Inhuman Swill : Writing

The Accidental Terrorist (red cover concept)
There seems to be some confusion out there about the title of my memoir. Hey, don't feel bad about it! I brought it on myself.

In a blog post a few weeks ago, I let casually drop that I was considering changing the title from The Accidental Terrorist to Missionary Man.

You'd think I suggested that Sesame Street should change Big Bird's name to Lysander Lemonbeak. (Though it does have a certain ring.)

Let me back up a bit and give you some history. When I started work on the book, Missionary Man was my working title. The Eurythmics single of the same name had dropped in the summer of 1986, just two months before I entered the Missionary Training Center to start my two years of service. Rumors abounded (in Utah, anyway) that Annie Lennox had written the song after two Mormon missionaries knocked at her door. For a lot of us leaving on missions around that time, "Missionary Man" was our anthem.

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What is the sound of one hand clapping?
What is the sound of a tree falling in a forest?
What is the sound of a story without a reader?
What is the sound of tears on my typewriter keys?


When I showed up to attend the KGB Fantastic Fiction reading on August 21st, the last thing I expected was to end the night in front of a radio mike. But that's what happened.

Rather than greeting me in a traditional fashion when I wandered up to say hello, Jim Freund said to me, "You're on the air at one-thirty."

"Tonight?" I said. "One-thirty A.M.?"

It seems he'd had a guest for his long-running WBAI program "Hour of the Wolf" drop out on him, and he needed a substitute. Well, fair enough. I'd done the show at least five times before, and I'd enjoyed it, so what the hell.

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Glitter & mayhem & music

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Glitter & Mayhem: The Speculative Nightclub Anthology
It was almost a year ago that I received the invitation—would you like to contribute a story to a speculative rollerderby/nightclub-themed period anthology? Well, yes, obviously!

But what was not so obvious was what I was going to write about. I mean, I was a good little Mormon kid back in the mid-'80s. I went to shows, sure, and I went dancing at a few clubs, but I wasn't exactly seeking out the seedy side of the scene. I remember going to see Gene Loves Jezebel at Club DV8 in Salt Lake City in probably 1986 and being distinctly uncomfortable at all the androgynous twin-brother sexuality on display. That was about as seamy as things got in my world.

But Laura was quite a bit more familiar with the corresponding Chicago scene, so I thought would be fun for us to collaborate on the story. We talked the story through as we walked the dog, and we took the milieu and its underlying ennui straight from her memories. (Other details of the club where much of the action takes place came from the Gapers Block article "A Look Back in the Mirror at Medusa's," by Sheila Burt.)

Right at the deadline we sent "Subterraneans" off to the editors. I felt like a complete poseur submitting a story of this sort, but Laura's memory was validated when this reply came zinging back from Michael Damien Thomas:

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Chicago Writers Conference Fundraiser Invitation
As a board member for the Chicago Writers Conference, I'd like to encourage you—nay, urge you—to support this worthwhile endeavor at its annual benefit party!

The benefit takes place tomorrow night, Thursday, August 29th, at 6:30 pm, and will help support CWC's programming and outreach efforts. The $40 ticket includes food and drinks from Trader Joe's and Revolution Brewing. Along with mixing and mingling, guests will enjoy readings by Andrew Huff (Tuesday Funk co-host, editor and publisher of Gapers Block), James Finn Garner (The Politically Correct Trilogy, Apocalypse Wow!), and Hannah Pittard (The Fates Will Find Their Way). There will also be a silent auction featuring:

Tickets are now available. Space is limited; if you would like to attend, please send an email to contact@chicagowritersconference.org.

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Luminarium by Alex Shakar
Novelist J. Robert Lennon wrote recently on Salon.com that young writers should avoid reading much contemporary literary fiction because most of it is terrible. (The essay, in fact, is headlined: "Most Contemporary Literary Fiction Is Terrible.") It's a well-argued piece, worth reading, but what really caught my attention was this passage:

But a fiction writer ought to engage with other parts of the culture, too. This includes reading outside one's genre — I happen to favor sci-fi and mystery, but I think it's fine for literary writers to read YA, romance, fantasy or whatever they please. Literary writers are in the privileged position of being permitted to raid any genre for tools to subvert and repurpose.
The emphasis there is mine, on a sentence I find troubling. I certainly support Lennon's contention that writers—all writers—should read widely, and read what they enjoy. What's problematic to me is that word privileged, as if writers of "literary" fiction inhabit in some class superior to writers of other genres, and they're the only ones permitted to reach down and rummage through the toolboxes of their inferiors, and then only for purposes of upending genre conventions.

This is a limited, and limiting, view of genre. It implies that no genre but literary fiction can amount to more than the sum of its tropes, and that the tropes of genre fiction are only useful to the literary writer insofar as they can be employed to ironic or postmodernist ends.

Both those implications are false. Central to Lennon's essay is the proposition that most of contemporary literary fiction is stuck in an insular, navel-gazing loop—in other words, that it continues to reinforce and perpetuate its own tropes. A few works might break out of that cycle and transcend it, but if we accept that most works in the category are stuck inside a constraining boundary of accepted elements, then we are defining literary fiction as a genre. And if any works in that genre are capable of transcending its limitations, then why can't works in any other genre do the same?

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In his recent New York Times interview, Louis C.K. offers a good reminder of what it takes to build a career, for those who've been toiling away for decades:

NYT: You have the platform. You have the level of recognition.

LCK: So why do I have the platform and the recognition?

NYT: At this point you've put in the time.

LCK: There you go. There's no way around that. There's people that say: "It's not fair. You have all that stuff." I wasn't born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you're new at this -- and by "new at it," I mean 15 years in, or even 20 -- you're just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that's in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.
Read the full interview here: The Joke's on Louis C.K.

Iain Banks
Amid the staggering news of other losses this week, I want to remember to say a few words about Iain Banks, one my literary idols. (Two of my literary idols, really, if you care to think of his Iain M. Banks byline separately.)

I, like many of you, I'm sure, was stunned to tears on Wednesday morning by the news that Mr. Banks is suffering from late-stage cancer and probably doesn't have long to live. He broke the news in typically straightforward and mordant fashion, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

Iain Banks is an important writer. I can't think of another writer who so consciously, so prolifically, and so successfully divided his output between serious mainstream fiction and rigorous hard science fiction. He proved, at least in the U.K., that one need not confine oneself to a single genre or style of fiction in order to maintain a brilliant career. It would have been impossible to guess from his twisted 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory, that just three years later he would affix a giant M to his chest like some superhero of letters, fly into space, and bring Consider Phlebas back to Earth, introducing us to what may at the time have been the most mind-expanding and humane future society ever invented, The Culture.

And Iain Banks is an important writer to me. His books can be found all over our house—on the science fiction shelves, on the mainstream shelves, almost always in the to-be-read pile on my nightstand, and even, in the case of his whisky travelogue Raw Spirit, on the alcohol shelf. He's a model of professional productivity, putting out a book nearly every year, and he's as fearless in his contemporary novels as he is visionary in his science fiction. (In 2002's Dead Air, he was already riffing on the meaning of 9/11 before other writers dared even think about it.) And his work is a constant inspiration to those of us who find ourselves attracted writing in more than one world.

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First things first. You look fabulous. Happy Valentine's Day, you sexy thing, you!

Second—look, I don't know how many more ways to say this. It's time for you to help support our Kickstarter campaign for the Glitter & Madness anthology. There's less than two days left to hit our funding goal and get it done.

If you don't recall, Glitter & Madness is the new anthology edited by Lynne M. Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas and John Klima, chock full of speculative stories about the secret history of 20th century nightlife and party culture. The book will be published by Apex Publications and will feature a standalone novella from New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire set in her InCryptid universe. There will also be stories by Alan DeNiro, Amal El-Mohtar, Daryl Gregory, Damien Walters Grintalis, Maria Dahvana Headley, Kat Howard, Jennifer Pelland, Tim Pratt, Cat Rambo, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Diana Rowland, Sofia Samatar, David J. Schwartz, Rachel Swirsky, and yours truly.

What's more, there are plenty of exciting recent developments. For instance, Amber Benson of Buffy fame, an accomplished writer and director in her own right, is going to write the introduction to the anthology. How cool is that?

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William Shunn gets glittery at Icebar Tokyo
It feels like we Glitter & Madness participants are, like, in NPR Fund Drive mode. I've already told you all about this anthology project, and if you still want to know more about it, you can head on over to the project on Kickstarter. What I'm here for now is to answer a quick Q&A designed by the editors of the anthology:

  1. What about the theme drew you to the anthology?
  2. Who doesn't love rollerskating and nightclubs and drugs and sex and debauchery? Who didn't enjoy copious amounts of them all in those gloden days of youth? Well, um, I guess I didn't. I was a Mormon. Okay, I did rollerskate, but I felt guilty about it.

  3. We're often told to write what we know. Did you draw your G&M story from your own nightlife experiences?
  4. I love to write things that I don't actually know. My clubbing experience was pretty much limited to once seeing Gene Loves Jezebel play at Club DV8 in Salt Lake City, and I was terrified for my soul the whole time. My story is actually about slippery souls in Chicago clubs of the '80s, which is why I'm writing it with my wife Laura Chavoen. She's the one who knows exactly what that scene was like.

  5. What's your favorite way to make life more glittery?
  6. I go to a comfortable bar with my wife and friends and drink classic-style cocktails until a glittery haze drapes everyone and everything in sight. Templeton Rye is involved.

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William Shunn

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