Category Archives: writers

Review: ‘The Graphic Canon of Crime & Mystery, Volume One’

“The Graphic Canon of Crime and Mystery, Vol. 1: From Sherlock Holmes to A Clockwork Orange to Jo Nesbø”

Jerome Charyn, one of our great writers, known for his Isaac Sidel mystery series among many other works, has said that “all novels are crime novels.” It is an intriguing idea. You may as well take it a step further and say that all narrative, even the Bible, shares something with the genre. It is in that spirit that Russ Kick brings us the latest in his series of great works of fiction adapted into the comics medium. “The Graphic Canon of Crime & Mystery Volume 1” is published by Seven Stories Press.

This is a take on the crime & mystery genre that proves quite refreshing and a true eye-opener. Russ Kick, in the role of curator/editor, has taken an offbeat path in order to emphasize just how diverse and unpredictable his subject can be. Kick goes so far as to not include any adaptation of two of the most prominent names of all: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Perhaps he’s saving them for another volume. As a cartoonist myself, I would find those two irresistible for adaptation. But I also appreciate that Kick is playing with a delicate balance of mixing the familiar with surprising elements. Take the cover image. What on earth is going on there? A woman has been left tied up to a bed as a man creeps upstairs. Kick manages to keep just the right unsettling vibe running throughout this impressive anthology.

Good crime fiction keeps you on your toes. You are not supposed to be on solid ground. You are supposed to expect the unexpected. To set the mood, as well as provide the necessary framework, Kick has done away with chronology and has organized each adaptation within chapter categories: The Act; Criminals; Whodunit; Judgment; and Punishment. Take the judgment theme, for example. Within that one you have a story from the Bible, “Jesus and the Adulteress,” a story from Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” and Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Neither of these would seem to be an obvious fit. There are certainly no gumshoe detectives here. But there is undeniable intrigue, and each story revolves around a crime. It is in Hawthorne’s case that we have that persistent double layer of gloom that resonates with a contemporary reader.

Excerpt from “The Scarlet Letter”

One of my earliest reviews of comics was the work of Sophia Wiedeman. I am quite taken with her eerie and understated comics. It is very nice to see her adaptation here of “The Scarlett Letter.” Hawthorne, like Washington Irving and Robert Louis Stevenson, is a true master of early American psychological thrillers. Wiedeman’s adaptation evokes the chilling air surrounded by poker face Puritans hungry for self-righteous violence.

Excerpt from “Headhunters”

But you really cannot deny yourself altogether the grit, glamour, and style that is so inextricably linked to the crime & mystery genre. The one piece that really satisfies that “To Catch a Thief” vibe is an adaptation of “Headhunters” by Jo Nesbø. If the name is not familiar, then maybe you have not tuned into the crime fiction trend coming out of Scandinavia and known as “Scandicrime.” Who knew. I have tended to see Scandinavians as rather mellow sensible sorts. But, no, push come to shove, and ditch the lutefisk in favor of brass knuckles. For this piece, Jackie Roche adapts a tale of a man leading a double life: corporate headhunter by day; master cat burglar by night. Roche has a perfectly light touch that gives this story an added touch of class.

Excerpt from “In Cold Blood”

For something decidedly chilling, there is the adaptation by Emi Gennis of the Truman Capote masterpiece, “In Cold Blood.” Gennis is another cartoonist I have followed and always find interesting. For her piece, she lets much of the plot speak for itself with minimal dialogue. Her stark and space style gives it all a nice edge.

Excerpt from “The Postman Always Rings Twice”

Sarah Benkin does something similar with her adaptation of the James M. Cain all-time classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Benkin’s approach brings home the old adage of how the best laid plans of mice and men can fail miserably.

Excerpt from “Strangers on a Train”

And one more: it’s fun to see a piece by Megan Kelso that turns up the heat on her usually reserved and understated style with her adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train.” It’s as if a lot of things that often go unsaid in a Kelso story are forced up a bit to the surface. That said, Kelso conceals where she needs to and leaves the reader wondering in the spirit of any good mystery.

“The Graphic Canon of Crime & Mystery, Vol. 1” is a 352-page trade paperback, available as of November 21, 2017, and published by Seven Stories Press.

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Filed under Comics, Crime Fiction, Fiction, Literature, mystery, Seven Stories Press, writers, writing

City of Seattle Commissions Graphic Novel To Promote Historic Steam Plant

Drawing by David Lasky

Has a major American city ever commissioned a graphic novel as a public art piece before? Seattle is on board! Cartoonist David Lasky and writer Mairead Case have been selected (from 71 applicants) by the City of Seattle to create a fictional graphic novel centered around the historic Georgetown Steam Plant. The goal is to increase awareness of this unique landmark with a graphic novel geared toward young adults.

Panel from “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song”

David Lasky is the co-author (with Frank Young) of the Eisner-Award-winning graphic novel biography, “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song.” Chicago writer Mairead Case is the author of the acclaimed prose novel, “See You in the Morning.” A story by Lasky and Case, “Soixante Neuf,” was featured in Best American Comics 2011.

West elevation exterior of engine room.
The Georgetown Steam Turbine Station, built in 1906 is now a National Historic Landmark. The plant is owned by Seattle City Light and has been working to restore the plant. It is open for tours the second Saturday of each month and is occasionally used as a teaching facility for steam power engineers and hobbyists.

Here is a brief email interview I did with Mairead Case today:

What went through your head when you got the news about being chosen for this special graphic novel project?

Well I was, am, sincerely grateful: to be from a city that celebrates public monuments with comics, and to have visibility and support for the creative relationship David and I have pretty much always had, even when nobody else was looking. Grateful to have work that includes time for oral histories and site-specific research (no screens!). And aware of the responsibility to accurately represent Georgetown’s diverse history—we want to use this platform to amplify and illuminate the stories that are already here, not co-opt them. For real. (Also, I was really happy to have news that would make my mom proud.)

Are you already envisioning what your routine will be like with the project?

David and I are both pretty focused, detailed nightowls so I expect we’ll have a focused, detailed, nightowl routine. That said, it’s amazing to have financial support for this project so it’s really exciting to think about how we might work in new ways with that gift. (We might even work in the daytime, ha!) But no matter what we’ll be collaborating closely. And we will probably listen to Bowie at some point.

Did you ever think you’d be creating a graphic novel about a steam plant?

I feel like I’m supposed to say no here, but why not? When I was a kid I wanted to be a tightrope walker so maybe this is not that far off.

What do you think this project might say about the role of graphic novels in America?

Ah, I think our role is to make the book and then other people can tell us! But it is terrific terrific terrific that Seattle is supporting a project like this—it’s really wonderful that an American city in 2017 is using art to build community, as defined and remembered by that community. I’m used to telling (maybe yelling a little too) at the government about that, and am still gobsmacked that this time the government was all “we know. Go.” I hope that other cities say “Go” too. The talent is here! American cities, if you want me to send you lists about the talented storytellers I know in your neighborhoods, just send a flare.

You can keep up with this intriguing project right here.

And, if you’re in Seattle this weekend, be sure to stop by and see David Lasky at the annual comic arts festival, Short Run.

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Filed under Comics, David Lasky, graphic novels, Mairead Case, Seattle, Seattle-Georgetown, Short Run, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival, Story, Storytelling, writers, writing

Interview: Jerome Charyn, Crime Fiction, and the American Presidency

Photo of Jerome Charyn by Klaus Schoenwiese

Jerome Charyn concludes his Isaac Sidel mystery series with the recently published “Winter Warning.” In this interview, we begin with discussing the crime fiction genre and quickly gravitate to the strange resemblance between Charyn’s President Sidel and our current American president. Both men are prone to go it alone in the extreme. Mr. Charyn has some choice words to share on his view of the current political landscape as well as the art that can emerge from troubled times

Henry Chamberlain: Would you share with us your thoughts on the American roots to crime fiction and how it was perhaps inevitable for you to make your own contribution to this genre?

Jerome Charyn: I’ve always felt that all novels are crime novels and I just didn’t realize it. Of course, my brother was a homicide detective. And, once I’d read Dashiell Hammett, after having read Hemingway and Faulkner, I began to feel that Hammett had invented a new kind of language: a poetry of crime. To some degree, Hemingway also wrote crime stories. There’s one called “Fifty Grand.” I was overwhelmed by Hammett and not so much by Chandler. Chandler was recognizable in terms of his literary qualities. But Hammett was a true original. We had never had another writer like him, an actual Pinkerton, who described what it was like in that world, and the craziness of that world really mirrors the craziness of the world we’re living in now.

I don’t know if you’ve seen this series, “Berlin Station.”

No, I haven’t.

You should. It’s excellent. It’s about a CIA station in Berlin. And it has the same kind of madness that you would find in my own fiction. So I was very happy to watch it. I think after the discovery of Hammett, and particularly his novel, “Red Harvest,” I felt that this was a world that I had to enter as fast as I could. Also, I had read Ross McDonald but after a while, his novels became repetitive whereas it was Hammett who had invented a new kind of language for the 20th century. And, it seems to me, he has never received the recognition he deserves.

Jerome Charyn, a kid from the Bronx.

You have a terrific hook in “Winter Warning” with a renegade president. What some readers may not be aware of is that you had already laid down the groundwork for Sidel’s political rise to power in the two previous Sidel novels, “Citizen Sidel” and “Under the Eye of God.” With the latest novel, “Winter Warning,” you have Sidel as an accidental president. And you find yourself with the added bonus of the current president.

I wrote this before the election of Trump and, like everyone else, I didn’t anticipate that Trump would win.

Is it a bonus or is it more of a distraction in a way?

It’s certainly not a distraction as much as a mirror, a crazy funhouse mirror of what is actually going on in the world today. There are many resemblances between Trump and Sidel. Republicans and Democrats hate them both. They both have to maneuver on their own. They both have a kind of poetry. Isaac is tenuous. And Trump is not. There are certain similarities: the sense of the maverick, the person who goes his own way.

I imagine you followed current political trends while tapping into timeless qualities of the contemporary American presidency.

I was particularly fascinated with the presidency after writing a novel about Lincoln. And I also wrote a novel about Teddy Roosevelt just as he’s about to become an accidental president after McKinley dies. So, it was very much on my mind as to how the office shapes the man and the man shapes the office—because, in some way, the American presidency will never be the same after Trump. Never. It can never go back to what it was.

The Commander-in-Tweet

It is a very sobering thought. The pieces on the geopolitical chessboard are being jostled with by Trump. With Obama, we had a good role model. With Trump, I think, we have some sort of throwback.

It’s not simply that he’s a throwback. We never realized before the powers that the president had. With the separation of powers, with the Supreme Court, with the Congress, there seemed to be some limits on his powers. But there are no limits. He does what he wants, when he wants, as he wants. He says what he wants. He retrieves what he says. He denies what he says.

And, also, we’ve never had a president who tweets. I mean, it is a kind of crazy poetry. One has to give him that particular credit. He stays up in the middle of the night and tweets his platform. We’ve never seen this. We don’t know how to deal with it. And, obviously, the Democrats, who should have won the election, are completely bewildered—and didn’t know what to do with him. And we still don’t know what to do with him.

I think there is a strange resemblance between “Winter Warning” and the current situation. As I said, I didn’t write it with Trump in mind.

East and West Berliners tear down a portion of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989.

It’s interesting how the timeline for the Sidel series puts us in 1989, or an alternate 1989, I should say. In some ways, that was a more quiet time but the world is always changing and we are right on the cusp of the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Yes, as the so-called Soviet Union implodes, separates into separate nations; it is the end of the Cold War but it’s the beginning of a different kind of war. To some degree the secret agents that were in place, on both sides, remained in place even after the end of the Soviet Union, the coming down of the Berlin Wall, and so on. It’s very difficult to determine what is real and what is not real these days as we have a constant variation on the truth, or a constant multiplication of the truth. The truthful lie. I don’t know how else to describe it. Sidel isn’t like that. He’s a very moral person. But, remember, he’s killed his way to the top. He would never have gotten to where he is without his Glock.

I look at “Winter Warning” as a political thriller and a thinking person’s world-weary journey so, in that sense, Trump seems to me to be a distraction. He’s not in the equation to this novel and yet there is an undeniable connection.

He isn’t in the equation except that he is also a kind of accidental president. And Sidel has to go his own way because he’s so isolated in the White House. I particularly like the two trips he makes – to Prague and to Riker’s Island, where he tries to settle a war between the inmates and the guards. New York is still very much in the narrative frame. And everyone around him seems to want to kill him! (laughs)

“I Am Abraham” by Jerome Charyn

There are some presidents who will always lend themselves well to fiction. Lincoln stands out.

Lincoln is quite fascinating. I did a great deal of research on him for my novel. He really grew in the office. He had the prejudices of his own time. The presidency made him great and he made the presidency great. It was a strange evolution. When he talks about the better angels of our nature, there’s real poetry in what he wanted to say. He was our resident poet in the White House. I was hoping that Obama would be the same kind of poet but, in the end, he wasn’t. His speeches didn’t hold up in the same way. We don’t have a Gettysburg Address, which is overwhelming. It’s a kind of tone poem. Everyone was expecting Lincoln to give an hour speech and he spoke for four or five minutes.

Lincoln haunts Isaac Sidel’s White House because, of course, he haunts my own head. We will never see another man like him. I don’t think so. Teddy Roosevelt, in his own way, did a lot of great things but he wasn’t anywhere as poignant as Lincoln.

Of course, I wanted Isaac to be poignant. On the other hand, after completing forty years of work, I didn’t want to have a musical climax or crescendo. It’s just the end. His life can go on. It was the end of a jagged symphony. It was the last twisted movement.

I didn’t want to sum things up. But, on the other hand, I wanted him to end as a sitting president, to go all the way up the American ladder of success. He went from a deputy chief inspector to chief inspector to first deputy commissioner to police commissioner to mayor to vice president, although he never served as vice president. I did think of having him in that job (vice president) but it would have seemed a bit artificial to me. I wanted him to dig right into the dirt.

“Hard Apple” concept art by Tomer and Asaf Hanuka

Without having to give anything away, will the upcoming animated series, “Hard Apple,” based upon the Sidel books, (art by Asaf and Tomer Hanuka) be able to cover all the books?

Well, we will start with “Blue Eyes.” It takes several months to do one episode of animation. I would like it to follow Isaac Sidel’s career. I wouldn’t work on all the books but perhaps six or seven and have Sidel end up all alone in the White House.

Trump on North Korea

Do you think that Trump will make as satisfying a fictional villain as, say, Nixon? Or will people have soured so much on Trump that it will somehow not work?

One never knows. We’re living in such a strange time that I wouldn’t even want to make any kind of prediction. It would be very interesting to write about him just as a phenomenon because that’s all that one can say. He’s a kind of hurricane passing through the entire world. And we don’t know quite what to do. We don’t know how to be prepared for it. And yet, there he is.

If one were to deal with him fictionally, well, you must have seen Saturday Night Live. That’s probably the best fictional representation of him, with Alec Baldwin. I don’t think you can get any better than that. So maybe humor and parody are the way to deal with Trump. Anyway, the relationship between fiction and reality is so tenuous that one can’t anticipate what future writers will do in terms of Trump or how he will be treated.

For example, when we used to think about World War II, we had certain novels like “The Naked and the Dead” and “From Here to Eternity” and then suddenly in the Sixties, we had “Catch-22,” which was a completely different take on the war and the madness of war. It took a long time to re-envision what the nature of war was like.

We would never have thought of war in that particular way. And when Heller tried to do a a sequel, it didn’t really work. The original was too much a product of its own time. In other words, it was the Vietnam War superimposed upon World War II and that’s what made it so interesting.

I think it will take a very long time before we can fictionalize the world as it is unfolding today.

Trump on Distorting Democracy

For someone who seems so unintellectual, Trump does play the most devious mind games. There is his strategy of lying where he flips the lie and makes the accuser appear to be the liar—it’s a Russian technique.

He’s very shrewd in his own way. While Hillary was preparing for her victory at the Javits Center, he was out campaigning on the very last night. He was a man who stood there alone. Whether he believed he was going to win or not, we have no way of knowing. It’s not that easy to figure him out. Certainly, I think the tweets are brilliant. And when he uses the term, “Rocket Man,” for example, he does have a kind of poetry.

You were part of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest in 1968 protesting against the Vietnam War. Do you think that today’s protests get the same kind of attention?

Well, it wasn’t exactly the way it sounds. What I did was help to educate people. I went door to door in California. I wasn’t trying to convince anyone about how they should feel about the war but just provide them with some history.

That is why I’m a little disappointed with the new Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam because it was a more complicated matter, with opposition coming from within the government, but those details got glossed over.

Johnson himself knew that we could never win the war. And we lost the war the first time American soldiers appeared on the ground. It was a very sad epic. And when you think of what we were able to do in World War II and how we rebuilt Europe. We brought these countries back into the world. So, it was a very different kind of strategy, the way Americans used power. And now, I haven’t got the slightest idea. For example, I wouldn’t be able to write about the current situation. But I did write a novel about the Vietnam War and felt comfortable doing it.

There are two films about the current situation, “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” that really capture the craziness in the world. You have these young American soldiers, who haven’t traveled much, and then find themselves in a world where they can’t read the signs or the signals.

What I found most interesting about Vietnam was the lingo that Americans produced. The way that they combined colloquial French and a sort of Broadway slang, to create a whole new language for Vietnam was extraordinary. But the war itself was never winnable, no matter what we did.

Franklin D. Roosevelt fishes with Winston Churchill at the presidential retreat Shangri-La (later called Camp David) outside Washington in May 1943.

All of the characters in “Winter Warning” are colorful and interesting. One that stands out for me is Ariel Moss, the former prime minister of Israel. As a kid, I remember paying attention to the Camp David Peace Accords so I know that Moss is inspired by Menachem Begin.

I didn’t want to use the name. I wanted to invent a Begin-like character and evoke the sadness he went through after his wife died. Then there’s Camp David. And I had fun researching the presidential helicopter service, Marine One. I knew that Camp David and Marine One were going to create the thrust for the novel. I read whatever I could about Marine One and the squad of pilots and how each president leaves his own stamp on Camp David.

Franklin Roosevelt first used Camp David as a retreat. Lincoln had his own summer retreat. He’d go to the Old Soldiers’ Home and then ride back to the White House. After writing about Lincoln embodying that world, it was a little bit easier for me to see Sidel in that same house in Lincoln’s shadow. There’s also the way Truman described the White House as the “little white jail.” All of those takes are interesting.

“War Cries Over Avenue C” by Jerome Charyn

Could you name any of the French and Broadway combinations of lingo that emerged from Vietnam?

I wrote a novel called, “War Cries Over Avenue C.” For instance, for “city,” they would use the word, “ville.” I would have to go back and look at the novel. Once I’m out of a world, it’s not easy to go back. It is lingo like you see coming out from this war. You have that in “The Hurt Locker,” just think of the terms themselves. “Black Sites.” “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Like I said, I think “Berlin Station” is very powerful. I think some of the best writing is being done in episodic television. The movies now are for twelve-year-olds. But, in terms of HBO, Amazon, and Netflix, we’re getting exciting options. Think back to “The Wire.” Did you ever see that?

HBO’s “The Wire”

I have yet to see it.

You should. “The Wire” is one of the very best. There are others. “Deadwood” is another one. A lot coming out of the BBC, like “The Singing Detective.” That was probably one of the most creative things I’ve seen on television. It’s the writer-producer who creates the show. In that sense, you can have some very good things as well as bad.

New editions of Sidel books in Germany.

As I wrap up, I just want to say that I enjoyed “Winter Warning” very much and I am going back to read the other books. I am currently enjoying “Marilyn The Wild.”

The series, at the beginning, was very different. It evolved as I evolved as a writer. You never think that you’ll finish all twelve. I consider them three quartets. The only reason I was able to complete the Sidel books is because my editor/publisher at Liveright, Bob Weil, spent a long time on each draft. I’d be working on the Sidel books while he was working on Lincoln, or the book on Emily Dickinson. I had a strange surreal time between novels, trying to keep the distinct voices inside my head.

What I like best about the Sidel books is that you can read any title without knowing anything about the others. It will enrich the experience if you do read the others but each stands alone.

In Germany, they have been republishing each of the Sidel books with a photo of me on the cover that coincides with the time I wrote each book. It’s an interesting idea.

The main thing is that you want to keep working as a writer. I feel that we’re living in a time that is hostile to the writer. You have to have an inner resource to sustain yourself. Writing was something I always wanted to do from the time I finished high school. I never thought in terms of failure or success. I just thought in terms of how to sustain myself. I was very lucky, as my generation was the first that welcomed creative writers to teach at the universities. It had never been the case before. And then I stopped teaching and moved to Paris. And soon I began to teach there. I started a film department at the American University in Paris. As with anything, you also need a tremendous amount of luck.

Four graphic novels by Jerome Charyn, available from Dover Publications.

Yes, luck and will power.

Well, you can have all the will power in the world but if you don’t have any kind of luck, then you defeat yourself. You need some kind of acknowledgement. The books I’ve written are there for people to read. Some of them may survive and some of them may not. One never knows.

Also, the graphic novels that I wrote are very important to me. I was the first American novelist in Europe to work with a French artist and then other French writers began doing it too. I grew up with comics, as you already know. We’ve talked about it.

You have so many portals that one can slip into. You have so many outlets for people to discover your work.

Well, if they take the time. The problem is you don’t have as much time to read anymore. Everything moves so quickly, but if you can take the time to read then you can take the time to discover.

When I went to college, reading was the central occupation of what we did as students. You didn’t do anything but read books. You were much better equipped to deal with the outside world having had these dialogues with writers, with having had Plato inside your head.

Today it’s more of a juggling act. A student’s attention is divided between reading and engaging with social media.

It is in social media where people do their discovering. And, going back to Trump, it’s with his tweets where he’s so brilliant. Maybe you need a child-like manner to do it. I don’t really know. But he has a sort of brilliance with his tweets that very few people have. (laughs)

It’s a very different world. And it has evolved very quickly. What place there will be for books, I don’t know. I don’t feel very optimistic about the future of books.

The art of rediscovering books: “Call It Sleep” by Henry Roth

I feel there are a lot of dedicated readers. My daughter, at 21, prefers to read in print. I like both print and digital equally. There’s a healthy community of readers out there.

It’s not a question of a lack of readers. It’s about the lack of venues for these readers. For example, it’s so much more expensive to put out a print book. When I first started writing, if a publisher liked your work, he knew that you’d have a library sale of between 1,500 to 2000 copies so that you could easily sell four or five thousand copies. That would be enough to do a second book and a third book.

But now the library sales have disappeared; the book clubs have disappeared; and the paperback houses have disappeared so the avenues for income are not there. The only avenue you have left is the translation of a book into a film—and that may be more prominent that it was before. Or a television series. One or the other. And that may be what rescues fiction.

As long as I still get pleasure from books, I will write them. There are fewer book reviews, fewer publishing outlets, so it’s hard to reach the reader.

I think people are reading as much as ever but what they’re reading, I don’t know. Also, someone has to make predictions based upon book reviews. If you look back at the last fifty to sixty years, most of those predictions have been wrong.

What seems to be wonderful isn’t so wonderful. I’m not talking about myself. I am talking about how books can come out of obscurity. For example, “Call it Sleep,” by Henry Roth. It was published in the ‘30s and disappeared. Then it was republished in the ‘60s and it was a phenomenal hit. These things do happen but they happen much less frequently.

That’s the same case with “The Great Gatsby.”

That’s absolutely true. Fitzgerald died at a very early age. He was only 44. He was completely forgotten. It was only because of Edmund Wilson’s essays in The New Yorker that he was revived as a writer. In his own lifetime, Fitzgerald had disappeared into the void, his fame all eaten up.

It’s odd which writers are recycled, which writers come back to haunt us, and which writers speak to us in our own generation.

Thank you, Jerome.

Thank you, Henry

You can listen to the podcast conversation by clicking below:

“Winter Warning” by Jerome Charyn

“Winter Warning” is a 288-page hardcover, available as of October 3rd. For more details, visit Pegasus Books. Be sure to visit the Jerome Charyn website here.

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Filed under American History, Books, Comics, Crime Fiction, Culture, Dashiell Hammett, Donald Trump, FDR, Fiction, graphic novels, Interviews, Jerome Charyn, mystery, politics, Thriller, writers, writing

Interview: Martin Olson: A Writer’s Life

Martin Olson

It is another night of bright lights in the big city when a tall dapper gentleman strides into Musso & Frank Grill, Hollywood’s legendary restaurant, frequented by stars of today and ghosts of yesteryear. This is Martin Olson: comedy writer, TV producer, bestselling author, playwright, stage director, composer and poet. Here I am, with a reservation at the Three Stooges booth, across from the Charlie Chaplin booth and the Marilyn Monroe booth. I wave Martin over to join me and Jennifer. We’re in town for a bit and honored at the chance to get together for this interview. Mr. Olson is a very busy, very talented, and very nice guy. If you see a publicity photo of him frowning (see above), that’s part of an act. He is really nice. I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but I’m putting it out there just so you know.

Hunson Abadeer

By the way, among the various credits that Mr. Olson can point to, he will forever enjoy a place in pop culture history as the voice of Hunson Abadeer (aka the Lord of Evil), ruler of the Nightosphere, and father of Marceline the Vampire Queen (Olson’s daughter, Olivia, is voice talent) on the legendary animated series, “Adventure Time” on Cartoon Network.

“Rocko’s Modern Life”

Encyclopedia of Hell,” Olson’s popular and critically-acclaimed satirical book will continue in a new book in 2018. We chat about that. We discuss the Boston Comedy Scene which Olson helped form. And another fun item is a reunion of the original cast of the landmark animated series, “Rocko’s Modern Life.” Olson was part of the writing team behind a new one-hour TV special that will run in 2018.

“Encyclopedia of Hell” by Martin Olson

When the subject of writing, or any form of creativity comes up, people usually seek some insights and tips. We tackle that sort of stuff here too. So, sit back and enjoy this podcast. Given the nature of our talk, more in tune with a conversation over a meal, it is split into two sections: one before dinner and the other after dinner. Oh, dinner was great, if you were wondering.

Click the two links below to go to Part One and Part Two:

Visit Martin Olson right here.

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Filed under Adventure Time, Comedy, Humor, Interviews, Martin Olson, Olivia Olson, writers, writing

Book Review: ‘Jerzy: A Novel’ by Jerome Charyn

“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn

I have been reading a lot of work by Jerome Charyn lately. Once you start, it is hard to resist more. Charyn has this passion for seeking the truth that is very seductive. In the case of his latest novel, “Jerzy,” published this March by Bellevue Literary Press, he is compelled to better understand Jerzy Kosinski, author of the celebrated 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” It is a fascinating, and often funny, journey written by one of our greatest writers about the rise and fall of another great writer.

Actor Peter Sellers looms large over the book that follows the making of 1979’s “Being There,” the film adaptation of Kosinski’s novel, starring Sellers as the blank slate turned celebrity, Chauncey Gardiner. In Charyn’s novel, Sellers is not much more than a lost man-child, a blank slate in his own right. Sellers hires Ian, a former bodyguard with a taste for literature, to be his all-around wingman. If there is anything Sellers needs in the way of protection or advice on dinner conversation, Ian must step in.

It is not long before Sellers enlists Ian in his quest to have Kosinski agree to have Sellers star in the movie version of “Being There.” It is hardly a walk in the park as Kosinski detests Sellers. Sellers perpetually complicates matters. He is convinced that Princess Margaret fancies him and that he will marry her. And Kosinski is equally complicated. At the most random moments, something will trigger a dark mood and a longwinded rant.

As is made clear, the vacuous Sellers is tailor-made for the role of Chauncey. And Kosinski has very little to complain about, despite his tremendous resistance to Sellers. But the conflict in this novel is far more deep-seated and sinister. Charyn suggests that Sellers and Kosinski have paid too high a price for fame, have been reduced to mere shells of their former selves; and in Charyn’s hands, both become compelling tragi-comic figures.

It is Kosinski who stands in for a great deal of unresolved issues, including World War II and its aftermath. In his novel, “The Painted Bird,” Kosinski challenges the reader to confront great suffering and atrocities. For such a compelling testament, Kosinski would, over time, secure fame. For Charyn, Kosinski is that large-than-life enigmatic Citizen Kane. The harder they come, Charyn concludes, the harder they fall. Charyn plays with the mixed bag of rumors of plagiarism that haunted Kosinski. Today, in a different context, the same techniques of borrowing from other sources would not raise eyebrows. “The Painted Bird” was a novel, not a memoir. Truth is stranger than fiction. And, as Kosinski said himself, “I am a truth, not facts.”

Charyn seems to take Kosinski to task at every turn. He seems to make a mockery of tender scenes in “The Painted Bird” and recollections from Kosinski friends and associates. In Charyn’s novel, Kosinski, like the villagers in “The Painted Bird,” is fascinated to utter distraction with turning old tin cans into homemade flying rockets. Kosinski, also in Charyn’s novel, prefers to sleep inside a large dresser drawer. Kosinski explains that he’s made too many enemies and his life is constantly in danger. However, Charyn is sensitive to life’s contradictions, no matter what misinformation Kosinski detractors may spread. Such work as “The Painted Bird” speaks for itself. In the excerpt below from Charyn’s novel, Ian, the narrator, concludes that Kosinski did not have ghostwriters but those who helped him, up to a point, with his English:

No baby-sitter from here to Mars could have scratched out the icicle-covered sentences in “The Painted Bird.” And after rereading the book for the sixth or seventh time, I realized that suicide was built into its very fabric, as if the narrator were locked into some kind of frozen grief, and had survived the war on fierce will alone. His entire life had become a chess move or chapters pasted onto “The Painted Bird.” Perhaps fate itself was a Russian doll. And Jurek’s leap into the darkness was another matryoshka, a doll without end.

It was a great deal of bile and misinformation from Kosinski detractors that contributed to Kosinski’s suicide in 1991 at the age of 57. And perhaps it was also part of fate. Anyone familiar with the work of Jerome Charyn knows that he’s most interested in the underdog, the person trapped in a corner fighting to find a way out. As the novel progresses, we see how the life and times of Jerzy Kosinski, the truth and the legend, all add up to a subject worthy of Charyn’s fiction.

What Charyn’s novel can do, with its brilliant satirical bite, is compel readers to learn more about Jerzy Kosinski, one of the great writers of the 20th century. It’s as easy as surfing the net to learn more. If you watch the documentary below, for example, you get a multifaceted look at Kosinski, his life and his work. It’s not a simple story, as Charyn’s novel attests. Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction seeks a greater truth:

“Jerzy” is a 240-page paperback, published by Bellevue Literary Press. For more information, and how to purchase, go right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Hollywood, Holocaust, Jerome Charyn, Jerzy Kosinski, writers, writing

Grab Back Comics: Call For Comics About Sexual Assault & Related Issues

Art by Mari Naomi

A new blog, Grab Back Comics, recently launched with the goal of helping to create greatly awareness of sexual assault and related issues. There is an ongoing call for submissions. Here is a statement from the blog curator, Erma Blood:

Project Call for Submissions: Grab Back Comics, Comics Stories About Sexual Assault

Submissions of original work are now being accepted for inclusion in the Grab Back Comics website and archive. Grab Back Comics is a curated collection of comics stories about sexual assault, harassment, rape culture, and advocacy. Grab Back features original artist interviews and book reviews, as well as original comics. Telling these difficult personal stories is a political act, an act of love and resistance. Grab Back encourages artists to tell their own stories and the stories of others, and presents this work with pride and admiration. The project is intended to be a safe landing spot for people looking for first-person stories, media representations and educational resources.

www.grabbackcomics.com

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Filed under Advocacy, Cartoonists, Comics, Seattle, Women, writers

Movie Review: ARRIVAL

arrival-movie-amy-adams-2016

What will it be like when they arrive? It’s a question that’s been asked over and over again, from H.G. Wells to Steven Spielberg. What sets “Arrival” apart is that this new sci-fi film starts where most of these first contact stories end: this is a film about engaging with an alien race from some other world in some rather in depth terms. In the process, we humans may learn more about ourselves and the very nature of reality. It’s rare that a movie really hits me on such a visceral level. Part of it has to do with its steady and realistic pace. 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” set the standard. In recent years, we’ve seen a trend towards more contemplative sci-fi. In this case, it’s what the movie has to say about how we perceive reality. The aliens have got a much different take on that.

"Arrival" screenplay by Eric Heisserer

“Arrival” screenplay by Eric Heisserer

Director Denis Villeneuve is known for pulse-pounding thrillers with a quirky sense of style (Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy). For “Arrival,” the trick was to find the right balance of the theatrical with the compelling and cerebral quality of the original short story by Ted Chiang. I strongly encourage you to seek out Chiang’s story. You will find it to be quite moving with a different set of parameters at home on the printed page. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer succeeds in taking the beauty and nuance of Chiang’s work and finding something comparable in a Hollywood screenplay. Heisserer addresses every aspect of the original story. He amplifies the plot and adds action where it makes sense. Read my interview with Eric Heisserer right here.

"Stories of Your Life and Others" by Ted Chiang

“Stories of Your Life and Others” by Ted Chiang

Part of this story is about communicating and connecting. How do we do that? The answer lies somewhere in language. Amy Adams plays the role of an exceptional linguist, Dr. Louise Banks. She is assigned to crack the alien language. Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly) is assigned to crack the alien math. And Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber) is there to monitor. There are many others behind the scenes. In fact, there are twelve of these massive alien pods that have landed on various spots across Earth. But our attention is mostly on these three main characters, and our eyes are especially on Louise.

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks

By the time that Louise has been enlisted, the alien site in Montana has been joined by an organized U.S. government contingent. And initial contact has been established: a crew enter a portal and make their way to a screen that separates them from a couple of Cthulhu-like creatures. While incredibly strange-looking, they also seem benign. Louise’s breakthrough is to authentically reach out to them. In time, these “heptapods” emerge from the language barrier to reveal a whole other way of looking at reality. Amy Adams delivers an exquisite performance as the one person who really gets it, in the same spirit as the Richard Dreyfuss character, Roy Neary, in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

"Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve

“Arrival,” directed by Denis Villeneuve

“Arrival” is one of those special gifts from Hollywood that are still very much possible. This movie ranks right up with 2014’s “Interstellar,” starring Matthew McConaughey, as Cooper, in a somewhat similar struggle involving a parent and a child. Eric Heisserer says that his screenplay pitch went through 100 rejections from producers before it was green-lit. Well, his persistence most certainly paid off. This is definitely the perfect holiday movie, date movie, perfect all-around movie.

“Arrival” went into wide release as of November 11th. Visit the official site right here.

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Filed under Eric Heisserer, Movie Reviews, movies, Sci-Fi, science fiction, Screenwriting, writers, writing

Book Review: ‘Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories’ by Dennis Etchison

A Dennis Etchison femme fatale. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

A Dennis Etchison femme fatale. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

A femme fatale in a Dennis Etchison story is “twenty-nine going on forty, and pretty, too, but not really very.” She is the sort who would visit a Beverly Hills beauty salon. She is the sort who would have a C-note handy in her pocketbook.

“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories,” an e-book collection you can find through Bowery Books, is a great mix of classic short stories. The first two stories alone are priceless as you have the earliest published Etchison short story, 1966’s “Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly,” followed by 1976’s “The Walking Man.” From these, I make my assertion on Etchison femme fatales.

Etchison deliberately takes the same description for his 1966 female character (twenty-nine going on forty with a C-note in her purse) and attaches it to his 1976 female character. It’s a grand little inside joke since he is certainly not at a loss for words. Doing that adds another eerie layer of alienation. It’s a brilliant move, especially for a writer who enjoys playing with disconnection.

Having recently posted a review of a collection of work by George Clayton Johnson, it is fitting to follow up with a review of one of the great Johnson protégés, a masterful writer in his own right, Dennis Etchison. We can even begin with a comparison of work between Johnson and Etchison. Both wrote stories with the freeway as a looming background character. In Johnson’s short story, the freeway is much like one big car bowling alley. You simply let the cars be towed along by the grid. If you happen to lose your way and pull over, you are lost.

In Etchison’s story, also set in the future, the freeway is also a vast wasteland but one that results in carnage at a much higher rate. In fact, the system in place demands it. Welcome to the world of Dennis Etchison where the edges can be sharp but that does not take away from the storytelling craft at play. I became aware of Dennis Etchison through my friendship with writer George Clayton Johnson. It was in 2014, during our last conversation in person, that George went over some writers I needed to visit or revisit if I hadn’t. Robert Sheckley for my sense of humor. Theodore Sturgeon for my soul-searching questions. And Dennis Etchison for my dark side. I did just that. In fact, I’ve posted about Sheckley here and Sturgeon here. And, now, Mr. Etchison.

“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison

“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison

Nightmare logic is at play here in a big way. Do you remember any of your best nightmares? Wasn’t there some lyrical quality about them that got under your skin? Think of the placement of seemingly random things that you know, down in your bones, actually belong together. Here it is, special delivery just for you: a transmission from the deepest recesses of your subconscious. It’s as if someone, or something, is trying to pass on an urgent message that never gets through during the daylight hours. The pounding at the door. There’s a reason for it. Well, I’m getting a bit carried away here. Chalk that up to my writer sense becoming all tingly just now. The point is that here we have this writer, Dennis Etchison, who masterfully crafts stories with the special edge of a nightmare. Consider, “The Scar.” I swear, that is one long nightmare narrative. That’s it! I really think I struck on something. We follow these characters in mid-flight. They are literally fleeing and it looks like they do a lot of that. The background, the landscape, it’s all a blur. For all we know, it’s an post-apocalyptic setting–or it just feels like that for this man and woman on the run with a child. The man and woman are unfit for normal society, total nihilist trash. Then things get really violent. Everyone falls down. Our characters get up and start running again. Truly a nightmare masterpiece!

“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories” is certainly a title that will get your attention. It’s a delicate balancing act going on here between the brash and the subtle. There’s a lot of groundwork involved. Consider the title story, we begin with a classic Etchison main character, a hardened Los Angeles native: jaded, wired, and angry. I’ve been devouring Etchison short stories to the point where I feel I have a good handle on his dark vision. His characters are usually doomed and susceptible to entering into delusions and false hope. This is noir, extra-dark. With a writer of the caliber of Etchison, this can be quite a ride. So, regarding the title story, you have one very angry dude making all the wrong choices. The last thing he needs is a partner in crime. Ultimately, this leads to deadly disaster–with a grace note of macabre humor.

"Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories" by Dennis Etchison

“Got to Kill Them All and Other Stories” by Dennis Etchison

I’ll leave you with one more. This one involves another sad sack Everyman. Our poor anti-hero is literally just padding about his apartment when he gets a call that will seal his doom. Poor soul, he even lets his message machine pick up so he can monitor the call. But, it’s no use, the pull of fate is too great. The call is so compelling. It’s the voice of a little girl in panic. She is pleading for help. She mentions some landmarks before the line cuts out. The man has no choice, really, but to rescue the little girl. Which is actually the last thing he should be doing.

“Got to Kill Them All & Other Stories” is an excellent introduction to Dennis Etchison. There are numerous titles to choose from. I would definitely seek out more like “The Dark Country” and “Red Dreams.” You can find both of these titles at Crossroads Press. You really can’t go wrong with any Dennis Etchison title.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Dennis Etchison, George Clayton Johnson, Horror, Nightmares, writers, writing

Interview: Jennifer Daydreamer: Comics and Beyond

Jennifer Daydreamer

Jennifer Daydreamer

Jennifer Daydreamer has been published by Top Shelf Productions and regularly contributed illustrations to the Seattle alt-weekly, The Stranger, in the late ’90s. In the course of a creative life, Daydreamer has seen her path take an interesting trajectory. I share with you now a conversation with artist and writer Jennifer Daydreamer on her new project, “Mack Stuckey’s Guide to the Center of the Universe.” A Kickstarter campaign in support of a print run to the book is going on now thru August 28th. You can find it right here. She is the author. Full disclosure, I’m the illustrator for the book, and I contributed to the story. And she’s my partner.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Let’s begin, Jen. We can jump in to the very beginning of the Mack Stuckey project.

JENNIFER DAYDREAMER: You certainly did contribute to the prose. There are details in Mack, plot points, character names and so forth, that you came up with. We are both illustrators but you were the instant choice of illustrator. Although I can draw fast, I don’t normally paint in quick thick brush strokes, the kind you do, and so I was excited about a real artistic collaboration with you. Probably our first. I think after you’ve been blogging for ten years, this has been the first time you have interviewed me. So, thanks!

What was the impetus to writing Mack Stuckey?

Well, before 2008, I could score a job pretty easily. I’m a creative type but I have a detailed part of my brain that does well with accounting. I actually enjoy accounting because I find it meditative and so for most of my career I have been able to do accounting work for my jobs. I was in a series of job layoffs. One, the company went out of business, the next, the company transferred my position out of state, another one I was a new hire and when they do layoffs, the new hires usually get cut first. In a nutshell, the book is about the economy and expressing my frustration about it, in a creative way. I just don’t want to spend my time venting at this point. I have expressed my employment dilemmas to my friends over the years. At this point, I’d rather be joking.

Illustration for "Mack Stuckey" by Henry Chamberlain

Illustration for “Mack Stuckey” by Henry Chamberlain

Jennifer Daydreamer quote

Where does it take place?

It takes place in Seattle. Poor Seattle. The inspiration to write the book is my need to express myself in regards to the economy and state of housing and living in our city with a disappearing middle class. The story takes place in 2014, by the way, and so, any uptick of the economy happening today, I hope is really happening. I digress. Seattle happens to be the fall guy, the theatrical back drop of the story and so, we make fun of Seattle. Specifically, Fremont. We venture into Ballard, Downtown, and the U District.

How so?

For one thing, I create a feud between Ballard and Fremont, either real or imagined. I examine the tension that I think exists between the two locales because when you want to buy something practical in Fremont, like pens and a pad of paper there is only one or two small places to go. There are no standard drug stores allowed in Fremont (I think from building codes) so you have to take your car or the bus or your bike and dip into Ballard for practical needs.

What else is the book about?

Well, we describe the book succinctly on our Kickstarter page! Basically, I created a love triangle between a woman and two men, representing the upper, middle, and lower classes. I don’t come right out and say that in the book, because that would be too explicit, but that is one of the themes. I think there is something for everyone in the book, if you like humor, a sexy romance, or interest in the local icons. I try my hand at what I call comedic erotica.

Tell us about what you’ve been up to in the last few years.

After drawing comics, I was inspired to write a screenplay because that imprint, what was it called?

Minx.

Yes, Minx, from DC Comics, asked me for some ideas. They cancelled the imprint. One of my ideas was for a dystopian novel about the separation between a guy and a girl and killing in the army, that someday I should write. They really did not like it, too macabre, and then Hunger Games comes out later. I remember believing them at the time that the story pitch is not good, so its a reminder to believe in myself. I wrote the screenplay for the humor submission that they did like. Then Minx was cancelled. I never had a contract, just a “that’s funny, I like that one.” So, I spent about a year studying how to write a screenplay and it took me about 1.8 to finish it, because it was my first screenplay.

Where did that leave you?

With one foot halfway in the door! It left me with one manager who switched companies and his job position and so he could not represent it. Then I found an agent who read it, she is known in the industry and so I felt lucky. She was encouraging. She said I needed edits and she gave me her manager contact and said to try and do edits with him and then resubmit it to her. But her manager nixed it. By the way, I respected how he communicated with me, as he got to it, read the script promptly and let me know his opinion. Everyone I submitted it to over a year’s time or so, was very nice, frankly. I know there is crap that happens in Hollywood, but, somehow, I felt encouraged by people in the business I was in contact with. Most did not have room or time to read it and some commented that my pitch was great and so to keep at it. So, I got my foot in the Hollywood door about an eigth of the way. A toe.

Interesting visual, one toe clinging to a door. But, seriously, it put you in an interesting situation. You were in the thick of transitioning from comics, moving beyond comics.

It was fun to try. I felt a cartoonist could get a foot in the door because comic book movies were taking off. I had an agent/lawyer to make some pathway, also, when I submitted, so I was not completely unprofessional and just cold called everyone. I think the writing contributed to writing Mack – the more you create the better you get. Mack has taken 2.5 years to write and I still have some details I want to round it out with. Its basically done. Besides those projects, I have spent a lot of time writing and sketching out a four book Young Adult Fantasy Series which I am eager to launch on social media. For this YA series, I really think a book agent, editor or editors and publishing company is necessary. You need help to keep detail accurate when you are world building.

After Mack, I have one very odd book, I have to get off my chest, then I will launch my YA series. I have spent a year on it. Its not complicated like writing a story but I am scared of publishing it, and so, I have to publish it. I’m scared as I have to dip into some religious and societal explanations. I had an out of body experience or an altered state from drawing my mini comics long ago and it was not until recently when I studied Jung in detail and some Jungian psychologists that I realized there is a biological explanation or a science explanation for it.

Lots of room to dig deeper.

Usually the explanation in our society, is something spiritual or “occult” and so I am eager to lay out my idea to disprove the occult notions, that there may be a more reasonable or logic based explanation. I have not completely ruled out a spiritual component. I think there is a spiritual component, I understand the shamanic explanation for something like that, but I think there is a middle ground, because the explanations from psychologists are so clear and sound. There’s compelling commentary by Oliver Sacks on YouTube (13.45). Maybe you can link the video for our cartoonist friends because it’s interesting if you draw comics.

Yes, consider it done. It will run right below these comments.

Great!

What Oliver Sacks has to say I am relating to my experience in the book. I think the brain is activated because of the archetypal nature of comics. What archetypal nature is, should be explained more but there is not room in this intervew to go into that kind of detail.

“There is another part of the brain which is especially activated when one sees cartoons. It’s activated when one recognizes cartoons when one draws cartoons and when one hallucinates them. It’s very interesting that that should be (so) specific.”

–Oliver Sacks

Are you still drawing comics? Where would you say you are today in relation to comics?

I love comics. I am following my heart and my heart wants my YA series to be prose – just words – and my illustrations. And so, no, its not comics. I would like to draw comics and be in anthologies, but there is no time at the moment. I am really focused on the projects listed above. I have the door open on comics, the door is not closed. Same with, you know, doing another humor book like Mack. When I was in high school I was the kid that made fun of all the teachers and drew riffs on them and passed them to my friends in class. I have a humor side and I have the side that loves to create long fantasy.

Anything else you’d like to add?

One last word. We make fun of some drug usage in Mack but I don’t do drugs. I am a very very square cat when it comes to things like that. It’s important for me to be clear on this because I don’t like my out of body experiences nor my illustrations to be accused of being “drug influenced.” Because I think fantasy story and art is related to healing and I want to contribute to that. I want to explore more in the future on the connection to drawing comics and naturally based hallucinations.

Thanks, Jennifer!

Thank you, Henry!

Be sure to visit Mack Stuckey right here. To go directly to the Kickstarter campaign on thru 8/28, go right here.

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Filed under Comics, Humor, Interviews, Jennifer Daydreamer, Kickstarter, Satire, Seattle, writers, writing, Young Adult

Interview: Jason V Brock on The Twilight Zone and The Group

George Clayton Johnson and Charles Beaumont, circa 1960. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

George Clayton Johnson and Charles Beaumont, circa 1960. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Editor’s Note: If you are heading out to Comic-Con, and you wish to learn more about what we covered in this interview, go to a special panel, “Star Trek 50th Anniversary and George Clayton Johnson Tribute,” on Thursday, July 21st, 9:00 – 10:30 PM. Room: 9 upstairs inside San Diego Convention Center. Having written the first aired Star Trek episode, “The Man Trap,” George has secured his place within Star Trek as much as Twilight Zone.

Jason V Brock is a filmmaker, writer, editor, and artist. For this interview, I draw from Jason’s extensive knowledge of golden age television and pop culture. Among his work in film, he is known for his documentary on the writer Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), which is a rich source for our talk. At the same time, Brock’s academic work is just as compelling. I consider Jason a friend in the entertainment industry: we both share a certain sensibility. I hope you enjoy this concise version our geeking out on George Clayton Johnson and related things. We were both en route to a special tribute for screenwriter George Clayton Johnson that took place this February. So, it all makes sense.

In this interview, we’re chatting about that golden time in television that was “The Twilight Zone.” This is digging deeper into the background of the show and its key talent. For this talk, we’re focusing on George Clayton Johnson along with other members of what became known as “The Group,” which met from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Within that gathering of writers, the leader was Charles Beaumont. Some writers from The Group went on to write for The Twilight Zone.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Jason, talk about Charles Beaumont, who remains something of a mystery: a great writer on the rise, dead at age 38. And then let’s shift to George, who also remains a mystery.

JASON V BROCK: There’s an interview with Charles Beaumont that was conducted by George Clayton Johnson. It was for a show called, “The Author and the Story.” And Beaumont recites from “My Fair Lady.” We include some of that in the documentary. If you can find that interview, it is well worth seeking out. Beaumont’s illness is a mystery. It does seem to come down to two possibilities: Alzheimer’s disease or Pick’s disease. I tend to think it was Pick’s disease as it fits in with what we know about Beaumont’s activity as he declined: slow and halting speech; a greater amount of impulsivity. What Beaumont’s friends believed was the main cause of Beaumont’s premature death was his routine use of Bromo-Seltzer, which had aluminum, a cause of dementia.

During this time that Beaumont was declining in health, he and George had a falling out. George was trying to figure out a new project. And they had a sort of disagreement. But, after a while, they mended fences. It was during that time that George discovered what was happening to Beaumont. Keep in mind that these were still young guys. The dementia started for Beaumont at around age 33.

Now, George will always remain a mystery. He was an enigmatic individual to be sure. A lot of people don’t know this but he was an underwear model for a time. He did whatever to make ends meet. He was, as he liked to say, “a dog without a collar.” He wanted to do things his way and succeed on his own terms. He was punk rock before that became a thing, and I admire that about him. He was a very intelligent person. He only had an eighth grade education. He was born in a barn in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He went through many phases. He was a beatnik and then became enthralled with hippiedom, and that aspect never left. He was a vegetarian. And he was involved with supporting the legalization of marijuana. Politically, he had more of a Libertarian ideal. He was also mercurial, open to new ideas, never crystallized in his mindset.

Ray Bradbury asked, “Who can explain the mystery of personality?” And I think George fits that perfectly. You could ask him one thing and he would answer back with the most unexpected things.

There was that aspect of overcoming the odds for George and his feeling a need to prove himself.

I look at The Group and think of it as the atom with Charles Beaumont as the nucleus. They’re all in different shells around Beaumont. The atom blew apart once the nucleus was gone. Everyone went in different directions. In the hierarchy, Beaumont was at the top. But, beyond that, in relation to success, was Richard Matheson in a role as mentor. Then there was Ackerman and Bradbury who were relatively older. What’s interesting is that Nolan and Johnson told me that they felt they were lowest on the totem pole in relation to the group. However, Nolan and Tomerlin were, in fact, closest to Beaumont. And then George was next to them.

George was more responsible. The three others did as they pleased. They would go to Monaco and crash a dinner for Princess Grace. They loved Grand Prix racing. They would run off and do all these things at the drop of a hat. Go hang out with Ian Fleming. George stayed home with his family. Richard Matheson stayed home with his family. George was one of the few who bought his house. He bought it early on and lived the rest of his life there. He hungered for that stability and security.

Considering those four core members, tell us more about John Tomerlin.

What’s interesting about him is that he was a catalyst for a number of things. He started in radio and that was his big love. He wasn’t really interested in television or film. The rest of the group dragged him into that. He was interested in competing and conquering. He was feisty. He became a bridge champion, and pilot. He was mostly in love with the Norman Corwin school of writing for radio. That’s like saying today that you’d like to write like the original Twilight Zone when we’re in the midst of Kardashian cult TV. It ain’t gonna happen!

Share with us more about other members of The Group. They seem to fade into the background and yet they’re all interesting in their own ways. There’s Chad Oliver, for instance, he seems pretty obscure but I come to find that he had his cult following.

Well, Chad Oliver really did enjoy science fiction. I don’t think that was where Beaumont’s heart was. It’s weird that Johnson and Nolan would think they were lowest on the totem pole since that was not true. After you move past the core, there are the top ten. Altogether, you could say there were thirty writers associated with The Group. If you’re thinking conceptually, outside of Bradbury, Beaumont was most influential closely followed by Richard Matheson. And then, after that, Nolan.

After that, it depends, as you give merit on a story by story basis. Stylistically, Beaumont was at the top. Followed by Nolan, and then Johnson. I would place Matheson at the bottom, as a stylist. His writing was very direct; he was not an atmospheric writer. His ideas and his characterizations are his strengths, and his novel way of looking at the universe. While Beaumont’s writing was more rich, a lot more substance to his delivery. Bill Nolan was a lot like that too, especially early in his career. Later in his career, his writing is more like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or Hemingway. He started in the style of Bradbury, as did Beaumont. George also emulated Bradbury. And then they moved on. Bill did a lot of television with Dan Curtis. Mathewson wrote a tremendous amount for television and film, beginning with Roger Corman. His writing lent himself to screenplays. He wrote about a hundred short stories and then switched to novels.

Talk more about the dynamics of what was going on behind the scenes of The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury.

The Group would not have happened if not for Rod Serling. It was Serling who was the big shot in television. Ray Bradbury wanted to do that too. Serling came from the East Coast and steeped in great television, like Paddy Chayefsky. Bradbury has his side of the story of what caused the great rift between them–and we cover that in our documentary. I can see that it was jealously at play: Bradbury wanted what Serling had. But, The Twilight Zone, in fact, was always on precarious ground. Then there’s Night Gallery which left Serling without creative control which he regretted very much. Writers from The Twilight Zone went on to write for Star Trek and for Night Gallery. Nolan and Johnson both wrote a number of scripts for consideration on Star Trek. And, it was Johnson who wrote the first Star Trek episode aired, “The Man Trap.”

I can understand how Ray Bradbury would have felt that he could have done a better job than Rod Serling, even if that was not the case.

Bradbury would have directly said that. Serling got to the point too describing Bradbury’s style as best for the page and not the screen. Bradbury is more in line with Edgar Alan Poe. And that is more of an internal mode of writing. It is very difficult to transfer that onto a script. On the other hand, you can say Serling’s writing can be very talky. The modern equivalent to Serling would be Aaron Sorkin. Your mind is just snapping and crackling to that kind of writing. Serling was very much like that on his work for Playhouse 90.

Clusters of writers do crop up. You think of The Lost Generation Expats in Paris, The Lovecraft Circle, The Beats, The Group. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to form this bond online. You need that human connection.

Rod Serling is quite fascinating. And he did know what he was doing even if he had not been known for science fiction and fantasy prior to The Twilight Zone.

Yes, he had always been reading in the field. He had always been interested in science fiction and fantasy, reading it since he was a boy. He just didn’t have an outlet for it yet. He wasn’t a prose writer, that wasn’t his form of writing. He started in radio, just like John Tomerlin. Serling started writing from his direct experience in the war. He was in the Pacific during World War II. I recommend a memoir by Anne Serling, “As I Knew Him,” about her father. It is very well written. She describes how her dad wrote initially in a diary form to help him overcome PTSD. This would lead him to radio and, with his clipped style of talking, he was a natural for it. Later, he wins a writing contest for television. The writer who came in second was Earl Hamner Jr., who would go on to write a number of Twilight Zone episodes.

Indulge me and go even further into the background of the writing for The Twilight Zone. For one thing, everyone involved was hip to Weird Fiction.

If you break it down, story by story, what these writers were most interested in was Magical Realism. They didn’t really call it that back then in the United States. Bradbury had that aspect. Serling definitely had it. When you start looking at other writers from The Group, John Tomerlin and Jerry Sohl were much more interested in serious and realistic stories. So, it comes down to Nolan, Matheson, Beaumont, and Johnson.

They all loved F. Scott Fitzgerald. They all loved Hemingway. They could not help but admire Hemingway as he was the big force in writing at the time. Hemingway had that succinct style that fit right in with their interest in noir. They tapped into the Magical Realism in Faulkner. They all loved Poe. And they all loved Bradbury and wanted to follow in his footsteps and write for the pulps. Beaumont loved Lovecraft. He loved Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.” Had Beaumont lived, he would have pursued more work with social commentary similar to Rod Serling. It’s very interesting as to how it all came together as it did. It is something I’d like to write about in the future.

Thank you, Jason. As always, a pleasure. I look forward to our next conversation.

Same here, Henry.

Keep up with Jason V Brock by visiting his website for his work and that of his wife, Sunni K Brock, right here.

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Filed under Charles Beaumont, Comic-Con, George Clayton Johnson, Hollywood, Interviews, Jason V. Brock, movies, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, William F. Nolan, writers, writing