Archive for December, 2009

Writing to Music

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Like a lot of authors, I write to music, choosing specific songs and styles that help get me into a certain frame of mind. This music is different for every book I write, ranging anywhere from a single song to a full playlist or Pandora station (usually based on one or two specific seed songs). This music defines, in part, how I feel about the books, and how I want the reader to feel about the books. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and what, if anything, these song choices mean, so I thought I’d share some of these soundtrack tidbits with you. If you’re interested, you can listen to the exact playlists on Pandora.

I Am Not a Serial Killer:
Everlong (acoustic), by the Foo Fighters
Mad World, the Gary Jules version

Mr. Monster (Book 2 in the Serial Killer trilogy):
Tear You Apart, by She Wants Revenge
Tear You Apart Radio

Full of Holes (Book 3 in the Serial Killer trilogy):
No specific song, though I kept trying to find one. I don’t know why no specific song was able to define this book for me, especially considering how powerfully the first two were connected to very specific songs, but there you go. Instead I listened to a wide spectrum of stuff including Tear You Apart Radio, Cherub Rock Radio, Chick Rock Radio, and all three albums of the Silversun Pickups.

A Night of Blacker Darkness (a Victorian horror/comedy that my agent is currently shopping around):
Chamber Music Radio
It’s worth pointing out that this style of music is anachronistic to the Victorian period in a lot of cases. It just worked in my head and got me in the right mood.

Strawberry Fields (The schizophrenia book I just finished. It’s waiting for a revision while I work on something else):
This book was written almost exclusively to a soundtrack of Radiohead–I just made a playlist with every album they have and shuffled them all together. The main song that sticks out, in terms of its relation to the book, is “Sit Down. Stand Up.” from Hail to the Thief. It’s a very strange book.

Makeover (the wacky mystery project I’m currently working on):
Sabotage, by the Beastie Boys
Pepper, by the Butthole Surfers
Sabotage Radio
I don’t know why Makeover is so well-suited to 90′s hybrid rock, but it works.

If you’ve read I Am Not a Serial Killer (or if you’re one of my alpha readers who’s read some of the others), give this music a listen and tell me what you think. Does it fit? Does it define it as well for you as it does for me? Does it change the way you think about the books? I find this kind of stuff fascinating.

Musings on a decade of media

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Last week I talked about my favorite movies of the decade, and some of you posted your agreement with a lot of my choices. Many of the other media outlets around the web have been posting lists as well, and a lot of them are pretty similar (one them, I think it was the AV Club, also chose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the overall best of the decade). I don’t mention this to support my list, but to support, to the extent possible, the conclusions I’m about the draw from the aggregated lists. It goes without saying that this article is UNSTOPPABLY SPOILERIFFIC, so don’t read too much if you don’t want some key plot points ruined for you.

What do you see when you look at my top ten movies? Let me restate them here for ease of reference:

10: Catch Me If You Can
9: Millions
8: Juno
7: The Lord of the Rings
6: The Bourne Ultimatum (Or perhaps we should say the Bourne movies in general)
5: Slumdog Millionaire
4: The Dark Knight
3: Shaun of the Dead
2: No Country For Old Men
1: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The list has a lot of variety, but it seems to me that there’s a pretty clear commonality tying them all together: they all deal with terrible events, but more specifically they focus on the reaction to those events. Take a look at The Dark Knight, which approaches this theme head-on: everyone in the movie is overtly forced to confront a terrible situation and make a choice about it. Bruce Wayne loses his parents to crime, and becomes a crime fighter. Harvey Dent loses his girlfriend and becomes a murderer. Batman faces an unfindable enemy, and chooses to violate the privacy of everyone in Gotham in order to find him. The Joker makes this theme even more direct by forcing difficult choices at every turn: arrest Batman or I’ll kill somebody; murder a man on TV or I’ll blow up a hospital; save Harvey or his girlfriend, and let the other die; two ferries can each destroy the other, or be destroyed themselves. Everything in the movie feeds into this theme of choice, right down to Harvey’s habit of making decisions by flipping a coin: first a double-headed coin, and later a marred and damaged one. The most interesting use of the theme is the Joker repeated attempt to explain his own origin, which is different every time; he’s not content with simply committing crimes, he feels obligated to provides his actions with context–”I’m doing X because of Y”–as if that makes it better, or perhaps worse.

This theme provides a lot of narrative power, creating difficult situations and complex characters, but the real power comes from the connection to the audience: the movie is asking us, often directly, how we would respond to the same choices. Would you violate a city’s privacy if it meant catching a killer? If your boss violated that privacy, as happened to Morgan Freeman’s character, would you threaten to resign like he did? If you had relatives in a hospital, would you hunt down and kill a man to stop that hospital from blowing up? Even if you didn’t have a relative there, what would you choose–is it better to kill one man or, through inaction, kill an entire building full of innocent patients and doctors? And what if your own life were threatened, faced with the choice the Joker gave to the people on the ferry–would you blow up the other ferry to save yourself? Does it make a difference if the other ferry is full of convicts? Every event in the movie, every scene, every character, is asking you: what would you choose? What are your values? How will you respond to terror, tragedy, and evil?

Most stories (all the good ones, certainly) focus on conflict–there is a problem, and we need to solve it–but the focus of The Dark Knight (and a surprising number of the decade’s other movies) goes beyond those conflicts and focuses on the choices and reactions that spring out of them. What will you do when things go wrong? What compromises will you be willing to make? How will you live with the results of your choices? It is not difficult, in my opinion, to see where this focus comes from: we kicked off this decade with the biggest terrorist attack ever perpetrated on US soil, and arguably anywhere in the world, and we’ve spent the time since embroiled in shooting wars, intelligence, wars, and a seemingly endless string of sticky moral choices. How do we respond to a terrorist attack? Is it okay to go to war? Is it okay to torture a criminal if it means we can save lives because of it? What do we do if we disagree with our government? Is safety more important than privacy? Where is the border between freedom and law?

When something terrible happens, what will you do?

The Dark Knight is the most direct, but every movie on the list addresses the same topic, to varying degrees:

10: The protagonist in Catch Me If You Can is faced with his parent’s divorce, and the impossible choice of which one he wants to live with, and chooses to run away; he responds to this choice by refusing to face it, and spends the rest of his life running, hiding, and lying to avoid responsibility.

9: The little boys in Millions have just lost their mother, and while reeling in the void she left behind both boys scramble to regain control of their lives: one turns to low levels of crime and bribery, and the other turns to love and service while simultaneously retreating to a fantasy world (which he can navigate and understand much better than the real one).

8: The girl in Juno gets pregnant, which she is not in the least prepared for emotionally, and the story is about her struggle not only to do the right thing but to figure out what the right thing is.

7: The Lord of the Rings confronts the issue on two levels: there is the physical threat of Sauron, and the corrupting threat of the Ring; in a very real sense, each character in the movie represents a specific reaction to one or both of those threats. Do you endure it like Frodo? Do you fight against it like Aragorn? Do you try to harness it like Boromir? The story is exciting because of the conflicts it presents, but it is powerful because it focuses on the reactions to those conflicts.

6: Jason Bourne spends all three movies specifically reacting to the situation he finds himself trapped in–he has been brainwashed, deceived, and used, and reacts differently in each movie: first he tries to escape, then to figure out what’s going on, and then to stop the people involved from doing it again.

5: Now we’re getting into the top 5, and the theme is getting much more direct. In Slumdog Millionaire, “how do you react to tragedy?” is the entire point of the movie, starting with the basic premise of “all these horrible things I’ve experienced are inadvertently giving me the answers for a game show.” Deeper than that, though, the movie is about three people–Jamal, his brother, and a girl named Latika–who experiences year after year of horror and react to it in completely different ways: Jamal uses his experiences to make himself a better person, his brother chooses the opposite, and their friend Latika is too indecisive and thus stuck in the middle.

4: We’ve already discussed The Dark Knight in detail.

3: I’ve said many times that the point of a zombie movie is not the zombies, but the humans reactions to the zombies, and never is that more clear than in Shaun of the Dead. I mentioned last time the scene with Shaun’s mother, but now that we’re in spoiler land I can come right out and say it: Shaun’s mother is bitten by a zombie, and is lying on the floor, and the characters know through painful experience exactly what’s going to happen next: she’s going to rise up as a zombie and try to kill them all, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it–they’re only choice, if they want to survive, is literally to shoot her in the head. How can you possibly confront a choice like that? What would you do if it was your mother, or your spouse, or your child? Shaun of the Dead is very funny, but it doesn’t shy away from a long string of tragedies, and the difficult choices they force us into: the world is falling apart, so what do we do? Where should we go? Who should we follow?

2: No Country For Old Men is another movie that treats this theme very directly. What do you do if you find a bunch of dead bodies and a few million dollars? What if one of them isn’t dead–helping him could make you a target, but leaving him would make you the kind of person who leaves people to die. The “main” character is arguably Sheriff Bell, who is aware of the hunting and killing only peripherally, through investigation, but who is so affected by the senseless brutality of it that he can’t go on. He knows that if he stays it will destroy him, but he also knows that leaving will be just as bad, and maybe even worse, because he will turning his back on a problem that needs to be solved. His choice is impossible, but he has to make it anyway, and the ending presents us with a question of our own: was his choice right? If you can’t stop the evil, are you morally obligated to mire yourself in it anyway, or is it okay to retire and enjoy what you can?

1: The characters in Eternal Sunshine respond to a vast series of questions, almost all in memory, forcing them to remember and reconsider everything they’ve done. “We fought, and I left. Should I have stayed?” “Something happened, and I was scared, but I wish I’d been brave. What would have happened?” The first time they meet they choose to forget each other–they were love, but it didn’t work, and it’s easier to wipe their memories than to remember the pain (and, worse, the lost joy) of their relationship. Then they meet again, and fall in love again, and someone tells them about the earlier memory wipe and they’re suddenly confronted with teh most interesting decision of all: they know that they love each other, but they know that they’ve tried it before and it ended horribly–so horribly they chose to eradicate their memories altogether. Do they give up now, knowing what they’re in for? Their choice affected and inspired me more than almost any moment in any film I can remember:
Joel: I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.
Joel: Okay.
Clementine: [pauses] Okay.

In a decade defined by tragedy we’ve been forced to confront and make a thousand decisions we didn’t want to make–we’ve stood strong in some areas, and made some compromises in others, and we haven’t been happy with the consequences in either case. Life is hard. But we have to go through it anyway, and their are rewards just as often as there are disasters. After ten years of discussing and examining and theorizing on the different ways we react to terrible things, I’d like to think we’re a little better at it than we used to be.

I forgot to add a title to this blog post

Monday, December 14th, 2009

The decade is almost over, and thank goodness: I look forward to once again living in a decade with a convenient label. More importantly, this is the hallowed time when we must look back at the last ten years and make best-of lists. This is the kind of thing I’m completely powerless to resist–I love lists!–so here you go. I’ve decided to go with a movie list, because it’s probably the most widely accessible.

Be forewarned: lists like this inherently say more about the creator than about the subject, so this is less a list of “Best Movies of the Decade” than “Dan’s Favorite Movies of the decade.” I think my choices are pretty representative, though, plus I think they say a lot about who we are and what the decade meant to us, at least in the US. I’ll run through my list and make my point at the end.

And now, in sort-of-reverse order:

10. Catch Me If You Can
I know, this isn’t what you expected to start the list, and it’s probably not on anyone else’s list, but as I look back over the last ten years this is easily one of the big ones that keeps coming to mind. I love the mix of lighthearted and sad that this movie pulls off so effortlessly; it’s a fun chase movie about a guy who’s not really going anywhere, he’s just sad and betrayed and he’s running because he doesn’t know what else to do. The weird, surprise final act works so well because it pays off that subtext in a way most chase movies never do. The two stars are fantastic, and the supporting cast is great, but the real gem of the movie is Christopher Walken. Great stuff.

9. Millions
Another kind of lighthearted semi-thriller (and, coincidentally, another movie about children dealing with the loss of a parent). Millions kind of came and went and doesn’t get talked about much anymore, which is too bad because it’s a wonderful movie. The movie smoothly combines reality (two brothers live with their dad), semi-reality (they find a huge bag full of stolen money), and outright fantasy (one of the brothers talks to a series of saints, who give him advice and caution), telling a fairly simple story in the least expected way. Once again, the payoffs in the final bit are what make it really shine.

8. Juno
I was genuinely surprised by how much I loved Juno; the ads painted it as a snarky movie about teenage pregnancy, and it kind of was, but it was a lot more: underneath all the fluffy controversy was a very sweet love story. The characters are wonderful (especially Juno’s parents), the writing is clever, and the emotions feel very real on every side of a lot of different issues. Ellen Page is definitely one of the best young actresses out there.

7. The Lord of the Rings
I really debated how to handle this movie on the list: should I break it up, and if so which ones do I pick and where do I place them? Should I include it at all, or is geeky fandom overshadowing my judgment? Let me answer those questions with the fact that my wife has seen my cry a total of three times: once at my grandpa’s funeral, once several years later remembering my grandpa, and once while watching Sam carry Frodo up Mt. Doom. I’m not ashamed to say it. The Lord of the Rings is a massive spectacle, a special effects adventure, and an escapist fantasy, but it is also a powerful, epic, emotional story that never lost its focus on character.

6. The Bourne Ultimatum
Set aside quality for a moment and consider how “important” the Bourne movies are, purely for the influence they’ve had on the style and attitude of almost every action movie made since. Bourne took the wacky stunts and car chases we love to see and made them dark and gritty and real; none of seemed remotely plausible, but it all seemed intensely possible, somewhere in the very scary world we found ourselves living in. On top that, pulling quality back into the equation, they are incredibly tense, exciting, well-made, and above all smart–all three movies, but Ultimatum specifically, brought a level of intelligence to the screen that we rarely see in anything, let alone an action movie. Consider the scene near the beginning of Ultimatum where Bourne tries to meet, question, and escape with a reporter in the heart of London; we talk a lot about “competence” as one of the hallmarks of a strong character, and this scene is pretty much the most amazing example of that I have ever seen. Any filmmaker can hire some stuntmen and cut together a gunfight, but Bourne gets on the list for inventing and then perfecting the ‘mindfight.’

5. Slumdog Millionaire
This list has been slowly getting darker, and Slumdog Millionaire is perfectly representative of this blend: a sweeping, Dickensian epic about children in India swinging wildly from joy to tragedy and back again, often in just a few minutes. The keyword in that description is “Dickensian,” because the movie follows his themes closely: life is a horror tinged with beauty, where the characters are larger than life and the melodrama is turned up to 11 and the world will grind you to pieces unless you keep that spark of hope alive. The dangers are more dangerous, the joys are more joyful, and they’re all tied together with a string of coincidences that can only be guided by a very capricious hand of fate. If this premise doesn’t work for you, the movie won’t either, but if it does then you’re in for an incredible ride. Tense and moving and cathartic and redemptive, Slumdog Millionaire is the kind of movie I thought they didn’t make anymore, but I’m really glad they did. It’s also Danny Boyle’s second on the list, so good for him.

4. The Dark Knight
Much has been said about the Joker performance, and it’s definitely amazing, but what makes this movie work is the scope–the city is real, the people are real, and the story takes that realness by the throat and throws it back in our faces. I’ll talk more about this later, but I think The Dark Knight is THE representative movie of the decade, taking all our fear and paranoia and action and inaction and looking at it from new angles, asking questions about why we do what we do and how we justify it afterward. The main character is ostensibly Batman, though Gordon makes a strong case for himself as well, but I think the real protagonist here is the average citizen, and by extension the viewer: here are a bunch of people vying for our attention and support, trying very explicitly to win our support for their way of thinking. Who will we choose?

3. Shaun of the Dead
Yet another movie that blends humor and horror; if you’ve read my book, you’ll know how much I love that kind of thing. The reason Shaun of the Dead is so high on this list (and I almost put it higher) is that it blends humor and horror and character drama so seamlessly and so effectively, each element enhancing the other. I don’t want to overuse the word “brilliant,” but Shaun of the Dead is one of the most brilliantly executed films I have ever seen. Consider the scene in the bar when they talk about Shaun’s mother: it is hilarious, it is terrifying, and it is absolutely heart-wrenching.

2. No Country for Old Men
Like The Dark Knight, this is a movie whose villain gets more attention than he probably should, overshadowing all the other reasons to love it. The story is great, the characters are great, the writing is superb (I’m a huge Cormac McCarthy fan anyway, so there you go), but what really makes it work for me is the tone: despite the tension and the chasing and the gunfights, this is a sad, funereal movie about confusion and loss. I don’t want to say it’s slow, because it’s not, and because that’s a bad word for most people, but it’s…deliberate? Steady? It’s not in a hurry, let’s say; it has cowboys and mercenaries and lawmen chasing each other through a (physical and cultural) wasteland, but it gives them time to do it their way, and to think about what they’re doing. Most action movies propel the characters forward so fast they can barely keep up, but in No Country for Old Men they have time to stop and think, and that gives their actions a surprising amount of emotional weight. Even most of the deaths are off-screen, asking you to think about them instead of just see them. Combine this with great characters, astounding dialogue, and a pitch-perfect performance by Tommy Lee Jones that ties it all together, and you have one of the simplest, best movies I have ever seen.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Is this what you expected? It’s not really what I expected, but here we are. Simply put, Eternal Sunshine is one of the best love stories ever told on film, AND one of the best science fiction stories, both at the same time. I’m big on combining different elements like that, if you hadn’t noticed. The SF premise is interesting enough already, even without the love story, but then the movie combines them seamlessly and, more importantly, follows each thread without giving up or pulling any punches. In a movie fully dedicated to showing us things we’ve never seen before (such as a man trapped inside hiw own memories while they’re being erased around him, the most unexpected is actually the simplest: a relationship between two very real, very loving, very flawed people. Most movie romance is easy and superficial: you meet someone, you have a cute montage, and suddenly you’re in love; there will be a major obstacle to your relationship, but you’ll eventually realize it’s all a misunderstanding and live happily ever after. The characters in Eternal Sunshine can’t fall back on that–they are perfect for each other while being simultaneously imperfect; they love each other and drive each other crazy at the same time. When they finally reach the end and face each other in the light of truth, they’re facing their entire future, and the full implications of what that future means. It’s one of the most beautiful love stories ever made.

There you go. This ended up being longer than I anticipated, so tune in later in the week for my analysis of how all these movies fit together, and what they mean. In the meantime, I’m very interested in your answers to these questions:

1. What do these ten movies have in common?
2. How do these movies reflect the decade’s sensibilities?
3. What are your top movies from the last ten years?

US release schedule

Friday, December 11th, 2009

First, remember that nothing is set in stone; this schedule will PROBABLY not change, but that doesn’t mean you should burn down a windmill if it does.

With that caveat, I’m pleased to announce that Tor has ‘finalized’ a release schedule for the Serial Killer books:

I Am Not a Serial Killer: April 2010 (which, in practice, means March 30)
Mr. Monster: October 2010
Full of Holes: April 2011

They will be released as trade paperbacks, about 6 months apart, with a “significant investment” in bookstore displays and such. I’m incredibly excited. Releasing the books on an accelerated schedule like this will build a lot of momentum, and we should be able to generate a lot of excitement. I’m starting to work on a book tour for this spring, so if you live near (or work in) a bookstore you’d like me to visit, please let me know!

You have nothing to fear from this baby

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

sk_baby

The baby belongs to my friends Isaac and Kara; the shirt was made by our mutual friends Lynda and Ryan Day, who print my T-shirts and buttons. We are currently working on a system that would make such reassuring baby clothing (and other items) available to you. I’ll let you know as things develop.

In other news, my new book is coming along nicely. I reached a point last week where I thought “I really need to talk to a lawyer who’s worked for years in the skin care industry,” and then I remembered that a friend of mine is a lawyer who’s worked for years in the skin care industry, so I called him up and we extrapolated zany ideas over lunch. I learned, among other things, that my definition of “battery” was incomplete. Now I know.

In which Dan geeks out

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

My uncle went to Germany last week, and I asked if he’d be so kind as to take a picture of my book in a bookstore; I have several copies of the German edition, but I didn’t have any that simple, meaningless proof that it’s actually on a shelf somewhere. He kindly obliged, and sent me the following:

Berlin Serial Killer 2

I was immediately struck, not by the book itself but by the books next to it: that’s Bernard Cornwell! I think that’s even the Saxon Tales, which is my favorite series by Bernard Cornwell! I did a little geek-out happy dance and decided to post this for everyone to see and rejoice in.

There’s a lot of really awesome stuff that happens when you finally get published, but this is one of the best: seeing your work on a real shelf in a real bookstore, right next to one of your favorite authors. It’s crazy and surreal and completely awesome. Thanks to you guys, the readers, for making this possible.