Book Review: ‘All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories’ by George Clayton Johnson

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

“Maybe she is right. Maybe nobody is interested in another science fiction story about the paradoxical nature of time or the mystery of existence. Maybe all they want is a simple love story with a happy ending.

Fantasy and science fiction doesn’t really exist unless it has a reader.

He has come to believe he will have a reader, so he has always tried to make his behavior justifiable, and as a consequence he spends a large part of his time explaining himself to an invisible judge he calls, “Your Honor,” becoming verbally adept at defending himself.”

— George Clayton Johnson, from “Every Other War”

I am really thrilled to own this book. It is a book that you, dear reader, will likely never own. It is hard to come by. Originally published by Subterranean Press in 1999, it has long since gone out of print. But prove me wrong. Seek it out! In fact, I do hope that will change some day. I strongly recommend that Subterranean Press or some other publisher, say Penguin Random House, create a new version of this 450-page collection.

Keep in mind that the author of this collection, “All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories,” is George Clayton Johnson who wrote the first episode broadcast of the original Star Trek series. “The Man Trap” first aired on 8 September 1966. That first broadcast is what marks the 50th anniversary of what has become one of the most iconic television series in history. What was it about George Clayton Johnson that earned him that distinction? This was someone born into abject poverty at the start of the Great Depression, an 8th grade dropout, forced to leave home at age 15, and yet he would go on to great heights.

For those of you who faithfully keep up with my writing, you know that quite often the source of my various tangents goes back to my first meeting George Clayton Johnson some years back. When I found out about all the pop culture franchises he was a significant part of, then found out about his life, and then found myself charmed my the sheer decency of the man himself, I started seriously considering creating some sort of book about him. I was able to tell him about it as well as show him some of it before he passed away. He gave me his blessing. I told him, at the time, that I was still figuring out how to best present the issue of cannabis, as that was very important to him. He listened. He talked. He said to follow my passion. The meeting with him, in his home, in December of 2014, would be the last time I’d get to see him. I had gone to see him again, in December of 2015. I’d been invited and he still sounded hearty and joyful. But it was too late. He had been moved to hospice by then.

“I told you the other night how I’d re-read ‘All of Us Are Dying’ and how much I enjoyed it. When I came to the end of this story and read the last lines, I got goose flesh on my neck. What greater tribute can I offer you? Thanks for the neck bumps.”
–Ray Bradbury

George hung on until Christmas. George died on Christmas Day. His great mentor, Rod Serling, was born on Christmas Day. There certainly seemed to be some cosmic and poetic thing going on. And then you add George’s favorite subject, Mr. Death, the defying of death, the taunting of death. George, no doubt, left this world on his own terms. And here I am telling you yet again about what has become quite a subject for me: George and all things related to George. Yes, this is how creative people such as myself think. And, dear God, there will be a final resolution as I do intend to put the book out as soon as possible. It will be in a graphic novel format with plenty of room for the art and plenty of room for the text. They will need to trade places from time to time. Anyway, all this leads to my getting my hands on this particular book. I dare say, it is something of a Holy Grail for some geeks such as myself. My copy is a Publisher’s Copy and was from the library of writer Stanley Wiater. Stanley, if you wondered what became of your book, I’ve got it now, mate.

George Clayton Johnson with Robert Redford on the set of "Nothing in the Dark"

George Clayton Johnson with Robert Redford on the set of “Nothing in the Dark”

Each story in this book will tug at you. Take the story of two boys, George and Abraham. They just figured they’d make great friends, with great prospects, considering they each had the best of presidential first names. This was during the Great Depression when these two reveled in each other’s company. Neither of them had a cent between them. Then one day, they thought about how much they’d love to own a bicycle. If only they had a bike, the roads would be free for them to explore at will. They decide upon buying a beauty in flaming red enamel that they spot in a shop in town. The price of twenty-two dollars and ninety-five cents seems out of reach. But they find various odd jobs and their goal becomes attainable. They while away the time by mostly doing things that don’t cost them anything like listening to the radio perched on the windowsill of Abraham’s bedroom. George would be at that very same windowsill as he sits in vigil for his friend dying from scarlet fever. And so the friendship, the bicycle, that time and place make up this short story, “A Bicycle Like a Flame.” This is just one of the many gems to be found in “All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories” by George Clayton Johnson.

"All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories" by George Clayton Johnson

“All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories” by George Clayton Johnson

Fans of the original television show, The Twilight Zone, will readily come to see which of these short stories in this collection would have made for another great teleplay by Johnson. But, as this book makes abundantly clear, you don’t need any prior Twilight Zone knowledge to enjoy Johnson’s work. How about “The Hornet,” a story of man versus insect with the insect seeking justice? Or perhaps “Dealer’s Choice,” a story about soldiers endlessly playing cards in order to avoid death? Or “The Freeway,” a story set in the future when cars mostly drive themselves and contribute to much less alert humans. Johnson wrote some of the most memorable Twilight Zone episodes thanks to the show’s creator and main contributor, Rod Serling, taking a chance on him. Johnson’s first accepted story submission was “All of Us Are Dying.” Serling bought it and did the necessary reworking to have it better fit his vision, including changing the title to, “The Four of Us Are Dying.” Johnson always maintained that it was a great lesson in how to write for Serling. But, in the end, he liked his version best and thus the title to this collection. In both versions, it is essentially a shape-shifter story: a man who can change his face. In Serling’s version, there’s this specificity about the man attempting to exploit his gift. In Johnson’s version, the man is all the more vulnerable, not in control, and all the more universal.

As this book demonstrates, Johnson’s overriding plan was simply to create the best work. In later years, he went on to create more inventive work with the same care and precision as when he first started out. There’s the short story “Thorndyke,” for example. A couple argue at a party. It is a male and female. The female has been badgering the male all night. She wants to know why he won’t sleep with any of the other females. Thorndyke insists that he isn’t interested. Finally, at his wife’s insistence, he goes to see a psychiatrist about his disorder. It is determined that Thorndyke has a severe case of manogomy. And, as it turns out, these characters are actually rabbits. Thorndyke is the rebel seeking to remain faithful to his wife.

Check out the amazing cover art by Burt Shonberg, 1957.

Check out the amazing cover art by Burt Shonberg, 1957.

Wow, what do you think of the book’s cover art? That’s by Burt Shonberg, 1957. George would have been around 28 years-old when that portrait of Frankenstein playing a saxophone was first created. George and Burt and Doug Myres (the Gateway Singers) together ran a little shack of a cafe on Laguna Beach called Café Frankenstein from 1958–59. Burt created various Frankenstein art for the cafe. Apparently, he always favored a Frankenstein motif and, in his own way, so did George.

The most unusual work in this collection is “The Edge of the World,” a screenplay commissioned by Sid and Marty Croft for quite a quirky movie. It is an ambitious and colorful romp of a tale with Christopher Columbus transported to modern day New York City. What a movie this could have been! It’s fun to read such a sprawling and loose work. Johnson manages to get Columbus down into the bowels of the NYC subway system where he makes friends with a tough motorcyclist named, Cheyenne. The two get along and share a joint. This is significant subtext as it brings in references to Johnson’s home state and his lifelong support for cannabis. It also cues the reader to the building conflict, and irony, of Columbus interacting with Native Americans.

Like a rocket, Johnson’s career blasted off with his co-writing the novel that was the basis for the Rat Pack classic movie, “Ocean’s Eleven.” Johnson was only 30 years-old in 1959, when he became part of the TZ writing team. By the mid-1970s, he had written for the original Star Trek TV series and co-written the novel, “Logan’s Run,” the basis of the blockbuster 1976 movie, the most lavish sci-fi film of its day, only to be surpassed the following year by “Star Wars.” Johnson kept on writing. He even created a show ahead of its time, “A Man’s World,” where women are in charge and maintain a male figurehead for appearance’s sake. While Johnson’s show was rejected, a similar show would subsequently get the green light, “Charlie’s Angels.”

“George Clayton Johnson continues to write what he believes in regardless of the marketplace. He is the real deal. He is what other writers mean when they point to someone and say that he is a writer. He is a fellow traveler in search of the Greater Truth, of a kind of unified field theory for the human condition. For this is the true subject of his writing and the abiding core that gives it such weight and strength.
–From the Afterword by Dennis Etchison

The case of George Clayton Johnson is unique in that this was a writer who was most concerned with quality and originality. His worst enemy, Johnson was prone to say, was a meddling producer eager to copy the latest hit show. Johnson was attracted to a challenge, something unusual. A perfect example is his flash forward narrative for an episode of “Kung Fu.” Instead of a conventional flash back, the main character to this story is dependent upon something happening in his future. It is this desire to strive for the most inventive, and most immersive, storytelling that is a hallmark of Johnson’s work. This brings me back to the above quote. For those who knew George Clayton Johnson, they know he was quite a jovial and energetic defender of his work, and deservedly so.

Reading "All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories"

Reading “All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories”

You can always look up video of Johnson’s work for Star Trek, Ocean’s Eleven, Logan’s Run, and, of course, The Twilight Zone. Here is a quote from “Kick the Can,” one of the most iconic TZ episodes and one of the four that was later to be showcased in 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” directed by Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante, and George Miller.

“Maybe, the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all. Maybe, it’s a way of looking at things – a way of thinking.”
–From “Kick the Can” (Episode aired 9 February 1962)

As Johnson describes in his short autobiographical novel, “Every Other War,” he had been struggling to sell short stories he knew in his heart would find a buyer–and yet did not. That includes the above mentioned, “A Bicycle Like a Flame.” Things looked very bleak at the time. “Kick the Can” was still in its early drafts. It would prove to be one of Johnson’s best works.

What I want to leave you with, the goal of my own book on George, is to celebrate an individual who fought for the integrity of his work and went the extra mile to be insightful, poetic, and heroic. Take a look at his teleplay for Route 66 and you see an unusual story of playing the game of life. Take a look at his teleplay for The Law and Mr. Jones and you find an offbeat path to seeking justice.

Boil it all down, and George’s favorite among his work is his Twilight Zone teleplay, “Nothing in the Dark.” And his favorite lines are delivered by Robert Redford with all the grace one could ever hope for.

“You see. No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.”
–From “Nothing in the Dark” (Episode aired 5 January 1962)

George was definitely attracted to the theme of death. It was H.P. Lovecraft who famously said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Death is the ultimate unknown. Lights out. What now? It’s the only game in life where, in the end, you’re guaranteed not to come out alive. It’s just a question of what you do while you’re around. George lived his life to the fullest. He won.

4 Comments

Filed under Dennis Etchison, George Clayton Johnson, Native Americans, pop culture, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Star Trek, Television, The Twilight Zone, Wyoming

Kickstarter: ‘The Nowhere Man Book 1: Nothing, Never, Nowhere’ by Jonny Bloozit

Nowhere Man 02

Nowhere Man 01

Jonny Bloozit is a Boston area creator with a cool new project that’s running on Kickstarter this month. It’s called “The Nowhere Man,” and it’s the story of a man trapped in the spirit world. You can read the beginning online here.

“The Nowhere Man Book 1: Nothing, Never, Nowhere,” seeks your support. The Kickstarter campaign runs to July 29, 2016. Support the campaign right here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comics, Humor, Kickstarter

Interview: David Schmader on Literacy, Neighborhoods, LGBTQ, and Cannabis

David Schmader

David Schmader

David Schmader is an American writer known for his solo plays, his writing for the Seattle newsweekly The Stranger, and his annotated screenings of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” He is the author of the 2016 book “Weed: The User’s Guide.” And he is the Creative Director of the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a literary arts center offering free programs for youth ages 6 to 18. I had the opportunity to interview David and discuss better approaches to community and seeking common ground. Locally, for those of us who are a part of the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, we have been undergoing a recharge, a rallying around, after a gas leak explosion that tore into the fabric of everyday life. With BFI preparing to return to its original Greenwood site this month, it seemed to me a good time to check in with a thoughtful leader in our community. I begin our interview going back to that March 9th gas leak explosion in the middle of the night. Fueled with cups of coffee, we settled in at Couth Buzzard Books for this interview.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: What were your reactions to the Greenwood gas leak explosion when you found out about it?

DAVID SCHMADER: I was at home in bed. And it didn’t affect me directly as I live in Beacon Hill. I got a call really early in the morning asking if I’d go look at what had happened. I got here not too far from where we are now. And it looked like the Gaza Strip. There was a doorframe in a tree. It was insane. BFI wasn’t torn up a lot visually but it’s an old enough building that the blast unearthed all sorts of things like toxic dust and foundation issues. So we had to move out right away. We had to clear out and we’ve been out since then. We’ll be coming back in July.

Investigators stand amid rubble from Greenwood neighborhood explosion. 9 March 2016.  (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Investigators stand amid rubble from Greenwood neighborhood explosion. 9 March 2016. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

HC: I see the Phinney-Greenwood neighborhood as strong. The Phinney Neighborhood Association, our local community center, stepped in to help coordinate donations with the Greenwood Relief Fund. And the Bureau of Fearless Ideas stepped in with its special gift to its neighbors. Would you share with us this opportunity for community-building?

DS: Yes, it was like that phrase from The Simpsons. We had a “crisitunity.” We were working on this book, “Encyclopedia Greenwoodia,” which is half adult writers and half young student writers. It was writing stories about Greenwood, interviewing business owners, writing mystery stories set in local businesses, and really taking a dive imaginatively into our neighborhood. Before the explosion, this was going to be a cute little boutique item for parents of our students and gifts to donors. We had just sent the book to the publisher; and, after the explosion, it became something much different. All of a sudden, some of the places that kids had set stories in were now gone, like Mr. Gyros and Neptune Coffee. So, we doubled the print run and made everything benefit the Greenwood Relief Fund. It was an unusual opportunity. We couldn’t bring this out and just pretend nothing had happened in the neighborhood.

BIF at its home in Greenwood.

The Bureau of Fearless Ideas at its home in Greenwood.

HC: Reading “Encyclopedia Greenwoodia,” I find an uncanny relevance. I love all the work. And I have some favorites. We’re here in Couth Buzzard Books Cafe and that makes me think of 9-year-old Meghan Doyle’s essay on this landmark bookstore cafe and the smell of fresh apple pie for sale here. Another 9-year-old, Maya Mullaney, reports on the Phinney Neighborhood Association’s director, Lee Harper, and her dog training adventures. Then there’s really marvelous stuff like Paul Constant’s essay on the poetry mailbox. And there’s your piece on being freaked out by taxidermy in Greenwood.

DS: Yeah, my first job in Seattle was on a house cleaning team in Greenwood. I was a vegetarian and having to dust these taxidermied animal eyes was a crisis moment. And I got to write about it for this book.

Local Flavor: Couth Buzzard Books Espresso Buono Cafe

Local Flavor: Couth Buzzard Books & Espresso Buono Cafe

HC: We both moved to Seattle around the same time, the early ’90s. And I was just wondering about what led you here. I’m guessing part of it had to do with Seattle ranking high as a livable city and our love for the arts.

DS: My training was in being a professional actor, conservatory training. Everyone I graduated with went to New York. And I didn’t want to go to New York. I love to visit. But I’d have to be a bazillionaire to live happily there. I had a friend who had graduated a year earlier who had come out to Seattle and she told me that Seattle had a great and accessible theater scene and a great and accessible gay scene. This was still the “bad ole days” when you lived life in the closet and eventually found a way to come out. It left you with this totally bifurcated experience. There was this thing when training as an actor, before I came out, where I was doing this double layer, this facade. I didn’t have this exportable personality product yet. I was still this under construction semi-closeted wannabe writer. So, I found everything I wanted in Seattle. But I hated going on auditions so I stopped being an actor and I started writing and it worked out.

HC: Not too long after moving to Seattle you became a staff writer at The Stranger.

DS: This is going back to the first thing I wrote. I was a performer during the time of of the “NEA Four”, Karen Finley, punk rock performance artists. I was coming out and I was obsessed with Guns N’ Roses, the most homophobic band in the world. So, I wrote a show about that called, “Letter to Axl.” The Stranger gave it such a good review that it prompted me to tour it around the country. They ran the show as an essay. And now I was an essayist! Dan Savage started directing my shows and they started giving me assignments through that. And then I got that column, Last Days. Sean Nelson had written it for about six months and then his band, Harvey Danger, took off. I took over and wrote the column for the next 18 years.

HC: Let’s talk about your book, “Weed: The Users Guide.” I see it as such a positive thing. I see you exercising your role as a leader in the community and an educator. You take a very balanced approach.

DS: Thanks for pointing that out in your review.

HC: Yes, you’re welcome. It’s such a distinctive thing you do. Would you share that with us?

DS: I don’t care if anyone smokes weed. I’m not a proselytizer for it. I wanted the book to be sort of like a book about a guy and his scotch. But even with scotch, not everyone likes scotch.

HC: No full support on scotch. Scotch is harsh.

DS: Yeah, and apparently gin turns some people into monsters. So, the idea is that not everyone is going to like weed; and don’t think there’s anything wrong with you if you don’t like weed. Because it’s all about your system and what kind of feelings you enjoy. In your review, you quoted that chunk about why people don’t like weed. And I thought that was great as most people had not focused on that.

HC: This book seems to be an ideal resource for young people asking questions about weed.

DS: I don’t condone people under twenty-one using weed.

HC: Yes, certainly, that makes sense because of brain development.

DS: I hope that legalization creates this normal channel that, if you wait this long, you can get your weed. It used to be that, with alcohol, kids knew to be patient; but, with weed, there was no legal route to use it so why not smoke it in the 8th grade. Smoke it when you can get it because they’re trying to keep it from you. Now, the idea is to get rid of that counterculture mystique and see it as a grown-up pleasure that you can enjoy when you’re a grown-up.

HC: When it’s a completely new mindset, when you get rid of that mystique, things will change. How long do you think before we get there? Another generation?

DS: I guess. I can see having a drink in front of your kids but not weed because of that weird lingering shadow of it. I think it will just be a matter of time when you can see that they’re both the same. Although, it does stink up a room so that’s not the same as having a beer.

HC: Yeah, weed is a different animal.

DS: Sure, I’m just thinking of how it will be treated by society, not inside the human system. I’m thinking in terms of something that adults do.

"Weed: A User's Guide" by David Schmader

“Weed: A User’s Guide” by David Schmader

HC: Washington state is like an experiment for the rest of the country on cannabis. What do you think of how we’re treating medical marijuana? The state is focused on the greater tax revenue from recreational marijuana and have virtually pushed out all the dispensaries. Do you think that might correct itself?

DS: I think that will change. You’re still dealing with something that is medicine for a lot of people.

HC: From my research, I see that the current situation raises the price on legal marijuana, limits the selection, and cuts out the advice from the budtenders.

DS: It seemed to me, from my experience, that the budtenders are always helpful.

HC: Up to a point. They’re restricted on what they can say in a recreational shop.

DS: Okay, I got it, because of the medical advice. I took a tour of the Zoots factory, its edible marijuana. And we talked about how they need to use precise language. They could use such terms as “refreshing” and “rejuvenating,” but nothing specifically medical.

HC: We’re right in the middle of reworking a lot of things.

DS: Yeah, it’s pretty disruptive to mess with people’s medicine.

HC: What can you tell us, as we wrap up, about your experience with Greenwood? What would you tell the world about this neighborhood?

DS: Well, I’m still getting to know it. I’m coming up on my first year at BFI. The explosion definitely brought out the Greenwood spirit. People talk about it. The PNA definitely brings out that spirit. That’s where we go for the Farmer’s Market. That’s where I go for the dog training in the Brick Building. People are really proud of this neighborhood. Before the explosion, the thing I kept hearing was that people did not want to see anything cookie cutter coming into the neighborhood. We don’t do cookie cutter brew pubs. We have funky brew pubs that has been here for forty years, those are the kinds we like. I see a high density of people with social personalities. It reminds me a lot of what I saw in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in the ’90s.

HC: Tell more about the Bureau of Fearless Ideas.

DS: It’s a writing and tutoring center for kids all over the Puget Sound region. We do after school tutoring and these crazy theatrical field trips where they write chapbooks. There’s a lot of kids leaving with books in their hands which they wrote. And it’s all free for any kids from any socio-economic class. We have a ton of volunteers and very generous supporters which is so great. You know, I think this is the first time that I’ve talked about both BFI and “Weed: The User’s Guide.”

HC: It makes sense.

DS: I don’t think the kids know that I wrote a book. My bios are totally separate. All my side stuff is for adults: Showgirls, The Stranger, Weed.

HC: It all makes total sense. With kids, you don’t want to be dishonest with them. There’s an adult world and things that are appropriate for adults. And, kids, if you’re listening, you know what I’m talking about. Marijuana is for twenty-one and up and there are reasons for that.

DS: Actually, I did a podcast in Portland for KBOO and that was the only other time I spoke about both BFI and Weed. There’s been a lot of talk about conquering addiction through community. The idea is that, through community, you can find solutions to replace self-medicating. The moderator for the podcast got excited about my working at BFI and said that what I was doing was helping with drug prevention. A big thing about BFI is showing kids that adults care about them. This is a place where you are welcome and you can show your voice and there are grown-ups here, who are not related to you, who want you to do well.

It does sound a little grandiose to say that what we’re doing at BFI is drug prevention but the moderator was convinced of that. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. And, of course, there’s a whole chapter in the Weed book about keeping weed away from kids. Okay, there are so many monster myths we’ve heard about marijuana and the one that is closest to being true is what’s been said about kids and weed. All that other stuff about marijuana being a gateway drug, it having no medical benefits, so much of what the government has said about marijuana is a lie or has been a lie. The one that is unfortunately true is that weed is bad for developing brains. It can be an onramp to mental illness, foggy thinking, and weird problem-solving skills. No fun. Save your brain.

HC: What do you look forward to for the re-openng of BFI back at its original Greenwood location?

DS: The good thing about something like this is that the building is brought up to current codes. Some new-fangled stuff. New lighting. We’ll have air-conditioning and heat. Lots of new staff.

HC: It all sounds very exciting! Thanks so much, David!

DS: You’re welcome, Henry!

You can listen to the podcast interview by clicking the link below:

You can always visit the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas right here.

4 Comments

Filed under Cannabis, Education, Gay, LGBTQ, Literacy, Marijuana, Seattle, The Stranger, Youth

Book Review: ENCYCLOPEDIA GREENWOODIA

ENCYCLOPEDIA GREENWOODIA

ENCYCLOPEDIA GREENWOODIA

On March 9, 2016, around 1:30 a.m. Pacific time, there was a gas leak explosion in the Greenwood area of Seattle. Businesses were destroyed and people were displaced. The crisis also brought people together. The community center, the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA), stepped up to co-ordinate the Greenwood Relief Fund. And the literary center for youth, the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas (BFI), chose to donate all proceeds from their newly-created book to the relief effort. The book, “Encyclopedia Greenwoodia,” begun a year before the explosion, took on a greater significance after the explosion, and has an uncanny relevance to community-building.

Firefighters work at the scene of a building explosion in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood. March 9, 2016 Reuters

Firefighters at the scene of explosion in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. March 9, 2016 Reuters

The explosion took place right across the street from BFI’s storefront, Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. All tolled, the blast damaged more than fifty establishments, destroying Neptune Coffee, Mr. Gyros, Greenwood Quick Stop grocery, and much of G&O Family Cyclery. So much disruption. So much to rebuild. In fact, as of this writing, BFI’s operations are currently housed at the PNA. A reopening of BFI at its original Greenwood site is set for this July.

"ENCYCLOPEDIA GREENWOODIA: A Compendium of Writing About Our Neighborhood by Famous Adult Writers and BFI Kids"

“ENCYCLOPEDIA GREENWOODIA: A Compendium of Writing About Our Neighborhood by Famous Adult Writers and BFI Kids”

It is essential to be aware of and to care about your neighborhood. Fortunately, no one died or was severely injured. But this crisis did spur on renewed energy and commitment. One of the things that makes Phinney-Greenwood unique is the activity going on at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas. Originally part of Dave Eggers’s 826 network of literacy centers, BFI still remains loyal to 826 but has also branched off on its own. That added freedom is what allowed BFI the flexibility to respond to the Greenwood explosion by donating the sales of its latest book. And it is this book that is a testimony to what makes this neighborhood so vital.

What you can expect from this quirky “encyclopedia” is an anthology of wonderful writing from all ages and backgrounds, from professional writers all the way to kids just starting out. Flip through and you’ll land on some gem. We start with former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s lively essay recounting the local effort to save Pluto’s status as a planet. Look further, and there’s BFI’s own anthology editor, Bill Thorness, sharing the story of Seattle’s first Ferris wheel, part of the Woodland Park Pavilion, operating from 1919 to 1934. The kids from BFI provide joyful and insightful work too. There’s the report from 9-year-old Maya Mullaney about the director of the Phinney Neighborhood Association, Lee Harper, and her being a professional service dog trainer. Another story comes from 9-year-old Meghan Doyle. She recounts the sensory experience of visiting the venerable Couth Buzzard Books with its great selection of books…and brownies.

Getting deeper into the quirky and literary side of Greenwood is Paul Constant’s piece about a mysterious mailbox in Greenwood that promises each visitor a touch of poetry. Such a dazzling prospect! Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, and many North American alternative weeklies. He proves to be the perfect person to consider the merits of this poetry-delivery mechanism. Does it work? You’ll have to buy the book to find out!

Reading David Schmader's "Cleaning Greenwood"

Reading David Schmader’s “Cleaning Greenwood”

I’ll leave you with one more from this impressive collection. David Schmader is a writer known for his essays and one-person plays and is now the Creative Director for BFI. When David first arrived in Seattle in 1991, fresh out of school and looking for a job, he worked for a time in Greenwood as part of a house cleaning team. As he describes in his own inimitable way, this wasn’t anything like being a chummy part of the family like on “The Brady Bunch.” No, this was like a military operation, mission-focused. David attacks his tasks with precision until one fateful day when he’s ordered to dust these massive mounted busts of wild game. That’s a challenge that a devout vegetarian must face one way or another.

“Encyclopedia Greenwoodia” proves to be a timely book on neighborhood goodwill in so many ways. It is a 200-page paperback, with photos and a local map, priced at $10 (US) plus shipping. Consider picking up a copy for yourself. All proceeds go to the Greenwood Relief Fund. Find this book right here.

You may also consider a donation to Bureau of Fearless Ideas. Your tax-deductible donation to BFI supports the only program in Seattle created solely for and dedicated to improving the communication skills of Seattle youth through a wide range of free writing and tutoring opportunities. For more information, visit BFI right here.

4 Comments

Filed under Bureau of Fearless Ideas, Dave Eggers, David Schmader, Literacy, Paul Constant, Phinney Neighborhood Association, Seattle, Seattle Review of Books

Review: Girl Over Paris #1 (of 4) (The Cirque American Series)

Jules Maroni out to prove them wrong.

Jules Maroni out to prove them wrong.

Jules Maroni is a celebrity tightrope walker connected to the supernatural in the latest comic from Amazon’s Jet City Comics. I love a good story with complications. Part of the fun of reading a comic that is hinting at something spooky around the corner is how it creates its trail of breadcrumbs. “Girl Over Paris” sets the tone for a spooky adventure with style and joie de vivre.

Part of Gwenda Bond’s CIRQUE AMERICAN universe, this story, written by Kate Leth (Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!, Adventure Time: Seeing Red), follows Jules and the gang as they fly from the U.S. to France in order to perform at a big event and allow Jules to regain her stature after a long hiatus. Artwork by Ming Doyle (The Kitchen, Constantine: The Hellblazer) and colors by Andrew Dalhouse enhance the pixie-romantic quality to this tale.

Reading "Girl Over Paris #1"

Reading “Girl Over Paris #1”

There’s a lot of luscious detail to this comic that sets it apart. I like the gentle pace too. Ms. Leth does a wonderful job of allowing us into the innermost thoughts of Jules: she is making a comeback, opening up to her new boyfriend, and confronting a supernatural entity. That’s quite a lot for a first issue.

Girl Over Paris #1 (The Cirque American Series) is available as of July 6, 2016. You can find it at Amazon right here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Adventure, Amazon, Amazon Publishing, Comics, Comics Reviews, France, Gwenda Bond, Jet City Comics, Paris, Young Adult

Interview: Bob Proehl and ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’

Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl

A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS, the debut novel by Bob Proehl, is a beautiful and quirky book mixing pop culture satire with a compelling family journey. It is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Read my review here.

“For all its acrobatic wit and outsize charm, at its heart this is the love story of two everyday heroes–a mother and son–who, like their author, possess the superpower of storytelling. A ‘Cavalier & Clay’ for the Comic-Con age, ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ is a bighearted, inventive, exuberant debut.”

–Eleanor Henderson, author of “Ten Thousand Saints”

BOB PROEHL grew up in Buffalo, New York, where his local comics shop was Queen City Bookstore. He has worked as a bookseller and programming director for Buffalo Street Books, a DJ, a record store owner, and a bartender. He has written for the 33⅓ book series and worked as a columnist and reviewer for the arts and culture site PopMatters.com. Proehl currently lives in Ithaca, New York with his wife, stepson, and daughter. It is my pleasure to share with you this interview.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Your novel is a mix of family drama and satire. I see it in the long tradition of novels. Are you more of a traditional writer?

BOB PROEHL: I’m a fairly traditional writer. I write long form. I write novels. I sat down with this and I knew, pretty early on, that it was a big project, of novelistic length.

HC: Your satire seems to have a gentle bite to it while still being complex. You’re critiquing consumer culture and corporate interest while you’re also celebrating storytelling. Can you speak to that?

BP: It’s written very much from that fan community. I’ve been a comic book fan for as long as I can remember. It’s a community that I see too often portrayed in a really negative light. I think the general public perception of geekdom, or fandom, comes from that “Big Bang Theory” portrayal: nerds living in their mother’s basements. And that’s not true. It’s not true to my experience or what I see at cons or when I talk to other people. So, while I did want to poke a little bit of fun, I also wanted to put out a more positive portrayal of that subculture.

HC: Well, I see a fun satire, like when you have, in the book, the superhero, The Ferret; or your parody of “The X-Files” which you call, “Anamoly.” There’s a certain level of snark, or am I reading that wrong?

BP: Very loving snark. The Ferret is sort of my Spider-Man stand-in. Basically, there’s nothing that much more absurd about a character with magical ferret powers than another character who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gets really strong and agile. So, if there is some snark there, it’s done with a lot of love.

A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS by Bob Proehl

A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS by Bob Proehl

HC: Share with us the storytelling going on between Valerie and Alex. She recites bedtime stories to her son based on plot lines from the hit sci-fi show she used to star in. That’s her way of revealing. How did that device come about?

BP: That was a device that developed over the course of a couple of drafts. When I first wrote it, it was clear to me that she was just recounting plots. And, as the idea developed, it became more of an interactive thing between her and Alex. I went back and reread Margaret Atwood’s “Blind Assassin” which does this brilliant thing where two of the characters are co-creating a science fiction story. They’re playing it back and forth like a narrative tennis. That same thing is happening between Alex, the boy in my story, and Brett, the comic book creator. They end up collaborating. What I wanted to get across with Val and her son, Alex, is that storytelling drifts that way anyway. The way she tells the stories from these episodes has to do with where they’re at and is very responsive to what he needs and what he needs to know.

HC: Tell us about how the origin story sections in your book came about. Some are superhero origin stories and some are origin stories for the characters in the book.

BP: I really love the phrase, “secret origin.” It’s an old DC Comics term. You knew about the character’s past but they’d then introduce this new bit of information. I saw that as part of the backstory in my book. They were sort of thought experiments, especially for the superhero ones. Just emoting, or empathizing with the high concepts of superhero characters. Backstory can be difficult to organically bring into the story. I wanted these origin pieces to be little stories in themselves. The one for the Idea Man was originally not backstory but the beginning of the narrative. It made for a clunky start so it became a flashback. And the one with Val in the theater was one of the last chapters to be written and it didn’t come together until a third draft. While I was working on it, I called a friend who is a stage actor and acted him about his process for preparing a scene. That actually helped.

HC: What writers are you currently reading?

BP: I had to take a bit of pause from fiction as I started working on another book. But I just started reading “Homegoing,” by Yaa Gyasi, which is fantastic. I’m scrambling to catch up on titles that have come out this month. I find that, when you’re away from fiction, it’s such a treat to return to it. Lately, I’ve been reading Polish history and weird research books for this other project.

HC: From your vantage point, how do you see alternative comics doing? All these “alternatives” to superhero comics, do you see a steady climb in readership?

BP: I think so. I think that’s where a lot of the top talent is going. They are moving away from corporate-owned properties and moving to creator-owned work. I don’t think they’re referred to as alternative comics anymore. It’ not like R. Crumb or the Hernandez brothers anymore. It’s a significant portion of the mainstream and the new readership. There’s a limit to how many readers you can bring in to all the superhero continuity. But, at the same time, there are people doing fresh new stuff that’s more accessible. And that’s exciting. I’ve been reading comics for twenty years and will continue to do so. I’m part of the target audience. But, for new readers, there’s other ways to access Batman.

HC: Do you think it would be interesting for your book tour to crossover to reading in a comic book shop?

BP: Yes, in fact, tomorrow I will be in Philadelphia and I’ll be at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse. And then later, in July, I’ll be in Portland at Books with Pictures. So, mostly doing traditional bookstores for this tour. But, there’s those two comic book shops and I’m really excited about that.

HC: You have a significant music background. You’ve been a DJ and a record store owner. Any interest in writing a novel set in the music scene?

BP: I still want to do that. I have something in the que and that may result in something set in New York City, the punk scene in the mid-70s. But this current book, curiously, has no musical references.

HC: For this book, you had comic con experience to draw from.

BP: When I was growing up in Buffalo, I worked for a comic book dealer. It was for one summer. We didn’t do conventions; we did shows. They would be in suburban malls. There would be a dozen other comic book dealers there. And kids like me would come trying to find issues missing from their collections. But I was already there. I got first dibs. I got paid in comics. That worked out well.

End papers by Esad Ribic

Endpapers by Esad Ribic

HC: What can you tell us about the beautiful endpapers to this book by artist Esad Ribic?

BP: I went down in the fall to meet with the folks at Viking. It was the publisher who suggested that we hire a comic book artist to do an illustration for the endpapers. We decided upon Esad Ribic. I got to describe to him all the visual references like what does the robot look like. It is supposed to be the sort of illustration that the character, Brett, would draw for Alex. It was fun to go back and forth. At one point, I was trying to describe the background, something like the Emerald City or Gallifrey from Doctor Who. And then it occurred to me it was like futuristic cities that Esad was known for drawing.

HC: Would you ever write a comic book script?

BP: I would love to. I have heard that it can be incredibly difficult. There are all sorts of constraints–but constraints can be fun as a writer. I listened to an interview with G. Willow Wilson. She was a novelist before she came to comics. She wrote, for example, the novel, “Alif the Unseen.” Currently, she’s working on Ms. Marvel. She said the technical constraints to writing for comics are mind-boggling: all the mapping out of panels; mindful to have something surprising take place on the left-hand page. I would love to but I haven’t had the opportunity yet. I imagine it would be a challenging transition.

HC: Anything you can tell us about what you’re working on now?

BP: I’m in the middle of projects. After the book tour, I’ll see what might have legs.

HC: Perhaps the book tour will inspire an essay or perhaps more.

BP: I am looking forward to the next big project, that’s what I like best, something big.

HC: Much success to you on the tour and whatever you do next.

BP: Thank you, Henry.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking below:

Be sure to follow Bob Proehl at his site right here. You can also find “A Hundred Thousand Worlds” at Penguin Random House right here.

4 Comments

Filed under Bob Proehl, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Fiction, Penguin Random House, pop culture, writers, writing

Movie Review: DE PALMA by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow

Jake Paltrow, Brian De Palma and Noah Baumbach

Jake Paltrow, Brian De Palma and Noah Baumbach

Brian De Palma is a wonderful conversationalist. In this new documentary, “De Palma,” which appears to have taken place in one sit-down interview, De Palma shares with you everything about his career and, by extension, his life. You feel a great director is passing his hand over it all, setting the record straight. This is Brian De Palma, after all, and he has had to endure a formidable amount of attack on his work. Either he was ridiculed for daring to reference Alfred Hitchcock, or his films were deemed to have too much sex, too much violence, and too much blood. The key to what makes this documentary truly worthwhile is that De Palma is a great storyteller and he sure wasn’t going to hold back on his own life’s story. He doesn’t control as much as he reveals.

What you learn about Brian De Palma in this documentary will undoubtedly enrich your viewing of his work. Let the master confess to you. As it turns out, the much discussed voyeurism in De Palma’s films is quite personal. There is certainly the Hitchcock influence, which De Palma addresses early on. How often does “Vertigo” alone get referenced in his work? Well, a lot. That is involved with a fascination in what the viewer gets to see. Later, we find out a deeper motivation. De Palma, as a young boy, was outraged to discover his father’s infidelity. He took it upon himself to follow his father and document on film his activities. De Palma, detective, gathering evidence. Finally, he confronts his father and flushes out his mistress who was attempting to hide in a closet. De Palma furiously chastises his father. De Palma, avenger, administering punishment.

At age 75, Brian De Palma has earned many times over a re-evaluation. This is a guy who definitely knows how to push buttons. Arguably, he has painted himself into something of a corner smeared in blood, mostly women’s blood. His level of suspense can be said to be over the top. However, it is something else when you have him there on the screen thoughtfully articulating his work alternating with various compelling clips and footage from a lifetime in cinema. He’s not there to persuade you. He’s there to let you in on things. You end up feeling that, yes, it is really in your best interest to put away any past preconceived ideas and listen. As for the relaxed candor running throughout, we can also give a lot of credit to the film’s directors, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.

SIFF Cinema Uptown in Seattle showing "De Palma"

SIFF Cinema Uptown in Seattle showing “De Palma”

Ultimately, this is a master class in filmmaking. De Palma does not say anything without it having a reason, followed by other reasons. At one point, he claims to not care for car chases. He says that “The French Connection” put that to rest with the greatest car chase ever. Besides, he’s not a car guy. Later, he admits he really prefers walking scenes as they lend themselves to great nuance and mystery. He loves the way a woman moves. And, more to the point, constructing a walking scene plays into his need for pictorial structure. And don’t get him started on his split-screen technique. Well, actually, do and you get some fascinating observations. For one thing, yes, it can be overdone and it won’t work for an action sequence. But allow someone with vision to modulate it, and it works. Brian De Palma was part of a golden age and contributed too much to ever be dismissed. This documentary proves to be a great companion to his work.

“De Palma” is currently enjoying a limited run. Catch it in theaters while you can. I had the pleasure of viewing it at one of our Seattle International Film Festival theaters that provide SIFF members and the general public with quality content year-round. “De Palma” is showing at SIFF Cinema Uptown along with a selection of De Palma films. Find out more about SIFF right here.

2 Comments

Filed under Brian De Palma, Documentaries, Movie Reviews, movies, Seattle, Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF

DVD Review: HOURS

Paul Walker Hours

“Hours” is a film that has an offbeat dynamic and unusual level of suspense that brings to mind something like Steven Spielberg’s “Duel.” There are elements of horror to this and, much like “Duel,” this is a story about a man, out of his element, forced to keep his wits and survive. One added wrinkle: our hero, Nolan (played by Paul Walker), has just lost his wife, Abigail (played by Genesis Rodriguez) while she was giving birth during Hurricane Katrina. More to the wrinkle: Nolan ends up being left behind while everyone at the hospital evacuates. He must remain with his premature baby who will need a ventilator for the next 48 hours, thus the title, “Hours.” And we’re just getting started.

It was Richard Matheson who perfected a thinking man’s horror with such work as “I Am Legend” and “The Shrinking Man.” These stories pivot upon a lone man in a life or death situation, at war with his environment–whether it’s vampires or giant spiders. The situation begins dire and gets more and more complicated. Does the character even have a decent chance of survival? No, so his life keeps flashing before him, and his senses sharpen, as he contends with one gut-wrenching challenge after another. That’s exactly what is happening in “Hours.” This 2013 film is the directorial debut for Eric Heisserer who is a writer on the rise in Hollywood. This film is his first opportunity to direct one of his scripts and you sense that attention to detail, to composition, and consistency. Nolan is totally trapped in the fight of his life–and his newborn daughter.

There is an undeniable added layer of significance with the acting talents of Paul Walker who sadly passed away in 2013. At the heart of this film is a story about how to respond to a disaster. Paul Walker was part of a relief team responding to the earthquakes in Haiti in 2010. That led him to found Reach Out WorldWide (ROWW), an organization of skilled volunteers responding to post-disaster situations. That energy and commitment is indelibly marked on every frame of this engaging film.

You’ll be seeing a lot more of Eric Heisserer’s work in the coming months. One fine example is “Lights Out,” screenplay by Heisserer, out in theaters 22 July 2016 (USA). And, you better believe it, this looks like a really scary horror movie. Currently, Denis Villeneuve is directing Heisserer’s Black List script “Story of Your Life” for Paramount Pictures, starring Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams. “Story of Your Life,” is a sci-fi thriller based on the short story by acclaimed author Ted Chiang.

4 Comments

Filed under Disaster, Disaster Movies, Eric Heisserer, Horror, Horror Movies, Movie Reviews, movies, New Orleans, Paul Walker, Richard Matheson, Steven Spielberg

Book Review: ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ by Bob Proehl

"A Hundred Thousand Worlds" by Bob Proehl

“A Hundred Thousand Worlds” by Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl is in touch with the natural, yet complex, details of a mother and son relationship. In Proehl’s debut novel, he has Valerie Torrey face the bittersweet transition of her son, Alex, leaving behind childhood and quite literally having to say goodbye to his mom. It’s complicated but, in this case, inevitable.

Alex Torrey is a nine-year-old boy who hasn’t seen his dad, Andrew, in six years. In Alex’s world, his dad is three things: an actor in Los Angeles; a movie star he can see on TV; and, just for fun, the character he plays, a time traveling secret agent. It was Valerie who made the reckless decision to kidnap her son and raise him in New York. Now, Val seems to want to make things right by reuniting Alex with Andrew. Throw in an assortment of superheroes, monsters, and robots, and you have the engaging debut novel by Bob Proehl, “A Hundred Thousand Worlds,” published by Viking.

This story hangs together very well on the tiny frame of nine-year-old Alex, who is at that magical age of still being very much a child and yet capable of profound observation. He is a character type that has been brilliantly employed in some great fiction from such diverse writers as Günter Grass, John Irving, and Jonathan Safran Foer. So, Proehl has created his very own charming and sad little imp. Alex questions everything. He has certain rituals he follows to help him find answers like reversing the letters to various names hoping to tap into some hidden meaning. It makes no sense to an adult but follows kid logic. From this heartbreaking innocence we can compare our own journey to self-discovery.

Valerie met Andrew while the two were starring in the hit sci-fi series, “Anomaly.” The mystery is what triggered Valerie to run away with Alex to New York. Proehl sets in motion a clever device to get Valerie, Andrew, and Alex reunited. Six years of separation from his father has taken its toll on Alex, a situation crying out for resolution. Valerie leverages her pop culture status and picks up some appearances on the comic book convention circuit, enough to cover her expenses on her odyssey with Alex, from New York back to Los Angeles. Along the way, we get plenty of jokey references to the comic book industry, many which will be appreciated by diehard fans.

Proehl’s work is ambitious as he juggles numerous pop culture references while developing something deeper. He does a wonderful job of straddling the lighthearted accessibility of a young adult novel with the richer field of literary fiction. Valerie, for example, is quite compelling as a flawed character. Andrew has made some obvious bad choices but Valerie has much to work out like her smothering overprotective nature.

Proehl knows how to satirize pop culture quite well. It is remarkable that he also knows how to evoke the qualities that attract us to mass entertainment. Nothing is ever so simple, not a divorce, not a child, not even a comic book.

“A Hundred Thousand Worlds Hardcover” is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, available as of June 28, 2016. For more details, visit Penguin Random House right here.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Comic-Con, Comics, pop culture, Superheroes

#NoBillNoBreak and BRAVE NEW FILMS

#NoBillNoBreak

#NoBillNoBreak

Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts was fed up with the ritual in Congress of a moment of silence followed by no further response to the latest mass shooting in America. She approached civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Lewis responded with organizing a classic sit-in. This time it would be inside the well of the House of Representatives, something never done before. And so history is being made. The Democrats are now galvanized and vow to continue the fight. Moving forward, spreading the word about the issues involved is crucial and Brave New Films is one great resource.

Rep. Katherine Clark teamed up with Rep. John Lewis for the sit-in.	–Katherine Clark / Twitter

Rep. Katherine Clark teamed up with Rep. John Lewis for the sit-in. –Katherine Clark / Twitter

Brave New Films is doing its part to spread awareness with its own Gun Safety campaign running since 2014. You may think you know the story but the facts will speak for themselves:

On January 5, 2016, President Obama announced executive actions aimed at expanding background checks. That same day, Smith & Wesson’s share prices rose to a record high of $25.86* a share.

Eleven days ago, 49 people died and 53 were injured in Orlando Florida, the 133rd mass shooting this year. As of yesterday, Smith & Wesson shares are up 19%** since Orlando.

Smith & Wesson is MAKING A KILLING, and they are not the only ones. The NRA, gun manufacturers and the politicians they pay are all guilty of greed.

Since launching our Gun Safety campaign in 2014, we have reached millions of people with our content. Because of your support and the thousands of supporters like you sharing and contributing, the narrative of our work is developing the connection for the mainstream media to see how greed is making us all less safe.

Will you donate $25 right now so we can continue to create content that activates millions? With every donation, big or small, you make an impact.

Content like this piece released yesterday and already reaching 210,000 people and counting. #NoBillNoBreak

The mainstream coverage of #NoBillNoBreak is promising. Now is the time to keep making the connection between the business of selling guns and the politics that allow an industry that fuels 133 mass shootings in less than half a year to keep making billions in profits. Together, we are reframing the gun debate because the right to safety should always triumph over greed.

Visit Brave New Films and learn more about their Gun Safety campaign and help support their film, THE REAL NRA: MAKING A KILLING.

Support Brave New Films in continuing to provide compelling content to millions of people. You can make a donation right here.

8 Comments

Filed under Activism, Brave New Films, Civil Disobedience, Documentaries, Gun violence, NRA, Protest