Tuesday, April 29, 2014

School Violence

After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I wrote and published a short story called "Gentle Hands."  The main character is a teacher who defends his school against four armed militants long enough for the police to arrive.  Violence in schools is not a new thing.  When I did my internship at a high school in West Phoenix in 1991, the school had metal detectors and armed police officers.  The threat of gang violence was real and tangible.  I taught freshman theatre twice a week, and although I loved the students, I was constantly aware of their unspoken fear of a violent outbreak.  It's not easy to teach or learn under those circumstances. 

The Columbine High School attacks made us all realize that the threat of violence in schools extends beyond the inner city and into our lily-white suburbs.  That shooting should've been enough to wake up our country, and it might've for a little while, but violence continues in our schools.  After the horrible shootings at Virginia Tech, the nation was once again asked to confront the issue, but the imagery and horror disappeared from the nightly news shortly afterward.  A quick look at Wikipedia can show you just how many school shootings have happened since I started teaching 23 years ago.  85.  85 school shootings since the fall of 1991!  This doesn't even include all the times when students have brought guns to school but haven't fired.  We had one such incident at our high school.  The armed student made it as far as the school bus before fleeing into the nearby woods.  He was one of my drama students.  I admired him.  I still do.  Obviously, there was something going on in that young man's life that drove him to such an extreme.  How do we know?  How do we help?  Not sure.

You might think I'm heading toward some liberal rant about banning firearms and canceling the Second Amendment.  I'm not.  Just because I don't carry a gun doesn't mean Americans shouldn't be allowed to carry them.  We are a free nation.  We have the right to keep and bear arms.  Should there be limits?  Obviously, but I'll let our elected officials argue over that.  I'm just a schoolteacher.  I want our kids to be safe.  But, human beings are violent, aren't they?  Horror stories appeal to our innate desire and proclivity to violence.  This isn't a new theory.  I'm not a psychologist.  I'm not even that smart anymore.  Stephen King wrote about all this in his essay "Why We Crave Horror Movies."  It's worth a Google.  We each have to keep our inner alligator fed, he explains.  Better than actually doing real violence, right?  Maybe that's why I enjoy writing the way I do.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Mid-Life Crisis

My high school theatre teacher taught us that a mid-life crisis usually happens when a person realizes he has lived more of his life than he has left to live.  That description struck me as rather profound when I was a teenager.  I loved my high school theatre teacher.  He looked and acted exactly like Higgins from Magnum P.I., minus the snooty British accent.  He got his start working in a funeral home, where he learned how to apply makeup.  Unfortunately, I missed his 80th birthday party a few years ago.  He and I went to the same barber back before I left Phoenix in 2000.  That's where I would keep tabs on him.  He attended the first show I ever directed, and I couldn't have been more proud.  He was one of a handful of teachers who had a huge influence on me and who I ape now to some degree even after 23 years in the classroom.  The others were my 8th grade math teacher, my high school Calculus teacher (his answering machine always played "I Just Called To Say I Love You" - gotta love the 80's), a few college professors, and my two cooperating teachers when I student taught English and theatre.

Most people don't know when their lives will end, but my mid-life crisis happened the spring before I turned 37 and lasted roughly two years.  (My goal is to live until 90, so my theatre teacher's math better be a little off.)  You get this unsettling thought that where you are and what you're doing is where you're gonna be and what you'll be doing for the rest of your life.  That kind of compounds the "Oh, no! I'm halfway to the fucking grave" panic.  Then you start to think, I just turned 21 like two seconds a go, didn't I?  Remember when Dad took you out for your first real drink at Bobby McGee's?  Then your best friend left his date (affectionately nicknamed The Sarge) hanging in a dumpy motel so he could meet you at the bar and keep partying afterwards?  This wasn't supposed to happen to me.  I'm supposed to be invulnerable and stay young forever.  Bullshit.

Some guys do crazy things when they hit the crisis.  I did something sensible.  I bought a guitar and taught myself how to play like Elvis.  Sure, I can play some Sabbath riffs as well.  But, there's something about pounding those strings and wailing those rockabilly tunes that sets me free.  I read somewhere recently that even to this day Bruce Springsteen will pick up his guitar, look in the mirror, and pretend he's Elvis.  Once I finally made my pilgrimage to Memphis when I turned 40, I knew I could get through this.  Getting old's not so bad.  It's just different.  Sure, you look more at the past than you do the future, but that's all right.  You gotta take it day by day no matter how fucking old you are.  I guess there is a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland (thanks, Paul Simon).

I wrote a novel in the summer of 2012 called Memoirs of a Mid-Life Crisis.  There's some of me in that story, which is why it probably didn't get published.  (Write for an audience, you asshole!)  The protagonist faces a major crossroads as he contemplates whether or not to cheat on his wife.  I was proud that I completed a book that wasn't a horror but missed my roots.  Crow Creek was just beyond the horizon.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Last Bitter Hour

The Last Bitter Hour was the first novel I wrote that I actually thought had a legitimate shot at getting published.  In the fall of 2006, I started teaching at my current high school.  I was directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, if I remember correctly.  My wife and I had also formed our own community theatre, so that kept us extremely busy.  I think I write best when my creative juices are maxed out.  When I'm idle, I just can't produce.  I worked on about eight to ten shows a year during that run.  Fucking crazy!  I'll never get to that level of output again.   Yes, I'm older now.  My bones creak.  I have to watch what I eat.  So stupid.

The Last Bitter Hour was my seventh attempt to write a novel in earnest.  I completed about three of the previous ones.  I followed Stephen King's advice (don't I always?).  I wrote everyday.  1,000 words.  It didn't matter what the hell was going on.  I committed to the work and made it happen.  After 100 days, I had 100,000 words.  I still follow the same process when I write stories now.  I spend about a 1/2 an hour first thing in the morning, a 1/2 an hour at lunch, and another 1/2 an hour right before bed.  That gives me the time to draft, review, and revise each day without making it feel like another job.  God knows, I don't need another one.

The book's about an alcoholic school teacher who drives home late from school one night and runs over an elderly man crossing a rural road (that same road haunts Crow Creek, by the way).  The teacher drags the body back to his apartment and hides the old man in the spare bedroom where the teacher's infant daughter died.  There's a bit of "The Tell-Tale Heart" meets Pet Sematary going on in there.  The teacher spends most of the book being punished by a dominatrix.  He believes the pain is providing penance for the guilt he feels for the loss of his child.  (SPOILER ALERT:  The dominatrix eventually discovers the old man and calls the police.)  There are other ghosts and monsters in the story as the novel weaves separate plot lines into the mix that trace the teacher's life back through his failed marriage, dysfunctional college years, and motherless childhood.  When I look back at the thing now (after having written Crow Creek), I can tell that it's just too fucked-up to follow.  I think it has moments of brilliance but is probably better off left sleeping in that box on the shelf in my office.

The feedback I received from one rejection letter was especially helpful.  Back then, rejections usually came as form letters (the publishing world's gone to shit now that everything's electronic), so when an editor checked a box (EXCELLENT PROSE) and took the time to write a quick personal message, I listened.  She said simply, "Stop writing for yourself and start writing for an audience."

Sunday, April 13, 2014


I wrote a stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic horror story shortly after we moved to North Carolina and my wife was pregnant with our second child.  I wanted to teach drama at the local high school and one afternoon walked up from the middle school where I was working and asked the principal if she would be willing to create a position for me.  She asked me how much it would cost to start up an after school theatre program.  I told her $500.  I also told her that I'd pay back every penny using proceeds from our first production.  She told me we had a deal.  She hired me as an English teacher and gave me one theatre class to start.  By the next year, enough students enrolled for me to teach a journalism class and all the rest theatre.  (We produced an amazing newspaper, by the way, until I got in trouble for letting one of my artists publish a political cartoon about an abusive priest.  There are just some things you can't get away with in the rural, conservative South.  "This is the Bible Belt, son," the assistant principal proudly reminded.)

Frankenstein was the perfect first show.  I created our program just as Victor gave life to the Creature and my wife gave birth to our little girl.  The ultimate metaphor.  More importantly, I gave an opportunity to a wonderful group of students who wouldn't have otherwise had the chance to do theatre.  They never took what we did for granted.  Many of them have become lifelong friends and still keep in touch with me via Facebook, have invited me to weddings, continued to play improv, or have dropped by our house for a guitar session or an Oscar party.  I wish I could see more of them more often.  That first group of North Carolina students in many ways has been my favorite (and my career is now inching closer to 25 fucking years).  Our time together culminated in an amazing production of Into the Woods three years later.  This time, I got in trouble for the scene where Cinderella's Prince sleeps with the Baker's Wife.  I had the Prince smoking a cigarette after the consummation.  A local Pastor caused a small stir.  Bible Belt and all that sort of thing.  So, I took an opportunity at bigger, more liberal program and have never looked back.  But, I miss those students, and they know who they are.

While producing Frankenstein, I made friends with a local newspaper editor who had a baby that same month.  We've stayed in touch ever since.  I can't believe it's been 12 years already!  She's covered nearly every theatrical event we've done in the county since then and even featured my wife and me as Cooks of the Month last summer in a monthly column.  (Greek restaurant training, remember?)  I greatly appreciate her constant support of local artists.  She's currently reading the proof of Crow Creek, by the way, and I'll post the link to her feature article just as soon as it sees print.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Points South

My wife and I created the small town of Crow Creek in a novel we wrote together in 2001 called Points South.  The book takes its name from an antique store in Crow Creek owned by Deborah and Tony DeVito.  Their son Anthony was killed on 9/11 in the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Shortly after, Deborah and Tony left New York to start over in North Carolina.  As much as you can start over after your child's been killed, anyway.  Tony spends most of his time hanging out at the Crossroads, the bar where he meets Santo Natale, the owner's bodyguard.  There's an affair.  A kidnapping.  Organized crime.  Exactly what you'd expect from Italians trapped in a Southern town.

But Points South ultimately tells the story of what it's like for Northerners to live in the South.  We're foreigners, really.  It's been almost 15 years, and I still misunderstand so much of what is said to me when I'm at the bank, the pharmacy, the auto shop, the grocery store.  Pretty much every place I go.  I need an interpreter.  Prior to our move, we lived just outside Phoenix.  I got a job and sold our home in six days.  My family didn't quite know what to think.  We're watching my nephew's tee-ball game one weekend, the next we're packing into a U-Haul and heading Back East.  (Said nephew now plays baseball for MIT, by the way.  I'm quite proud, can't you tell?  I'm also his Godfather, which means a lot to Italians.  You've seen the movies.)  It was culture shock, to the say the least.  When we stopped for dinner at Bob Evans on our very first night in town, the waitress asked me if I wanted sweet tea.  I politely told her, "yes, I'd like some sugar in my tea, sure."  I didn't realize I had ordered tea-flavored syrup.  Since then, I still haven't been to Biscuitville, the Waffle House, or Bojangles, and they're all less than a mile from my house!  Couldn't tell you what grits are.  What are greens?  Not sure.  OK, I took my Steel Magnolias cast to Mama Dip's last fall.  I tried hush puppies.  I guess that's a start.  Don't ask me why I define a culture by its food.  Maybe that's also an Italian thing.  Maybe it's why I still can't find a decent Italian restaurant down here.

Crow Creek is the fourth novel I've set in Crow Creek, actually.  I love that fictional town and all its people.  Well, not the villains.  I love to hate them.  Deborah and Tony have been in all four books, I'm happy to say.  My wife pictures the two of us when she reads the stories.  I don't.  I always picture an older couple.  James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, right?  I guess I just don't picture us as old yet.  That's a good thing.  But, we're getting up there.  Our son just spent 10 days in Mexico City.  I asked my wife how the fuck the little boy we once kept swaddled like a Cuban cigar found his way into another country without us.  She only shrugged.  I guess we're both wondering what's eating our time.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hug a Tree

I published three stories in the late 90's that I'm quite proud of.  This was just after I got my Master's.  I was teaching middle school English in the Phoenix area and trying to resurrect my writing career.  Of course, I was also busy producing theatre. 

The first was a strange tale called "Hug a Tree."  I got the title from something one of my creative writing professors once said, "Don't tell us a character is happy, show us.  Have him hug a tree."  Of course, that didn't seem to show joy to me, so I quickly drafted a tale about a carpenter who dies accidentally.  The story also weaves in a tale of a mother struggling to get her sick child to drink blood from Jesus' wounds while He dangles on the cross.  And another anecdote that has God harassing someone in Hell.  (Dante puts the souls of suicide victims in trees in the Seventh Circle.)  They all had people clinging to trees in one way or another and seemed to fit.  When the story was accepted in Black Petals horror magazine, the editor wrote, "we don't know what the hell this is about, but we love it."  That pretty much sums up the story.

Black Petals also took the next one, "Cool."  This is a bit more straightforward.  It's about a crazy air conditioner repairman who's killed by a werewolf.  All along, you think the repairman is the monster, but the end definitely has a twist.  The idea of the twist ending kind of intrigued me, so I quickly wrote another called "Doctor Kempelen's Expected Arrival" that was heavily inspired by Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."  The story appears to be about a man who goes back to visit his childhood home, where he was abused, but is really a flash-forward.  While being beaten by his stepmother, the child daydreams about what it will be like to return to the home as an adult.  This was accepted by Dark Corridors, another horror magazine.

I was on a roll!  Both magazines wanted me to keep submitting.  My success was even covered in the local newspaper.  For the first time, my name on a best seller list actually seemed possible.  Or at least worth pursuing.  Then everything stopped.  I bought a new home, changed jobs, got married, had a child, and moved to North Carolina.  Somehow, writing got lost again.  Of course, I blamed Stephen King.  If only he hadn't gotten run over while out walking!  It must've somehow put a curse on me just like when the Gypsy touched Billy Halleck in Thinner.

But this time, my absence was not as long as before.  Crow Creek (not italicized) was right around the corner.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Master of My Domain

During the 90's, I watched and memorized every episode of Seinfeld.  Come to think of it, I've been influenced throughout my entire life by comedians and have emulated them on stage and in my writing. 

Jerry Lewis was probably first.  I loved his slapstick and his funny voice.  I also liked how he always got in the way when Dean Martin was making his moves on pretty girls.  Jerry Lewis made three brilliant films in the early '80's that I highly recommend.  Those were Hardly Working, The King of Comedy (directed by Martin Scorsese), and Cracking Up.  My brothers and I watched those repeatedly. 

There's something special about Jackie Gleason.  Jerry Lewis once said that the best comedians can make you cry just as fast as they can make you laugh, and that's so true of Jackie Gleason.  Watch the lost Christmas episode of The Honeymooners or the episode where he has to give back the baby girl he and Alice adopted.  "How about me?" he yells in his perfect Ralph Kramden voice.  "How about how I feel?"  I never forgot those lines.  Of course, I loved his Buford T. Justice character from the Smokey and the Bandit movies as well.  He truly was The Great One.

Peter Sellers was also there from the beginning.  I could quote every single Pink Panther film by the time I was 10.  I loved them.  I love him.  I spoke like Inspector Clouseau for the better part of my childhood.  It always made my grandmother laugh.  He has famous quotes about not having his own identity.  That suits the theatre student in me just perfectly.  Watch The Party or Being There.

Andy Kaufman was probably the most brilliant of comedians (if for nothing else but his lifelong obsession with Elvis).  Who else could make a career by getting the audience to hate you?  You can find so much of his work on YouTube.  Look for "I Trusted You", any of his wrestling escapades, or his Tony Clifton skits.  They're incredible.  I love making my audience uncomfortable.  I staged a wild west adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that changed into West Side Story halfway through.  I reversed the order of all the scenes in Look Homeward, Angel.  I've directed Frankenstein, Dracula, Night of the Living Dead and plan to do The Haunting of Hill House next winter.  It's what I enjoy most about art. 

Chevy Chase is up there for me as well.  I loved Fletch when I was a kid.  And, of course, the Vacation movies are classics.  I met Chevy Chase at a New York Yankees game in the late 90's and only talked to him about his TV show.  I could tell how happy he was that I watched.  I was one of only three.  My mom and my little brother were the other two.

Currently, Will Ferrell is my favorite comedian.  I've watched every one of his films and just looking at his face makes me laugh (I'm sure he'd be proud of that).  YouTube "Tight Pants" if you need to laugh.  He's also a great dramatic actor, by the way.  Check out Stranger Than Fiction and Everything Must Go if you want to see that side of him, but I'm about to watch the 763 new jokes in Anchorman 2 that just came out on DVD yesterday!

I returned to writing in the late 90's.  I completed a novella called Waiting for Darkness about the hunt for love and a kidnapped girl.  Very Lovecraft in style.  Somewhat Clive Barker.  I submitted it as my Master's thesis, along with an essay about contemporary horror fiction, and cranked out several short stories soon afterwards that found their way into print.  Like George Costanza said, "I'm back, baby, I'm back!"