When I look back on the jobs I’ve done, performance sex was the hardest. I don’t mean how I was judged, and even judged myself, because none of that means anything, or even the unpleasantness at times. Some people really do stink. It was more about making it real. It was rare when I could lose that control, not just have that half open mouth, and give what I knew was expected.
It was when I broke from that, that I got frantic, balancing at the tip, and felt like I might slide sideways, barely hanging on. I would push hard and then stop, do that again and again, all taut and stupid, clinging to this good side of the moment, and keep it like that.
And then I would right into like a mania, straight ahead, nothing else but plowing straight for that full-on orgasm, so much that it was almost I’m made me get mad and crazy, like I was a kid and wanted what I wanted, and would not let go, and skip ahead, my feet barely touching the ground, until I was in it and nothing else. It was really hard work, but there were those moments.
I was 14 when I saved a copy of Marvel Two-in-One #34 with my scathing “I hate this comic” letter in my desk drawer and looked at it every once in a while.
I lost of track of it some time later, through high school, college and work, vaguely sure that it was somewhere in my mess of drafts, articles and rejection letters.
The memory of it came to me years later, but the search was always detoured by distraction and ultimately, the lack of the required energy of such a futile quest. After all it was just an eight-word letter that didn’t even approximate my original message.
It is a funny tale and works for this site and so I blogged on it five years back, working solely from memory and thus erroneously cited the comic in question as Marvel Team #31 (featuring Spiderman and Iron Fist).
It was only recently, in these pandemic days, that I decided to find the damn thing. I knew that it was from one of three comic series (Team-Up, Two-in-One or Iron Fist) and scoured through various blogs and archives for it.
I knew the issue focused on saving kids from a burning orphanage and so keyed on images of orphans and fires. I thought I had found it in an issue of Marvel Team-Up which had a collapsing building and an orphan-looking kid.
I ordered the issue on-line and several others following to ensure that I got the one with my letter too. I knew it was wrong before I even opened the issue. It looked wrong and was. I returned to my on-line search and finally noticed the burning hospital (not orphanage) in the background of Marvel Two-in-One #34 that I knew that I had found it. It was then that I realized my letter was in Issue #40 by looking at the cover.
The memory of walking through the pinewood hallway to my bedroom at the cottage came to me at that moment – the cool, dark air, a distant screen door closing, the feeling of emptiness of seeing my letter in print, edited to nothing – and then the feeling of comics not being what they once had been – a place of wonder – it all came into me like that.
It’s funny how that feeling returned again now, when I had finally found the issue again, at the end of this farcical quest. I had found it last and so what indeed? What’s next?
I complain a lot about never being published, but that actually isn’t true. My words were first put into print when I was a wee gaffer in June 1978.
I was an avid comic reader in those days and followed three comic books with regularity: Iron Fist and Power Man, Marvel Team-Up featuring The Amazing Spiderman and Marvel Two-in-One with The Thing. I especially enjoyed Marvel Two-in-One because I had followed the series since its inception in 1974 and it featured a wiseass superhero who essentially was a giant pile of rocks. (Interestingly enough, I went on to collect rocks for much of my life.) I connected to The Thing because he offered witty rejoinders (“How cum nobody wants me around for my good looks?”), an excellent catchphrase (“It’s clobberin’ time!”), chomped on cigars and spoke often of his isolation from humanity. Spiderman, Iron Fist and Power Man were great too, but they weren’t as much the black sheep. Anyway the point is that I really liked Marvel Two-in-One.
And then along came Issue #34 in which The Thing and Nighthawk battle a monster from outer space. Or so it seemed.
I was mortified by everything in this issue. The monster wasn’t a monster. There was no battle. Nighthawk and The Thing didn’t do much of anything. In fact, the monster never battles The Thing nor Nighthawk because it isn’t a monster at all, but a highly empathetic creature from the great beyond which focuses its energy on saving children trapped in burning hospitals.
How the fire got started was the worst thing of all.
No attempt is made to explain why Margaret pulls the plug from the wall nor is there any justification for the fire being started as a result of her doing it. (She, of course, is the last one saved from the blaze by our monster from outer space.)
Nighthawk completes this painful issue by beating both the reader and the assholes who shot the misunderstood creature over the head with the moral of the story.
I was incensed. The writers had done a hack job and needed to hear about it. I penned a four- paragraph letter detailing much of the above, along with comments about the weak drawing and sent it off to Marvel Comics Group on Madison Avenue in New York City.
Four months later, my letter finally appeared in Marvel Two-in-One #40 featuring The Thing and The Black Panther.
Regrettably my first experience in publishing was also my first experience with an editor, who decided to reduce my passionately erudite salvo to the following:
Yes, Stan Lee and his bitter cohorts had edited my full-page letter to ten lousy words. They didn’t even cite the issue in question, making it sound like I hated everything about the comic, including The Thing himself! As stupid as it sounds, it was upsetting. I thought about writing another letter but realized that they would just edit that too. And so I have waited until now, 42 years later, to set the record straight.
Marvel Two-In-One #34 needs a severe dousing! The Thing would clobber anyone responsible for this whatchamacallit. Fires aren’t caused by little girls pulling electrical cords out of the wall; they’re started by readers burning stuff like this. Who’s the real monster, Stan! Who?! Yers truly and all, Phed
The supreme editor decided to get in on the critical action: Master McPhedran; I’m writing to you because I know there’s a lot to handle with this radioactive material, but I hope you haven’t continued to think of it as being guided by a passion for a different style of writing. Andy spends a lot of time teaching in the letter, giving examples from other works to showcase a point, or explaining literary construction to the author. He does this very well (I’ve seen it go sideways before!) in that he comes off as very experienced, well-read and knowledgeable but never veers into talking down to the author. I know this is not particularly helpful to you. I was sorry to hear that the phone call wasn’t as fruitful as expected.
I replied with vague decorum: Thank you for the email, Bridget. I understand and appreciate your references to radioactive material and your efforts to connect Andy’s edit to what it could mean to my work. I don’t agree, however, with the idea of it being a lot to handle or offering effective teaching. (I cringed at that, as I did at the image of Andy being thankful at my listening to ‘some’ of his guidance.) You have an enterprise to run, and the first order is to support the staff. The point is that Andy’s notes do not benefit my process. It isn’t personal. It is about the words. And sadly, in the end, the feedback is worth the same as I might get from a bartender – not to denigrate her.
I just reviewed the editor notes on my novel, Anori; which can be summarized thus: The book is not engaging. The reader has no reason to turn the page. There are major problems with the narrative structure, scene arcs, character and dialogue. None of it is working.
I called the editor today, hoping for some sort of clarity, a way to move forward.
“What can I do you for?” He was out of breath, a dog barking nearby.
“Oh yes, your book.” A door closed and another opened. “Any questions about my notes?”
There was a long pause. I thought about making the entire conversation like that, one long pause. It seemed to be what Andy wanted. “I am sensing acrimony.”
“Acrimony? No, Phed? Why would you say that?”
“Your notes, Andy.”
“My notes are not personal, Phed. They are questions the reader would have. I have no opinion on you, as a writer or a person.”
“Your notes are repetitively negative, Andy. It’s very unsatisfying, to put it mildly.”
“The notes are only my opinion. If the book is working in your head, then your book is working in your head. I won’t argue with that.”
“Look, Andy, I want to make the story work, obviously I want that, and I need criticism to move forward, but there is not one positive thing that you cited in the story.”
“I appreciate you put a lot of work into it, Phed.”
“That’s what I mean by unsatisfying comments, Andy. What is that supposed to mean to me? That you think I deserve a ribbon for putting work into it?”
“It’s poetic, isn’t it?” There was something else going on in the background, a coffee grinder or compactor. “I found your writing unsatisfying too.”
“What does that even mean, Andy?”
“Your choices did not satisfy me as a reader.”
I was close to hanging up. “Okay, for one thing, you cite over and over again how my dialogue does not work, that characters don’t listen to each other.”
“Looks like we have a real bowl of unsatisfying here.”
I didn’t know if ‘unsatisfying’ was supposed to be a joke. “You didn’t like any of the dialogue? None of it?”
“It isn’t about what I like, Phed. This isn’t about what I like.”
“It seems like you’re speaking German and I’m speaking Italian.”
“Your characters don’t listen to each other.”
“I’m trying to do something different, Andy. Literary Science Fiction. Story arc and character development don’t fall into the same expectations.”
“The reader has to want to turn the page, Phed. They have to be satisfied.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“Like I said–“
“Yeah, I got it. It’s not personal. You’re just the reader’s eyes.”
The conversation went around like that until I got sick of it and hung up. The worst of it was that I paid him $3000 for that very service. Yes, I paid him $3000 to tell me that the reader will not bother to turn the page. And what’s worse – worse than worst – is that I paid someone else another $2500 to work on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for this blog, which created no traction and hence no results. And so I’m now out $5500 with no prospects for readers on the horizon in either medium.
And what’s even worse (worse than worse than the worst) is that my wife now tells me that nobody reads blogs anymore. And so what am I even doing here? Oh, and what’s worse than that (yes, worse than worse than worse than the worst) is that nobody bothered to even read to this point, due to my unsatisfying sense of narrative, scene arc, character and dialogue, and so clicked off long ago. (Although if you did stay, I humbly thank you, and will buy you a drink when we meet again.)
I wasn’t thinking when I put cat shit in Tana Mongeau’s mouth. My hands were full, and the cat shit was dry. It had been there a very long time. And it was only going to be in her mouth for a second. That’s what I told her. Besides, I had already cleaned up everything else. She only had to help with this one thing. And like I said, the shit was very, very dry. And so she did it. Or I did it. I was the one.
It took me a moment to realize that I didn’t know who Tana Mongeau was and what she was doing helping me. It was a horrible thing that I had done. I couldn’t understand how the idea had even come into my mind. I froze on the spot, thinking that would help. I told her to pull her tongue back to keep her mouth as dry as possible. But she gagged doing that. and then it began to dissolve. Tana Mongeau freaked out a little bit about that.
I am a kinetic thinker. By that, I mean that my brain works best when I am doing something active, moving in some kind of direction. It is this motion that helps me though problems of not only day-to-day concerns but, more importantly, the logjams and black holes of writing a book. I often can’t figure out what a character is going to say or do until I get moving.
Living in New York City, I am most often compelled to use the elliptical machine or stationary bike to give my brain the illusion of going somewhere, just as the father, John, does in an earlier work, Black Ice.
John liked this part – pushing the red switch, climbing on, setting the program, everything the same – 200 pounds, Level 5, 30 minutes, Mountain Program – the dread in him strong. He knew himself in the bright little room, not alone, but inside himself and ready. His knees felt weak, nerves, how it came out of him. He could feel his breath coming up, deep, hollow, the sweat leaking out, itches dotting his forehead and across his face, already at Nine, serious about it, his breath getting hard, eight minutes, 210 calories, 765 feet and feeling good, flushed, not touching his skin, a perfect heat, his.
His feet were cramping, wanting to come in, up and down with the silver and black piston, he was into the Seven, fast too soon, scared at that, the hill and speed ahead, sweat streaming into itself, down the edge of his nose, from his eye and falling, into the Three, fighting, nothing but his sweat, wet stars dripping on the rough black, dripping into a messy constellation, pooling down the sides, and only if he pushed harder, knowing that, that he could. He was at the top and coming down, the hill little, his legs tired, ready, the back of the Three and Five just ahead and the Seven and Nine. He would make it.
I have also biked across Europe a number of times and found that the ideas can flow very well, especially on the long tough uphill climbs. I wrote about this in autobiographical trilogy entitled Buzz.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains loomed. Buzz was sick of the wind and wanted the climb. He attacked the first ascent, eyes straight down at the road, standing all the way, up to the switchback and then sitting, gearing down and settling in. Trucks toiled past, not another cyclist in sight. Nobody dared the ascent over Paseto de las Pedrizas. He would be the first. He drank, finished the bottle; sweat streamed through his sunglasses. He would make it to the rise. It was just ahead, just ahead, after the next switchback, the next. It didn’t matter where it was, another hundred switchbacks, he would make it, back and forth, climbing, climbing. And there it was, too soon, the sign, Paseto de las Pedrizas, 780 metres. He slowed, leaned forward over the handlebars, stretched out his back and held his legs and arms taut as he glided around the first bend and down the steep slope between sun-bleached rock.
A car and another and then nothing, the air still, the sticky speckled asphalt foaming past, he leaned down, his thigh tight against the crossbar, stomach and arms flat, stretched out, face tucked into the handlebars, beside the singing wheel, the silver hub still, forever like this, his hand to the ground. He would never fall, faster, toward everything, around another long bend and a tunnel – a tunnel! – darkness, screaming cool, insane into it, faster, and for a moment nothing, not the road, not the bicycle, and out again, heat and light, a hurtling thing, flying into another tunnel, singing into the heat and light, a sheep and more, everywhere on the road. He braked, swerved, toppled over, a complete somersault, into a bush, a fence and lay still, his face against the ground.
The best place for an active mind is hiking. There nothing else but the trail ahead, albeit the occasional creeping fear, as evidenced in the second section of All In.
I went along the trail and then stopped at a cliff and leaned over to see anything in the mist and trees. I went back on the trail and then followed a water pipe that went up the rocks. It was starting to rain. Water was dripping and then running down the rocks. I stepped up again and looked through the bushes. There was something green on the ground, a green shirt tag. I went around a hollowed-out stump and into the underbrush. The sun was pushing through the clouds. The forest arched down, and there was a crow coming up from the ridge and then through the gap in the trees. The path curled off into nothing. I was moving quickly, going up toward the cliffs, and I was back on the trail going toward the saddle before going up to Crown Mountain.
There was a chain hanging down part of it. I was feeling better here. I knew the bears wouldn’t bother with this steep rocky part, and then I heard a sudden crash, like a tree being snapped up, and stopped. I went along the rock edge to a small muddy section by a pair of bent trees, their roots bulging up against the rocks. It was a bear, staring back at me. It wasn’t big. It looked more like a dog. “Hey! Hey!” I clapped my hands, and it sprinted down the ravine. It was gone; I couldn’t hear it anywhere. My legs kept going ahead; it was just automatic. I was almost at the saddle, and it was getting darker in the trees, going down to where the bear might be.
Self-reflection is impossible. No one can self-reflect. No one. Not you. Not me. You might think that you can self-reflect. I am sure that you do. You’re told to do it every day by someone – your brother, your sparing partner, a billboard or newscaster – and you think that you really do. I used to think that it was possible for some people to self-reflect. But it isn’t Not for anyone!
Honestly, consider yourself right now, reading this, thinking, “Well, I self-reflect. I’m doing it right now. I am self-reflecting on my self-reflecting! Obviously I am. It’s stupid to say that I don’t because I do. I’m doing it right now! It’s as clear as anything ever was!”
Yeah, but, no, you’re not. You only think you are because you’re trapped in that head of yours. It isn’t self-reflection at all. It is just you tricking yourself that you’re self-reflecting. As much as you might think you are self-reflecting, especially if you use words like mindful and empathetic, you’re not. You’re the opposite. You’re only doing that because you think it’s good and right. It’s like smoking. You stopped doing that because you were told it is bad and wrong, when it isn’t. That’s because you’re all ego and super ego. You’re all you. That’s all there is to you. Nothing else. Certainly not someone who can self-reflect.
I am the same as you. All I can do is reflect on how I don’t self-reflect. I mean, I can also reflect on you reading this. But that’s not me. That’s you. And I can even reflect on how insightful I am for realizing that no one can self-reflect. It is all so very clear. Or it’s not. But it is. I came to realize that the more I self-reflect. Which goes back to the main point. You can’t self-reflect.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, one can only self-reflect if you,1) become yourself, 2) avoid self-hatred and 3) overcome yourself. Seriously, you have to be on a lot of Oxy if you think you can really do any of that. And if you do – think that you can do that, that is – then you can’t – self-reflect that is – because you can’t.
In others words, like Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, the more you think you can self-reflect, the more you can’t. It’s as simple as that.
World building is writing hell. As incredible – even fun – as the idea might sound, it isn’t. By anything being possible, there is no place to start. Even if it seems like a matter of just picking and choosing and away you go, it isn’t. Not for me. While I might have the germ of an idea – such as using dark matter to fuel an inter-generational spaceship – fleshing that out is akin to chronic constipation. My writing practice is centered on the small things – an image or line of dialogue – and going out from there. It is an inductive approach to writing, finding the bits of evidence to create the whole, such as the serval image at the watering hole that begat My Bad Side.
I didn’t know what that image meant at the time, but I knew it meant something and used it to find what might be next.
Building worlds demands the opposite to my approach to writing, a deductive method, going from the big picture to develop the small, focusing on time machines or warp drives, creating a story from those. This is what grinds my flow to a halt. If I can’t see where I am – the details of what it looks like to live on board a spaceship – I am perpetually stuck.
I got into the world of speculative fiction by accident. The protagonist in an earlier book, Dee Sinclair, stumbled ahead and wondered aloud if she might venture on to something else. As far-fetched as her world appeared at the time – a sex performer holed up with her pet serval – it was nothing compared to Greenland where she witnesses a fledgling world constructed before her eyes. This is the outset of Anori, the first book of The Cx Trilogy.
The crux of the speculative/sci-fi genre is world building, something beyond what we live in today. It isn’t just a matter of a propping up a couple of rocket ships and having characters walk about in space suits. Every detail has to be in tune. My most effective world building elements in Anori are Holoweb and Second Skin because they were simple to envision – a three-dimensional version of today’s internet and a spray-on fashion statement – and only a step ahead of what we have now.
I raised the world-building stakes in the second book of the trilogy, Aqaara, where Dee boards a generational spaceship bound for a planet light-years distant. Daily life aboard the spaceship took a long time to create, not just the details of the sleeping quarters and gatherings places but, more importantly, the mindset of leaving Earth to never return. I was in the Highlands of Scotland while mapping out this world, a far cry from outer space but at least isolated and quiet.
I planned the design of the ship while hiking, soaking wet, through the silence, but could not attain a genuine sense for what it felt like to live in this space, to sleep and eat, to lose all sense of time with a lunar or solar cycle, to see people every day – there was no day! – and to not know when, if ever, the journey might come to an end. That took another two drafts – in Puglia and then New York – to get it so it seemed like it really was so.
The final book, Mina, demands a literal new world. That’s where I am now. The temptation to settle for lunar landscapes and prehistoric beasts remains hard to resist. After all, what do I know about another planet’s flora and fauna? I have settled on a leopard seal/hedgehog hybrid as the creature atop of the food chain, as well as string of camera-stealing starlings. Who knows what the deep seas will offer? Something astonishing should happen soon.
My challenge with world building has given me pause. As transfixed as I can be in the fantastic landscapes of science fiction – where absolutely anything is possible – the writing craft must remain the focus. In other words, while the visions presented in this genre might be spell-binding, the characters, dialogue and construction of the narrative remain the foundation. My aim in writing The Cx Trilogy is to bridge the gap between literary fiction and speculative fiction, and not just build worlds but build worlds where we can literally picture ourselves alive and wondering. We will see what Dee’s progeny find next.
I can’t read fiction when I’m writing. I can’t read novels or short stories. I can barely watch a film. I can’t buy into any of it because it isn’t real. I know that someone made all of this stuff up, and so it isn’t interesting. More to the point, the fact that I know it is made up makes it irrelevant because it is untrue. My suspension of disbelief has been annihilated. Instead of the world being offered, I can only picture the writer plodding along, trying desperately to con me with turns of phrase and magic imagery but ultimately failing. I only see the artifice.
Even if I were to accept the falsity of the fiction, I obsess over the writer’s style. I focus solely on the literary devices and consider how I might employ the same tools myself. Whatever the reasoning, reading fiction is too distracting when I’m writing. And so I don’t do it. Read fiction that is.
Non-fiction is the only option, literally the only thing I can enjoy when I’m writing. The non-fiction author still has to be able to write, but this is more a craft than an art. Its primarily about the material, which is always interesting because it is real. This stuff actually happened. These people and places existed, simple as that. The content can be almost anything for me, anything from Krakatoa’s infamous 1883 eruption or the tragic history of the caviar industry to the life of Bobby Orr or the making of The Wizard of Oz. Whatever the story, they are filled with gems.
For a sense of theme, the big picture, as it were, I am reading Sue Prideaux’s description of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing of Also Sprach Zarathustra in her book, I Am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche: At some moment in prehistory, Nietzsche conjectures, there arose some specific practice that was bad for the community. It led to the imposition of punishment. This was the moment of the construction of morality. Burdened with bad conscience, we turned against ourselves in misery and self-loathing. Man ‘is like an animal who batters himself raw on the bars of his cage.’ The antidote to this slave morality is the Ubermensch, the free, affirmative, independent spirit. The moral quality of this higher man is driven by his life force, his will to power. (273-4)
For a sense of place, I found a clear portrait in Margaret Horsfield’s Cougar Annie’s Garden: The chill of winter can be piercing here, for cold air flows down from the mountains at night, settles damp and low in the garden, trapped by the forest all around. Even on clear winter evenings, a bank of mist flowing over the mountains is a common sight, cold air streaming down to hover low in the garden where ground frost can be sharp and boardwalks icy. (80-1)
Characters are everywhere – at work, on the subway in the pharmacy – but it is always interesting to see them rendered in non-fiction, what details are developed, what action highlighted. In Natalie McLennan’s auto-biography, The Price: My Rise and Fall of Natalia as New York’s #1 Escort, the details she offers are all the better because they are matter-of-fact: As the weeks went on, days and nights got more and more frenetic. I’d fly to Florida for a four-day appointment, come back and immediately do a ten-hour appointment, followed by another two-hour job. I’d then sleep five hours and start all over again. I spent about $100 per day on cabs. There’s nothing sexy about arriving to an appointment smelling like the Canal Street Subway station. Oh, and those fuck-me shows are definitely not made for walking. My body was all lean muscle from copious sex and lack of food. (60-1)
For my latest work, Mina, set on a distant undiscovered planet, I am looking out for tales from the edge, where creatures beyond our imagination roam. Nathaniel Philbrick offers his well-researched version of the white whale attacking the ship in In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.The whale began snapping its jaws and thrashing the water with its tail, as if distracted with rage and fury. With its huge scarred head halfway out of the water and its tail beating the ocean into a white-water wake more than forty feet across, the whale struck the ship just beneath the port bow. No longer going backward, the Essex was now going down. (82-3)