A day to remember the fallen

When I was a student at the University of Michigan, I was walking across campus and a young woman stopped me.

“Please take this,” she said, and then handed me a small slip of paper. “It’s Veterans Day. We want all of our fallen to be remembered.”

I looked at the slip. It read: Christopher M. Talbert.

When I got back to my dorm room, I Googled the name. Christopher Talbert had been a 24-year-old soldier from Illinois. He was serving in Afghanistan when a bomb killed him.

That was a wake up call. It’s not a nameless mass that goes to some faraway land to serve our country. They are brothers and sisters from happy neighborhoods all around this nation.

On this Memorial Day, remember the fallen, like Christopher Talbert, and give thanks that they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep us free.

 

From page to screen: Philipp Meyer’s “The Son”

Remember that book I proclaimed should be considered a Great American Novel? Philipp Meyer’s The Son? Well, it is now a TV show—premiering this Saturday night on AMC.

When it was first announced that they were making the book into a TV show, I was a little hesitant. Firstly, everyone knows the book is always better than its screen adaptation. Add to that a saturated TV market and a wide-ranging epic novel that takes place over the course of nearly two hundred years, I thought the task would be nearly impossible to pull it off successfully.

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Photo from AMC’s Facebook page.

Then, however, I learned that Meyer would be on the writing team as an Executive Producer, not only helping to adapt the book into a screenplay but also assisting on set to lend insight into the characters, plot or other generic scene details. Instantly I felt better. It was like hearing that Neil Gaiman would be doing the same for the new Starz American Gods show (which is also happening).

According to a New York Times article, Meyer was extremely influential in the creation of the show.

“It’s rare for novelists to wield this much influence over screen adaptations of their work. They may get an executive producer credit and an occasional ceremonial visit to the set, yet typically they just cash their checks and move on to their next novels. But Mr. Meyer is far from typical. Bald and muscular, with a square jaw and thick beard, he’s handy with pistols, rifles and hunting bows, and looks more at home on a working cattle ranch than most M.F.A. graduates. He wrote three of the episodes in the first season, and rewrote the rest. And he was a near constant presence on the set throughout the five months of filming, weighing in on casting, props, costumes and the choreography of battle scenes.”

I have been anticipating this premiere for months. Pretty much since they first announced the show. AMC rarely misses with its shows—The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Preacher, Into The Badlands, etc.

So who did AMC get to play the patriarch, Eli McCullough? Just Pierce Brosnan.

Between the novel, the production, the network and the cast, this show has extremely high expectations (at least from fans like myself).

The show has now been in the works for more than two years. And if it follows the same process that Meyer used to write the novel, that is a good thing.

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Photo Credit: James Minchin/AMC.

“My original conceptions for books are always terrible,” Meyer admitted during a 2013 interview with Waterstones. “They’re always weak. They’re always cliche. It’s only what comes after working a couple years on something—that’s when you get the meat of it.”

For any other fans of Philipp Meyer, The Son, AMC, Westerns or just plain talented people, I would be very interested in your take on the novel and the adaptation.

You can get to know the author with this interview, and check out the show’s trailer below.

 

Daniel Magariel’s ‘One of the Boys’: An Honest Book Review

There is a certain degree of mystery in every novel. What’s most impressive is when the plot surfaces, the reader gets a sense of the direction of the story, yet every page is as important as the next and you cannot seem to stop turning them. That’s what it’s like reading Daniel Magariel’s One of the Boys.

My wife likes to joke that she taught me how to read. What she did was make me a reader. I always loved writing, but it’s difficult to write well without reading frequently. I started with fast-paced mystery novels, but my interest quickly shifted toward more literary books (this was likely due to the many English courses I took at the University of Michigan).

The term “literary” can be a turn-off to readers. I get that. It sounds dry, dragged out, deep, slow. It takes commitment to finish, and often it takes much more brain power than someone wants to expel while reading for leisure. One of the Boys, however, is far from dry. It’s far from slow. The book, as its publisher put it, “is 176 perfect, stunning pages.”

The length itself makes it easy to maneuver through the novel. Don’t let the length fool you though — there is plenty packed into this book. What’s missing are unnecessary details that serve only to add to the word count. What’s included is a powerful story about two brothers.

Their parents have just gotten divorced. They hate their mother. They move with their father to New Mexico to start over — just the boys, as their father puts it. However, it isn’t long before they experience the man their father will become as his vices take over.

Magariel evokes empathy for his characters. He takes you inside the head of a 12-year-old boy to experience the pain, joy, suffering, excitement and heartbreak firsthand.

One of the Boys is a tale of fiction, though only in the literal sense. The characters are real. The story is real. And that’s where the power of the novel originates — the second-guessing, the connection, the thought that “this really happens every day in America.”

This is Magariel’s debut novel, but I look forward to many more to come. He’s a gifted storyteller.

Simple advice for aspiring writers

My advice for aspiring writers is simple: Keep at it.

That old cliché rings true—practice makes perfect, like with anything in life. Well, maybe not perfect, but the best way to become a better writer is to continue writing.

Seems straightforward, right? You’d be surprised how difficult this notion can be for some writers. I hear stories all the time about writers who simply cannot find the motivation (or time) to write. You can call it writer’s block. Call it whatever you’d like to call it, but the fact is that in order to write—and write well—it needs to be part of your daily routine.

Do you feel compelled to open your computer and punch through prose late at night when you’re tired and would rather stream Netflix? Do you scramble for a pen to scratch out a new idea as it comes to you standing in line to order a coffee? What drives you as a writer?

The way I see it, there are two types of writers.

The first has a grand vision of their work. They see themselves traveling the country on book tours. They imagine signing autographs and walking past bookstores with large posters of their books clinging to the front window. They imagine eating at fancy restaurants in big cities and reaching for the check, for splurging on the bill is nothing with all the royalties rolling in. It seems the actual writing is only secondary. But that’s the vision. That’s the motivation. (There are people like this in every industry. It’s not unique to writing.)

The second type of writer is much simpler. They love writing, and so they write.

I’ve found that in this incredibly competitive world of literature that we live in today, the latter is the more successful.

So I’d say decide which type of writer you are, and then keep at it.

Those Irish have a way with words

It’s not all whiskey and beer.

The history of Ireland is both beautiful and heartbreaking. It makes you wish you lived there, yet it also makes you count your blessings. Being of Irish descent, this history has always fascinated me. I’ve found that in order to understand something, you need the full picture. You need to know what came before it, and you need to be able to visualize what comes next.

Over their history, Ireland and the Irish people have endured hardship after hardship—first in the homeland, and then once they began fleeing for America. But what interests me most is that regardless of the struggles, the Irish continued to cherish their home country, and eventually their new one. Alongside that affection for place was a devotion to both religion and family.

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These senses of place and relationship have been passed down from generation to generation of Irish. It’s why you continue to see close-knit Irish neighborhoods in places like Detroit, New York and Boston. It’s why regions like Appalachia have such a strong tie to Irish ancestry, and why place, family and religion continue to be such a large part of their lives. Maybe that’s why a notion of place is usually a focal point in my writing.

In my home state of Michigan, several counties garner Irish names, whether it be from a revolutionary (Emmet county) or from counties back home in Ireland (Roscommon, Clare, Wexford). You’d be surprised how much Irish history lies in the names of American towns and counties.

For anyone interested, I would highly recommend reading The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan. Having Irish ancestry myself, this book gave me a great background on the history of Ireland and what led to so many Irish making their way to America.

For any writers out there, the book also explores the power that words can hold, and who better to explain that than the Irish?

“I find it impossible not believe that there’s something in Irish blood that favors their power with words.” – Jim Harrison, Off to the Side

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Let’s take time to celebrate the Irish today, whether it’s in your blood or not.

 

 

 

 

An argument for the Great Lakes

Stay away from religion and politics, right? I try, especially for the heavy issues. But here’s a case that seems pretty one-sided to me.

IMG_0358.jpgLast week, it was announced that the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding would lose $290 million under the newly proposed national budget. That’s almost a 97% cut, down to just $10 million per year. Being a Michigander, this hits particularly hard, but all Americans should be worried with this new plan.

Look, I understand the Republicans’ mindset. The EPA is not high on their priority list. We need to beef up our military. We need to shrink the ever-growing national debt. The new spending has to come from somewhere. The savings have to come from somewhere.

Please, just not here.

Aside from their natural beauty, ability to generate commerce and recreation opportunities, the Great Lakes offer the United States an enormous freshwater resource in a time when freshwater is becoming more and more difficult to come by (just ask California).

The world is in need of these freshwater resources. Ten percent of the globe does not have access to clean drinking water and according to the World Economic Forum, “The water crisis is the #1 global risk based on impact to society.”

fullsizeoutput_ddaSafe and reliable freshwater sources have always been vital when new cities and communities were formed. Look across a map of the U.S. Those big metropolitan areas were founded along rivers and lakes, at least prior to the far westward expansion and the creation of pipelines. Look at the states that border the Great Lakes. Think it’s coincidence that Indiana and Pennsylvania have a sliver of land touching the water? The shape of the Great Lakes states are of strategic design, allowing all access to the freshwater resource.

But with the world population exploding, an efficient source of clean water is more important today than ever before. (Do I even need to mention Flint?) Why then, when we have a fifth of the world’s freshwater in our very Great Lakes, would we cut funding to maintain their health and preservation?

It just seems a little irresponsible.

Wake up to a Lake Huron sunrise or sip a glass of wine with a Lake Michigan sunset. Take a cruise along the Pictured Rocks shoreline or drive over the mighty Mackinac Bridge.

These lakes mean a whole lot to me, and they should to you as well.

 

 

 

The craft of the short story

This past Tuesday I released my third book, a collection of short stories called In a Northern Town.

It seems my writing is getting shorter and shorter. Maybe it has gone with the attention spans of our youth.

First came the novel. Then came a novella, which I followed up with a second novella. Being connected, I then published them together in one book. And then I started writing short stories.

I had heard that short stories were difficult to write, but that if done well could be extremely beneficial to a writer’s career. They offer glimpses into the talent, about what a reader might discover if he or she picks up a novel by the same author. They also offer an additional opportunity for promotion, as they can be submitted and appear in various magazines or online journals.

Seems easy, I thought to myself. Just crank out a couple thousand words and call it a day? The truth behind the short story was not so straightforward.

I had dabbled in short fiction before, but I had never seriously thought about writing a series of stories. So to start, I did what I always do, and that was to find short story collections by authors who had excelled. Two in particular stuck out to me.

The first was Ron Rash’s Something Rich and Strange. For those unfamiliar with Rash’s work, he sets nearly all of his fiction in Appalachia. That’s where he’s from, and he’s dedicated his work to capturing the essence of his homeland and the people who reside there. The collection is outstanding. Not only was it entertaining, but as a writer it completely changed the way I looked at short stories.

The second was The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway. It collected the various stories that Hemingway wrote about his semi-autobiographical character Adams throughout his life. The first several stories, along with a few more scattered about, took place in northern Michigan—a place where Hemingway spent considerable time as a child and to where he returned following his injury in the first World War. His writing was always about truth, and this book was no exception.

My collection is called In a Northern Town. You could say it’s a mix of both Rash’s and Hemingway’s work. Without consciously intending to do so, I penned a series of stories that all took place in northern Michigan. Now, this isn’t a random setting—it’s where my first two books are set as well. But the region holds special meaning to me and I wanted to capture its culture and people and tell truthful and meaningful tales.

In all, I wrote the stories throughout the last year. But that “crank them out” philosophy disappeared rather quickly. First comes the ideas. Then comes the writing. Then comes the revising. Then comes the rewriting. Then comes the editing. Then you trash a few and start over again.

I thought it would be an easy process. I was wrong. But where is the satisfaction in easy?

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” – Theodore Roosevelt

In order to write any book—whether it’s a novel, a novella, a short story collection, a memoir—you have to feel compelled that the work you’re doing is worth it. So far, that has never steered me wrong, and so I’ll continue to write.

 

Ernest Hemingway vs. William Faulkner: The Literary Celebrity Feud

This, I should tell you now, isn’t about comparing the novels of great American writers. See, even the biggest personalities in the world sometimes find themselves in the middle of a feud. Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaron Burr. Biggie vs. Tupac. Hatfields vs. McCoys. Ernest Hemingway vs. William Faulkner?

Rarely do literary names get tossed around when speaking of such rivalries, but in the 1950’s arguably the two biggest names in the industry took a shot at one another.

Following the release of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, William Faulkner was asked for a comment on the book. This is what he said about Hemingway:

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” — William Faulkner

Hemingway and his larger-than-life personality (and ego) would not let the comment pass without a rebuttal. He responded:

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” — Ernest Hemingway

Nothing like a couple of literary giants going at it!

Now, if they wanted to argue, that’s fine. The world probably ate it up. They were two of the biggest names in the country at the time, after all. But this isn’t about the feud itself. Rather, it is about what was said. Let’s learn from the great ones: Do big emotions come from big words?

Here is my main point: we find ourselves immersed in constant deception and polarization in our culture today. Call it political. Call it strategic, or necessary, or unjust. Whatever it appears to be on the surface, boil it down. The truth will likely lie from what remains.

Don’t be fooled by the big words attempting to yield big emotion. But likewise, don’t be fooled by the big emotion attempting to yield unquestioned belief.