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Will sets out to help Takoda and his tribe preserve some of their identity... and ends up finding his own. More...
People confound young, brilliant, college professor Brendon, including his boss. So when Josh, the assistant football coach, pursues him, Brendon isn’t sure what to make of him. More...
The love of men for men in the harsh yet magnificent world of historic America: here is a tale of passion and power, ambition and treachery in the beautiful Sangre de Cristo mountains. More...
I'm starting to really get into this wiki!
Okay, what's this new page about? It's kinda like my answer to The World According to Mel, though not really. Mel's canvas is as broad as the world, my focus here is more on where my inspirations and material come from, the forces I contend with in trying to build a narrative. I've often wanted to tell the stories behind my detailwork, or where a flash of inspiration took me, and this is the place.
Details, Details, Inspiration and Details!
The inspiration that springs to mind today is one close to my would-be rev-head's heart.
Aussie sporting icon Kevin Bartlett, October 1982. "Hardy's Heroes," the grid-place qualifier on the Saturday before the James Hardy 1000, Australia's greatest motor sport event, at Mount Panorama, Bathrust, NSW. Now I'd always been a Ford fancier, watching Alan Moffat and his team send those big Falcons growling round the circuit, but the Chevy Camaro had a touch of the exotic, they were rare down here and still are. I was just wrapt, to hear that race-massaged mill snarl round the mountain and come flying down the longest straight in the southern hemisphere, dropping through the S'es so savagely you could see the chassis actually twist. Here she is, in all her glory:
I was in heaven, and have lusted for a Z-28 or a Trans-Am ever since. Not that I've ever afforded one, and with gas prices as they are, it's unlikely I ever will. And of curse this one was a memory the same day, she ended up on her roof high on Mount Panorama early in the race in one of the race's historic mis-haps.
But that inspiration never left me, and while I've used muscle cars in stories before, I was delighted to indulge myself and finally use a classic third-generation F-body Chev in my new novel Road's End. Sure, there's an inevitable comparison to Mad Max in the sense that it is a post-catastrophe story set in Aus, but the similarity really ends there. And the Chev gets a run instead of the Falcon. I had a lot of fun with maps plotting the route for my heroine, matching the Chev's fuel consumption to the amount of juice she could stockpile and depot to get from A to B and back again, and to realistically manage the stresses on what is, unavoidably, a very old engine being asked to do heavy work.
That's a cornerstone of my approach, credibility. While I don't claim to have always matched reality with the needs of the story (can a 1981 Suzuki 650 really do 130mph? Only downhill with a tailwind!) I have at least made an effort to get the details right. I did market research in the action genre a generation ago, I enjoyed Don Pendleton's work, and that of his ghost writers (John W, Jennison was one, I'm positive, I'd know his smooth, competent, always-tactile style anywhere), and I remember being very disappointed when ghost writers of much lesser skill took over from Jack Hild on the Soldiers of Barabas pulp action novels around #21 of the series, back in the 80s. Jack Hild got his military details spot on, he had hardware do what it was meant to and nothing else. But one of the ghost writers had a scenario with the mercenaries on an island in the Bering Sea (Sakhalin Breakout, here's the cover, a crappy download, if I ever find my copy I'll get a better one)
and the Russians place a standing patrol over them ... of MiG-25s! Which after hours upon hours of loiter over target, performed a ground attack! My eyes rolled into my head at that point for the sheer, dumb wrongness of the choice. A mach 3 interceptor which guzzles fuel faster than almost any other plane ever built, and is optimised for high-mach running in the thin air, armed only with air to air missiles. The writer should have chosen Su-25 close-support planes, designed to do the job, but that requires actually browsing through a reference book, which seemed to be too much to ask the writer to do. I guess getting the numbers right was just right enough to do, and the publisher was interested in getting the installment into the shops on time, not what it contained (symptomatic of the industry... The series ended about half a dozen titles later, the ghost writers were unreadably bad at the finish, at least one had a narrative that sounded like chinglish.)
We're all guilty of getting details wrong, and I'm the first to admit there is a balance between detail finesse and the time and effort it takes to complete a piece. But sometimes the effort really can be worthwhile. I remember once needing to know how to immobilise a British machine gun so a character in a novel I did with Barb Jones could do just that -- knock out the guncrew, then immobilise the weapon. I ended up chatting with a British squaddie and learned that you could remove the bolt or firing pin or some such, being wary of a spring or clip or something that would fly out through the breach in the process. I was very happy to write in that real detail, even though in this instance the probability of anyone reading it actually knowing that the detail was real was pretty remote. But I knew, and it felt good to have it right.
In the same spirit, I've tried to get my Chevy details right in Road's End, and I hope I've managed it. It's sure been fun to write about the snarl of that V-8 and the bite of big tyres on the country highways of Victoria in a strange, ruined future... Ah, be still my rev-head heart!
When can you read it? When it's finished, and that'll be a while yet.
I was browsing the DVD racks in my local Big W (Walmart, to US'ns) the other day and came across a re-release on an old classic, 300 Spartans, a movie I remember seeing when I was a youngster, TV Saturday matinee fodder. It was an early 1960s telling of the battle in which 300 Spartan soldiers held a pass and thus delayed the advance of the Persians until the rest of the Greeks could sort out their endless political squabbles and rally to the common defense of their land in the teeth of the greatest army that had ever moved across the face of the Earth.
Dramatic stuff, begging for the epic treatment, but it never got it in the old days. 300 Spartans is the Sunday School version of the story, in which battles have little blood, the nuclear family is foremost, and everyone in 5th century BC Greece is dressed like it's 1st century AD Rome (very proper, for a contemporary audience). That's my point here: the way that culture shifts imperceptibly around us, so that the different becomes palateable, and what would once have shocked and disgusted, overwhelmed and been banned without hesitation, becomes acceptable. Not to everyone, of course, but I'll get to that in a moment.
Why release an old sword-and-sandal outing in the modern environment? For the same reason Dino de Laurentis's best-forgotten 1976 remake of King Kong has recently been issued, on a two-for-one disk with Peter Jackson's recent remake. A cash-in. It was released only because Niel Gaiman's 300 was made a few years back. And therein lies the point:
300, as a faithful filming of Gaiman's comic, is everything the other is not. Graphic beyond words, with almost-naked warriors engaged in digitally-created slow-motion battle scenes that glorify violence in a way rarely seen before, with endless showers of digitally-animated blood spraying from each spear-gouged body. In one sense the film is being genuine to the carnage of ancient warfare, but in another even the most objective viewer finds the distinction blurring between the horrifying brutalities of the historic age and the gratuitous depiction of gore as modern entertainment. This is the modern offering up of Roman gladiators, slaughter for public consumption, the Violentia of Nero's time, and because nobody actually gets hurt, other than stuntmen who are paid well for their injuries and treated promptly, the melee becomes a work of art, not the carnage we historically disdain in the Roman world. And it is graphic in other ways, nudity is frankly handled, murder and betrayal are true to anitquity, and general wierdness is revelled in, from the diseased, perverse oracles to the hunchback who betrayed the Greeks, and the bizarre, totally fictitious portrayal of Darius (he wasn't black, he wasn't eight feet tall, and so forth...)
Denoument: less than half a century separates the two tellings of the story, but one is prim and proper, with American accents to comfort the viewer into a sense of here-and-now normality, with nothing to upset the sense that the battles are well and truly staged. The other attacks the senses with strangeness, cruelty from the first frame, and does everything in its power to deny that the world as we know it has any validity.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed 300. It's like the classic paintings of Frank Frazetta come to life, the digitally-graded colour and light evoking comic book printing techniques in a moving image, and the massively developed cast (some of those abs are surely digital...) are the visual feast, in terms of their graphic depiction, not their simple availability, many have waited for ever since Arnie first swung an axe in 1980. One might expect the performances to be lost in the visual stylisation but this is not so, Gerard Butler and David Wenham shine. The film is like a hammer taken to your skull, and you walk out breathing deeply and wondering what the human race is truly capable of, both its depths and it's heights, the spectrum of all the human spirit can obtain to within the brief, painful episode we call our lives.
But it's not an easy film to watch, and you have to be in the mood, otherwise the carnage is just that, a blow in the face. I'm not going to liken it to Saving Private Ryan, which had WWII veterans watcing through their fingers, it is quite clear that many battle shots are brilliantly composited effects in which nobody got hurt, but to take the savagery of a Frazetta painting and bring it to life is to raise violence to an artform all by itself. Is this a bad thing? If it inspires the precariously-balanced mind to act out the images burned so fiercely into, yes. As art, it is merely the cinema of the extreme. But at every turn one must wonder, where do we go next? Movies, as the spearpoint of the storytelling industry in modern times, play a game of one-up-manship, and for every movie that gets the formula right, there is another that goes over the top until the violence, the action, the size of the explosion, whatever, becomes laughable. Troy got it right, 300 is another matter entirely. Is it fair to compare them on a level playing field? Maybe not.
As I began, the denoument of the age is the point. If 300 Spartans was the mental arena of fifty years ago, and 300 is today's, what will the 2060 telling of the same story be like? As unimaginable to us as 300 would have been in the early 60s.
To place this in a writing context, is the written word immune to this issue? The word triggers visualisation and all the detail you can provide remains simply a release agent for the reader's own imagination. If the reader can't imagine a particular level of violence, drama, emotion, whatever you are trying to depict, you cannot make him or her; the writer points the way to the emotional experience, it is the reader's prior experiences that he or she connects with to generate the response. So do writers have to compete with movies for their bang factor, or is it enough simply to evoke discrete memories of those emotional torrents? I'd put money on the latter, but you have to be careful: too heavy a hand and you'll be called a plagiarist, or even worse, a cash-in artist.
In this much every writer, producer, director, painter and comics artist competes with every other in the same shared space we call the market, wandering through the limited range of themes and approaches for some element of originality to brand their own work as unique, and it's not easy to tell a story in a fresh way. My personal hope is to put fresh spin on ideas, and create fresh tellings which are sufficiently in tune with modern times to please a decent-sized audience: I'll be happy with that.
Many a gay writer has probably experienced a certain peculiar instance of self-doubt. Mingled with the pleasure of exploring one's world, telling a story and saying things that are personally important, there's that momentary flicker of wondering if one is exploiting one's own sex or sexuality for gain -- one which het writers probably rarely ever feel. Am I, as a bi woman, in any sense exploiting the community of which I can claim membership when I tell a story about women who like the same things I do? I think the answer is self-evident, it is no more exploitative than any other gender- or sex-based group, nor any less. Does anyone question whether big “assets” on the cover of a magazine are exploitative of women? Of course not. Nor is there any doubt that appealing to what lies between the het male thighs makes males part with the money in their pocket. And at the end of the day, we would all like to make a living at what we do, valued by our readers and respected for the quality of our tales. That's what this wiki is all about. Is it exploitation? Definitely not, but there’s plenty out there that is.
“Sexploitation” is nothing new, it's been around since time immemorial, but our own society has its own views on the matter. Pornographic literature has always been around, some of it very rough and ready, some very slick and sophisticated. Several years ago I enjoyed the three-volume paperback edition of a long-lost classic, the stories written in the 1880s for an underground publication, The Oyster, and thoroughly enjoyed the classy, smooth narrative and the remarkably liberal, forward-thinking world-view advanced by the writer in notable contrast to the late-Victorian era's erotic fascination with brutality. Did I consider myself exploited as a woman to be the object of desire in the pages of this male-penned and male-oriented work? Not for a moment! The delight with which women are described and the respect with which this writer celebrates their charms and their integrity (as sound, intelligent people living what today we would call lusty, healthy sex lives, liberated from the repressive morality of their era) were refreshing and highly entertaining.
Xena was an early highlight in lesbian chic, it was certainly the phenomenon that made the term a reality for me. I was a huge fan of Xena: Warrior Princess in it's heyday, and though I lost patience with the direction the show took in its later seasons I still look back on the early years with great fondness. While I have no intention of opening the can of worms over the behaviour of the characters in later seasons that so divided the fan base, the very term "sexploitation" surrounds the show. Xena was the first fully developed female hero ("shero") to come along, disproving the old bias that it was not possible to hang a competent, dynamic, fully-featured story with adventure elements, on a female central character, but her provocative appearance (yes, Lucy Lawless was an eyefull in those days!) and the sexual dynamics of much of the writing, especially the earthy comedies of the mid-seasons, to many smacked of frat-boy sniggers, and that is sexploitation at it’s clearest. In a similar way, the comics genre erupted in the 90s with a plethora of eye-candy heroines (Witchblade, Cyblade, Elektra, Shi, Lady Pendragon, the list goes on...) and the term "boys with breasts" was coined to describe them -- doing male things in male ways, just clothed in female flesh to please a male audience.
What about lesbians? The gender divide gets very blurred -- nobody reading this needs me to say that! We live in an age of woman space shuttle commanders, women fighter pilots, explorers, engineers, scientists, soldiers, almost any occupation is open to women today, so to depict them in a narrative is to show women functioning in the roles society expects and permits. After that point, adventure and intrigue operate as always, so a story can unfold as it would always have done, with the exception that the protagonists are now culturally allowed to be female. Of course, comics make no claim to being reality, and that alone is probably their saving grace in the grander scheme of things: what they have never denied being is eye-candy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just as gay men love those oiled, muscular torsos that appeal to straight women on all those calendars, the idealised and impossible figures of those battling females strike at least some sort of chord in lesbian female readers. I’ll leave it at that for the moment, as the fact that some of those chords sound very un-true notes is fodder for another post entirely. The difference between a stylized graphic narrative and a literary work is of course massive, and at many levels, and either of them can be exploitative, while neither is necessarily so by virtue of its genre alone.
But exploitation does raise its head in very ugly ways in this liberated modern age, and it’s all to do with the dollar (it usually is). What prompted me to write today was a breaking news story about a young Aussie model, Catherine McNeil, of the bi or L persuasion, on the verge of a career break in the States, and whose agents are reportedly furious about photographs having found their way to the public featuring her in a same-sex kiss, which might damage her monetary potential in a repressive and patriarchal culture. Not the Swedish model she kissed a while ago, she was important, but an unimportant model in the US.
Find the details at:
This is the most cynical of homophobia -- that she may be same-sex inclined is not the issue, it’s how she is perceived by those who purchase the commodity she represents. Her monetability, in other words. Stalking a catwalk with a stomping pony-walk is what she does, displaying her body as a canvas for goods to be mounted upon, but put the thought into people’s heads that off the catwalk that body rolls around with the others in the troupe instead of with some rugged, hairy beau, and the gravy train encounters a bump in the track.
Lesbian chic is a profitable commodity, the last ten years has seen ample evidence of that, including the ‘doomed love’ stereotype (one part of an L-L pairing always dies in the end, in some spectacular and horrible fashion, think Xena and Buffy), or that at least one partner must needs be evil at some deep level, leading the other astray (into a perverse and unnatural relationship -- fill in the blank with your own examples! -- or so the dreary unstated logic of the thing naturally goes at the level of the viewer’s subconscious). It’s as if a stable, loving same sex couple are too boring to hang a story on, and maybe that’s as true as it is trying to tell dramatic stories about stable, normal het couples. Stable, normal people don’t live very dramatic lives, after all. So the titillation of the same-sex relationship to the general marketplace must be thematic, while being insufficient in itself to carry a product... Or so, apparently, goes the Hollywood theme song in the current economic, social, religious and moral climate. And a catwalk model is not a character who can be killed off, she is a living entity which people will pay to see, but only if her image is untarnished, which makes her real-life situation one in which lesbian chic carries negative profitability, unlike mid-evening TV.
Sigh. We live in a better age than most that have ever gone before where personal securities and freedoms are concerned, but in real terms we have a long way to go before the wider community is tolerant of the merely different. That’s why writing science fiction and fantasy is such a drawcard: as Mel has said more than once, you can put this baggage behind you and get on with telling a great story in an environment less fraught with the cloying, exhausting realities of the present.
Jan. 11, 2010: Real Life Triumphs In The End?
Can it really be four or five months since I last cranked out a post here? I hang my head in shame, while remembering I've been busy with a lot of things elsewhere...
The post above has an interesting sequel that I spotted on last night's web headlines. Here's the link:
(The cheapskates pulled the same file photo...) Despite her agents' reported fury at her same-sex preference reaching public awareness, Catherine McNiel is most definitely in the L camp and has been actively pursuing those relationships. Not with either of the two models mentioned above, but with talk-show host Ruby Rose, and the impression is they're very much engaged and planning to marry under a juresdiction which will recognise it.
Good for them! The industry will have to make what it can of the situation, and maybe do a little reallignment of its thinking (unlikely, but the more often it's hit with the need the more possible that rethink becomes). It's refreshing to see this, and hopefully it'll be less tacky and publically embaressing than other celebrity same-sex relationships, in other words, a bit more normal... or as normal as celebrities can be about anything.