REVIEWS

[The Night Shifters is] a fascinating ride. The voice feels a lot like Neil Gaiman. This is a huge compliment in my mind, and one not to be taken lightly.” - Melinda VanLone Reviews

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Patty Griffin: Useless Desires


I've blogged several times about the years I worked at Borders, and from the tone of those blogs you might get the impression that I experienced nothing but frustration, thanks to the blind executive class that ran that business and the shoplifters and problem customers that plagued it. But in fact, there were many wonderful aspects to working for Borders. Most of the people I worked with were wonderful, and I still keep in touch with some of them. Most of the customers who came into the store loved books and/or music, and I had a lot of gratifying encounters with people. And because I was at the receiving end of a distribution chain for new books and music, I was introduced to the work of a lot of writers and artists. Patty Griffin is one of those artists.

If you want to categorize Patty Griffin, you could call her a singer/songwriter. You might call her a country singer, or a folk/rock singer. We shelved her in the pop/rock section, probably because her break-out album, Flaming Red, has a lot of driving beats and pop-style lyrics. But if you listen more closely to those lyrics, they are mostly bittersweet, contrasting with the happy rhythms that carry them.



I'm very lucky to own the in-store-play version of Impossible Dream, which has six extra tracks, several of them live. I love all of Patty Griffin's albums because of her passion and her virtuosity, but most of all because of her storytelling skills. Listening to one of her albums is like sitting down in your favorite chair with a really good short story collection, one that you like to read over and over. Sometimes the simple ones like "Kite" and "Mother of God" are the ones that grab you the most, but then others like, "Long Ride Home" (from 1000 Kisses) and "Useless Desires" (from Impossible Dream) come back to haunt you.

"Useless Desires" provided the catalyst that inspired me to write my novel, Spirits Of Glory. I had been hashing over a series of compelling images and ideas from a dream I had, about a world whose human inhabitants experienced fractured time and whimsical (and sometimes dangerous) gods; and whose neighbors were an enigmatic race who hated to answer the simple question: “Why?” I was listening to Impossible Dream while I mulled things over and puttered around my garden. And then I head these lines:

“Goodbye to all the window panes shining in the sun

Like diamonds on a winter day

Goodbye, goodbye to everyone”

Inspiration struck. I ran into the house and typed, “One day the people in the North woke up and the people in the South were gone.”

Goodbye, goodbye to everyone . . .

As I was writing the book, I often listened to this album, trying to capture the feeling of heartache that haunted my heroine, Hawkeye, as she journeyed along a shattered highway, trying to find out what happened to all those people who disappeared. Heartache is Patty Griffin's forte, though she often wraps it up in music so catchy, you don't realize your heart is being broken until it's too late. We're talkin' finger snappin' heartache – the sort country singers have mined for decades.

I'm a classical fan, and that's what I usually pursue. If I hadn't worked for Borders, I probably never would have heard one of Patty Griffin's albums. CDs were eventually discontinued at most of the Borders outlets, so even if they hadn't gone bankrupt and I hadn't been downsized, that part of my experience with them was over. The highway that provided the music was broken, much like the shattered highway in Spirits Of Glory.



But for a while, it led me to Patty Griffin. I'm glad it did.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Notes From A Dreamed Life


I had an Ah-Hah moment while I was sitting in a theater watching Inception, the movie about people who are trapped in endless loops and multiple levels in a dream. Up until that point, the story had been entertaining, engrossing, thought-provoking, and just plain fun. But then one of the characters mentioned that when you enter deeper levels in a dream, time is experienced differently. In the waking world, minutes may be passing. But in this dream sub-level, years seem to be going by.



This has happened to me. Perhaps ten times in my life, I've gone to bed and experienced lifetimes before I woke up. I can't nail the number down exactly, because the sensation of having lived all those years fades within minutes upon waking. I'm left with snippets of memories from that dreamed life, lived in a dazzling universe full of wonders, terrors – and love. And I grieve for the loss, until even that sensation fades. If I'm lucky, I can salvage some of the images, events, characters, landscapes, mystical and emotional qualities, and weave them into one of my novels. So as I sat in that darkened theater, watching those characters dive deeper and deeper into a dream, I thought “Ah-hah!” This was why I became a writer. I've been trying to preserve what I can of those lost, dreamed lives.

Christopher Nolan, writer and director of Inception, may not have had the same experience with time dilation in a dream that I have, but he at least knows that such a thing is possible. I have no idea how many other people do. When I talk with others about their dreams, some common experiences come up. Some dreams seem to be meaningless jumbles of random images and sounds. Others seem like mystical conduits to the afterlife, where you can speak with loved ones who have passed away. Some dreams drive you like demons of anxiety, regret, guilt, and terror, until you feel grateful to wake up again, even though you're exhausted. Anyone who has ever been to school has had the one about forgetting to go to class and suddenly being confronted with a final exam you're not prepared to take. Not to mention the one about being naked in public.



Both of my recent novels, The Night Shifters, and Spirits Of Glory, were inspired by dreams. Not all of those dreams were the sort that seemed to last years – many of them were fairly short. And my novels aren't composed of 100% dream material – if they had a laundry label, it might read, 30% research, 20% brainstorming, 35% dream, 15% dumb luck. Every writer has a different experience with inspiration. But I wonder – how many writers have lived for years inside a dream, as I have? Is it a common experience, or rare? Or does it differ for every dreamer, just as inspiration does?

Leonardo DiCaprio's character is haunted by the dream of his lost love in Inception. Whether or not the movie has a happy ending depends on whether or not you believe it does. It all depends on how you chose to look at it. And ultimately, that's how I've come to terms with the loss of my dream lives. I lived them – the other choice is not to have known them at all. And who knows? Some day, when this current dream life is over, I may wake to find myself in another.



In the meantime, I'll write down what I remember, and hope for the best.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Alpha Station


Hawkeye wondered how far they were from Edge. Investigators had flown to each of the Southern cities after the disappearance (obviously, no one could drive), and no one walked that route now except Scavengers and Neighbors. She could recall nothing about Edge itself, but now that she was thinking about it, the accounts she had read from the investigators who searched that empty city all agreed on one odd point. Each of them reported that periodically they felt the urge to look skyward, as if something might fall on them. None of them saw or heard anything to give them this impression, but each of them said they had looked up in alarm, over and over, until they walked outside city limits. When they gathered at the landing site on the other side of the ruined highway, everyone took one last look at Edge, with much the same urgency they had felt when they looked at the sky. But – nothing. So they all climbed in their aircraft and went home.

They might be passing the investigators’ landing site before sundown, possibly within an hour. She doubted she would know it when they did. She glanced skyward herself, but not because she thought something would fall on her. A shadow had touched her, and a breath of cool air, and when she looked up she saw a massive bank of clouds trying to overtake them. These clouds were dark with rain, and she hoped they didn’t contain lightning and fierce winds, too.



But rain would be nice, perhaps they could contrive a way to capture the water. And now that she knew that no Scavengers were following, she didn’t have to worry they would get a drink as well. Now it didn’t matter.

Daisy smelled the approaching storm and twitched his ears with disapproval. Brat’s ears folded back for the same reason, and Wolfy tsk-tsked. Boss frowned, but Mug’s grimace might have indicated his version of good humor. All this led Hawkeye to wonder if the storm might not be trouble after all. Could they shelter near one of the broken highway chunks? Surely, even if they got wet, one good, hot afternoon would dry them out again.



They all watched the storm, but as the afternoon began to age, it never overtook them, but seemed more inclined to hang back, and Hawkeye’s mind began to drift again, matching the lazy pace of the storm.

Maybe it will be trouble, but right now I rather like it. It smells good, it’s cool, and rain is always interesting.



On the right side of the horizon, past the highway, she saw the remotest outlines of buildings, the tops of skyscrapers. Could this possibly be Edge? Surely they weren’t more than twenty miles from Evernight, they couldn’t be nearing it so soon. But if it wasn’t Edge, why did it have skyscrapers? Perhaps she was wrong about the distance.

One object on the horizon dwarfed the buildings, like a tree with grass at its feet, and she marveled to think how big it must be to do that. Perhaps it merely seemed bigger, it might actually be closer. Hawkeye was still too far away from it to tell.

The sun descended to its late afternoon position, but they didn’t stop for supper, and Hawkeye didn’t ask why. She wanted to nibble a food bar, but didn’t want the beasties to see her eating. It would only remind them that they were hungry too. Boss seemed determined to travel a certain distance, so Hawkeye kept quiet, periodically looking up to check the status of the storm, then toward the horizon at the distant buildings.



The storm might be pouring rain behind them, but it didn’t seem inclined to drip any on them yet, so Hawkeye looked again at the edge of Edge. With a start, she recognized the scene. They must actually be walking past the place where the investigators had taken that photo from The Lost Cities. The same chunk of broken highway still sprawled on the left, and the outline of the city was the same.

But not exactly the same. The thing that had always seemed to be missing was there now, right smack in the middle, the object that dwarfed all others. This tube-shaped thing stood straight above the horizon, and it was obviously man-made, rather like a grain silo except that it was far too large and tall. Patches of color crawled up its side, but she couldn’t see if they were stains or something deliberate. The top part of it had broken off, she could just make out ragged bits along the torn part, things that must have actually been thick and sturdy – probably metal, if the way the sun glinted off them meant anything. Yet they looked as if something had twisted and snapped them without the slightest effort. She squinted, focusing exclusively on these torn bits, until she could see individual strands, frayed like fragile threads. She stared at this as she rode Daisy closer to the city, foot-by-foot, yard-by-yard.

Tornado? she wondered. What else could twist a building like that, yet leave the bottom intact? Her eyes wandered back down the structure, to the smudge of color that crawled up the side, but now she was close enough to see that these were letters, and they said, ALPHA.

The word rattled around inside her head with uncommon familiarity, as if it were something she saw every day, perhaps lettered on the side of a truck, or on an advertising billboard, or in a commercial on the entertainment net, or even stamped on envelopes she received in the mail – yet none of these familiar things seemed to be the right thing, the obvious thing that stood right there in front of her. She rode closer, and realized the thing was even bigger than she had thought, even farther away, so it took a long time for the letters to become clear. Finally she could make out a mass on the ground next to the towering tube, which had at first looked like rocky hills, but was obviously the part that had fallen off the top. She could just see two letters on this fallen part, S and T.

ALPHA ST –

Alpha Station!” she said aloud, as if she had just solved a crossword puzzle. Then the words and the image came together in her head, and she caught her breath. “Boss.”

He turned from his position at the head of the wedge and stared at her. Everyone else followed suit, like dominoes falling.



She motioned to the towering tube with a trembling hand. “Alpha Station. That’s the space station. The one that’s supposed to be in orbit around Jigsaw.”

from Spirits Of Glory, by Emily Devenport

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Feathered Dinosaurs


When I was studying Historical Geology, I was surprised to find out just how much biology and evolutionary science I was expected to learn, because of the fossils that are present in some sedimentary rocks. It wasn't that I objected to those subjects, or that I found them uninteresting; it's just that I was focused on rocks, and that was pretty much the only thing I wanted to study.



Once I learned more about stratigraphy, I recognized the necessity of developing at least a rough understanding of how and why life forms change over time. Geology isn't just about the chemical composition of rocks and the processes by which they form. It can also tell us what the climate was like when a particular rock formed, where the land masses were, how far oceans advanced onto the continents, and what life forms were present.

Besides, fossils ARE minerals. And recognizing fossils that are present in a layer of rock can help you assign a relative date to that layer. So basically, whether or not I wanted to learn anything about biology in my geology class, I was stuck with it. And it wasn't good enough to just be able to say, “Okay, that's a T-Rex footprint – Cretaceous Period – badda-bing, badda boom.” Nope, I had to be able to Identify structures in the fossils and figure out what they were for.

Dang.



It was a pain in the butt, but it was worth it. I didn't get to be an expert, but I did develop an appreciation for the study of fossils, as well as a healthy curiosity about the creatures who used to walk (or swim, or crawl, or fly, or ooze) on the Earth. Near the end of the semester, I also developed something else: a new perspective on dinosaurs. And I couldn't have done it without the internet.

I'm not claiming that the internet is always the best source of information. It can be a misinformation superhighway a lot of the time. But despite the perils, I found it useful when I was working on an assignment near the end of the semester. We had been handed three worksheets comparing ancient life forms with more advanced life forms. For instance, one paper compared ancient fish with amphibians. The next compared amphibians with reptiles. They were challenging, but it wasn't until I was working on the one that compared the dinosaurs to birds that I was driven to the internet for more information.

My assignment included questions about a dinosaur called a Troodon. I decided it would be helpful to see a picture of what scientists thought a Troodon looked like (the picture on my handout was of a skeleton), so I googled it. And that's when I stumbled across a reference to a book: Feathered Dinosaurs: The Origin Of Birds, by John Long and Peter Schouten.

The reference was a picture from the book, featured on Stephen Bodio's blog. It was an artist's rendition of a feathered dinosaur tending to her newly hatched “chick.” I liked it so much, I printed it out. It currently resides on one of my kitchen cupboards, where I can look at it every day. Each time I look at it, I can see the bird in the dinosaur and the dinosaur in the bird. As I sat looking at this picture on my computer screen, the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs finally became more than an abstract concept to me. So I had to buy the book.



I keep it where I can thumb through it from time to time. It's like an AUDUBON collection, except the feathered creatures inside have teeth. My only objection to it is that sometimes the paintings are centered so that the binding splits them in two. This will probably be less of a problem once the binding gets a little looser with wear.

Feathered Dinosaurs contains some interesting information, but it's not a textbook – it's designed to inspire. If you love dinosaurs (or birds), check it out.



It may even help you get an “A” on an assignment . . .