Welcome to Sweet Weasel Words, home of author Crawford Smith.
I love writing, but am not particularly fond of creating and maintaining websites, so please be patient while I attempt to beat this sumbitch into some sort of order.
My big project right now is publishing a novel called Jackrabbit. This is a historical crime novel about the latter career of Depression-era gangster John Dillinger. This criminal’s life was indeed stranger than fiction – so much so that I had to focus on only the last five months of it to keep from overwhelming myself and the reader. Check out the Jackrabbit page for details.
Back in January, I went to Tucson to attend a friend’s memorial service. It was a strange trip in a number of aspects, not the least of which was my reason for visiting. I had lived in Tucson for five years back in the 90’s, but I hadn’t been back in over a decade. After having spent that interim ten years in the Pacific northwest, being back in the Sonoran Desert was very odd. On one hand, it was quite familiar from my presious life there; on the other, the desert seemed really alien after a decade in the Pacific Northwest rain forest.
While I was there, I made it a point to visit the house where John Dillinger was arrested in 1934. It’s a small, neat “territorial” house in the old neighborhood just west of the sprawling University of Arizona campus. Although all of the action in Jackrabbit takes place starting immediately after the Tucson arrest, it seemed like an appropriate place to take a publicity photo.
Also, I’ve learned that Tucson has begun embracing its Dillinger history with an annual “Dillinger Days” celebration, featuring reenactments, a historical exhibit, a vintage car show, and a Tommy gun display. Unfortunately, I had missed the fun by a week or so this time, but I would like to make it in the future. January is a great time to get the heck outta Portland for some desert sun.
I hope everyone is safe and well in these anxious and uncertain times.
One of the questions I’ve gotten quite a bit as the coronavirus pandemic has made its mark is whether I’m writing more now that I’m spending more time at home.
The answer to that question is an emphatic “Hell, no!”
I’m so wound up and stressed out, I can barely read, much less write. To illustrate: I recently got a copy of William Gibson’s latest, Agency. The publish date was pushed back multiple times, so I was really glad when I finally got my hot little hand on a copy.
But I couldn’t read it very well. I’d go over a page or three and then just sorta zone out. After I was about sixty pages in, I realized that I had no idea what the hell was going on. I put it back on the shelf to be read at a less discombobulating time. Instead, I switched to my literary equivalent of comfort food: Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I figure that should carry me ’til mid-May, at least.
As for actually doing any serious writing – forget it. This post here is the first “serious” writing I’ve done since the beginning of March. The only writing I’ve been doing with any regularity has been maintaining a spotty “plague journal,” which consists largely of short entries like “curled up behind the couch and whimpered for two hours.” Such missives will not exactly put me up there with the likes of Defoe and Pepys (who wrote very eloquently about the 1665 Great Plague of London). At least I’m getting some words on paper.
And it feels like I’m kinda tapped out for this post, so I’m going to wrap it up and chalk it up as a win. I hope everybody out there is staying safe and staying well. THis is some scary shit, but it too will pass.
The other day, I published the third installment of a “short” story called Reset. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this was based on a very weird and vivid dream I had about finding myself back in junior high school, but with all of my adult memories and experiences. Very freaky. Freaky enough, in fact, that I spent several months fleshing out a viable story arc. When it was all said in done, the first draft topped out at about 21,000 words (hence the quotation marks around “short”).
At first, I’d thought about trying to whittle the MS down to a nominally-publishable 10,000 words. Then I realized that I didn’t give a whoop if it was “publishable” or not; I had no intention of trying to shop it around, and I could just post the whole damn thing on this website. Which I did.
One of the issues I had was figuring up how the wrap up the story. Basically, I opted for a cliffhanger approach, which met with mixed reactions. About half the readers felt it was a cop-out, while the other half was good with it.
My main problem was what to do with the main character, Scott Gray. Would he go back to his “marginally dysfunctional” adult life and try and pick up whatever pieces he could? Or would he live his life over, avoiding all of the mistakes he made the first time, and using his knowledge of future events to his advantage?
I didn’t care for either of these options, really. Also, there were some other characters in the story who ended up being a lot more interesting than I had originally anticipated (especially Missy McSween). I didn’t want to abandon them if Scott went back to 2019, but I had already plumbed the Memory Lane of the early-eighties nostalgia, and didn’t want to spend any more time there, either.
So I left it up to a coin toss – the cop out, so to speak. However, at no point did I suggest that the result of the coin toss would result in Scott staying in 1982 Pennsylvania, or returning to 2019 Seattle. (Sure, Dr. Wu suggested that, but he’s a bullshit artist.) Basically, I saw the ambiguous ending as a springboard to that self-publishing/authorial goldmine:
This seemed like a win/win/win idea. I could play around with Scott getting zapped to different alternate realities that could explore different genres (swords-n-sorcery fantasy? sci-fi? Western? hell yeah!) Also, I could see more of the interesting characters and see how they develop. Finally, I wouldn’t have to come up with a satisfying conclusion to the original story. What could be better?
Well, maybe an ice cream cone.
Anyway, it presents a lot of interesting and enjoyable possibilities as a writer. I’m looking forward to working more on the adventures of Mr. Scott Gray, but the next story is going to have to get in line – I’ve got a number of other projects on deck or in the works. But that’s a topic for another post.
This past weekend, my lovely wife NancyAnne and I got to spend time at one of our favorite places anywhere: the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon. We went here on our honeymoon, and have returned on or about every Valentine’s Day ever since.
The hotel is named after Sylvia Beach, who owned and operated the famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris between the World Wars. Ms. Beach was a literary titan, well-regarded in Left Bank literary circles. She published James Joyce’s Ulysses and Ernest Hemingway’s Three Stories and Ten Poems.
The hotel itself is a four-story wood frame building situated on a cliff overlooking the beach. It dates back to 1907, where it is one of the last remaining examples of the tourist building boom in Newport. It is located in the hip-n-funky Nye Beach neighborhood, home of many cool shops, restaurants and bookstores.
As a literary-themed hotel, all of the rooms are named and decorated after famous authors: we’ve stayed in the Amy Tan, Alice Walker, Ernest Hemingway and Colette rooms. There are also more whimsical rooms suitable for kids and families, including the Dr. Seuss, J.K. Rowling and Jules Verne rooms.
This year, we lucked out and managed to book three nights in our favorite room: the Mark Twain. This is definitely our favorite room for a variety of reasons: big, uber-comfortable bed, superlative ocean view, a fireplace and a claw-foot tub with a writing shelf to allow for cranking out a few pages while bathing.
Also, there’s a wonderful library on the top floor overlooking the beach that runs the length of the building. The view is fantastic, it’s scattered about with comfy chairs, and every night the hotel provides a cauldron of mulled wine. Also, there’s a great restaurant called Tables of Contents (nyuk). Breakfast for all guests, and the evenings they serve wonderful four-course meals. It’s group seating, so you will in all likelihood end up having to make engage in the Lost Art of Conversation with a stranger. (Unless you end up to a non-responsive software engineer from Hillsboro, like I did.)
So what did we do? We read. A lot. The hotel i conducive to that: no TV, no phones, no WiFi. No problem. Besides, no one goes to the Oregon coast in February with reasonable expectations of spending a lot of time outdoors. Saturday it rained all day, but we were more than content to stay in the room and read, and feed wood into the fireplace. It was wonderful to curl up by the fire and read while listening to the spack-spack of the winter rain on the windowpane.
Sunday, it cleared up a bit, and we wandered around the Nye Beach neighborhood, checking out new places and old favorites. We also went down to the Bayfront area, which is a really interesting combination of working fishing port and seaside tourist area. We came back to a stunning sunset:
As always, this was an excellent getaway, and we are thankful to the people at the SBH for being so gracious and running such an excellent literary hotel.
Remember junior high? Didn’t it suck? I mean really, really suck? Sure it did.
A few months ago I had a dream wherein I woke up back in eight grade , but with all of my adult experiences and memories. I spent the bulk of the dream figuring our what how the hell I was going to survive.
It was terrifying.
Normally, I don’t remember dreams at all. The few that stick with me past the alarm clock rarely make it past breakfast. But this dream – whoa! – it sizzled in my consciousness for several days. Finally, just to extirpate the sumbitch, I started writing it down. It took a while to find its legs, and by the time it was all through, it had clocked in at something like 22,000 words. That is a real bastard of a word count, as it is much too long to be a short story, but not nearly enough to qualify as a novel. Instead, it’s in the dreaded literary limbo of “novella.” Ugh.
At first, I thought that if I shaved it down to about 10K words, I’d at least have a shot at shopping around as a short story. Then I thought, fuck it. I didn’t want to shop it around as anything, to be truthful. Trying to get anything in print involves having to deal with rejection emails from the likes of Southeast Montana State Literary Review and Anime Blog. To heck with that; if nobody’s gonna read it, then they can not read it on this blog, and I am thus saved the time sucking up to land-grant literati.
Still, at it’s current length it’s a bit much to read in one go, so I thought I’d chop it up into three short-story-sized pieces and post them one at a time. That way, I could post some content while still engaging in the requisite turd-polishing for the rest of the story.
No doubt I will act the wiseacre later on as I post the other pieces of the story, called “Reset.” Without further bloviation, here’s the first part:
It’s the small victories that sometimes keep you going. After a long and lackluster effort to get Jackrabbit in a brick and mortar store – I finally did! At first, I had been put off with the lack of success I’d had at local bigshot indie bookstores like Powell’s and Annie Blooms…uh, Arnie Bang’s, I finally started looking at other places closer to home.
So I bopped on into my most local of bookstores, Belmont Books. Joe, the proprietor, was extremely friendly and bought a copy on the spot. I groused about some of the difficulties I’d had and he scoffed that he could undercut Amazon AND Powell’s. That’s the attitude!
Better yet, he paid 60% up front, in cash – which lasted me all of four blocks, where I spent it in the Plaid Pantry on lottery tickets and junk food. So kudos to Joe and Belmont Books for walking the walk when it comes to supporting local authors. If you’re in Portland, pay ’em a visit at 3415 SE Belmont St., PDX.
Because he just heard that Jackrabbit is available for free eBook downloads!
Yes, once again, the eBook version of Jackrabbit will be available for free downloads at Amazon from January 22 through Sunday, January 26.
It’s 1934, and America is in the middle of a crime wave. Once a small-time crook, John Dillinger – a.k.a. the Jackrabbit – has become America’s first modern celebrity criminal. The public avidly follows his exploits, from gentlemanly bank robberies to violent jailbreaks. Many view him as a modern-day Robin Hood, exacting revenge on the banks responsible for the misery of the Depression.
Having achieved the fortune and fame he’s always desired, the Jackrabbit realizes that it has an enormous price. Now, all he wants to do is settle down with his girlfriend Billie and live a “normal” life. That will be tough to do with the FBI hot on his tail. Agent Melvin Purvis relentlessly pursues him across the Midwest, and every cop in the country has orders to shoot on sight. Now desperate to escape the life that he’s created, the Jackrabbit concocts a daring plan to disappear. As the equally-desperate Agent Purvis draws the noose tighter, the Jackrabbit knows that time is running out. Will his audacious scheme work, or will he go down in a thunderstorm of lead?
Download for free until Sunday and enjoy – and if you’d care to leave a review on Amazon, it would be appreciated!
I just finished re-reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the umpteenth time. I first read it as a freshman in college. My roommate had to read it for his English lit class, and had left it lying around the room. I picked it up and casusally scanned the first several pages, and I was totally hooked.
Heller’s black humor about the plight of U.S. Army aviators during World War Two really grabbed me, as did the anti-authoritarian message. So was the general misanthropy that was pretty much in line with my own uncomfortable 18-year-old’s realizations about how the world really worked, and the motives (and intelligence) of those in power.
I have recently been on a Catch-22 kick, having started watching the 2019 Hulu series, that broke the story up into six ~50 minute episodes. It started out okay, but as it diverged more and more from the original story, I got more and more upset. By the end of the final episode, I was hurling curses at the screen. In my opinion, they really buggered up the ending (thanks, George Clooney). It was so bad, I had my wife sit through Mike Nichols’ 1970 movie adaptation just so she would have an appreciation for the actual structure of the book – and the ending.
Of course, it would be nearly impossible to catch all of the intricate plot twists and the planeload of characters that Heller includes in the novel. The story’s timeline does not lend itself to screen adaptation, as it jumps from event to event with limited cues. I know that entire graduate school theses have been written regarding the timeline of the novel. I once read the book cover-to-cover three times in a row trying to puzzle it out myself (with limited success).
This was shortly after I had started writing my first novel manuscript (as yet unpublished – maybe later this year?) I was blown away by the fact that Catch-22 was Heller’s debut novel. I knew that I would never be able to match his prose and characterizations, but I figured I could pick up a few pointers. (I probably didn’t.)
That got me to thinking about debut novels, and how some of them – like Catch-22 – were just so mind-meltingly good. Granted, Heller worked on that manuscript for seven or eight years before it was published, and he had the literary education and experience to really hone his authorial chops. Nevertheless, as a debut novel, it’s fantastic.
Which led me to the topic of other unbelievably good debut novels that will always make me feel slightly inadequate as an author. Actually, the list is pretty damn long. And even if they do make me feel like Orr paddling away with his plastic-spoon-sized paddle, these titles continue to inspire me to keep cranking away at the keyboard in the hope that someday I’ll be able to produce something a fraction as good as these authors managed to write out of the gate:
The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Carrie – Stephen King
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
Neuromancer – William Gibson
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
V. – Thomas Pynchon
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* – Hunter S. Thompson (this one gets an asterisk as it has long been rumored that this was really nonfiction, but classified as a “novel” to provide legal cover for the author’s, um, proclivities)
I could keep going, as well as mentioning others that I should have read, but haven’t yet (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for one). These are the books that keep me writing when it all seems like a foolish endeavor.
Greetings and Happy New Year! I haven’t been very active on this blog due to holiday travels, a nasty cold that one of my co-workers gave the entire office right before Christmas, and general laziness.
Right now, Portland is bracing for a “big” snowstorm that probably won’t happen – but if it does, I can actually devote some time to focused writing. I’m still polishing up a “short” story with the working title of Reset. The first draft topped out just north of 21,000 words, which is definitely out of short story range and more like a novella. I had originally thought about wielding a fierce editorial pen to try and trim it down to ~10,000 words, but at this point I don’t think that will happen. There are two reasons for this: 1) my aforementioned laziness, and 2) the way the story wound up left it as a possible springboard for a series. And we all love series, don’t we, gang?
I’m still trying to get my head around further promotion for Jackrabbit (more on that later, perhaps), as well as trying to clean up an older novel manuscript for a story called Fester. Tat is going to require a few bucks for the editor, cover design, etc. – so maybe after we get past tax season (and we get a refund).
I’ve also started research for a story I’ve been kicking around in the basement for a long, long time. It’s about stand-up comedians, and based on the careers of such humor luminaries as Bill Hicks, Andy Kaufman, Lenny Bruce and Doug Kenney. This is a monumental undertaking, and I’d guess that even the first draft would be two years in the making…so, we’ll see.
While I’m still trying to ramp up my creative activities in the new year, I have been able to post an old short story I cranked out while writing the first draft of Jackrabbit. It’s kinda weird and very silly – basically, it’s John Dillinger and his gang going up against a very unusual foe. It’s called Encounter in the North Woods, and you can check it out here.
In all likelihood, the proposed exhumation of John Dillinger is dead in the water. For those who haven’t followed my posts on this (here, here and here), I’ll give a quick capsule review.
In late July, a week after the 85th anniversary of the Biograph shooting (and also the release date for Jackrabbit), it was announced that Dillinger’s nephew Michael Thompson had obtained a permit from the Indiana Department of Health allowing him to exhume the body of his famous gangster uncle. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that this was in some wise connected with a proposed biography of John Dillinger that the History Channel was preparing. The reason for the exhumation was to determine whether or not it was really Dillinger in the grave, addressing the “wrong man theory” that has been kicking around for decades.
Not all of Dillinger’s relatives were happy about this development, and the bickering began in public forums (fora?) as well as in the courtroom. Then things started to go a little sideways. The History Channel, without comment, announced that they were bailing on the putative documentary project. Then Crown Hill Cemetery started making noises about not going through with the exhumation. More complaints were filed in court.
So here we are, largely as I had anticipated, with a bunch of legal wrangling ending in a stalemate. How do I feel about this? Well may you ask! I was agin it until I was fur it. Being a self-referential contrarian, I was vaguely opposed to the idea while it looked like it was likely to happen, but now that it doesn’t look like it will happen, I’m disappointed – and a little pissed.
“Court finds that the statutory requirements for this section of the statute are clear in that disinterment requires the cemetery owner to give consent before disinterment may occur,” Oakes’ ruling says, according to online court records, “and the statute does not require that the cemetery have a valid, rational, or meaningful reason.”
And it can be argued that Crown Hill doesn’t really have a “valid, rational, or meaningful reason.” The cemetery has said that disinterring Dillinger would be disruptive and potentially upsetting to family members of other Crown Hill residents. While that seems a valid concern, wouldn’t that also be applicable to every other exhumation at the cemetery? It’s really only a matter of degree, and if Dillinger’s exhumation would require more equipment and attract larger media attention, it seems that simple planning would mitigate many of the concerns Crown Hill cites.
In addition to being contrary, I am also somewhat conspiracy-minded. Given some of the weirdness surrounding this exhumation drama, I’m having a hard time avoiding the thought that there is more at work here than meets the eye. First of all, the History Channel pulled out of the documentary project with little fanfare and less explanation. It seems to me that even if the exhumation didn’t take place, the attendant publicity would be a boon for thier project. Second, and most obvious, are Crown Hill’s specious reasons for opposing the exhumation. Finally, and arguably the kicker is the FBI’s unprompted assertion that they really did “get their man” back in 1934 and that the body in Crown Point is really that of John Dillinger.
Now, I’ve never touted Jackrabbit as anything but a work of fiction. As I mentioned elsewhere, I had been familiar with the “wrong man theory” that the person shot outside the Biograph was really a low-level crook named Jimmy Lawrence. The novel started as a thought experiment about how that switcheroo actually occurred. One of the plot points was the J. Edgar hoover and the FBI knew that they had gotten the wrong man, but allowed it to be covered up to avoid embarassing themselves. Given all of the weirdness around the Dillinger exhumation, it doesn’t seem entirely too crazy to think that the FBI knows that it isn’t really Dillinger in that Crown Hill grave, and put pressure on the History Channel and the cemetery to put the kibosh on the exhumation.
Of course that’s just me talking my typical crazy-talk. It looks like we won’t find out for sure, at least in the short term. However, the judge in last week’s ruling dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning that a clever lawyer still might be able to argue that the cemetery is compelled to carry out the exhumation. Until then, however, the conspiracy theories will continue to circulate.