“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
The Dangerous Summer
I finally got my hands of a copy of The Dangerous Summer, Ernest Hemingway’s account of his return to Spain fifteen years after the Nationalists took over. Having visited Republican forces during Spain’s bloody civil war, and authoring the best-selling novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, which gave a sympathetic account of the Republican cause, visiting Spain was risky for Hemingway.
It was the last book the world-famous author wrote. I’m half-way into it, and find it not only enjoyable, but enlightening. Hemingway is as lucid and vivid as ever as he describes the Spanish countryside, the fine food and drink, and, of course, the bull fights. He seems to be more relaxed and open in this work. I suspect he was no longer focused on solidifying his legacy, and was able to loosen up a bit and make his account more conversational.
Early on, I was reminded of this statement from another author, Elmore Leonard:
“My biggest influence at the very beginning was Hemingway. I grew up reading Hemingway—I loved him. When I was writing westerns, I would open For Whom the Bell Tolls anywhere, because they are in the mountains with horses and guns. I got in the mood. But then I realized that Hemingway didn’t have a sense of humor…”
Leonard apparently never read The Dangerous Summer. Hemingway, aware of his reputation for backing the losing Republican side, approaches the Spanish frontier with a little apprehension, uncertain how the Nationalist regime will react. From The Dangerous Summer:
“Then we left for the frontier. It was grim at the inspection post too. I took the four passports in to the police and the inspector studied mine at length without looking up. This is customary in Spain but never reassuring.
‘Are you any relation of Hemingway the writer?’ he asked, still without looking up.
‘Of the same family,’ I answered.”
Who says Ernest Hemingway lacked a sense of humor?
Quote of the day
“It’s a human need to be told stories. The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.”
“What is all the philosophy in the world to the joy of the beautiful swallow? Civilisations have risen and crumbled, faded into nothingness, like footprints in the desert obliterated by sand. The sweet little whispering call of my long-tailed titmice fashioning their bottle nest, so happy in the sunshine, is a wiser and more profound utterance than all the philosophy collected from the books of the world.” Henry Williamson, The Lone Swallows
Quote of the day
“The South is a very alluring and otherworldly place. It’s very easy to feel completely surrounded by an invisible presence down there, for lack of a better word. Everything is very rich. The air is very heavy. The trees feel like they’re descending on you. It really permeates your physical being while you’re down there, it does.” J. Nicole Jones
I know that presence well, having grown up here. Which is why I set so many of my stories in the South. MT
Renowned fiction podcaster Tall Tale TV has published my short story “Winter Star.” Here’s what managing editor Chris Herron had to say: “Have just read your story. I loved it. It feels almost nostalgic in the way you wrote it. Like an 80’s sci-fi movie.“
I’m honored. I was aiming for a retro feel, something along the lines of Stand By Me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Super 8.
It’s 1988. High school senior Trey Evans borrows his father’s pickup to haul a shortwave radio to the top of Winter Star Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the southern Appalachians. Trey and his friend Booney hope to intercept rare, elusive transmissions with the help of their high altitude monitoring post and a once-in-a-lifetime solar storm.
But their efforts attract unexpected attention from a mysterious visitor.
Tall Tale TV features sci-fi and fantasy authors from around the world. The site was a finalist for the now-discontinued Parsec Awards, which recognized outstanding science fiction podcasters.
This little story is my love letter to the glory days of shortwave radio. In its heyday, shortwave was the Wild West of the radio spectrum, where you might hear spies, drug smugglers, or NASA. There’s also a wistful nod to my camping expeditions of long ago to the dark, magnificent Appalachian Mountains.
Nostalgia, suspense, adventure — it’s all there. It’s also available on YouTube and Facebook.
Spillane: King of Pulp Fiction
Everybody will get a kick out of this book. Those who are not fans of Mickey Spillane will discover a life story so vigorous and well-lived that most will not only enjoy the read but will convert to Mickey Spillane fandom. And we lucky souls who are already fans will have a fresh appreciation of the artistry, sheer energy, and creativity of one of the best-selling authors of all time.
Max Allan Collins and James Traylor are mystery writers who’ve collaborated on previous books about Spillane. They wrote this biography in an easy-going, conversational style that perfectly suits their subject.
Why do they call Spillane the King of Pulp Fiction rather than the King of Crime Fiction? Because crime fiction is just one genre in the rowdy pulp universe, and Spillane left his fingerprints all over the cultural landscape.
An athletic young man who read voraciously, Mickey Spillane got his start writing comic books, and worked with many of the greats, including Stan Lee and Bill Everett. He penned storylines for Sub-Mariner, Captain America, and the Human Torch, just to name a few. Working with comics trained him to work fast, and that meant no holds barred on the imagination. Spillane later claimed his years writing comic books were the happiest years of his life. They certainly influenced his visual and physical writing style.
He foresaw that the soldiers and sailors returning home from WWII would appreciate action-packed, affordable books. After all, the 122 million Armed Forces Edition books distributed throughout the war had sharpened the appetite of the most literate generation America had ever seen. But Spillane also grasped that these veterans wanted more than entertainment. They had fought and bled to defend a country now plagued by widespread social disruption. Corruption, crime, and graft angered them, and many felt powerless and betrayed. Spillane intuited that these frustrated veterans yearned for quick, stern justice.
And so Mike Hammer was born.
I, The Jury, Spillane’s first novel, was a success, but some critics dismissed it as lurid, primitive, even vulgar. Others condemned both the writing and the writer. One critic denounced Spillane for authoring “a glorification of force, cruelty, and extra-legal methods that might be required reading in a Gestapo training school.” Botched attempts at putting Mike Hammer on the screen also bedeviled him.
But he kept on writing, running into some setbacks, but also much success. Success brought money and fame, which allowed him to live a life of adventure, including acting, boating, piloting planes, performing in the circus, roaming the backwoods with revenooers searching for illegal moonshine, and stock car racing. I couldn’t help but think of Yukio Mishima, another author who also lived a life of action.
The character of Mickey Spillane – as vivid and fascinating as any fictional character – was deeper and sharper than his critics realized. He’d trained fighter pilots during the war. Years later, when director William Wellman was stuck while re-editing a movie, Spillane suggested reversing two shots. Wellman considered the idea a moment before admitting, “Doggone it, he’s right.”
Writers will find some useful gems here. Spillane’s dedication to his craft belied his cavalier remarks about his work, such as the infamous, “Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.” In fact, Mickey Spillane cared deeply about writing, and kept honing his skill his entire life. Not to be missed is the short section “Mickey Spillane on Writing.” My favorite pointer: “When you’re writing a story, think of it like a joke. What’s a great punch line? Get the great ending then write up to it.”
Thank you, Mickey.
The Book of Will
Julie and I caught this marvelous play last Sunday. The Abbey Players delivered a professional performance alive with heartfelt emotion and saucy punchlines. The Book of Will tells the true story of how William Shakespeare’s colleagues scoured London three years after his death for prompts, notes, and surviving copies of his plays. Their goal: To publish a First Folio of his entire works. This massive undertaking demanded years of research, reading, and editing, all while battling unreliable and even unscrupulous printers, sponsors, and producers who plagiarized and corrupted Shakespeare’s plays.
And as in any significant undertaking, life — and death — complicate things. When John Heminges’s wife dies unexpectedly, Heminges questions the massive, risky undertaking that’s taken so much out of them. “Story is a forged life,” he says. “Why do we bother with any of it?”
His friend and associate, Henry Condell, answers:
“To feel again. … That’s the miracle of it. The fairies aren’t real. But the feeling is. And it comes to us here, player and groundling alike, again and again here. … And you will test your heart against trouble and joy and every time you’ll feel a flicker or a fountain of feeling that reminds you that, yes, you are yet living. And that is more than God gives you in His ample silence. And then it ends. And we players stand up and we look at the gathered crowd and we bow. Because the story was told well enough.”
The story was told well enough … that’s the goal, isn’t it?
The playwright, Lauren Gunderson, also tosses in several Easter eggs for in-the-know Shakespeare fans. With its romping story line, serious scholarship, and fascinating characters, The Book of Will is the most enjoyable and inspiring play I’ve seen in years.
Ernest Hemingway and Robert E. Howard had a lot in common. Both were passionate outdoorsmen who relished food and drink and brawling. Though identified with different genres, both infused their fiction with athletic, vivid prose that still stirs the imaginations of appreciative readers. They have inspired countless writers, and decades after their deaths, their works are still in print.
Both of them boxed, and wrote spirited, brawny stories about boxers. And each also wrote inspirational tales about heroes who refused to surrender despite overwhelming odds.
And yet, both committed suicide.
I’ve read excellent accounts of the lives and careers of both authors, and still puzzle over their final acts.
No doubt both men were tormented, and found some release – or at least, temporary escape – from their suffering in their writing. In a letter to F. Scott, Fitzgerald, Hemingway confided:
“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”
In his poem “Musings,” Howard identifies writing as a weapon against the horrors and torments of a hostile world:
The mighty poets write in blood and tears
And agony that, flame-like, bites and sears.
They reach their mad blind hands into the night,
To plumb abysses dead to human sight;
To drag from gulfs where lunacy lies curled,
Mad, monstrous nightmare shapes to blast the world.
The intrepid protagonists that both writers brought to life still inspire. Garcia, the washed-up matador in Hemingway’s “The Undefeated,” must battle not just a formidable bull, but a predatory promoter and a fickle, unforgiving crowd. Like Santiago in “The Old Man and the Sea,” Garcia may be beaten at the end, but refuses to give up. Howard’s Conan tales still thrill readers with dazzling, evocative scenes of courage and muscle battling intrigue and sorcery.
How could artists who penned such timeless accounts of heroic tenacity raise their guns to their own heads?
One possible explanation is suggested by H.P. Lovecraft’s tribute to Howard shortly after Howard’s suicide:
“Scarcely anybody else in the pulp field had quite the driving zest and spontaneity of R. E. H. He put himself into everything he wrote—even when he made outward concessions to pulp standards…”
The same could be said of Hemingway. Both infused their stories with their own life-force. Like the determined heroes they conceived, they held on to their agency, though in a final, hard choice. Both found themselves with no other option. Hemingway could no longer write, and he was racked by concussions and a broken body. Howard was convinced both his relationship with Novalyne Price and his writing career were over, and was physically and emotionally wrecked by the demands of attending to his mother.
We can easily imagine Hemingway and Howard as the boxer Paul Simon wrote about:
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains
Pummeled and in devastating pain, the boxer chooses to leave. But the fighter still remains. As Hemingway once put it, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
The Riddle of Pulp
So honored to be invited back to the DMR Books Blog. My latest post for them, The Riddle of Pulp, looks at my long-running love of pulp fiction, why it’s still being read, and why we need it more than ever.