Although my two stints as a hired hand writing screenplays were, ultimately, not very successful, I’ve never regretted them. For one thing, the jobs were crazily well-paid, by my standards at least, and for another thing, I picked up a lot of narrative strategies that I’ve applied ever afterwards to my fiction. And for another thing I learned a screenwriter’s “game” that I’ve used again and again over the years to generate ideas when ideas weren’t jumping up and biting me in the imagination. The game is this: take two disparate (but successful) movies and splice them–then see what ideas start to percolate. Example? Okay. Um. All right–how about this. The Godfather meets On Golden Pond. What might that look like? Or–The Hangover meets The Evil Dead. See? It’s great.
So when Art Spiegelman asked me to write a short story for an issue of RAW that would fit in with the issue’s mini-theme of “50’s Commie Nostalgia,” and when I was desperate for some workable idea, I recalled that old screenwriter’s game. First, I asked myself: when I think of the 1950s, what comes straight to mind? And what came was “I Love Lucy” and the House Un-American Activities Committee, the televised McCarthy hearings, all of those propaganda films we were shown in grammar school, and the anti-communist B-movies of the era like The Red Menace, Whip Hand, I Was a Communist for the FBI…and (bingo!) I Married a Communist (a film by Howard Hughes later retitled The Woman on Pier 13, and a title appropriated much later by Philip Roth). Thus the story below–which originally appeared in RAW Volume 2, Number 1, in 1989–was generated by this bit of associative game-playing: “I Love Lucy” meets I Married a Communist. The result: A 50s “sitcom” (called ”Peg”) about commie spies in the suburbs.
I don’t know how great a short story it is, but it still makes me laugh when I read it. So I like it. Continue reading
The sequence of ten vignettes below originally appeared in RAW #8 (1986), the comics anthology edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly; Art gave me pica and line counts and I wrote to spec, unifying the sequence by making each part of it pertain, in one way or another, to the lives of cartoonists. The title, which Art came up with, is a jokey reference to my first novel, Freaks’ Amour (1979). During the time I wrote these, I was also working on a book of linked novellas eventually published, in 1988, as Sunburn Lake, which accounts for the address of the Spangler Home-Study School of Professional Cartooning in the first vignette. In 1985 I’d published Funny Papers, the first novel in my trilogy about the fictional “Derby Dugan” comic strip; for the third novel in the trilogy, Dugan Under Ground (2001), I shamlessly cannibalized from nearly all of these vignettes, which still rank high, near the top, on my list of favorite creations.
In early summer 2012, Chuck Scalin, an artist living in Richmond, Virginia, asked me if I would contribute a story to a project he was working on. He had made, as well as exhibited in a local gallery, a series of very mysterious assemblages, each one fitted inside of its own small presentation case with a transparent window, and now he’d gotten the notion to ask a number of writers living in the Richmond area to compose brief noir fictions inspired by the assemblages. The result was a handsome limited-edition (of 100) black box containing exquisite photographs of 14 of Chuck’s assemblages and 15 stories. The fifteenth story (but the first in the box) was mine, “The Outlawman.” Chuck had asked me to write a story that would “explain” where all of these cryptic assemblages had come from, or been found, the idea being that they weren’t art objects by Chuck Scalin but rather were unearthed “clues” to different crimes that had been committed in the distant past. So I came up with the masked vigilante called the Outlawman (stress falling either on outlaw or lawman: your pick). Originally, it was a much, much longer story, but I had to trim 80% of what I’d written to fit the project’s strict parameters. One of these days, though, I’d like to go back and pick up my first version again and work it through. I like the conceit, I like the character, and I’ve always loved those masked vigilantes–the Green Hornet, the Masked Marvel, the Spider–from old-time pulp magazines and movie serials.
I wish I did, but I rarely write short stories. It’s never been a form that I’ve been comfortable with, and I bet I haven’t written more than ten of them during my career; half of those, however, I’ve written during the past five or six years, and of those, “Bonner’s Best Friend” is the only one that either hasn’t been published or accepted for publication. It was solicited two, three years ago for an anthology of original fiction dealing with the fallout from the Great Recession. But I withdrew it after the editor chopped out about a quarter of the story and then insisted that I change the names of the characters, to make them, he insisted, sound more “ethnic.” He didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading a story about Irish-American characters named Bonner and Natwin. Go figure. Anyhow, I’m glad I pulled it, and while I don’t think it’s the best story in the world, I like it, and reading it again recently I realized that I was unconsciously writing a story in the mode of John O’Hara, one of my favorite American writers. Irish-American, come to think of it. Two lines of phonetic dialog in the story are total swipes from (but I’ll call them homages to) O’Hara: “My still welcome to crash?” and “For cry sake.” So I mise well (another O’Hara-ism) dedicate the story to his memory.