Thursday, August 19, 2010

Appel Here...

Thriller Guy is still on “vacation.” A recent rather cryptic note from him refers to some very inhospitable conditions and indicates that he isn't sure when he will be back in mufti, sitting at his desk reviewing fictional derring do. Our best wishes go to TG and our hopes for a speedy, and more importantly, a safe return.

Continuing my fact-finding research to Custer's Last Stand on a lighter note...

After returning from the battlefield, I had a night to kill before flying out of Bozeman the next day. I decided to drive around, check out Bozeman and have dinner. It being a Sunday night, the town was dead, though I cannot attest to the fact that it might be just as dead on any other night. The only action I saw was a group of teenagers in an empty mall parking lot who appeared to be kicking and beating a victim who was on the ground. A closer drive-by showed that rather than kicking someone to death, they were playing a game of hacky-sack. In my defense, I can only say that the same group of kids in my neighborhood right outside Washington, DC would most assuredly have been up to no good.

There were few places open for dinner, so I was happy to come across a Japanese restaurant whose name I no longer remember. This was in 1987, well before there were sushi joints in every town in America, so I was curious how this restaurant ended up in a small town in the wild west.

I went in and found no other customers, only a young Japanese girl who was working on what appeared to be her homework on one of the empty tables. With a big smile, she escorted me to a table and handed me a menue. Her greeting was a jumble of English that was unintelligible, but decidedly enthusiastic. The menue, and the restaurant itself, proved to be pretty generic Japanese, which was fine with me. I went for the sushi and one of those Japanese iceberg lettuce salads with the strange orange dressing. Dinner was fine, unremarkable except for the older man and woman who while obviously making my dinner kept peeking out of the kitchen at me. The daughter, for that's who I decided she was, hovered close, making sure my every need was met. It was all slightly weird and a bit uncomfortable as no one else ever came in.

After indicating that I was finished, I asked for the bill. At which point the older Japanese couple, dressed in what looked to me to be standard Japanese garb, marched out of the kitchen bearing an unordered dish, which was placed reverently on the table in front of me, with much smiling, bowing and clasping of hands. The older gentleman said, in extremely broken English what sounded to me like, “Special for you, Cowboy.” I couldn't help laughing at this because while Thriller Guy could easily pass for a rough rider, I am more the small, intellectual type who looks totally ridiculous in a cowboy hat. But I appreciated the sentiment.

The dish consisted of two iceberg lettuce leaves, on which were two mysterious globs of something; pale white, sort of jiggly, totally beyond my ken. I decided the lettuce was part of the dish, so I rolled each around the glob and ate it. Not bad. Luke warm, kind of squishy with an odd taste which I could not identify. The three Japanese, formed up in a line at the end of my table, watched my consumption with a sort of bated astonishment. When I finished off the leaf and its mysterious filling, they all clapped their hands, smiling and chattering among themselves and bowing in my direction.

“Very good,” I said. “What exactly was it?” not really expecting to understand.

They looked back and forth for someone to come forth who could actually speak English; when no one appeared, the older lady said, “Tess-teek-a.” I acted like I understod while she repeated it a few more times. I smiled, bowed to everyone, paid my bill and drove back to my motel. Yes, you've probably figured it out by now, but it took me a few minutes to work it out.

Test-teek-a. Test-teek-a. Testicle.

I know that are plenty of people who have had them deep fried or cooked in some manner, but I'll bet there are damn few of you out there who have had them sashimi style. I'm pretty sure I'd never order them on purpose, but the entire experience felt right, like I had held up the honor of America.

Special for you, Cowboy, indeed.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In the Realm of the Dead

Thriller Guy is heading out of town in a few days so he's turning the writing chores over to his alter ego, Allen Appel. TG will return soon, but now he must go pack his kit with extra socks and his desert cammos, a few high-powered weapons and all the ammo he can squeeze into the side pockets. It's always better to have too much than not enough, and where TG is headed the probability is high that even too much might just not be enough.

Thank you, TG. I'll keep your space warm while you're out of town. Good hunting.

My old pal, mentor and teacher Bhob Stewart sent me a Publishers Weekly review of a new book on General George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn: Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations, by Tim Lehman. Bhob knows of my interest in the subject because he edited, critiqued and generally ripped apart my second novel in the Alex Balfour series, Twice Upon a Time. Bhob, for me, is that invaluable resource every writer should have: a veteran writer and editor who was willing to help out his less experienced brethren, and by help out I mean go over a rough manuscript line by line, offering criticism, corrections and withering sarcasm in the hopes that what has been written can actually be shaped into something readable and good. I don't care how famous, rich and powerful a writer becomes, everyone needs a Bhob to keep the work honest and free of bullshit. Because this help has meant so much to me and all of my books, I try to pass along this service to others in the business. It takes time and effort, but we should all do it for each other because in the world of real publishing, it is, quite frankly, us against them. That's the writers against the editors, publishers, agents, sales people, marketing idiots, bookstores and everyone else who isn't a writer. About the only people who are your real friends are the wonderful copy editors and fact checkers who go over your work and make you look like you know what you're doing.

The Custer book, Twice Upon a Time, is set in America. After the first book in the series, Time After Time, came out and was nicely reviewed in the New York Times the publisher was besieged with requests – well, maybe besieged is too strong a word -- but there were nineteen requests for copies from film producers around the world. Copies were duly sent and all decided against a film project because, and this was a consensus among them, it would be far too expensive to film a reenactment of the Russian Revolution. The message was clear: set the next one in America and choose a smaller war.

So here it was, America, circa 1876. There were cowboys and indians and Custer, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and many other luminaries of the time. The hero, Alex Balfour, time-traveling historian, would interact with this fascinating world and solve one of the great historical mysteries: just exactly what happened on June 26, 1876, when Custer decided to lead his 700 men into battle against three thousand, well armed Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.

I love doing research. When writing this series I revelled in the sheer pre-Internet days of reading real books, spending days at various libraries and drowning myself in period details. I was drunk on knowledge, which I then distilled into what I hoped was an exciting story with fascinating characters. And since I made a little money on the first book I decided, after all my reading, to go to the site of my climax, what is now called the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

I flew into Billings, Montana, rented a car and drove 65 miles SE to the park. Along the way I saw fabulous scenery, made my way almost blind through a massive hoard of locusts and began to understand what the true poverty of an indian reservation really looks like.

The Battlefield park stretches along six or seven miles of moderately flat land with a river, the Little Bighorn, running along the southern edge. The land is mostly covered with tall grass and bushes. It is rocky and forlorn. You drive your car along a roadway that has markers where you can stop and read about the actions that took place there. The act of driving, getting out, reading, then driving to the next stop is tedious; I soon tired of it. I had studied the period and the battle for a year and I knew the story. Or at least I thought I did.

I drove to Last Stand Hill, which is just what you would suppose it to be, the site of the 7th Cavalry's last stand against Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and their mounted warriors. There were few other people in the park and the only other cars were far away: This is what it looked like:

Those people weren't there at the time. Through the windshield it is dull and uninspiring. I pulled to the side of the road and climbed out of my car. I don't remember the date, but the weather was overcast and cool. I was wearing a jacket. The only sound was a light wind as it ruffled the grass. I am a man of some imagination, but I am not given to over-dramatization in real life. I have few spiritual beliefs, no particular God. I certainly don't believe in ghosts. You can see this coming, can't you?

Down the slight hill to the right of this photo are the graves marking where Custer's men fell around him. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and leaned against the car. And then, I can hear them, the shouting, the shots, a bugle, faintly. But of course it is only the wind. Then I can feel them, somewhere down in the ground where they were buried, where they died. They feel, to me, unsettled. Lives unfinished. Pushing at the earth around them. I find that I cannot walk away from the car, cannot move closer; I cannot tread on them. They need to be left alone. It feels wrong to be here, voyeuristic. I got back in the car and left.

Later I would dream about that moment and hear again the faint call of the bugle. Later still I would write the last paragraphs in the novel.

“That night he held her and slept. And dreamed.

He was running. Easily, effortlessly. The tall prairie grass was a bright green sea washing over small red, yellow and blue flowers that grew tangled within the grass. He could feel the prairie, the grass and the flowers, and the wind that came cold and sharp down out of the surrounding hills, carrying the smell of old snow and tamarack pines.

He was in a valley, surrounded by black hills, beneath a brilliant blue cloudless sky.
It was as if he were all sensation, seeing and feeling with a clarity undimmed by thought. A faraway herd of buffalo moved at the end of the valley. Two antelope, white tails held high, leapt from a stand of high grass on his right, leapt and fled at his approach.

In the distance a troop of men on horseback rode up a grassy hill, away from him, and he ran after them and heard the faint call of a bugle, drawing the men away, drawing him toward them. There was a great freedom in all of it, and he was as much a part of it as the grass and hills and the sky and the animals, and they were a part of him. The clear clean wind poured in, filling him and he was giddy with the joy of it.

This time it was a dream, he was sure of it. Dreams were flowers and deer and buffalo. The past was heat and dust and grasshoppers.

This time it was a dream.

This time.”

Bhob Stewart's excellent blog about the comic's industry and much more can be found here.

Send me a true life story where you too felt the presence of the dead and I'll send one of you a signed copy of Time After Time.