layer is left and usually tossed out with the bag (didn't over-indulge if I didn't eat the bottom), but a sampling reveals a cold packing material substance unfit for human consumption, though very salty and still technically edible.

Soda and I have mostly parted ways since All Together Now, but I took pride in drinking bottled water and ignoring the candy. Popcorn is a relatively healthy treat, or rather it is when I eat it at home, but that's because I make it rather than a corporation focused solely on maximizing profit and unconcerned with the long-term effects of routinely selling consumers buckets of sugar water to drink along with their tubs of lard.

In a way, it's my fault. It's true, there are no calorie counts or ingredients listings at the concession counter. But being a responsible American means being aware that at any given time you're surrounded by companies happy to poison you for your money. Our obesity epidemic is not some abstract crisis we couldn't have seen coming, but the natural and predictable response to surrounding Americans by poison and engineering a diet designed to suck away their cash through addiction and murder them after first making them miserable for years.

Weight and diet are the subject of another post, but Mrs. Ninja and I have been consciously eating healthier since having a kid and this issue of popcorn struck home for me. Again, it's partly my fault for being so trusting and, less innocent, I didn't want to know as I like popcorn, but I did some research and learned that a large popcorn without butter at this particular theater chain (no names or links as I don't want my card canceled before Star Wars) has the same calorie count as a large pizza from a popular chain (I also don't want to be sued). If you're thinking you'll just do the medium popcorn instead of the large, the jokes on you because the bag is taller than the wider tub and the content is exactly the same minus the free refill (better re-size the seats again and make the Yoda T-shirts in 5XL by the time Episode 9 hits).
I learned this little nugget months ago and have seen several movies since, but now I smuggle grapes in with me, not because I wouldn't pay for a reasonable snack to help compensate for the free ticket, but because I don't trust anything they're serving. I can't be expected to spend my days constantly researching to what degree the theater is trying to poison me, so I have to avoid all their food, including their bottled water, which has sugar in it.

But we were discussing movies. I love movies. They're fun. Sometimes turning your brain off and watching something big and dumb is the perfect way to spend two hours. And once in a while, I see something I truly love. Birdman blew my mind and immediately joined my top ten favorites of all time. It Follows was an extraordinary horror film that kept me and the audience on edge its entire running time. And though I'm going to say some disparaging things about it, I really did love Jurassic World.

I've listed 3 films I'm glad to have seen this year and I'll even mention that I found Spy to be very funny. There are approximately 700 films released in the US each year and 699 of them aren't Birdman. Obviously, I can't see every movie released (does anyone? And if so, why?). I've seen the majority of the big ones though and confirmed my suspicion that most big-budget movies are cinematic tubs of popcorn. They're mass produced garbage engineered to draw you in and make you feel like you've eaten, though there's little nutritional value and too much will rot your brain the same way popcorn rots your body.

For example, one of the big movies I most looked forward to was Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I can't say it was a bad movie, even if all the action looked like a video game. It was, however, a hollow experience. None of the characters had discernible arcs (though Hawkeye tried, God love him), even the very interesting but ultimately under-utilized Ultron. At no point was I concerned our heroes wouldn't triumph and nothing of substance was discussed metaphorically or otherwise. The whole thing felt like a toy commercial and seemed to spend a third of its running time setting up endless sequels rather than telling a coherent narrative.

I'm not complaining (much). Iron Man fought Hulk and stuff blowed up real good and it was all in glorious 3D. If I'd paid for a ticket, I would've got my money's worth. The problem, as I've said, is that I've watched too many movies and need a break (think I'll skip Fantastic 4 and catch them on the next reboot). Another problem is that I'm too old to be the target audience, though I could've fooled the ticket stand showing up as I so often do in a Batman T-shirt:)

I've also discovered Lionel Shriver this summer and at some point I'm going to write her a love letter for how much her books have given me. I started with an audiobook of We Need To Talk About Kevin, which moved me to tears in the middle of mowing my lawn, then I devoured Big Brother, and I can't get enough of The Post-Birthday World. Finding her novels in the midst of the summer movie season is like discovering vegetables and proper food when I've been sub-existing on doughnuts.

The audiobook for We Need To Talk About Kevin was over 16 hours, so I spent considerably more time with Shriver's characters, who were allowed the luxury of nuance and who were, in many ways, incredibly unlikable (partly because they don't have to double as Happy Meal toys). I feel like if I met Big Brother's Pandora and Edison, I would want to hug them and tell them I understand. In the complete unified vision of a single author I can get close enough to characters for empathy and be told a story I haven't heard before that could potentially have a sad, but meaningful ending because a major studio's entire fiscal year isn't dependent on giving the audience what they seem to want.

At no point during her novels have characters had to wear designer clothes with the labels showing or consume conspicuous products available at a store near you. Edison and Pandora don't have one off conversations to set up the origins of Black Panther (coming soon!) or allow two secondary characters to feud long enough to bridge to next summer's Civil War as well as Avengers 3-14. We Need To Talk About Kevin is terrifying and violent in places, but most of the book is characters interacting realistically without stopping every 10 minutes for obligatory action set pieces because it's a story for adults capable of paying attention without being pandered to.

I'm looking forward to Batman V. Superman even though I already know the full plot from that trailer (spoiler: they're going to become Super Friends). And I'm well aware that occasionally a blockbuster movie can transcend and become something more meaningful such as The Dark Knight, or the less heralded Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which had the courage to satire America so savagely and brilliantly I could scarcely believe such wit had been applied to a superhero movie. Once in a while, moviegoers get a real meal at the cinema, and it's that experience that keeps us going back hoping to find more. But most of the time, it's eye candy like Terminator Genesis, which made no sense and was of little consequence, but had Arnold fighting Arnold and was loud and fun and blew stuff up real good.

Too much of a good thing is bad. Part of being an adult means putting healthier things in your body than nonstop junk food and putting healthier stories in your brain than mindless entertainment we all know deep down isn't good for us. It's okay to indulge every so often (come on Daredevil, season 2!), but let's call it what it is. And if you find yourself watching Iron Man 3 for the fourth time, I promise you've grocked its fullness, and maybe you should consider turning it off and reading a book (you can totally still wear a Batman T-shirt while you do it).

That's the end of the post, but I have some spoiler-ry thoughts on Jurassic World I want to share below and I'm not going to write a whole separate post about movies on my blog about books.

I saw Jurassic World with Adam Smith, my best friend since the third grade and the illustrator of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. It was a special night for us because 22 years before when we were the target audience, we begged his mom to take us to Jurassic Park and it remains one of my favorite memories. We sat near the front and checked each other often to see how scared we were and he's never let me forget I screamed when the T-Rex ate the lawyer:)

We went to Jurassic World hoping to recapture some of that magic and weren't disappointed. Old man Ninja says "The dinosaurs looked more real back in my day when the actors worked with puppets rather than tennis balls on sticks." Even though the dinos were less convincing, the many tributes to the original, the super awesome chase scenes, and the dino fights made us boys again, and we could pretend both that the dinos were real and that B.D Wong can act:)

The thing about getting free tickets is everyone wants to go to the movies with you, so I've seen Jurassic World three times (the most I've seen any movie this year, even for free). During my second viewing I noticed there were people in the movie as well as dinosaurs and they said stuff. One isn't supposed to overthink a movie about a dinosaur theme park, but by my third viewing I was watching with a more critical eye--can't help it.

So I noticed things like gee, Chris Pratt's character looks like he eats only the food of the gods and spends all day at the gym, but on screen he enjoys Coca-Cola with the label facing the camera, so it's probably not actually soda in that bottle. Or that Dr. Wu seems to be included in the movie only so  he can steal all the DNA research and set up the sequels. And I know they have to show the T-Rex's interest in flares early to set up the finale, but if park workers have to put a flare out every-time they feed him a goat, how will he find food once he's in the wild again?

And what the heck kind of female lead is Bryce Dallas Howard's Clair Dearing? Again, Jurassic World brought the dinosaurs, so we're square, and arguing about how realistic the plot is is ludicrous. Still, this stuff matters. Most of the characters in the movie are men and the marketing is aimed largely at boys. There are four main female characters: the clueless assistant who dies the worst death in the flick, the mom who cries a lot and doesn't go to the park, the tech operator who has a boyfriend and won't give the funny guy a break, and Clair Dearing, who has the movie's main character arc--too bad it's offensive to women everywhere.

To be fair, I believe she's meant to be a doppelganger to Alan Grant's character arc in the original film. You'll remember Alan Grant loved Ellie Slater, but didn't want to have kids, putting their relationship at stake. After rescuing two really lucky kids from dinos and trees, he discovers his inner-dad and agrees to have children. Too bad Ellie Slater apparently married somebody else in JP3, which is fine F-you to the audience.

Clair Dearing is the high-powered, no-nonsense business woman who apparently runs Jurassic World, despite never seeming to know anything about how the park works or how the dinosaurs behave. She doesn't even know her own nephews (she's worse than Hitler)! She's got power and responsibility, sure, but she doesn't have children, so how can she be a real woman? Chris Pratt's character swills not-Coke (not with those pearly white teeth) and flat out tells her she needs to get laid. Also, despite literally working in a jungle, Clair only owns impractical stripper heals because, ya know, ladies love to look good for their raptor-taming, Coke-posing boyfriends. 

As the park inevitably falls apart, we discover that Clair is apparently really bad at her job. There's no way she's not getting fired. But it's okay because through her adventure she discovers all she really needs is a strong tough man to tell her what's what. At the moment when Clair is sitting in a van while said man handles his business and her nephews exclaim "your boyfriend's a bad***!" and she smiles like a fawning teenager, my stomach rolled over.  Notice how her high-powered business suit gradually becomes a tight little outfit showing lots of cleavage to signify this change from ice-queen businesswoman to warm mother, a woman's true place. Naturally the credits roll just as she and Chris Never-Drank-More-Than-A-Can-Of-Coke-In-His-Life Pratt make out, planning to make lots of babies.

I say there should be one more scene in that movie, a flash forward to three years later to a pill-popping, wine-guzzling housewife Clair trapped in Chris Pratt's trailer with two kids while he's out with his raptor buddies. Think she's still all gooey-eyed, or does she maybe, sometimes miss being a CEO? And more important, is she still wearing stripper heels, or has she descended to sweat pants and tennis shoes (say it ain't so)? 

Probably I'm overthinking things. It is, after all, just a dinosaur movie and a pretty good one. Still, it had the biggest opening of all time and until Star Wars arrives, it appears to be the box office champion of 2015. A lot of children, boys and girls, saw that movie and many of them will see it over and over again at home. Aside from "don't be fat while hiding from an Indominous Rex, because if you are, you deserve to get chomped" and "drink lots and lots of Coke if you want to look like Chris Pratt," what lessons did they learn? 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Alexander Slater

When asked how he became an agent at Trident, concentrating in the expanding children's, middle grade and young adult businesses, Alex simply replies, "It was only natural.” While karma is not an established business concept,  it is clear that Alex's career arc led him in this happy direction.

Start with Alex's love of fiction, and in particular the stories that captivate the minds and imaginations of young people, from those so young that books are read to them, to young adults who get captivated by creative fiction. "I love to let myself go, and become the reader, whether the story is directed at a ten-year-old or a teenager," says Alex.

Next is Alex's experience at Trident, where he has been since 2010. He became a very successful agent representing the company's children, middle grade and young adult authors in many licensing arrangements in the global marketplace for translation and in the English language in the U.K., having placed books with publishers in dozens of countries. Alex was Trident's representative at the Bologna Children's Book Fair in Italy, as well as the broader-based London and Frankfurt book fairs. His experience in representing fiction in these areas showed him what elements in stories work well, and how to maximize the value of what an author has created.

Alex's plan is to, "Look for stories that will rise above the rest with characters that will be remembered well past childhood, with the potential to cross over to other media and formats," such as programming, games, motion pictures and merchandise. "Trident is the leader on taking advantage of the latest opportunities presented by changing technology," says Alex, and, "I will be there to help make the latest innovations happen for my authors."

"I believe that the most successful writers have a bit of the dreamer in them." And Alex passionately believes that he can help turn their dreams into reality.

And now Alexander Slater  faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

My top three favorite books are, in no particular order, JESUS’ SON by Denis Johnson, THE CHESSMEN OF DOOM by John Bellairs, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.
Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?



Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

My ideal client loves reading and writing, respects people’s time and efforts, and is very open to communication, to learning, and to growing as an artist.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I would love to receive an adventurous middle grade novel set in turn of the century New York City, perhaps with some magical elements. I love dark humor, non sequiturs, and characters that brim with life and light.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is when I find an amazing project that deserves to be published, and then calling that writer with the news that the book will be published.

My least favorite thing is being mistaken that a pass is personal.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

To read as much as you can, all the time. Read, read, read. The more you read, the better the chance that you will find your own voice.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

I would like to have lunch with Jim Shepard, because I greatly admire his talents as a writer, his abilities to breathe life into the most diverse of characters and places, and because I happen to know he’s one of the funniest people in the country.