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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Monday, February 24, 2003 - 10:42 pm:   

Hello everyone,

Thanks for giving the Ratbastards a forum for discussion on this page. I really appreciate it. I'm sometimes not very vocal about the nature of the writing world (and in particular, the nature of the genre writing world), and at other times I remind myself of a union striker. But I'm always interested in what people have to say about these topics and affiliated topics as well.

I have a handful of stories published in small and commercial venues, and another handful about the be published over the course of this year in places like Realms of Fantasy, Descant and the Small Beer Press anthology, Trampoline. I'm currently taking a break from writing stories in order to write a novel, so my whole sense of writerly being is shifting and evolving and I'm not sure who I'll be after finishing the novel. Which is a good thing, I think. For me, every time I finish a story, the next thing I write seems entirely different from the previous as well. I sometimes think that when I start doing the same thing over and over that that's when I've come to a halt in thinking and reading and writing, and I hope I'll have the wisdom to stop at that point, if I can't find a way into something new.

Um, this is more serious than I intended, but there you have it. Wait till next time. I'm sure I'll be my usual light-handed absurd self.

Chris
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JeffV
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 08:45 am:   

Hi--and welcome! Congrats on the Trampoline.

For my part, I'm just thrilled to see "Ratbastards" and "Monkeybrains" as two message boards on the same site.

Jeff V.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - 11:57 pm:   

Thanks Jeff!

As for "Ratbastards" and "Monkeybrains" being the names of two message boards on the same site, it is rather special, isn't it?

Chris
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Tuesday, July 01, 2003 - 06:15 pm:   

Chris,
I just read "The Drowned Mermaid" in ROF and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it.
Good story.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Wednesday, July 02, 2003 - 10:13 am:   

Ellen,

Hey, thanks! I'm glad you liked the story.

Chris
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John Klima
Posted on Monday, July 14, 2003 - 08:07 am:   

Chris:

It was great to meet you at Readercon. That was a surprise to see you there, glad you were able to take advantage of being in the area.

JK
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Monday, July 14, 2003 - 08:52 am:   

Hey John! Was great to finally meet and talk with you. We'll have to do it again, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Chris
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Tim Akers
Posted on Monday, July 14, 2003 - 09:13 am:   

Any bastards going to WorldCon this year?
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Monday, July 14, 2003 - 08:16 pm:   

Unfortunately not me. I'd wanted to, but funding, alas, will not permit. I'll be at World Fantasy, though. What about you, Tim?

Chris
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Tim Akers
Posted on Tuesday, July 15, 2003 - 06:24 am:   

I had to choose between WorldCon and WFC, too, but I came down in Toronto. Being in Chicago, it was actually cheaper for me, overall. But anyway, I'm pretty excited about the whole thing. My first con, and all.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Tuesday, July 15, 2003 - 09:31 am:   

Have fun in Toronto, Tim. It's one of my favorite cities, and the con should have a lot of good writers and panels to attend. Too bad you can't make World Fantasy. Maybe next year.

Chris
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Josh Lukin
Posted on Sunday, July 20, 2003 - 11:09 pm:   

Mr. Barzak--
Do you know by any chance whether you're the first sf writer since Leigh Brackett to set a story in Youngstown? Now that our Congressman has faded from the headlines, I keep looking for things I can point to when people want me to describe where I'm from; and "Born on the Edge of an Adjective" does a decent job of it. Although I still have to explain "Youngstown tune-ups" and "Italian trees" to people.
Best,
Josh Lukin
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Monday, July 21, 2003 - 08:56 am:   

Hey Josh,

I'm not sure if I'm the first writer since Leigh Brackett to set a story in Youngstown or not. I think I may be. I've read sf stories in which characters reference Youngstown, or drive through it in the space of one sentence (Connie Willis and Barry Malzberg each have a story like this, very quick to use this city as a symbolic emblem of cultural disintegration) but I think Leigh and I may only be the ones who actually keep characters here. Funny that you bring Leigh up. She actually lived in Kinsman, Ohio, which is where I was born and raised, about an hour north of Youngstown. I'd hear stories about her while I grew up, and I always found it extremely satisfying when I'd come upon a story she'd written in which Kinsman or Youngstown (where I've lived off and on for the past nine years) was the setting. She had a great understanding of this area at the time she was writing.

If you're looking for more Youngstown stories, I have one that appeared at Strange Horizons, called "Plenty", which was reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. I also have another story called "Vanishing Point" which will be appearing in a Canadian literary magazine this autumn called Descant. You can find a link to "Plenty" on my website, which is here:

http://www.taverners-koans.com/ratbastards/zakbar.html

I'll have to work "Youngstown tune-ups" and "Italian trees" into a story now. I'm working on a novel now, and it's set partially in Kinsman, partially in southern California, and partially in Youngstown as well. Maybe that'll be a good place for that. We'll see.

Where do you live now?

Thanks for dropping me a note,
Chris
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Josh Lukin
Posted on Monday, July 21, 2003 - 10:00 pm:   

Yes, there's a fsf author from Y-town named Susan Shwartz, but I doubt me an if she doth write on't. Quick symbolic uses abound, as in the episode of Northern Exposure wherein the denizens of Cicely spend an hour trying to locate the home of someone who came to their town to die; and they end up sending his corpse to his native Youngstown. Songs too --Springsteen's "Youngstown", Tom Pacheco's "Best Kept Secret in Youngstown, Ohio" (which is not about Congressman Traficant's toupee), etc. The Connie Willis reference was in her Christmas book, no?

Have you read Mel Watkins's memoir, Dancing with Strangers? I like the fact that it alludes to the city's mob culture without sensationalizing it. IIRC, Mel as a child ran errands unrelated to crime for mobster Sandwich Naples. Maybe I have it wrong. But it seems to me that it's hard to avoid some contact with organized crime when one lives in the area. Since I left, my ophthalmologist spent two years in federal prison and my internist killed himself, possibly to avoid trial. Plus a dear friend of mine from college nearly got a gig reading saliva for the mob (people in high-risk professions are particularly susceptible to belief in fortunetelling).

What worried me was in 2000, when Chip Delany published an excerpt from his (still) upcoming big dirty book, the child-molester protagonist "was born to a white working-class family in 1968 in a moderate-sized industrial town in Ohio, that was not Cleveland, Toledo, Cincinnati, Sandusky, or Columbus. He doesn't want me to tell you the name, since, he says, it would be too easy for someone to trace him back there . . . " It was written before I met Chip, but anyone who knows my year and place of birth and the fact that I've associated with him (<http://www.paradoxa.com>) could get nasty ideas.

I now live in Buffalo. A friend from Youngstown once came up and was awestruck by the city's vitality. Contra your character Marco, however, I had an easier time being happy in Youngstown than here. Sometimes I think Buffalo's chief virtues are proximity to Toronto and Rochester.

Thanks for the pointer to "Plenty." It's a nifty story for all kinds of reasons.

Never choke on any big chicken bones,

Josh
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Tuesday, July 22, 2003 - 05:28 am:   

Hey Josh,

Yes, I've read Mel Watkin's "Dancing with Strangers". I taught out of it my comp. classes this past Spring. It was a great book for all the reasons you mentioned. Watkins came back to Youngstown to lecture and do a reading too, so that was great for the students who had been reading him.

I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking about musicians and writers outside of the scifi genre who had used Youngstown. Of course Springsteen, although I haven't read Susan Shwartz, and I did see that episode of Northern Exposure and loved it. I collect these symbolic references to this place too. Did you ever hear of or listen to a punk band from the seventies called The Dead Boys? They played out of Cleveland a lot, but the lead singer Stiv Bators was from Youngstown. Yes, the Connie Willis reference is in Miracle, her Christmas story collection.

The funny thing about that Chip Delany excerpt is that I lived in Lansing, Michigan for a couple of years and he came to teach at Clarion while I lived there, so I went to a reading of his, and he read from that book, and that excerpt is one of the things he read. My then-girlfriend and I looked at each other with knowing grins when he got to that quote you listed.

Strangely enough, I'm not surprised that you had an easier time being happy in Youngstown than Buffalo. There's something about this place, even though it doesn't offer the usual suspects when it comes to cultural activities, that comforts me and makes me happy. Although close proximity to Toronto is always a good thing.

If you ever come back for a visit, let me know, and I'll buy you a coffee or something.

Best,
Chris
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Maureen McHugh
Posted on Tuesday, July 22, 2003 - 08:51 am:   

What's a "Youngstown Tune-up"?
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Tuesday, July 22, 2003 - 11:19 am:   

A Youngstown tune-up is when someone, the mob that is, wires your car to explode when you get into it. So it's just a play on meaning that someone is "fixing" your car. They're fixing it to blow.

Here's a decent article that gives a basic overview of the history of Youngstown's political and cultural machinery.

http://www.210west.com/archives/news/000011.php

If you read far enough down, you will find my good buddy Alan Deniro's long lost--what Alan? Great Uncle or something like that?--Vince Deniro, mentioned in the same paragraph as a tune-up. Vince Deniro was in the mob and he got a Youngstown tune-up at the Colonial House, which is still open. I go dancing there sometimes. It's goes through various incarnations--no one can make a business go for too long in it--but it's had a two year run as a dance club and has done fine. As long as a place sells liquor here, it should stay in business.

I was recently reading Amanda Davis's novel, Wonder When You'll Miss Me? There was another one-liner about Youngstown in a chapter of it. It's a circus novel, and when the circus comes round to Youngstown, Davis's narrator says, "In Youngstown they all came, but they all came drunk."

Lorrie Moore has a story in her collection "Like Life" that mentions Youngstown as well, and is really funny, but I can't find that collection right now. I think the story is called "Two Boys".

So the bad image is pretty pervasive.

Chris
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Charlie Finlay
Posted on Tuesday, July 22, 2003 - 12:17 pm:   

Chris, what Leigh Brackett stories take place in Youngstown and Kinsman? My first thought was THE LONG TOMORROW, but my memory is that it starts out in Canton instead.

A couple of my friends grew up in Youngstown. One of them remembers the guy in the neighborhood who used to pay kids $5 to go start his care.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Tuesday, July 22, 2003 - 01:55 pm:   

Chris: I thought you'd invented Youngstown. Like Faulkner with Yoknapatawpha County. This is most disappointing.
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Alan
Posted on Tuesday, July 22, 2003 - 02:33 pm:   

It was my Dad's second cousin, I believe. Maybe once removed. My Dad didn't tell me about this until about a year ago.

It was interesting growing up in Erie, how Youngstown existed as this kind of empty space in my imagination. But that didn't mean it was any less important, in a way. I don't know if that made sense. In fact, I never actually visited there until Chris moved back there.

Erie has its own lore too, similar to Youngstown in the Rust Belt kinds of ways, but with dolors and bleakness all its own, most of which having to do with a tempermental lake and its isolation from the rest of the state, where for most of its history it has been little more than an afterthought, a little notch that was once part of New York state (and understanding of Erie comes not by going south but east through New York--Jamestown, Dunkirk, Fredonia, Barcelona). It was a strange place growing up, but that's because I think every place is strange to grow up in.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Tuesday, July 22, 2003 - 04:16 pm:   

Charlie: The Brackett story that comes to mind is "The Truants" which you can find in her collection called "The Halfling and other Tales". This story is set in Kinsman, even if she doesn't name it. I recognized places and stores and things of that nature when I read it. The only obvious thing she does to set it there is by locating it on the border of Pennsylvania and Ohio, but the rest is all in the details, especially in the details of the house in the story, which is also recognizably the house where she lived.

Also, The Long Tomorrow begins in Canfield, Ohio, not Canton. It begins at the Canfield fair, which I'll probably be attending in a week or two. Canfield is a suburb of Youngstown, so I've always counted that novel in with her Youngstown stories, the titles of which I'm failing to remember at this point. My Brackett books are in my apartment across town, and I'm at the professor's house that I'm housesitting, so I'll have to drive over and go through them to get the titles. It's been a while since I sat down and read Leigh again.

Rick: I've probably invented at least half of Youngstown, but the other half rests in reality.

I used to live almost directly behind Alan's dad's second cousin once removed's cheese factory. I think one of the first thing I told him when we met at Clarion was that, although his dad hadn't informed him of the dubious nature of the Youngstown Deniros at that time, so it didn't resonate back then. heh heh.

Strangely enough, I used to date someone who lived in Erie for a while, and I'd visited there years before I met Alan. I remember thinking Peach Street (one of the main roads in Erie) was a fabulous name for a street.
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Tim Akers
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 06:17 am:   

How much of your writing is autobiographical, either in setting or plot? I've not read the piece in question, and know nothing of ohio, but I've always felt a little betrayed when an author obviously pulls huge tracts of material out of his or her own life. I mean, having the events of your life influence your work is inescapable, but to have the actual author such an overwhelming presence in the story makes the story feel a bit thin to me.

Again, I'm not referring to your specific writing, so don't take offense. Just reading this thread got me thinking about the subject of author presence, and filching from the real world for the bookworld. There are authors I've read who simply write about the life they wished they were leading. One guy, I can tell you he's left handed, slightly overweight, thinks he's at least slightly attractive but recognizes the fact that he has healthy chunks of cash helps with the ladies. You can tell which books were written first by the age of the protagonist's daughter. I know what his wife looks like, and I know what kind of girl the author actually finds attractive.

Anyway, enough rambling from me.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 08:05 am:   

Is this feeling of betrayal related to an interest in spec fiction? It seems part of the unwritten code of this particular genre (and nowhere else, I think, in fiction) that one's own life is not a suitable subject. And that to find something in it to write about is cheating.
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Tim Akers
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 09:51 am:   

Oh, it's certainly related in my own writing. But I find it a fairly cheap trick in more mainstream material, too. And to clarify, I don't think we should completely interdict our personal experience, obviously.

At the very least, you can only get so much autobiographical stuff into a specfic story, right? If there weren't some element of the supranatural, it would just be a journal, eh?
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 10:34 am:   

I believe there's a lot of territory between a journal entry and a "supernatural" story. One of the objections to spec fiction from outside the genre (and I think a valid one) has to do with the arbitrary nature of the supernatural elements that are deployed.
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Barth
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 10:39 am:   

Where "place" is concerned, I actually prefer stories that draw on autobiography, or at least, intimate, personal knowledge of place. Chris shows with Youngstown (Alan with Eerie) that you can depict the places of your life quite successfully in magical stories. It also shows that spec fic writers can and do make penetrating observations about their times, towns, generations, etc - a fact that is often lost on mainstream critics.

It's interesting that the same doesn't hold true for character, though. If a writer tells a story with a lot of personal detail it gets called a "grubby apartment" story - overly autobiographical. But if that writer tells a story that takes place in his/her home town, readers really dig the "resonant details."

Presenting autobiographical elements as character, I guess, means creating an evidence trail that doesn't simply point back to the author - whether you're writing mainstream of spec fic. Either way, it' a little too much like seeing Henson's wrist while Kermit is telling jokes.




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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 11:01 am:   

Tim:

I have written stories about characters and places that are completely imagined, and I have written stories that are pretty close to the bone of my own life. Usually, though, even in the stories that employ autobiographical material, I never tell things like they were. I still need to find patterns and thematic details and images from my own experience, and they must mesh with the fictional details and images as fluidly as if they were fiction themselves, or that the fiction was as real as they were.

I think I know what you mean when you feel betrayed by autobiographical writing. I've read stories that obviously employ huge chunks of an author's life, and they do seem thin. I think this is because the author thinks they can just "write it down as it happened", and in doing so, they forget the crafting of various other techniques, and the writing ends up becoming journalism rather than literature.

The best answer to your question is this: my writing is usually pretty fictional, but often my stories chart an emotional map I've encountered at some point in my life. This may also mean that it isn't my own emotional map, but one of someone's I've gotten to know intimately.

On my blog I talked a little about my story "The Drowned Mermaid", which doesn't have a 28 year old white guy from Ohio in it anywhere (or a 23 year old either, which is how old I was when I wrote that story), but it does have things in it that I learned from my ex-girlfriend about California and being a runaway, etc. I set scenes in places I knew from when I lived in California, but I'm pretty absent from the story itself, except as the ghost of an author, which is present in every story, autobiographical or not.

Also, to make this probably more complicated and confusing, even when I write characters that are based on people's personalities that I know, I have rarely been able to get very far without that character growing out of the original personality template into someone different than I'd intended.

And I do often write about places I know. If filching details from the places you have lived is cheating, then I'll admit to cheating. Personally, though, I've often thought this creates a better sense of a real place, rather than a generic setting.

Carson McCuller's, one of my favorite authors, once said that all writers write from their own foliage. She meant that they write from their own environment, both their own physical environs and also their emotional environs. I don't actually think this is true of every writer, but I do think it's true of many, and that it's a perfectly fine way to write a story as any other.

To put a spin on this question, here's another. I've met many a writer who claims that their writing has absolutely nothing to do with their real lives, but I'm often suspicious of that. I actually don't have much faith in the idea that humans can get too far away from their own feelings, and that these feelings will find their way into the stories that such authors claim has no relation to their own lives. But that's just me, and I'm also sure that there probably *are* stories out there that have no relation to the author's life. But then I always wonder why those authors wrote those stories? What made it imperative that they write that story? An intellectual game? Or an interest in the lives of others? I think, though, even with these driving forces behind the creation of a story, we are given a small disclosure about the author. If the story is an intellectual game, we know there passions run deep for the games and manipulations of the mind. If it's a driving interest in the lives of other sorts of people, perhaps the author is of the voyeuristic breed of writers, who have also brought great stories and characters to literature.

In any case, I think there are a variety of ways to go about writing, and they each bring their own pleasures.

I'm sorry, I'm not sure if I answered your question. But I'm sure I must have answered *something*.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 11:10 am:   

To riff off of Barth's idea about how using autobiographical ideas for character or place:

I think you're right on, Barth, except I'd tweak one more idea into your theory. I think that you can use autobiographical material for character, just not too much, like you implied, or else it becomes the grubby apartment story. This is the sort of story I meant when I said if an author brings no artistic bearing of vision onto the autobiographical details they're employing, then it becomes journalism, and probably bad journalism at that. The author has forgotten that the details must serve the story. Anything else makes you see Henson, as you said, pulling Kermit's strings.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 11:13 am:   

Obviously someone whose life was so interesting that fascinating stories could be made from it with little or no reworking would have no time to write fiction (nor any compelling need to).
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GabrielM
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 12:35 pm:   

Instead, they'd be called Casanova and write memoirs.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 12:36 pm:   

Is the problem autobiography, or wish fulfillment?

Michelle Tea does autobiographical work which reads like very good fiction even though, yes, she lives in grubby apartments. She has an awareness of self, and isn't afraid of examining her past for her own weaknesses and foibles.

My friend Joi Brozek, in her first novel, combines autobiography, hyperrealism, and surealism into a very strange, dark, and lyrical adventure. She projected her own consciousness onto the landscape in a way that is quite thrilling.

Paul Levinson, a former professor of mine, wrote a novel about a professor of communications philosophy who grew up in The Bronx and who gets to lead the first manned mission to Alpha Centauri.

That last example was pretty rough sledding, as it was pure wish fulfillment. He even gets to have sex in space! Fiction designed to meet the fantasies of the author hardly needs to be autobiographical, however.

I also think that autobiographical fiction needs some self-awareness; not everyone acts the same in a given situation, or has the same emotions. While people tend to rationalize their own behavior and attitudes, a writer using his or her own experience should try to come up with motivations other than those rationalizations. I recently reviewed a novel for the Voice and complained that one event was implausible. The author told me to explain that the event actually happened to her. "The problem," I said, "is that the character you built was nothing like you describe yourself."

You have to really know yourself to find out what is actually interesting about yourself as a character.

Of course, my first book was about time-traveling ghosts and gay, black, dancers from South Carolina, and people kept asking me if it was autobiographical, so what do I know?
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NM
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 12:40 pm:   

Uh, that should be "the author wrote me explain" sorry.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 12:55 pm:   

"Instead, they'd be called Casanova and write memoirs."

After the second hundreth or so seduction, one begins to wish for a bit more art and a little less personal experience.
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Tim Akers
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 01:21 pm:   

I guess my concern revolves around the intent of the story, so calling it wish fulfillment is probably a pretty apt term. But as authors, our perspective unquestionably informs the narrative. It's just a matter of keeping it informative, rather than masturbatory.
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barth
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 01:40 pm:   

"You have to really know yourself to find out what is actually interesting about yourself as a character."

very good point, nick. readers, i think, are more forgiving of a writer who makes shallow observations about place (at least the lame effort also serves to fix the story in time and space) than one making vapid observations about character. writers who don't themselves well and who fake their way through characterization aren't offering readers a very hardy meal.

but i'd go a step further and say you have to know yourself well in order to write anything interesting at all, not just autobiographical material. i read a study a few years back observing at what age various disciplines hit their peaks. generally speaking, while gymnasts hit their peak at 14, violinsts at 18, mathematicians at 28, writers don't come of age till they're 60. a major factor in that late-blooming is life experience, self-knowledge, and writerly skills all (finally) stewing together.
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Tim Akers
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 02:20 pm:   

I'd agree with that, Barth. Though I'm a little young, I have definately seen that in effect. Ten years ago I was utterly incapable of writing the material that I'm writing now. When I was truly young, I had an editor for a largish company say that if I wasn't famous by the time I was thirty, I would have wasted my gift. I can't begin to tell you the damage that did to me, and how much contempt I hold for that man. Well, not contempt...just amazement that someone could be that shortsighted. It's taken a lot of stewing, and a lot of scribbling crap in notebooks, and I only just now feel like I'm beginning to hit my stride. Long way to go, though.
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Josh Lukin
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 02:38 pm:   

Couldya name some writers who "hit their peak" at sixty? I'm sure that there are many, but my beleaguered brain is having trouble coming up with more than one or two. Unless you extrapolate the curve from writers who didn't make it that far, in which case I'd say Shakespeare, O'Connor, Wilde, Dick, Keats, and Kornbluth woulda done some awesome work at that age. Anne Sexton and Ray Carver too.

But I can't imagine what criteria the study Barth mentions used, or who performed it. Although I'd bet money it was a company that manufactured antidepressants in a town populated by middle-aged violinists.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 02:47 pm:   

"Couldya name some writers who "hit their peak" at sixty?"

Hey kid, don't spoil the dream with dreary fact- checks.
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barth
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 04:39 pm:   

i hesitated bringing up this study because i can't cite squat from it. damn. really wish i'd clipped that article when i had the chance.

but if i recall, the researchers weren't equating "fame" or "success" with "peak" or even trying to define what a "good" performance is, per se. and as i remember it, they specifically didn't name famous names from a given discipline to bolster the study's thesis. researchers asked practitioners of different disciplines what skills mattered most to excel in their respective fields, and then set out to quantify at what point in life all those skills were clicking simultaneously. (their total pro sales didn't figure into the equation, i bet.) ;)

i would guess that naming famous writers to prove or disprove an argument like this would skew the results. youth has been prized in publishing since fitsgerald, after all. editors hunt down young writers so that they'll fill the coffers for decades. are such writers at the peak of their skills? is frantzen at the peak of his skills already?

i dunno - it's just food for thought. maturity is a particularly useful trait in writing, in my opinion. much in the same way that writers often write best about their home towns after they've moved away, it makes sense to me that we'd employ autobiographical material best in our autumns, not in our springs.
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Tim Akers
Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2003 - 09:04 pm:   

well, to draw from people I admire...william gibson. Gibson's books have just gotten consistently better with time. Neuromancer was cool (actually, kewl would be a more accurate term) but it's nothing compared to All Tomorrow's Parties. young authors are prized because of franchisability. publishers want to develop the brand, especially in the genres, and the younglings offer that unmined potential. And if their work only gets better with age, well, that's just a snowball rolling downhill, now ain't it?
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Maureen McHugh
Posted on Thursday, July 24, 2003 - 06:56 am:   

Young authors are prized because they are cheap, actually. But the franchise thing figures in there as well.

This is facsinating.

I think autobiography is useful because it gives the author access to specific, vivid detail. I've been writing a lot of near future stories in the past few years (which are often read as biographical in ways that they are not, and are not read as autobiographical in the ways in which they are.) What I like is the frisson the reader gets out of the strange moments of everyday life.

But I think there's a danger that autobiographical details often feel extraordinarily evocative to the writer because the writer has the pentimento of experience coming through. (And I can't believe I just wrote that sentence, but pentimento, for anyone not familiar with the term, comes from painting. Sometimes painters use already painted canvases to save money. Over time, the image painted over comes to start to show through the top layer of paint, a kind of ghost painting, and this is called pentimento.) So the detail just feels like dynomite to the writer, but isn't particularly rich to the reader.

The nice thing about using autobiographical details in my fiction is that my family can now play a kind of parlor game of trying to figure out what's what.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Thursday, July 24, 2003 - 08:38 am:   

When they published MINIONS OF THE MOON I made a big point on the dedication page of calling it personal but not autobiographical so that nobody's feelings would get hurt(or get hurt more than I'd intended).
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Thursday, July 24, 2003 - 11:27 am:   

My attraction to autobiographical material is for much the same reasons as Maureen noted. Many of the details are very accessible and available to be used in the creation of the fictional canvas. These details, for myself, supply maybe only a fourth of the details in a story, and the rest of the three-fourths of a story I make up as I go. But the details from my life are always filtered through the same process that the completely fictional ones are, so they have to *fit* the story in question still.

The danger of pentimento (what a gorgeous word!)is certainly there. That's why it's good to have readers unfamiliar with your life critiquing it before you send it out to the general reading population.

Maureen, I love the near future stories you've been publishing! Especially "Frankenstein's Daughter" and "Presence".
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Thursday, July 24, 2003 - 12:02 pm:   

This is a fascinating discussion. I think about this issue a great deal. I always use places I have been, as I feel frustrated and annoyed reading authors who set their characters in places I have been but they obviously have not. I enjoy places that have never been such as Mieville's New Crobuzon, but it feels an awful lot like London and New York to me in many ways, and I'm guessing he used his own experience in creating it.

Nick: I cannot count the number of times my students responded to my criticism of an unrealistic bit with: "But it really happened!" That's just not a good excuse. Fiction needs to be truer than life, and if something doesn't ring true it doesn't matter if it really happened or not.

I think about this issue a great deal because several of my family members become deeply hurt if I delve into autobiographical stuff, and as I am one of those writers for whom everything I write has a grain of truth in it (however tiny), I often have trouble negotiating what I must write with what folks can handle hearing.
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Thursday, July 24, 2003 - 12:31 pm:   

Haddayr

There's not much to be said for getting older. But the passage of time does take the edge off a lot of events.

One of the problems with personal experience as an ingredient in fiction is that the people with whom you have shared the actual experience have usually managed to fictionalize it to their own satisfaction. These private fictions in many cases don't coincide with the writer's more public viewpoint.

On transmuting reality: Proust in Rememberence...
gave his narrator/alter ego a girlfriend, Albertine, in place of his own male lover. This, 'The Albertine Strategy' as it came to be called, was a common device for gay and lesbian writers before and after him. The interesting thing is that other homosexual characters(Baron Charlus and the rest), in what is on a basic level a roman a clef, are depicted as gay. Thus, Proust spared his own feelings but not those of the ones around him.
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Jay Lake
Posted on Thursday, July 24, 2003 - 05:31 pm:   

My theory is that everything is essentially autobiographical, the question is how deep the filters are. We all write from our own experiences, after all.

What's interesting for me is that there are aspects of my life (many years of living in Texas, with five generations of family roots there) that I have no problem incorporating in my fiction, yet there are other aspects (living in Nigeria as a kid) that I've never directly incorporated.

Yet.

The real great thing about genre fiction is you can layer so many things in it, from every aspect of life, that even the pentimento disappears. I mean, I've never been an intelligent city, or a trillion year old life form, or a dead dog, but I've written about all of them.

On the subject of hitting peaks, or at least stride, I was writing and submitting through most of my twenties and thirties with no success whatsover, until I sold my first story two years ago at the age of 36. Since then I've made tremendous progress in both writing and selling. Where was I at 22? Or 31? What changed? Clueless, me, but I suppose the details are somewhere inside my autobiography.
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barth
Posted on Thursday, July 24, 2003 - 06:40 pm:   

"My theory is that everything is essentially autobiographical, the question is how deep the filters are."

...or, how aware the writer is of those filters to begin with. i think tim's original assertion was that he had a problem with fiction that was too self-consciously autobiographical. and nick felt that such fiction might have a certain amount of wish fulfilment in it. ignoring those filters altogether might be what turns a reader sour on a given piece. certain stories that i wrote at clarion were waaay to autobiographical for some. others loved those especially. where's the balance, and who decides?

to draw out jay's point, contrast those stories with the ones that don't seem autobiographical at all, until they're published and someone (an ex) points it out to you.

um. was that too autobiographical?
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Jay Lake
Posted on Thursday, July 24, 2003 - 08:00 pm:   

Well, I notice certain themes or symbols cropping up repeatedly in my writing that don't bear on my everyday life. Some people consider me to have a goat fixation, for example. So not only can fiction be inherently autobiographical, it can also be revelatory autodescription.
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Maureen McHugh
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 06:37 am:   

Writing always tells a discerning reader something about yourself that you didn't know you were conveying.

Thanks Chris, I'd never written near future until a few years ago. It's a very different process for me.
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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 08:14 am:   

Rick:
"There's not much to be said for getting older. But the passage of time does take the edge off a lot of events. "

Well, duh (except for the "not much to be said for getting older" part; perhaps I'll change my opinion later, but 33 is a helluva lot better than 23), which is why writers worth their salt don't use personal experience until it's composted a while.

The real problem is what you said next, about folks' fictions clashing. Clashing fictions are ugly-making, that's for sure. Perhaps this is why folks like Tim feel betrayed by autobiographical elements in the fiction they read. There is now a layer they didn't want -- they want that world to be its own world, perfect and isolated and independent and somehow "true." I do, too. I wouldn't want to know that elements of The Telling were from Ursula LeGuin's aerobics or yoga class or a stray conversation she had with someone. I want it to be "real" in my head.

That's the nice thing about fiction, especially fantasy. If you don't admit it, it's not autobiographical.
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Tim Akers
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 08:31 am:   

I guess I can distill it down to this. I don't like the author showing up in a story. No question that the writer's influence is there, obviously, without the writer there is no story. But when the canvas of fiction is stretched too thin, the writer starts poking through. It's rude. The contraption of story is ruined by the overbearing presence of artist, and I can't stand that.
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 09:52 am:   

Sometimes I really like puppet shows where you can see the puppeteer's hand. Because, like, the hand is there. Sometimes it's nice to pretend it's not there, but

Tim, I don't know whether "rudeness" has anything to do with it, as much as a writer inserting himself or herself into the story as a technique, to get at something. Borges's stories would not be nearly as poignant if half of his protagonists were not, in fact, Borges. (What if "The Aleph" were written with Some Random Guy peeking underneath the basement stairs at the sphere of creation?) Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried has the parameters of memoir, and then yanks the rug from under you and tells you that non of it actually happened as described.

And yet it's not any less autobiographical because of that. Autobiography doesn't necessarily mean sincerity, because recall and transcription of autobiographical details is, in itself, problematic and always fraught with how we imagine our own lives were lived. A good kind of problematic. Autobiographical materials are always tinged with speculation and conjecture.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 10:07 am:   

What Alan said.
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Tim Akers
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 10:20 am:   

So, puppeteer's hand as foil? Using the reality of some situation to contrast the device of the story? I can see that, sure. But would picasso be as spectacular if all of his paintings were self portraits?

Look, there are examples of this kind of thing being done well. And at some level we all mix bits of ourselves into the work. But too many weak writers use autobiography as a crutch to prop up a distinct lack of imagination. They can't come up with other characters, so they write themselves. They can't think up other places, so they look around and write that. Writing is about stretching limits, about tearing up the cloth of the world and spinning something new.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 10:32 am:   

But too many weak writers use autobiography as a crutch to prop up a distinct lack of imagination. They can't come up with other characters, so they write themselves. They can't think up other places, so they look around and write that.

How do you know this is true? How do you come to the conclusion that Writer A is writing about himself or herself because of a failure of the imagination?

SF seemingly considers autobiography and indulgence or a technique; realist authors often consider autobiography the only worthwhile subject for fictionalization. Is their entire product to be written off at once?
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Tim Akers
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 10:57 am:   

Yes. Heh. Just kidding. I make the above statement about failure of the imagination by thinking about the story. Does the autobiographical material in story X add to the piece? No. Does the character ring true, or does it sound like someone talking about themselves in dulcet tones of delusion? The latter. Are things happening to this main character that simply would not happen (the dumpy math prof meeting a hot astrophysicist at the company mixer, falling madly in love, only to save the world moments later) in the real world? Most definately.

What I think we need to draw a line between is so-called realist writing (I don't believe these people *would* write science fiction, not unless they lived on the moon or something) and writers who simply write about the lives they wished they led. Notice the former is *actually* autobiographical, and the latter is merely ME IN SPACE, WITH HOTTIES!

As I've said before, there is a place for autobiography in scifi, but overuse of it tends to weakness. Example:I like X type of music. I have a character in my book who shares my devotion. That's fine. But if my character not only shares my love of this music, but also plays the same instrument as me, and looks like me, and talks like me, but unlike me hangs around with beautiful women and is a star basketball player and part-time ninja...well..I mean, come on.

Think of it like actors. Some actors play one character, over and over. No breadth, no range. part of the real joy of writing for me is coming up with characters, and forming them so deeply that people who read them believe them. Creating places so layered that they *are* real. That's why I write scifi, and not memoirs. Not to deride people who do that, but it strikes me as...well...easier. *shrug*
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 11:04 am:   

So it is more the wish-fulfillment than the mere autobiography. I found reading Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and The Motion Of Light In Water back-to-back a pretty illuminating exercise on how even pretty out-there SF (galactic civilizations, etc.) can still be strongly, and powerfully, autobiographical.

And there was a bit of wish-fulfillment sex in the novel, but it still worked!
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 11:22 am:   

Tim, can you point to some good examples of stories you felt used autobiographical material unwisely, or self-indulgently, etc.? There's no hurry here to do so either. I always hate it when someone says, give me an example, and they expect it on the spot. But I'd like to see what you're pointing at, so I can better understand what kind of autobiographical materials you're talking about, and how they show through so clearly. One of the things that's difficult to spot is that, if you don't know anything about an author, it's hard to know if material is autobiographical or not. Would you have the same problem with writers whose lives you knew nothing about? I'm not sure, I'm just wondering. Give me some stuff to look up so I can give it a look at too. Thanks!
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 11:25 am:   

I just started a new thread for this discussion, since it seems there are lots of people who want to talk about it, and this folder can go back to being devoted to all those who want to love on me. Watch, now everyone will quickly leave the room and head off to the Autobiography party. Bastards. heh heh.
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Alan DeNiro
Posted on Friday, July 25, 2003 - 11:31 am:   

Motion of Light in Water> excellent guest star appearances by W.H. Auden, Einstein, and Bob Dylan, even.

Tim, have you read </i>A Scanner Darkly</i>? Did you think that the use of (semi-clearly) personal experiences of PKD's life was a detriment to the novel? Not sure if that is wish fulfullment, as much of an exploration of paranoid (and funny, funny for us, at least) hell.

More later.
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rick bowes
Posted on Monday, August 18, 2003 - 11:14 am:   

OK Barzak

I'm asking you publicly. Why did you and C.C. Finlay and the rest of the Buckeyes go and mess up New York's electricity?

It was envy, wasn't it?

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John Cheesehead Klima
Posted on Monday, August 18, 2003 - 11:36 am:   

They were trying to avoid the Browns getting kicked by the Packers, but it didn't work!
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rick bowes
Posted on Monday, August 18, 2003 - 12:01 pm:   

Nah, it had to be about New York. Everything that happens has to do with New York. Come on JCK you live here, you know that.
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Minz
Posted on Monday, August 18, 2003 - 12:32 pm:   

Rick,

JK is a cheesehead to the bone . . . not to mention he lives in Jersey! So it's tough for him to inherently grasp the simple truth that, much as the universe related to the Earth in Pre-Copernican days, the world does indeed revolve around NYC. (said the other sciffy Cheesehead living in Jersey.)

------------------------------
"If you prick me, do I not bleed Green and Gold?"
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rick bowes
Posted on Monday, August 18, 2003 - 01:05 pm:   

You guys have no sense of perspective.
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John Klima
Posted on Monday, August 18, 2003 - 01:57 pm:   

Sure we do. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

JK
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Monday, August 18, 2003 - 04:09 pm:   

New Yorkers always think it's about them. In actuality, CC Finlay and I were planning to take over Canada. New York just happened to get in the way.

So there.
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Minz
Posted on Monday, August 18, 2003 - 04:38 pm:   

Uh-huh! Suuuuure, Chris. That's just what you want us thinking.
Having played many a fine game of Risk, it's quite obvious you're taking of Canada is simply a precursor to your push to capture Eastern US (i.e. NEW YORK CITY and the extended tri-state area).

That's why I intend to amass my forces in Indonesia and simply bide my time.

(You know, if you put some of the current geopolitical goings on in terms of Risk, the Muslim extremists suddenly make a lot more sense. If they make a play for Australia, we'll have to hammer Indonesia with everything we got, before they get dug in deeper than a tick on a hound dog, collecting their two armies every turn. But, I digress . . . )
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Monday, August 18, 2003 - 08:27 pm:   

More to the point, everyone's attention is focused on Iraq and California while the Buckeye Banzai dreams its evil dreams. Classic Risk misdirection.
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Maureen McHugh
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 08:24 am:   

The problem with taking over Canada is that when you're done, you've got Canada.
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rick bowes
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 08:33 am:   

Maureen with all do respect that sounds more like a New York line than an Ohio one.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 11:29 am:   

Maureen is a double agent, Rick. She used to live in New York. That's why I don't trust her one bit.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 11:45 am:   

Minzy! Good to see you around, buddy!

Although I must say, the Indonesia trick is rather old, and although it sometimes works, I must say I expect better from you.
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Dontcrossmyline Minz
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 12:51 pm:   

I've always had a soft spot for the classics.
Besides, these days I have a simple rule when it comes to Risk: the first one to attack one of my armies is who I pursue to the death. While it's not a winning strategy (at least at first), it's awfully fun on the spite-o-meter. And you end up making the craziest deals. Not to mention it's extremely liberating knowing you're not playing to win from the start. (It strikes me as a very Ratbastard-type strategy, just to get back on topic.)
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blood on the sun bowes
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 02:40 pm:   

People who play Risk to win are CPA types and I doubt if they have any better success ratios than the good old fashioned rivers-of-blood players.
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allarmiesinmadagascar minz
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 02:57 pm:   

*holds arms perpendicular to the ground and chest, puts fist in palm and bows*
To last blood, rickbowesan . . .
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radio free irkutsk
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 04:30 pm:   

death to you, kamchatkan dogs!
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Rick Bowes
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 07:02 pm:   

Oh I love the jolly rattle
Of an ordeal by battle
There's an end of tittle-tattle
When your enemy is dead
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Maureen McHugh
Posted on Friday, September 12, 2003 - 04:12 pm:   

A Zakbar sighting! In Cleveland, where he surfaced at Mac's Backs to read from the story I always call "The Dead Boy" although that's not really the title, from Trampoline. I love that Chris never sells kids short. He makes them smart and complicated but still kids.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Sunday, September 14, 2003 - 04:57 pm:   

Hey Maureen! It was good to see you (although not enough!) Maureen read "Eight-Legged Story" also from Trampoline, which I always think of as a spider story, even though there aren't any spiders in it. It has a missing boy in it, too, though, and step-mothers, and cheap pens.

I just read from "Dead Boy Found" in Minnesota this past week, a couple of days before Alan and Kristin's wedding, which was beautiful and wonderful and so much fun. I'm back now, a little haggard from all the traveling, but still feeling the happiness afterglow from the event.
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Maureen McHugh
Posted on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 10:36 am:   

Lomax made some wedding photos available and it looked wonderful.
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 11:22 am:   

Okay, at Barth's request, I've added the wedding story from hell to my weblog:

http://www.zakbar.blogspot.com

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John Klima
Posted on Monday, September 15, 2003 - 12:41 pm:   

You may be Frodo, you are certainly not Samwise.

All the same, it sounds like everything worked out in the end!
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golluminz
Posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2003 - 08:28 am:   

Sounds like a different ringbearer to me . . . my precious.
Loses the ring inexplicably through cruel twist of fate. Finally lays hands upon it again, only to give it up forever and ever. And talk about earnest! Yes, we wantssss it. We wantsss it baaad.
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barth
Posted on Monday, November 10, 2003 - 06:51 am:   

from barzak's blog:

>Other than that, I've been given permission to stay in a haunted house.<


nice knowing ya! (can i have your CD player?)
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Chris Barzak
Posted on Monday, November 10, 2003 - 03:46 pm:   

yeah, i'll probably be swallowed into some ectoplasmic gateway to the other world, and never be heard from again. such is my luck. My grandma has this saying that I sometimes thinks applies: If he didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any luck at all.

You can have the CD player. It's kind of old but it still has miles left in it.

The books, actually, are the goldmine.
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sybil-2
Posted on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 10:56 pm:   

Chris,
Although some people seem to glorify organized crime in one way or another, others struggle to forget the outcome of such stories as the one mentioned of Vince DeNiro and the "tune-up". The forgotten are those who were left behind that loved him. They face on a daily basis a painful reminder of these events. Their wounds are always open because of the insensitivity of those around us. Even the "long lost nephew" seems detached from the depth of heartache his extended family has endured. I just wanted to express that there is another dimension to this subject that goes unspoken. Thanks for the opportunity.
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Christopher
Posted on Thursday, September 16, 2004 - 01:51 am:   

Hi Sybil-2,

If in any way, the discussion of Vince Deniro has offended you or someone else you know, I'm sincerely sorry. I understand how memories like that can still be sore for the people who love individuals who have been involved in famous or semi-famous incidents. I don't think anyone on this discussion forum said anything offensive about the subject matter, though, and hope that none was taken. But it is a public event, and is will be talked about on occasions (though in the case of Vince Deniro, mostly on in and around Youngstown, I imagine). As I said, I understand those who loved Mr. Deniro have a different perspective, but I don't think anything said in this forum was particularly hurtful. I hope not at least.

Chris
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sybil-2
Posted on Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 09:48 pm:   

Chris,
Thanks for being so understanding about my comments. I didn't mean to come off so hard. I feel passionately about this topic and perhaps that makes me somewhat sensitive on the matter. You obviously seem like a kind and caring individual. In truth this isn't always the case. None the less I am sorry if I offended you as well.

Sybil-2
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Sunday, September 19, 2004 - 06:48 am:   

Hi Sybil-2,

No offense taken on my side of things. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts on the subject.

Chris
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Christopher Barzak
Posted on Thursday, March 09, 2006 - 06:45 pm:   

It's been a long time since I've posted anything in this forum, but a few days ago, my laptop crashed. Hard. Perhaps irrevocably. Luckily I'd recently backed everything up on it. To get it fixed here in Japan could take upwards of a month and a half because the maker, whose headquarters are actually here in Tokyo, would have to order parts from either America or teh Philippines. Since I'm leaving in exactly a month and a half, I'm just going to hold on to the wreckage and bring it home with me for the store where I bought it to either fix or replace it, but this means that for the next month and a half, my email will be spotty. I can check it here at work for the next week and a half, but then I finish this job and will move out of my apartment and start traveling Japan for a bit before flying home on April 24th. Don't hesitate to email me, but be aware that my replies may be later than usual, and sometimes days later after I am done working here at the junior high school.

I also can't reach my blog from this school computer, as it's filtered. Somehow this message board isn't though. So I'm glad I can leave a message here. Anyway, hope all is well with everyone.

Talk to you later, probably rather than sooner, though I wish it were the other way around.

Chris
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Charlie Finlay
Posted on Friday, March 10, 2006 - 06:40 am:   

Chris! That sucks. Take care and we'll see you when you get back to the states.

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