Archive for September, 2007



I’m going to have to quit my day job, go on disability, and do nothing from now on but read.

Let’s face it, it’s what I was born to do, the only thing I do really well. Aside from napping on the couch, that is.

The two activities complement each other nicely.

Thursday I took off from work and went to the opening day of the Friends of the San Francisco Library annual booksale at Fort Mason. I try to go every year now, tho I had to miss last year’s sale, which happened while I was in Madison, Wisconsin for Bouchercon.

It was a tough decision to go to Madison.

The San Francisco weather gods are kind to books. Unlike the Fourth of July or the Chinese New Year’s parade, which are traditionally shrouded in fog and cold as fuck, the first day of the Friends of the SF Library booksale is always bright, sunny, and clear, with a brisk cool breeze blowing from the ocean and into the hangar-like waterfront building almost completely filled with tables of books and dazed, intent book people.

Many browsing the tables are stereotypical book folks, tweedy, bespectacled, etc. Many are not: A long-haired, bearded man in a studded black leather jacket and leather motorcycle pants, hovering with his empty shopping cart before jumping in, watching the crowd and talking loudly to himself: “That’s my book! My book! Mine, mine!” and laughing sardonically.

I know how he feels. When I wheeled my shopping cart up to the first book-covered table, I was almost hyperventilating from indecision–start here? Move left or right? Go through the boxes under the table now, or later? Systematic read, or random? And meanwhile the conviction that everyone else is slyly picking out the very books I’m looking for, the prize my heart is set on. Whatever that is. I’ll know it when I see it.

Eventually I settled down and began reading the spines. I settled on systematic, and would block out a dozen books or so, choosing a prominent or easily recognizable book as a boundary, speed-reading the titles, then back up to the beginning and read the second row, and then the third if there was one. I didn’t want to miss anything. I meant to read every goddamn bookspine in the place.

Two years ago my booksale experience was magical. It seemed that as soon as I thought of a book I wanted, it appeared under my hand, or at most a few books away.

This year was different. The rows of bookspines remained inert, closed to me. I wasn’t finding anything I wanted. Hundreds and hundreds of books, and not one of them I wanted to read!

I decided I was pushing it, trying too hard and driving away the delicate relationship between desire and its manifestation. I cleared my mind, opened my heart to all possibilities.

Then I started to score.

Crime novels: Eddie Muller, Kevin Wignall, Chantal Pelletier. It makes me happy just to type the names. Charlie Stella. Joe R. Lansdale.

Hawksmoor, by Peter Ackroyd.

Crime books: Crooked, the confessions of a twenties criminal. Mostly Murder by Sir Sydney Smith, memoir of a Brit forensics specialist in the first half of the 20th century. Bloody Murder by Julian Symons, the revised edition that goes up to the 90s.

Fantasy novels: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly; Zamora’s The Shadow of the Wind.

Bio: Sewell’s big Emily Dickinson.

Reverdy, trans. Mary Ann Caws. The Collected Poems of Edwin Muir.

Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse, Haitian voodoo explorations.

Sketches of a Tour to the Lakes, journal of a trip around the Great Lakes from New York to Michigan in 1826. Hardcover, in slip: four bucks! Watercolor illustrations by the author!

A tattered, battered copy of Ocean Shore Railroad, local California history of the San Mateo Coastside (I used to live there, have spent a lot of time there.)

A nice old hardcover with handcut pages, illustrated, of RL Stevenson’s later stories, including “The Bottle Imp.”

A Tale of Brittany, Pierre Loti. Ambivalent about this for a couple seconds–Loti is a lightweight, a fake exotic–but it’s a nice hardcover in great condition, and I’m a sucker for anything about Brittany. It goes in the shopping cart.

Oh, and some cool lps: a set of the first Leadbelly recordings for the Library of Congress by the Lomaxes–I’d never heard these. The recordings document a wider range of Leadbelly’s considerable repertoire than I’d heard before. Way cool stuff.

A boxed set of early music by Brit musicians, demonstrating a range of period instruments. Shawms! Bagpipes! Bladderpipes! The tromba marina! I am happy.

A folk orchestra from Romania. More bagpipes, fiddles, one of those fearsome Hungarian hammer dulcimers, wild singing and playing.

Freilachs by clarinetist Dave Tarras. Yiddische musics. Tarras one of those musicians with a direct pipeline to the endless flow of music going on always underneath everything.

A two lp set to teach yourself Irish Gaelic, on Gael Linn. I’ll get around to this someday, I swear.

Were there more? It feels as if there were more. There are always more books.

Ah! Fuck! Books, books!

I am happy.



Finished the latest and final round of revisions to my second novel and shipped the book off to my editor. I’m done.

Fine. Now what?

Well, I have a list of ideas for the next one, some roughed-out stories I’d like to pursue, and a cloud of vague possibilities that could be turned into something, maybe, with work.

And a couple short stories started but not finished.

So there is writing to do. Lots of writing. But first . . .

First I should really straighten up the room a bit. Clean it. Vacuum it. Turn all the pencils in the jar point up, smaller ones in the middle. Look! A pencil rose! Let’s see what other flowers we can make out of commonly available office supplies . . .

You’d think with these OCD tendencies my work space would be pristine and orderly, leaving no scope for obsessive work avoidance strategies. And it’s true that, periodically, things get very clean around here.

But it doesn’t last. Conditions quickly revert to squalor.

And that’s a Good Thing.

Because dealing with it gives me something to do besides writing.

I know, I know–“I thought you loved writing!” I do–it’s getting started that’s the hard part. The Big Question that keeps coming up is–will there be anything there, this time, back in the head? Are ideas finite, like popcorn, bank accounts, global oil deposits? Maybe you’ve reached the bottom of the bowl, nothing left but little burned pieces, rock-hard unpopped kernels.

You never really know, until you start writing.

So it’s a thrilling little moment I put off as long as I can.

There are as many ways to avoid writing as there are writers. We’re creative types, right? So it should be easy for us to think of ways to keep from working.

Blogging is one of them–it feels just like writing. Is blogging writing? That’s raw meat for another discussion.

Though I think if it were really writing I’d find more ways to avoid doing it.

Avoidance behavior can be a beautiful thing. My latest inspiration is to arrange my book accumulation–too random and funky to be called a “library”–by subject, then by size and then color. Should take a while.

But after that I’m stuck. I may actually have to sit down and write.

Can anyone help me out here? What are some of the truly creative ways you’ve found to avoid writing?



I just put a new story up on my website, for your reading pleasure, absolutely free and without cost:

“The Haunted Shopping Cart”




Some of the things that make you laugh are just not funny.

There’s a certain pitch of horror that, if it happens quickly enough, and is horrible enough, will make you laugh.

You might feel a little bad about it afterwards, of course. Laughing at other’s misfortunes: what kind of thing is that? Even if they fucking deserved it.

In my blog post (see below) about Vicki Hendricks’ Miami Purity I neglected to mention that, even in its darkest moments, the book is stalked by a kind of mad laughter. I feel terrible about some of the things that made me laugh out loud. Fortunately, to discuss them would produce major spoilers, so I have a good excuse for keeping them in the dark, where they belong.

But those cases–where a bad guy gets served, justly and deservedly–are usually not as funny as when some perfectly guiltless, innocent and unsuspecting person is hit with the worst thing imaginable. There is probably some calculable ratio between deserts and punishment that produces comedy, a tipping point beyond which there is nothing to do but to hit the floor laughing.

At a Thrillerfest panel on humor in thrillers, someone in the audience brought up Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust. Tony’s only sin is that he is a somewhat clueless traditionalist who is no judge of character. He seems to believe that deep down, in their heart of hearts, his fellow human beings are fundamentally good and decent.

He gets schooled some in this.

Tony ends up, after the rest of his life is crumpled up and thrown in the trash, deep in the Amazon jungle as the permanent guest of a Mr. Todd. Mr. Todd’s only recreation, aside from rescuing lost Englishmen, is reading Dickens. Or rather, having Dickens read to him. By Tony Last. Again and again. Over and over. Probably forever.

Now I find this funny to the point of brain seizure. This is well beyond schadenfreude, the shadow joy of laughing at something that might just as easily be happening to you. This is the comedic equivalent of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, being given a glimpse of the big existential ha-ha-ha. It makes you realize that laughter is probably at base a survival mechanism.

Joke’s on you, buddy.

What a riot.

Anyone feel like confessing to similar inappropriate laughter?

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