BALLARD ghost #1

Night has fallen through the screen door out in the back yard. Bugs humming out there, batting themselves against the porchlight.

—Ghost be walkin everywhere. Here. There. Down by the river. River full of ghost.

Five children hunched over a kitchen table covered in newspapers. Eggs and egg dye in front of them. Some half-colored eggs in egg cartons, their dyed halves drying in the still kitchen air still smelling of spaghetti. Adults in the other room. Kids picking up uncolored eggs with wire hooks. Dipping them in bowls of dye; in the bottom of those bowls, little undissolved wafers of dye fizz.

—You ever hear of Pee River? continues RC.

—What? No, says Joe.

—Back up the canyon. Pee River’s where some bad shit went down.

RC and Joe are cousins. The other three kids at the table, all girls, and younger, giggle amongst themselves about the eggs and talk of chocolate bunnies, not really noticing the conversation between their two older cousins.

—Like what? asks Joe.

—There was a ghost back up in there. Would get inside ya. Make ya do things. To girls.

Joe shivers a little, dips his little wire hook into and out of a bowl of pink egg dye.

—Uh-huh.

RC goes on: —Yeah. Ghost has the run a the place back up in them woods. Right outta town. Still up there I heared. Ghost walkin everywhere.

The adults, three sets of parents and a grandmother are in the sitting room next door. Not really visible but their words drift under the swinging saloon-style kitchen doors:

—Right there in the church?

—Yep. Passed out. Cold.

—Christ. Did he hit his head or something. On the way down.

—Naw. He was OK.

—He hadn’t eaten anything. And it was the long Latin mass. And the incense.

—Those take forever. Poor lil Joey.

—Yeah. And he was close to her. A pallbearer. He’d never been to anything like that before.

—He said something. When he came to.

—Yeah? What?

—About the last thing he remembered hearing. Just before he fainted.

In the kitchen, the three little girls pick up their eggs and disappear out into the backyard, the screen door banging shut behind them. Joe looks across the table at RC. Who smiles underneath bangs bleached blonde by the summer sun.

—Shit, man, he mutters, shaking his head.

—What, asks Joe.

—Ghost, man. That’s all. Bad-ass, man. Ghost. Makin people do things they don’t wanna do.

—Yeah.

—That’s bad-ass.

Back in the sitting room, coming in from under the saloon-style kitchen doors:

—Uh-huh.

—It was about the Holy Ghost.

—In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.

—No, something else.

—What then.

—He heard Veni, Sancte Spiritus. He knew it meant Come, Holy Ghost.

—Hmm. And so?

—Said he thought the Holy Ghost was coming to get him, coming to take him over, or take him away, or something.

—And that, ladies and gentleman, is why the Catholic—

—Shut up. No one wants to hear it, Lou.

The girls bolt back in from outside, slamming the screen door behind them and crashing through the saloon-style kitchen doors, past the adults, on their way to one of the bedrooms in the rear of the bungalow. They have colored eggs in their hands and flowers in their hair and are laughing.

RC pushes back from the kitchen table, egg dye on his fingers and newsprint smeared on his bare forearms.

—You got any money, he asks.

—Some, replies Joe.

—Cool. Let’s go get some candy.

Joe gulps, his adam’s apple bobbing up and down his skinny neck. Nods his head.

—Cool.

RC yells into the sitting room: —Ma! We’re goin down to Blackie’s.

The boys head for the screen door. RC pauses:

—Hey man.

—Yeah.

—What’s up with that fainting at Gram’s funeral?

Joe gulps again, then brushes past him, into the night, past the bugs and porchlight, sucking in huge draughts of nocturnal sea air and heading for the alley.

Influences at the core of BALLARD bonus expeditionary force

This book came together—compared to the earlier two—in straightforward fashion. I wrote the Prologue and the Epilogue kind of in the middle of the composition process. But the body of the book rolled out in mostly chronological order, with almost no rearranging in the final proofing.

This is in dramatic contrast to the methods behind BALLARD motor court and BALLARD the republic of dogs. Those books were both significantly “cut-up,” to use a Burroughsian term; and in neither case did I know exactly where the story was going to end until approximately halfway through.

But with BALLARD bonus expeditionary force there were some documentary influences which made it easy for the story to flow to its inevitable conclusion. This book is in no way “factual,” but at its core has certain consistencies relating to two historical events:

In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression a group of WWI veterans journeyed to Washington, DC, and camped out in protest. They had been promised a “bonus” for their service and, times being what they were, had come to the capital to ask for it now, rather than in another five years when it was legally “due” them.

The crowd grew to thousands. The US gov’t got increasingly nervous. Eventually, the Army was sent in and tanks rolled. Douglas McArthur was among the most zealous of the officers leading the charge; Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton were more conflicted about their roles in rousting the vets from their encampments. Fires were set—or broke out—and many people were injured and a couple of klds died.

In November, 1969, on the back of their classic Beggar’s Banquet and the unreleased but soon-to-be-classic Let It Bleed records, The Rolling Stones embarked on their first tour of America in over three years. Anticipation ran high. The Stones were at their peak, both musically and as cultural touchstones. There was an air of danger about them, a touch of the satanic (which was mostly clever marketing, of course).

After a series of solid if unspectacular dates, the tour moved eastward and the band rolled into Detroit on November 24th. From the 24th through the 29th of November, they played over six CONSECUTIVE nights EIGHT of the most incendiary shows in the history of rock’n’roll in Detroit, Philly, Baltimore, New York, and Boston. The tour then concluded with a free concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6th. At that show, an audience member was murdered by Hells Angels hired to provide security and the decade of the 60′s ended on a sour, nasty, apocalyptic note.

Two other factors are “mashed-in” to the phantasmagoric soup that is BALLARD bonus expeditionary force:

1) Barack Obama’s drone program. (It’s not really his program, of course, but given the extent to which he has expanded it beyond its original, more modest origins, I think he can be said to have laid claim to a certain “ownership”!) I was not thinking of the recent NSA/Prism revelations; those happened after I wrote the book. I was more just imagining a time in which drones became a significant element of domestic policing. I become more convinced every day that this will happen here within the next five years.

2) Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings.” Sometime around 1820, Goya, then an old man, moved into a house outside Madrid, Spain. Over the next several years, he painted 14 paintings directly onto the plaster walls of the two-storey house. It is said that he never intended them for public display. (After Goya’s death, they were transferred to canvas and now hang in the Prado.) The subject matter of the paintings ranges from pastoral to utterly horrifying. I like to think that Goya made these paintings from a very deep place and that he thought of them as the ultimate expression of his artistic purpose.

So, there you have it. Those things informed what BALLARD bonus expeditionary force became.

Oh, and Joe’s talking motorcycle? The 1922 Indian Scout? Of course, that is totally a nod to the wondrous Japanese “light novel” series, Kino no Tabi!

Self-promotion

I think about this a lot.

I wonder: if Kafka were alive today, how would he market himself? Would he tweet? Would he blog? Would he network? Would he do an AMA on Reddit? How would he “get the word out” about stories like “The Hunger Artist,” and “Josephine The Singer”?

Would he ignore “social media”? Or would he just suck at it?

Because if you’re THAT good at one thing (writing stories) can you possibly also be THAT good at promoting yourself?

And, today, if you cannot promote yourself effectively, does it even matter how good your work is?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but that doesn’t keep me from obsessing about them. I spent a career in “business” trying to “promote” many different things to many different kinds of audiences. Some of those efforts succeeded, others failed. But were any of the ones that worked a product of classic marketing or promotion? Or did they work because all the stars aligned and the product being promoted had an intrinsic worth and I was just lucky enough to sense that?

The internet has of course made people more skeptical than ever of marketing and promotion. People know it’s a scam. This book! This movie! This band! This game! In spite of their ultra-clever cross-platform multi-media marketing campaigns, most of what is being promoted sucks … and people know that now. They instinctively distrust the “sell.”

So maybe it’s more about keeping your head down and doing good work and getting better and better with each project … and hoping? Hoping you have a friend who digs your stuff and tells someone else who tells someone else who … what? Works at Fox? We all know what the chances of that are. Plus, Fox would just want to own your IP and fuck it up, anyway!

As a result, part of me has just stopped thinking about self-promotion. Oh, I make half-hearted attempts at it. Facebook updates, tweets, Tumblr posts, targeted email blasts, even LinkedIn messages. All to let people know that I’ve just finished something and I’d appreciate it if they checked it out. And some of them will check it out. And most of them won’t.

That used to bug me. But now for some reason, I’m becoming OK with it.

I do what I do because I love it and because it helps me understand my life, my sense of reality, my conception of art, my knowledge of consciousness. I also have the unmitigated gall to believe that what I am exploring about MY LIFE will be interesting to others as they navigate THEIR LIVES. What a concept, right? But there you have it. You keep going because … well, because you want to get better, you want to get closer … to the quickening moment, the spark that makes us human, the things that unite us as we stumble forward with our arms outreached into the darkness, feeling, fearing, hoping.

I won’t stop. Because this is what I do now, who I am.

My gratitude for life, for being conscious in this particular place at this particular moment in time, has been electrified by the experience of writing the three BALLARD novellas.

And I know that better (not unlike winter) is coming!

 

The characters from the BALLARD trilogy

Seventeen characters occur in each of the three BALLARD e-novellas.

But the “incarnation” of each character in each book is different from the book before. For example, the character Ballard is a private detective in his 30′s in BALLARD motor court, a 50-something guy who doubles as the town auto mechanic and projectionist in BALLARD the republic of dogs, and a female painter in her 20′s in BALLARD bonus expeditionary force.

Each incarnation of a character in the three stories is really the same “soul.” They just represent different aspects of that soul, or different possible incarnations of that soul. I don’t mean this in a classic transmigratory sense, as in, these different “versions” of the characters are literally reincarnations of the same essential soul. It’s more like … when I think of Ballard as a character, I think of lots of things that that person could be, lots of jobs s/he could hold, lots of people s/he could fall in love with. But each of those possible versions is still … Ballard.

In any event, in case you’re interested in seeing this layed out across the three novellas, you can see it all in a chart here:

BALLARD_Chara_Chart Sheet1

Writing: Ambience

What works—and what doesn’t work—for me when I am writing fiction:

1) I cannot listen to music. Any music of any kind. Back when I was a punkrock whippersnapper I could listen to any music while I wrote, provided it did not contain LYRICS. Jazz, classical, ambient, anything. As long as the human voice was not present, I was good to go. But now, and I have no idea why this is the case, I need to tune out everything in order to write. Music to prep and to unwind is fine; but I need silence in order to compose.

2) I cannot READ fiction while actively engaged on a fiction writing project of my own. (With one exception; see below.) This is also a fairly recent development. I don’t know why but reading fiction messes me up when I am trying to write it. I haven’t read a single novel for the 18 months or so that I’ve been writing the BALLARD trilogy of e-novellas. So my nightstand has featured lots of journalism, science writing, philosophy/religion, and …

3) Comic books! For reasons equally unbeknownst to me, I CAN read graphic novels while writing fiction. They don’t interfere with MY rhythm or cadence or “voice” the way other kinds of fiction do. Besides, I mainly just try to look at the pictures, anyway. :)

4) It can help, sometimes, to have a drink. One drink, on certain days, at certain points in the story, makes things flow and can allow me to take chances and embark on flights of fancy I might otherwise reject or not even come up with in the first place. But never more than one drink. More than one drink and I start listening to music and do not write anymore.

5) I have to get SOMETHING done every day. My “average” output is in the 500-1,000 words per day range. But that’s so much an “average” as to be almost unmeaningful. What IS meaningful, for me, is: write every day, even if it’s only a few lousy sentences. Five straight days of 100 words per day, struggling and squirming all the way, is better for the project than two days out of five at 500-1,000 words per day. I don’t know why. I just know that I’ll be in a better place overall if I do not skip days.

6) I don’t get anything that’s worth a damn in under 2 hours … and nothing good happens after 4 hours. That window constitutes my sweet spot.

7) I REALLY REALLY REALLY have to work hard to ignore the internet while writing fiction. Twitter is especially pernicious given it is my chief source of news these days: that rabbit hole is always just one click away. I have not yet come up with a foolproof way to stay offline while writing.

8) Dreams are NEVER useful as fodder for writing. I mainly dream adolescent James Bond alien invasion epics in which I save the world; I have dubbed these “Mikey Kiley action adventure dreams.” They are ridiculous and fun (at least for me) but completely useless as a source of ideas for my work. (Except for the sense of the apocalyptic which suffuses almost everything I write and which I am convinced results from being taught how to hide under my desk at school during the Cuban missile crisis in order to survive a nuclear attack.)

 

The next one: BALLARD bonus expeditionary force

While BALLARD motor court is speculative science fiction and BALLARD the republic of dogs is an apocalyptic western, the forthcoming BALLARD bonus expeditionary force is (at least so far) proving to be a kind of fantastical documentary inspired by the mashing up of two historical events.

The first of which is the march on Washington, D.C., of the Bonus Army in 1932; the second is The Rolling Stones’ tour of North America in November, 1969.

Whether my re-imagining of what happened in Anacostia Flats in the 30′s laced with more than a soupçon of the genius and ultimate tragedy (at Altamont, the free concert that killed the 60′s) of the barnstorming Stones will work is anybody’s guess at this point. But it seems to be forming with a will of its own … which, in my experience, is a very good thing.

More excerpts forthcoming over the next few months leading to publication this summer …

The origins of BALLARD the republic of dogs

In BALLARD motor court, there is a moment in which Ballard is alone in the convenience store. He is checking packing lists and listening to a radio program on the life of the composer Bohislav Martinu. The radio announcer talks of the bell tower in which Martinu spent his childhood: his father was a fire warden; the family lived in the tower so that they might look out over the town and countryside for signs of fire.

While listening to this radio program, something inside Ballard clicks and he begins to realize what has happened to him and who has saved him from the attempt on his life. That moment, the program and Ballard’s reaction to it, formed the beginning of this new book, BALLARD the republic of dogs.

The first scene I wrote (in screenplay form, actually) was from what ended up being the fifth (of six) chapters in the book: RC in a bell tower. Looks out over the desert floor through binoculars. Thinks he sees trouble coming. Alerts the town below. But is proven to be mistaken as the threat is merely dust thrown up by an approaching car.

BALLARD the republic of dogs was then written—forward and backward—from that one scene.

But … in reality, “The Republic of Dogs” dates back 30 years. I made several attempts at that time to write a just-pre-apocalyptic story about a community huddled on the edge of a desert, plagued by attacks from packs of dogs. Its theme, embarrassingly enough, was that the viciousness of the dogs paled in comparison to the wretchedness of the humans in the desert town.

Mercifully (for the sake of literature), I was never able to take that story anywhere, and all I was left with was a title that continued to haunt me through the years. And to which I ultimately returned when the BALLARD universe began to take shape.

I don’t know how it works for writers with greater talent than mine. For me, these ideas seem to percolate for ever, in various forms through the years, and then, one day, when I’ve lived long enough to become good enough to give them life, they emerge, as if for the first time.

Some quick notes on BALLARD the republic of dogs

BALLARD the republic of dogs is now available for sale on all the usual e-reading platforms.

Like its predecessor, it contains a selection of my own black-and-white iPhone photography as chapter headers. It’s about 28K words (compared to 23K for BALLARD motor court), which makes it longish for a novella.

There are six chapters in BALLARD the republic of dogs. Each chapter consists—for reasons that will become clear by the end of the story—of 14 sections.

The first chapter takes place 63 years ago. The second chapter takes place 50 years after that. Chapters three through six take place Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, and The day after tomorrow.

All six chapters are set in the fictional California desert towns of Clarksdale and Vicksburg; all six chapters are set in our world, as it might have existed, or might one day exist.

Readers of BALLARD motor court will notice that while the same character names are employed in BALLARD the republic of dogs they are attached to people who are different ages, professions, and even genders from their motor court incarnations. You can see this most easily on the About page.

I don’t honestly remember why I decided on this naming convention. It was probably a boring reason, though, so just as well.

I’ll write some more on the composition of BALLARD the republic of dogs over the next couple of weeks. But, to be honest, since I’m already 15 pages into the final BALLARD book (BALLARD bonus expeditionary force), I’ll have to reconstruct those thoughts from the dim mists of August through November of 2012. As a result, some fibbing may ensue …

I hope you liked BALLARD motor court and I hope you will like BALLARD the republic of dogs even more. I don’t know if it’s a better book or not. It feels like it is to me. But you’ll decide that, of course.

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