Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Three Stories of Stories

I always find it interesting when a writer tells me he's having problems finding story ideas. The world far and near is a wild and strange and scary and beautiful place, full of people and things and events fascinating and/or bizarre. Therefore my problem is consistently the opposite -- having too many ideas rattling around inside my head, battling for enough of my attention and time to be written down well.

These thoughts have been resounding deeply in me lately as I prepare my mother's house for sale. She passed away a few years ago, and I've finally contracted to sell her house. Part of that effort includes sifting through the things my parents accumulated over decades of traveling and living around the world, deciding what to keep, what to sell, and what to donate to charities. I spend time every day wandering alone through the house's three stories, all still full of furniture and furnishings, clocks and rugs and art. Contemplating each of these objects, or sitting in a particular chair, or hearing the sonorous chimes of my Dad's grandfather clock, all remind me how very slippery time is, and how powerful is the simple act of remembering. All those things whisper to me as I meander through the house. They gently prod me to recall where they came from, and how and why they were chosen to help transform the initially barren and impersonal places my parents lived into the warm, loving homes in which they nurtured their children and grandchildren.

I posted a little while ago about finding a small cache of very old letters my Mom kept her whole life. ("A Dying Art and a Broken Heart," below.)  As I write this post, I'm looking at an ancient Arabian musket my Dad brought home from one leg of his incessant travels when I was a kid. The rifle is easily five feet long, and its ancient silver plating is ornate with lettering and decorations woven around and between intricate inlays fashioned in mother-of-pearl. It's as much art as weapon, if not more so. The scents of people, places and centuries long past wafts from every inch of it. Touching the gun, I imagine him in the late 1960s in north Africa, a man younger than I am now, his constant journeys making him ever a man in a suitcase. I can see the steam that curls up from the chipped cup of hot, spiced tea held steady in his strong fingers to fog the thick lenses of his black-rimmed glasses. I can hear him haggling in three languages with an itinerant Bedouin antique dealer under the lazy sway of inattentive palm trees towering overhead, desert breezes murmuring primeval secrets through their moonlit fronds.

Some of that Saharan snippet is true. Looking at the musket, I remember my Dad telling me how he came to own the gun. The rest is made up, inspired as much by what I don't remember as what I do. And as I let the compelling imagery my father infused in my young mind all those years ago start to percolate in the same mind now rendered broader and wiser by an additional four decades of tribulations and triumphs, new story ideas will begin to seep into my daydreams and nightmares. In my experience, it's inevitable.

Writers are storytellers. For any storyteller writer worth his salt, every house is full of stories eager to be told. All you have to do is hear them, season them, write them, and share them.

"In every dream home a heartache."
~~ Bryan Ferry ~~

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Craig Ferguson vs. The Vast Wasteland

My relationship with television has always been spotty. I grew up in the Middle East, in a country where there were only three television stations. All three were government-controlled. They generally didn't start their daily broadcasts until early evening, and went off the air nightly between 11PM and midnight. The programming was broadcast in any of three languages -- Arabic, French, or English -- and the two languages not spoken (or dubbed) on a given show were scrolled simultaneously across the bottom third of the television screen in something like close-captioning. If anything juicy happened in the bottom third of the screen during a show, only the most attentive watchers noticed it behind the endlessly scrolling captions. If that sounds annoying, it was, and so my friends and I found many other things to do with our time in the 1960s and '70s than while away hours in front of TV sets. Some of those things were even fairly wholesome, though not nearly as many as our parents vainly hoped.

When my family moved from the Middle East to London, England, in the mid-'70s, British television was somewhat more palatable to an American teenager. Still, back then in the U.K. there were only three television stations. Two of them were owned and operated by the government, and one was independent. Something I remember vividly was an uproar in the late '70s about whether the manifestly benign American program, "The Bionic Woman," was too violent for what remaining British sensibilities weren't yet benumbed by The Sex Pistols and their punk rock cohorts. This debate occurred at a time when it wasn't uncommon for the artsier of the two government channels to broadcast what could only be described as unedited French softcore porn in the early evenings. Despite whatever allure such televised French cinema may have held for us, again my friends and I spent the vast majority of our free time engaged in activities far removed from our families' televisions.

Now I live in the States, and I have cable. The good folks at my local cable monopoly pipe scads of channels at me every minute of every day. Perhaps because I grew up thinking of televised entertainment as more of a last than first resort, I watch almost none of them. I watch news, sports, or an occasional movie, though I confess anything involving ghosts or aliens stands a strong chance of grasping my attention. If someone can clear the broadcast rights and invents a sport where ghosts play aliens in the Otherworld Series, I'm all over it.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not one of those snobs peering down my nose at people who watch television. I watch TV, and some of the programs are very good. I was a big fan of "The X-Files" and "24," and with all its trippy ghostly weirdness I'm partial to the new show "American Horror Story." But those are exceptions. There's a good reason why Newton Minow, then the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, opined publicly in 1961 that television "is a vast wasteland."

And that was before august fare like "Jersey Shore," "Khloe and Lamar," "Toddlers & Tiaras," and "Teen Mom" oozed out of our televisions.

As an author, my relationship with television is even more tenuous now than it was when I was growing up. I've no general opposition to machines with screens full of moving pictures. Every day all over the world millions of people use laptops and tablets and even smartphones to read and enjoy books. I'm thrilled with that. But despite its insatiable appetite for "content," television itself spends scant time lauding books and authors. I suppose that makes some sense, given that someone delving deeply into a book isn't paying attention to the TV commercials.

Incidentally, I know there's at least one channel where the foregoing is untrue. C-SPAN2 dedicates a fair amount of weekly airtime to a program called "Book TV," featuring nonfiction authors and their books. I haven't seen the Nielsens for C-SPAN 2, but I'd have zero hesitation betting they're relatively microscopic compared to HGTV, Spike, or even the Home Shopping Network.

I'll put it another way: Do you watch a lot of C-SPAN2?

Yeah. Me neither.

That's why I have to give due thanks to "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson." In a television landscape that seems practically antithetical to things literary, Ferguson regularly chooses to shine scarce network limelight on authors and books. Presumably, Ferguson's appreciation for authors sprouts at least in part from his own status as one of them. He has written two books -- a novel titled Between the Bridge and the River, and more recently a memoir called American on Purpose. I'm unaware of any other major American television entertainment program that makes a sustained effort to book authors. A list of all the authors Ferguson has had on his show would make for long and tedious reading, but just a handful of them are Dennis Lehane; Michael Connelly; Lee Child; Neil Gaiman; Amy Tan; Whitley Streiber; Laura Lippman; Lawrence Block, and James Ellroy. Note, this list is comprised of actual authors, not celebrities hawking their vapid and ghostwritten "tell-all" spiels to expand their "brand." While Ferguson has those types on his show from time to time, you're far more likely to find those quasi-literate celebrity airheads on countless other shows, where equally you'll be far less likely to find yourself spending a few sanguine minutes with real authors.

As one author to another, then, I give a sincere and grateful tip of my ink-stained hat to Craig Ferguson. He's not only very funny and a little strange, but he frequently lends his huge stage to support and promote the labors of hard-working authors of both nonfiction and novels. See for yourself.

(Full disclosure: I have nothing to do with Ferguson, his TV show, or CBS. I'm not hawking Ferguson's program, and I don't owe him any money. He has no compromising photos of me that I haven't already bought back from him at competitive prices. I merely want to recognize him for being generous to authors. If you're a fellow author, you should want to do the same.)

(That said, if Mr. Ferguson or any of his people happen across this blog post, don't be shy about booking me on the show. I promise I won't go for the Big Cash Prize at the end of my segment.)

"I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, 
I go into the other room and read a book."
~~ Groucho Marx ~~

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Dying Art and a Broken Heart

If you're anything like me, it's difficult to remember the last time you wrote a letter. I don't mean planting yourself in front of yet another set of plastic keys and tapping out some paragraphs before submitting them to the whirring printer -- we've all done that countless times. Nor am I referring to sending e-mails or texts or tweets, or posting updates on social media sites or blogs like this one. Scribbling a couple words and a harried signature across the bottom of a holiday card doesn't count, either. I mean a real letter, where your elegant pen left a trail of script across creamy, heavy-bond stationery as you shared inquiries and thoughts and fears and hopes with someone close to you.

It's not just you. When's the last time you came back from your mail box with a personal, handwritten letter nestled among the pile of bills and solicitations that ceaselessly vie for your time, attention, and money six days a week? Yeah, I can't remember, either.

So imagine my fascination when I recently stumbled across a small cache of very old, yellowed, and delicate handwritten letters my late mother had saved her entire life. Most are in English, though some are in Italian. They're all addressed to my Mom's ancestors who lived just south of Cincinnati, in northern Kentucky. They were written and mailed decades before my mother was the proverbial twinkle in her parents' eyes. The letters came from all over the country -- Ohio, New York, and Louisiana supply a few of the return addresses. Some of the letters are dated as far back as the 1840's, when my literary hero Edgar Allan Poe first published "The Raven," and the Mexican-American War raged before the California Gold Rush captivated a young nation's imagination.

Satellites didn't gird the globe then. There was no Internet. There were no telephones. The raw, bleeding edge of communications technology in the States at the time was Samuel Morse's electrical telegraph. In May, 1844, Morse publicly unveiled his telegraph by sending a message from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., to a depot at the B&O Railroad in Baltimore. That first message was, "What hath God wrought?"

I don't know about God. But what Morse wrought was the electric way we virtually exclusively communicate with each other today.

Still, half a century later sending a telegram or finding a telephone didn't cross Gus Sutton's mind on the night of November 14, 1897. Telegrams were expensive and impersonal, and tolls for long distance calls over the country's fledgling and unreliable telephone network were outrageous. Besides, for some things, the truly important ones, there was no remotely acceptable substitute for giving the heart reign to speak through committing dark ink to fine paper. So the night after he learned the girl he loved had become engaged to be married to another suitor back in Kentucky, Sutton sat down in his flat on Seventh Avenue in New York. He picked up a pen and started to write on a piece of stationery he got from the magnificent new luxury hotel that had just opened a couple of blocks away on Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street, named The Waldorf-Astoria.

Like the art of scripting heartfelt handwritten letters, the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel would soon be sacrificed in the name of progress. About 30 years after Sutton wrote his gracious letter to my great-grandmother Blanche, the original hotel (the one that literally invented room service as we know it today) was demolished to make way for a new structure that still stands now as an enduring emblem of everything new and modern and shiny. I've been there a few times, and if you haven't, you've seen it more times than you can remember. It's the Empire State Building.

How's that for symbolism?

Don't get me wrong. I'm no Luddite. I'm all for progress. Every day I use the same communications technologies you do, for which my thanks are profuse and my regrets are few. But after finding Gus Sutton's letter among my Mom's belongings, it strikes me that even now, for the things that really matter, there's still no remotely acceptable substitute for giving the heart reign to speak through committing dark ink to fine paper.

The Waldorf-Astoria
Fifth Avenue 33rd and 34th Streets
and Astor Court
New York.

[November] 14th -- [18]97


Dear Friend
     Last Eve while perusing the "New York World" I came across an Article with the following Headlines

     Another Kentucky Belle to wed. Miss Blanche Mariana and Mr. George Bardo.

     And then it went on to try and describe you. What an utter impossibility for anyone who has not seen known and beheld that lovely face and figure.

     The description was very good of a pretty face [e]tc but nothing in comparison to Newport's leading lady.

     Allow me as your distant Admirer, to extend my congratulations.

     Hoping that Cupid will do full Justice to one so deserving, I remain as ever Your Sincere Friend.

                                                                                             Gus Sutton

#45 Seventh Ave.
                   NY City

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Trust" -- A Short Story

A Short Story by Richard Gazala
[from the anthology "Trust & Other Nightmares"]

“I’ll do it if you do it,” she repeated.

Ella’s words drifted up to curl softly round Robert’s sweaty ears, like the nearly imperceptible wisps of silvery clouds caressing a nigh full moon glistening high overhead in the starless black sky.

Robert finally dropped his shovel.  It bounced once noiselessly, shedding fresh dark soil onto thick green grass before settling on the ground.  He inspected his bleeding palm in the moonlight.  Shaking fingers grubby with moist brown earth pinched a long splinter of wood and twisted it out from the meat of his hand.  He held the jagged piece close to his face, inspecting the shard with pale blue eyes bleared by lonesome years.  Years laden with the oppressive guilt of an unkept promise.  Through its reflection in worn varnish on the wooden sliver, the moon stared at him.  The unwavering expectation he sensed in that stare made him gulp slowly, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his dry throat.

Robert looked down at Ella.  “You know I’ll do it,” he whispered.  The cool night breeze caught his words and carried them up into the rustling leaves of a stale poplar tree a few feet away.  The tree still bore timeworn scars in the shape of Robert’s and Ella’s chiseled initials.  Old love letters encased in a crooked heart carved in the tree trunk with the same sharp blade Robert now felt pressing insistently against his right thigh through the pocket of his muddy jeans.

Robert dropped to his knees next to a half-empty bottle of cheap red wine.  An unsteady hand lifted the bottle to cracked lips.  He swallowed desperately, savoring the burn of the wine on his tongue before it wound its way down to warm his belly.  He carefully placed the bottle next to the discarded shovel.  Watering eyes drifted over Ella’s frail features and the tattered lace of a drab bodice that he remembered had once been so lustrously white.  He took another swallow.

“Do you believe in God?” he asked.

Ella was silent a long time before he heard her say, “I think people get the gods they deserve.”
Robert nodded slowly.  “I know it’s no excuse, but I made you that promise with my loins burning and my head full of snow.  Not that I didn’t mean it when I said it, but now…”  Robert shrugged and rubbed his face with his palms, streaking his cheeks with dirt.  “Ever since then, I shut my eyes when I see the future,” he whispered.  The breeze slid across his aching shoulders and he shivered.

“I know what it is to be sad,” she said.  “Watching you without me all this time made me sad.  Every minute seemed like an hour, every year an eternity.  I kept my promise, and I’ve cried countless tears waiting for you.”

“I know.  I’m sorry.”  He reached his hand toward her face.  “I’m here now.”

“Yes, Robert,” she sighed.  “Here again.”

A thin finger of dingy yellow light struggled through the dark night behind Robert and glinted against the dusky blade of the shovel.  He turned and looked back into a small grove of gnarled trees, seeking the light’s source.  The bulb of a flashlight wobbled between the trees, moving unevenly in Robert’s direction.  He poured more wine onto his tongue.  “Someone else is here, too.”  He stood.  “I’ll be back soon.”

“I know you will.”

Robert loped quietly on the balls of his feet to the grove’s edge and stopped, peering and listening.  The flashlight ambled slowly toward him, winding along a rutty stone path that meandered beneath the trees.  He heard the slow scrape of heavy boots and the steady click of a staff against the paving stones, accompanied by tired moans from tangled trees quivering in the pearly moonglow.  He drew a deep breath through his nose, savoring how freshly turned earth perfumed the night air’s secrets.

A reedy old man emerged from the grove and stopped in front of Robert, squinting up at him.  Dark, resentful eyes blazed from a gaunt face slashed with deep wrinkles that looked like scabrous fissures carved into his leathery flesh by decades of unappeased malice.  Sporadic strands of limp, greasy gray hair hung from the man’s skull and tangled with a long, untamed beard to snake down the front of a loose brown uniform jacket zipped up to the neck against the evening chill.  An embroidered patch on the chest of the jacket said, “Chuck.”  The man leaned on his thick walking stick and caught his breath.  He glared at Robert a moment.  “It’s late,” the man rasped, smearing Robert’s face with the flashlight’s sallow beam.  “You’re not supposed to be here.”

Robert blinked in the electric light.  He reached into his jeans, his fingers wrapping loosely round the smooth handle of the knife in his pocket, and shook his head.  “No, Chuck.  You’re not supposed to be here.”

“I work here, boy,” Chuck snarled through the gap in his yellow teeth.

Robert yanked the knife from his pocket and hoisted it high into the moonlight.  “Not anymore, Chuck.”

Ella was still waiting for him when Robert returned to the poplar tree and stooped down to pick up the bottle.  He felt her eyes follow his movements as he gently tipped the bottle and thin red wine quietly gurgled over the knife, rinsing away thick red blood.  After scraping the blade against his jeans, he returned it to his pocket and looked at Ella.

“Do you hate me for making you wait so long?”

Her words felt like warm silk against his ears.  “No.  I know how hard it is to keep promises like ours, how scary.  I know better than you.  It’s the waiting that’s been hard on me.  I knew you’d keep your promise.  I just never knew when or how.  I know now.”

Robert wiped his mouth slowly with his sleeve, and gulped hard.  “You do?”  He felt his courage waning.  “Because I don’t think I can do it, Ella.”

The words came from behind him, a feral growl shredding the cool velvet of the night air.  “You can do it, Robert.”

Robert spun round, and gasped.  His jaw fell open and his chest clamped against his wildly beating heart as Chuck’s heavy stick smashed onto his right shoulder.  Robert heard the sickening crunch of his collarbone shattering.  He howled in pain and fell to his knees, his right arm dangling uselessly at his side.  His eyes, wide and disbelieving, watched Chuck raise the walking stick over his head with gnarled hands. Silvery moonglow glimmered off wet blood seeping onto Chuck’s jacket from the vicious wounds gashed into his face and chest by Robert’s knife.

“A suicide pact is all about trust, boy,” Chuck whispered as he whipped his stick against Robert’s left ear.  The force of the blow knocked Robert backwards.  His head cracked against an ornately etched granite marker, and he collapsed unconscious into Ella’s waiting arms.

A cheerless smile twisted Chuck’s thin lips when the breeze floated Ella’s words up to him.  “Thank you, Daddy.”

Chuck let his walking stick fall from his shaking hands, and picked up Robert’s shovel.  “That’s what Daddies are for,” he breathed.  He knelt down to gently close the scarred wooden lid of his daughter’s casket over the reunited couple, then stood and stared a long time at Ella’s headstone.  His quavering lips moved silently, keeping time with his crooked finger slowly tracing the carved epitaph under her name.

It said, “All my trust in thee is stayed.”

Chuck wiped a hot tear from his cheek.  “I’m sorry for making you wait so long, Ella,” he murmured as a shovelful of freshly turned earth spattered onto the casket.