Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Dystopia is scary enough without politics

A couple of weeks back, I finally got around to turning a birthday gift card into books. I came home with Fleishman Is In Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner; Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman; and Lights Out In Lincolnwood, by Geoff Rodkey. All three were table finds, books that caught my eye enough to pick up and read the back and maybe test drive the first few pages. The first two I'd heard of before. Lights Out was new to me. Turns out it was new to everyone, as it was only released earlier this month.

Having slowed to a crawl on the book I was reading (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand), I was open to starting something new. Lights Out leapt to the top of the pile and sucked me right in. The premise, a suburban family of four--dad, mom, two high schoolers--is going about their day in typical suburban fashion, when suddenly the power goes out. All the way out. Not just electricity, but cars, trains, airplanes. Everything stops in its place and/or falls from the sky.

Dan Altman, the dad, has to walk eight miles home from where his commuter train into NYC stopped. Chloe and Max drift away from school once their teachers realize the lights aren't about to flick back on. And Jen, the mom, hits the vodka, which is pretty much what she would have been doing anyway.

Over the course of four days, their upscale New Jersey suburb descends into chaos, as water service is cut to all homes. The Altmans survive on peanut butter and tuna fish, and the cookouts staged by their next-door neighbors, the Stankovics, who they don't actually like. Chloe falls in love, Max searches for a nicotine substitute, Jen drinks herself into oblivion, and Dan wonders why the newly formed town militia won't recruit him.

It's a fun and fast read (even at 529 pages long), but it also sort of scared the hell out of me. I can see too many of my neighbors wanting to sign on for that militia. The cosplay soldiers who could finally feel free to roam the streets with their assault rifles and pretend to be the good guys. Rodkey notes that when he started writing the book he never imagined a pandemic and a disputed election would bring his dystopia so close to real life. But here we are, and the thought of having to line up for rations doled out by heavily armed jackwagons has me wondering how many cans of soup I can stack in my basement.

I don't tend to include politics in my fiction writing. For one, I spend way too much time thinking about stuff like that in real life. A novel should be a place to escape it. In fact, one of my first considerations these days when I contemplate a new story is when to set it. Because if you want to even pretend to be realistic, you almost have to avoid 2019-21. Maybe anything since 2016. I don't want to divide my characters up into Trump fans and sensible folk. I'd rather they populate a world in which he never came to power. Just because I can't live there anymore doesn't mean they shouldn't get the chance.

Lights Out In Lincolnwood never brings up any politician or cult leader by name. We might all be able to guess who Eddie Stankovic voted for, but Rodkey leaves that bit out. Dystopia is frightening enough without it.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Cyber dogs and time traveling dinosaurs

If you put a string in my son's back and programmed it to dictate his speech, the first three slots would be filled with lines about farts. (He's 11.) The fourth would be some variation on "school sucks." He does well, but he'd rather be doing something else, probably involving his Nintendo Switch, shooting street hockey balls out in the driveway, or watching YouTube. Or farting. Or farting while doing any of those other things.

We have a routine where I ask him about school, he provides almost nothing in response, then informs me school is over for the day and he doesn't want to talk about it. I've learned to ask the subtlest leading questions when he relaxes this rigid policy, and occasionally draw him out long enough for him to accidentally admit that not everything about school sucks. Sometimes it's even fun.

And then there are the days when he volunteers it without me even prodding a little. Like he did earlier this week about the story he was writing. And boy howdy did he spill the deets. (I'm informed no one says "deets." Minus 2 cred points.) It was fiction writing, and he was allowed to go nuts. And nuts he went.

Let's start with the title. The Time Traveling Dinosaur. I'm liking it already.

It opens in the year 20712, with a human (I think), named Septus, who lives in a holo-house with his cyber dog, Dramkos. There is a giant futuristic war taking place, and something has caused a photo booth to hurtle to the earth (I assume it's earth, not totally sure on that part). The photo booth turns out to be a time machine, which takes Septus and Dramkos to 2012, before glitching them to 1,000,000 B.C., where they encounter a hungry dinosaur. And fight pirates.

Never fear, everyone turns out friends in the end, though there is a bit of tension on the way.

He cranked out over 1,000 words on this time traveling tale in a single day. That part actually makes me a bit jealous. I don't have a lot of thousand-word days, and I've been at this a lot longer than he has.

He pounded out another story last spring, toward the end of last school year, about a planet where all the animals had super powers, and all the dogs in the neighborhood had to battle a particularly annoying squirrel. He was quite talkative about that one as well, which also warmed me cockles.

His stories remind me of some I wrote when I was a kid. I remember a series about a circus flea named George who was also some kind of secret agent. I'm thinking he might have been tight with James Bond, though I could be a little fuzzy on that part. There may be one or two of those that have survived time; I'll have to dig to see if I can confirm whether he had Double-0 status. There were also a couple about E.T. and Mr. T fighting intruders from another galaxy. Those were written on summer vacation while visiting my dad in Rochester, during the days when the local tourism board was pumping out ads featuring an alien named IRBIR, which was an acronym for I'd Rather Be In Rochester. My stories, not coincidentally, featured beings named IRBSE and IRNBH, which stood for I'd Rather Be Somewhere Else and I'd Rather Not Be Here, respectively. I wasn't much older than my son is now when I wrote those masterpieces.

My son's long-term plan is to write cartoons or comics. And he's actually pretty good at drawing, so he has a leg up on my stick-figure what-is-that ability. With his imagination, he's got some genuine raw materials to work with. Though it's not my place to suggest it. He's very much a kid who has to come up with the idea himself for it to be a good one. I can encourage, though, when he shares his stories and drawings with me.

At least until he outsells me. Because then he'll gloat. And even for a proud dad, that might get old in a hurry.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

A belated goodbye

In the years before I released my first novel, I began reviewing books for Baseball America with an eye toward expanding my contact network. I interviewed a number of authors and stayed in touch with some of them afterward. Several were kind enough to provide back-cover quotes for The Greatest Show on Dirt when it was released in 2012.

Jeff Gillenkirk, who turned out to be a Rochester, NY, native who had relocated to California, became something of a regular correspondent over the years. Every so often we would exchange a flurry of emails discussing our latest projects, writing in general, baseball, politics, or family life. He had twenty years on me and enough wisdom to share that there were mentor-mentee aspects to our friendship. He provided feedback on Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed, and wasn't shy about telling me he didn't care much for my protagonist, C.J. Neubauer. Jeff called him a sociopath. I softened C.J. up a bit after that. He wasn't meant to be especially likeable, but he wasn't meant to be a sociopath, either.

We met up a couple of times for dinner when he returned to Rochester to visit family, hitting Hose 22 in Charlotte twice, once successfully, once less so. On his last visit we found out the hard way that Hose 22 doesn't serve dinner on Monday evenings. Or at least didn't back then. Which turns out to have been 2016. We went instead to a somewhat louder restaurant nearby, but still had a nice meal and even better conversation.

It doesn't seem possible it was five years ago. If you had asked me before last night I would have sworn it was three, maybe two. In my mind we would have done it again last summer if not for Covid-related travel restrictions. In my faulty memory we exchanged email only last year.

Now that I've finally hit the stage on the new book where I am about to reach out to my feedback crew, Jeff was solidly atop the list. In fact, I was considering asking if he'd be willing to tackle the job of editing it. Has he edited a novel before, I wondered. So I looked him up on LinkedIn. Nothing. And then I Googled him.

And the second hit was an obituary. A lovely story of a passionate and caring man who was involved in so many interesting projects, who passed away of a heart attack.

In November 2016.

We didn't exchange emails last year, or the year before. The last string I came across was from the month before he died. We talked about the baseball playoffs and the state of publishing. He attached two articles about publishing trends that he thought I would enjoy. And in my mind we've had other exchanges just like that over the past few years.

I've moved so many times over the years that I have friends in far-flung locations, clustered around the places I once called home. Friends who are there when I reach out, via email, text, or Twitter--or on the rarest occasions by phone. There have been catch-up visits here and there, where the friendship picks right back up where it last left off, as if it had only been months since we last saw each other instead of years. Distance and time doesn't impact these relationships.

Until they do. Until so much time has gone by that it's almost more of shock to learn that a friend has been gone for four and a half years than it is to find out that he's gone. I had no idea I should miss Jeff until I came across that obituary last night. He's been gone all this time, but he was never gone to me until now.