School of the Ages


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Sneak Peak at School of the Ages V: The Wonderful Carol

Posted by Matt Posner on June 26, 2015 at 3:40 PM

Here is a selection from the first draft of School of the Ages V:  The Wonderful Carol. Enjoy --  Matt

Mr. Dancer’s lips curled. “The contract with the funeral home is in an envelope in the bag outside, man. And there’s a doctor’s report showing that I have terminal liver cancer. I don’t, but I’ll do a spell to make it look that way. Also, my will is there. I’m leaving my house to School of the Ages, and the Peace Bus, too. The stuff in the bag is for you kids, on one condition.”

“A new bargain?” I asked.

“Sort of,” he said. “You and your friends can have all the magic artifacts I made, if you let me pick your senior project.”

Mr. Tinker sighed. “Oh, not this again.”

“Come on, Butch,” said Mr. Dancer, waving a hand at him gently. “Let me tell the kids about it.”

Mr. Tinker sauntered off to get another drink.

“Go on.” Goldberry settled down on the floor next to him, spreading her skirt over her knees. Cougar, my family’s fat gray tabby, climbed onto the coffee table next to her and rubbed his nose into her shoulder. They had become close. I sat on the sofa by Mr. Dancer’s knees.

“The Wonderful Carol, man,” the old teacher began. “It’s a song from God. It has many parts, so you need a bunch of singers, but if you sing it all together, it soothes wounded spirits.”

“You mean, it stops people feeling depressed?” I asked. “Regular music can do that.”

“Naw, it’s better than that. The Wonderful Carol soothes spirits of the dead.”

“You mean… spirits that are still on Earth?” A specialist in divination magic, Goldberry had good instincts about what to ask.

“Yeah, man. Earth-bound ghosts.”

“It makes ghosts feel good,” I said.

“Better than that. It makes them go to Heaven. It makes pain and suffering leave the Earth.”


“So we need to learn the Wonderful Carol. Okay. Is it in a grimoire somewhere?” A grimoire is a book of spells.

“I wish, man,” said Mr. Dancer. “Only the Simurgh knows it, and the Simurgh isn’t easy to find.”

“He’s mad,” Mr. Tinker contributed from the dining room, which was in sight of us. “He’s been trying this old saw with students since the 70’s.”

“Don’t bum me out, Butch,” said Mr. Dancer. “I’m dying here.”

“Sorry.” Mr. Tinker sipped his drink.

My father was also in the dining room pouring whiskey. He was very drunk and in an excellent mood. “The Simurgh is a creature from Persian mythology. A holy bird, mother of all birds, something like that.”

“It’s just a metaphor,” said Mr. Tinker. “It’s a symbol for divine wisdom. It’s not a real being. Other students have fallen for his story and tried to conjure it up. No one could. Waste of a senior project.”

“I have a good feeling about these guys,” said Mr. Dancer. “Maybe they could do it.”

“Like Calvin Calico and Loralinda,” Mr. Tinker replied.

Mrs. Tinker joined us, sitting on the loveseat with her own whiskey sour. “Are those the two who were seniors when you enrolled, dear?”

“Yes. Really brilliant pair. They tried a summoning spell they had made themselves after teaching themselves ancient Persian. Calvin Calico grew feathers on his head, and Loralinda grew them — well, somewhere else. And no Simurgh.”

“Yeah, but these kids are different,” said Mr. Dancer.

“They were your star students that year.”

“Yeah, but these kids are…”

“One of them is my daughter.”

“And she isn’t stupid,” Goldberry interrupted. “And she knows just a few ways to assess risks on her own,if you’re quite finished being overprotective.”

A Time Traveler's Take on Outlander -- Georgina Young-Ellis feat Matt Posner

Posted by Matt Posner on September 30, 2014 at 6:00 PM

My interview blog has been pretty quiet since the monumental appearance of Mitch Horowitz -- but I just can't resist hosting a visit from my Queens neighbor, an excellent swing dancer, teacher, and home cook, and a great contributor to my volume How to Write Dialogue, at last... it's  d'1'n'only Georgina Young-Ellis.

A Time Traveler’s Take on Outlander

The best selling time travel series, Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, has just been made into a Starz series. Julie and I will have to wait for the DVDs, but meanwhile, I was interested in finding out what blogger Georgina Young-Ellis, of Nerd-Girls, Romantics, and Time-Travelers, has to say about it all. Georgina also writes The Time Mistress series, three, soon to be four, romantic, time travel novels.

First of all, Georgina, have you seen the Starz series?

I’ve seen the first three episodes and am eagerly anticipating the fourth. So far, this television series focuses only on the first book, Outlander. There are several more books that follow it, of different titles, but I’ve only read the first. I’m re-reading it now, as a matter of fact.

So, what do you think of the TV series, and how does it compare to the book?

I have to say, it follows the book in great detail. And that’s the thing about Gabaldon’s writing, it’s very detailed. So, to skim over things too much would be a disappointment. It seems like the makers of the TV series are taking their time and getting all the historical features right. The acting is excellent, the dialogue mostly right from the book, and the quality of the film-making fantastic overall. I almost want to say I’m enjoying it more than the book, but Gabaldon still gets the credit for that, because she’s the consultant for the show.

Could you give us a glimpse into the story?

Sure. Basically, it’s about a British woman, Claire Randall, who is on a second honeymoon with her husband, post WW II, in the Scottish Highlands. They are reconnecting after having been separated for most of the war. She’s a nurse and he’s been working in intelligence―but he’s really a historian, and he’s brought her along as he pokes into all these historical places near Inverness. While exploring an ancient druid structure, she stumbles into a rent in time that pops her 200 years into the past, into the middle of a skirmish between British Redcoat troupes and Scottish rebels. The Scots rescue her from the clutches of the evil Captain Randall, an ancestor of her own husband, Frank Randall. After that, you have to see for yourself because it gets very interesting.

The previews I’ve seen look rather sexy. Is Outlander a bit of a bodice-ripper?

I wouldn’t categorize it as that, though some of the reviews I’ve read of the book do. It’s far more subtle than that. Gabaldon is a writer of the highest caliber, something you don’t always get in a true bodice-ripper. It is very sexy however, and gets more so as the book progresses. Still, there’s something that disturbs me about the story that I wish Gabaldon could have handled differently. Without issuing a spoiler alert exactly, let me just say that there is a very, very graphic and long description of male rape that dumbfounded me when I first read the book. For a long time, I felt negatively about Outlander as a result. I felt the author had sprung that on me and I was scarred by it. Now I realize Gabaldon needed a cathartic event at that point in the story, something that changed the character’s lives. I’d just rather she would have chosen something other else. There’s also a scene wherein a woman is beaten and comes to see it as something she, on some level, deserved. I’m afraid that some women may be disturbed by that situation, especially those who have dealt with abuse in their own lives. I think it’s fair warning for readers to know those scenes are there. I, for one, skipped over the male rape scene this time around and I don’t think you’d missed that much to do so.

Did this make you hesitate to watch the Starz series?

A little bit. But I was curious to see how they handled the translation from book to film in general. So far, I’m really enjoying it, though it’s not nearly as action-packed as something like Game of Thrones, of which, by the way, I’m not a fan, specifically because of the sexual violence.

Aside from the violent aspects, would you say Outlander is steamier, or less steamy than your books?

I’d have to say Gabaldon’s are steamier. Like me, she doesn’t get too graphic (at least when it comes to the male/female sex), but I think there’s more of it in Outlander.

Can you compare the time travel element in Outlander and your books?

In Outlander, the time travel is accidental. In my books the time travel is absolutely deliberate. It involves technology that’s very precise. But I love how various time travel authors deal with it differently. You deal with time travel in a really interesting way, Matt, by having an entire building transport the characters to the past and back. I love that.

Thanks! And just as a tidbit -- in book five of School of the Ages, Simon will again time-travel without the school... 

So, I’ve been hearing some tidbits about the fourth book in your series. How close to being finished is it, and can you tell us a little bit about the story? (begs on bended knees...)

Optimistically, I’d say it’s about four months out. Maybe six. I’m not one of those authors that can knock a book out in just a few months, and I think you’re the same, Matt. Especially because this fourth book is requiring such extensive research. It’s called The Time Duchess, and it takes place in Elizabethan England. I always thought I knew my stuff when it came to that era, but I’m realizing there’s a lot I don’t know, so I’m reading, and re-reading book after book on the time period: stuff about Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, London, and of course what people wore, ate, how they lived, how they spoke, etc. It’s extremely specific.

Can you give us a hint about the plot?

Okay, here’s the official blurb for now, though I’m sure it will change over time: “‘I think I may have killed Shakespeare:’ the words that plunge Dr. Cassandra Reilly into a perilous time travel journey to Elizabethan England. Her son James has been attempting to solve the mystery of whether the greatest playwright of all time actually wrote the words attributed to him, but a vicious animosity between him and the Bard have forced her to take on the challenge herself. As she investigates, she becomes intimate with the key players: Shakespeare and his troupe, Queen Elizabeth, Ben Jonson, Robert Cecil, and the Earl of Oxford. Navigating the dangers that lie around every corner of London, as well as the whims of the unpredictable queen, make it a harrowing undertaking, especially when more than one of the men the time traveler meets becomes intent on wooing her, and a mysterious presence seems to be stalking her.”

Sounds really interesting (and worth taking your time to get perfect!). I think all your readers are looking forward to it.

Sorry to turn things around for a second, but since we’ve moved off the topic of Outlander for now, what’s your next project, Matt?

Thanks for asking, Georgina. My real focus right now is on my job as a teacher, so I'm writing slowly. Fortunately, however, at the end of the summer, I got a lot of work done on a collaboration with one of your fellow contributors to How to Write Dialogue. If you like, I'd be glad to have your blog be one of the first to announce this new project when it's ready! May I come back? Oh, and by the way, I STILL urge you to write a time-travel book featuring the Austrian Empress Sissi -- a perfect counterpart for Cassandra, in my humble opinion. Please tell me you'll consider it?

I'd love to be among the first to announce the project! And I will consider your suggestion. After all, there is an Austrian connection in The Time Duchess, so it may make perfect sense.

Again, thanks for the interview -- it's been a pleasure as always.


author interview -- Bestselling Paranormal Expert Mitch Horowitz!

Posted by Matt Posner on September 11, 2014 at 5:50 PM

This one's special, folks -- as a fan of paranormal nonfiction myself, I can't be happier to have secured an interview with the publishing world's most astonishing paranormal polymath. He's a professional dynamo -- you wouldn't believe how many things he is doing at one time. In this interview I ask him what he is working on as well as how on earth he manages to handle such a busy career. I also go in-depth with some issues of society and culture that I think he hasn't been asked before.

Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian and the author of One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life and Occult America. He has written on alternative spirituality for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Vice-president and editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin, Mitch is the host of “Origins,” a forthcoming web series on the history of superstitions. Visit him at, on Twitter @MitchHorowitz, and on Facebook at Mitch. Horowitz.1

Mitch, it's really an honor to have you do this interview for me. It's challenging to find experts in the occult who don't try to cultivate an air of menace or to bamboozle the gullible. You don't do those things at all, but why do you think so many people do?

Thanks, Matt. I find that many spiritual figures, including very mainstream figures with no attachment to New Age or occult traditions, often adopt an air of theatricality. This can be true of therapists, as well. We all want to be seen as “the man with the plan” – and when someone has an audience or even a single listener, it is tempting play the part of the self-assured visionary (which the speaker himself may not even realize that he is doing). I believe in the outlook of Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous: in essence, he believed that we are all in this together.

You now live in New York City, just as I do, and it's impossible to say enough about this enormous community. But where did you grow up, and how did it influence you?

I grew up in the borough of Queens. Life was difficult for my parents – but I do think, on the whole, that the neighborhood where I was raised reflected something very good about the city and our country at the time: It was a nice, working-class suburb that held out the promise of a good way of life for wage-earning people. My mother was a medical secretary and a member of 1199 hospital workers union and my father was a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, which provided lawyers for the poorest of the poor. It was a very tough job for him and I don’t think anyone, including me as a kid, realized how difficult it was. We had a kind of Archie Bunker household, where discussions were loud, but I think the values were basically good: a somewhat world-weary Kennedy liberalism, a belief in labor unions, and a faith in the broader possibilities of the individual. I stand by all those things today.

What are some good places to eat in Manhattan that won't break the middle-class budget? We all have our lists, but I'd like to try a few of your recommendations.

MH: I like the Indian restaurants along Lexington Avenue in the East 20s. That’s neighborhood we live in, which is called Murray Hill but locals call that section “Curry Hill.”

Let's talk about your general growth as a writer. I don't want to repeat the familiar questions, but what drew you to writing as a profession? Was it an early ambition or more something that you came to later because of your other interests?

It was an early interest that I didn’t really cultivate until later in life. I had worked as a journalist in my early twenties but soon entered publishing and drifted away from writing. I just couldn’t find an area that I really wanted to write about. I knew that I didn’t want to focus on politics and I wasn’t interested in writing criticism or reviews. So I drifted away from aspirations to be a wrier and I thought I had tucked that part of my life into the past; though I was never really at ease with that decision. In the summer of 2003, when I was thirty-seven, some friends at Science of Mind magazine, which is the positive-thinking magazine founded by Ernest Holmes, told me they had landed an interview with major-league pitcher Barry Zito, who was deeply into Holmes’s ideas. It was a big catch and they they were anxious that the interview go well; they came to me with it, trusting me to handle it reliably. I’m very grateful for trust because the experience made a huge difference in my life. interviewed Barry and wrote a feature piece, “Barry’s Way,” in October 2003. It was an incredible experience for me because in discussing Barry’s spiritual outlook, and how it influenced his training regimen, I discovered the very area that I wanted to write about: metaphysical experience. About two weeks after the article appeared, I received a call, very much about of the blue, from Barry’s father, Joe Zito. Joe said he loved the piece and, in words I’ll never forget, he told me in this very gruff, drill-sergeant tone: “Mitch, you stick with this thing.” He meant stick with writing, in particular about the metaphysical topics that Barry and I discussed. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I told Barry that his father’s call helped set me on my path and that’s the plain truth. I think Joe Zito helped other people find their way, as well.

Within two years I delivered a lecture on occult history in America at Manly P. Hall’s Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles. I began transcribing that lecture with a plan to turn it into an essay; but my wife, Allison, told me: “That’s not an essay, that’s your book.” So that’s how my first book, Occult America, came together.

You're an author, an editor, an audiobook narrator, a public speaker, a frequent guest on TV and radio, and a husband and parent. How do you manage your time and energy given such a complex career and life?

Well, the professional side of my life is fueled by love for the subjects. If I feel a deep sense of enthusiasm for a topic I can pursue it with this almost total drive. I discovered that you literally have to want to write more than you want to sleep. I mean that very literally. You can broker a deal with yourself where, for limited periods of time, it is actually possible to place writing, or speaking, or performing, or painting, or anything that you love, above other physical needs – though that breaks down after a while so it can only be done for limited periods. In terms of parenting and homemaking, I have to give tremendous credit to my wife Allison Orr, who is also a network news producer. Her energy and drive put me to shame.

Can you identify one or more mentors who have helped form your character or develop your career?

There have been many influences. One of them is my mother-in-law, Theresa Orr, who I write about in the first chapter of my new book. Terri grew up devouring positive-thinking and metaphysical literature, and she went from being the daughter of an Italian immigrant barber in Waltham, Massachusetts, to recently retiring as an associate dean at Harvard Medical School. Along the way she raised two daughters, as a divorced and single parent, and helped care for an elderly mother. She is also a widely loved sponsor in a twelve-step program. And that just scratches the surface. Terri swears by the efficacy of mind-power philosophies, such as A Course In Miracles and The Power of Positive Thinking. She’s dedicated in particular to AA’s Big Book. Anyone who thinks that positive-thinking literature is woo-woo stuff for the starry-eyed just has no idea.

Let's talk about writing techniques and strategies. Your books are the product of complex and meticulous research. What is your research process like? What resources do you favor? Do you research an entire book before you write, or work with an outline and then research parts of it one at a time? What software do you use?

Believe or not, I’m actually very old-fashioned and I probably need to update my methods. I make massive binders of research material – my shelves are groaning under the weight of these things. I carry tote bags, or even suitcases of material, depending on what I’m doing. I need to get a little more digitally up to speed. David Lynch said that when he was working on his first movie, Eraserhead, he lost touch with a lot things in outer life, including advances in technology. But today he is very technically adept. He says to people: Don’t worry about it, you’ll always have time to catch up with technology or other advances, but while you’re cooking away on a project you just have to dedicate yourself completely to it. And that’s what happened to me: The writing of Occult America kind of blended into the writing of One Simple Idea – plus I was doing a lot related things in television and writing articles at the same time, and I threw myself into that while all this digital technology was ramping up. So, I’m playing catch up now.

Your most recent initiative has been to call attention to persecution of witches -- yes, witches in the 21st century. I don't think you mean Wicca practitioners, though. You are talking about shamans, witch doctors, village wise men, that sort of people, right? How are the witches being persecuted, and why? What are you doing to raise awareness of the issue? Who can be most effective in fighting to present witch persecution? What needs to be done?

What we’re seeing is an uptick of violence against people who are accused of witchcraft in traditional societies, particularly in central Africa and the southwestern Pacific. The victims are often women and, increasingly, children, especially in central Africa. This violence is also trickling to the West – the police in London have reported an alarming increase of incidents – because of migration patterns. This violence is also found in India, the Middle East, and Latin America. The surge in violence probably has do to with economic pressures, rapid urbanization, and families buckling under the pressure of dislocation when seeking work, etc. Another contributing factor is the advent of fervent revivalist ministries in some parts of Africa, usually the result of western missionary campaigns; some of these campaigns place an emphasis on demon possession, exorcisms, and accusations of black magic. Then there are societies that judicially protect and promote the persecution of suspected witches. In 2009 Saudi Arabia’s religious police started its first “anti-witchery unit,” which has jailed hundreds of people. One of the most tragic cases involves a Lebanese TV host named Ali Hussain Sibat who was arrested on charges of sorcery while on pilgrimage to the nation and sentenced to death by beheading. His death sentence was commuted in 2010 but he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. It’s an entirely inhumane case, to which I’ve been trying to draw attention. The Saudi monarchy generally seems to use its religious police to placate religious extremists; and targeting accused witches means persecuting a small, defenseless minority of people, while pleasing the nation’s most intensely conservative religious constituencies.

Your most recent book is One Simple Idea, about positive thinking, the idea that "thoughts are causative." You track its presence in the United States to occult subculture and mesmerism, which belief you support very well. But let me posit a few different connections for you to talk about.

* First, let's take a look at a possible connection to Puritan culture and its belief in Providence. This was an alternative religious belief in its own time: the idea that God constantly sent believers signs of how to behave and that prosperity and other blessings came to those who recognized and obeyed the signs. Could this idea -- watch for opportunities, trust in them, and act accordingly -- have helped to prepare the ground for the positive-thinking movement of the 1800s?

*I'll make another question on the subject a little more simply stated. How much of a connection do you see between the spirit of the positive-thinking movement and the concept of the American dream, the sort of can-do attitude which, by whatever name, was observed by Alexis de Tocqueville in the late 1700s and has become fundamental to how Americans and even immigrants think about their futures?

I think positive thinking is at odds with Ayn Rand's objectivism, which seems like a destructive philosophy to me. Any reflection on the relation of these two systems of thought?

For me, anyway, as a writer about magic who has some familiarity with the Hermetic traditions, I tend to see magic as a kind of positive thinking. The magician, witch or wizard needs a quality of belief in order to achieve the desired result of a magical action. If this is so, would I be remiss in stating that the positive-thinking movement is sort of like Hermeticism creeping into American culture?

The Puritan tradition tended to focus on character development and salvation, and not on personal achievement, so I don’t necessarily see that as an antecedent. Some of Benjamin Franklin’s early literature on the conduct of life celebrated the idea of business success as a virtue, which prefigured the tone of certain nineteenth-century motivational literature. In general, the notion of self-betterment has deep roots in America, extending to the colonial period. For various reasons, including colonial settlement and slavery, land and resources were relatively abundant in the new nation. At the same time, there existed a religious liberalism early on in the nation’s life, thanks to figures such as William Penn and Thomas Jefferson, among others. So the joint belief that one could advance through the stations of life, and at the same time fashion one’s own individual sense of meaning, was a prevalent point of view in early American life. This gave rise to a very practical perspective on spirituality and self-development, in which religion could aid the growth of a person. At a certain point this notion of self-determination may intersect with Ayn Rand’s philosophy, though the positive-thinking ideal in America has been tempered by Scriptural ethics. The idea of a “go it alone” approach was foreign to early positive-thinking literature. For example, Wallace D. Wattles’ popular “Science of Getting Rich” emphasized the individual’s obligations to others, and that was a common theme. The positive-thinking ideal in America saw both spiritual and material development as part of the same whole. And, yes, there is some intersection with magic, at least in the early Hermetic sense, insofar as the mind is seen as seen as an instrument that can channel higher influences and creative powers.

It seems to me that since 9/11 and the recent depression, this country seems to have lost a lot of its positive energy. I watch politicians savaging each other with lies and dubious claims; citizens openly voicing deeply-held prejudices that in prior times would have been a community disgrace to speak; public statements of ludicrous, hateful nonsense; intense media focus on violence, brutality, and death. Is it possible for a new positive thinking movement to be part of a change in this negative era in American history?

I do think there has been a real coarsening of communication in our nation. I attribute it less to 9/11 and the Great Recession than to the advent of digital technologies which allow people to engage in what they perceive as anonymous and cost-free aggression; we are airing the kinds of hostilities that have always been part of human nature but we suddenly find ourselves able to vent them in front of screens and through mobile devices, creating a remove from real-time human responses or consequences. The positive-thinking pioneers, and particularly of Dale Carnegie and his classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, emphasized the need for balanced and steadied communication; that is a lesson we should never be too sophisticated for. Comity cannot be the endgame of human contact – it is not a substitute for sincerity and substance; but without basic diplomacy we rupture our workplaces, friendships, and political environment. What’s more, with every caustic email, tweet, or social posting the bar of personal conduct drops lower. The present generation not only speaks and writes in tones of irony and mild cynicism but increasingly thinks in these ways, too. As I have written in several places, including the New York Times, we must recommit to civility in communication. We can afford to relearn the lessons of Dale Carnegie.

You're the editor of the Penguin/Tarcher line of books on world religion and alternative spirituality. Tell us about a few books you have edited or otherwise brought to market which would appeal to readers of your books.

In 2003 I published a “reader’s edition” of The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall, a massive encyclopedia of occult subjects that was previously available only in expensive and massively unwieldy editions. I reset the full text and made it into a very readable trade paperback edition. That was one of my most satisfying projects. I also just published a new “deluxe” hardback edition of the original 1939 Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve narrated an audio edition of that profoundly important book, which is available in digital and CD form.

Mitch, what's next for you as an author? And are there some public appearances we should look out for?

I haven’t decided on a new book topic yet – I choose my subjects based on a very deeply felt passion. One of the things I’m considering right now is a book on why positive thinking works; we need an actual theory of the metaphysics behind the causative nature of thoughts. On a different tack, I am writing a new introduction to the biography of the mystic Edgar Cayce, There Is A River. I’ll also be narrating a new audio edition of that book. I’m hosting an upcoming web series, “Origins,” which explores the history of superstitions. I’m doing a lot of work in television, which reawakens a passion I had as a kid, and I feel fortunate for that.

What would you like to say to readers to finish this interview?

Make use of the religious and intellectual freedom and experimentation that’s available to you. I also believe that our religious freedom is incomplete unless we are try to extend it to others. We cannot function in isolation. That is one of the reasons why it is important to raise our voices over the spate of violence against accused witches and other religiously or socially targeted people. If anyone would like to write to the king of Saudi Arabia to appeal for the release of Ali Hussain Sibat they can write to me via my website and I’ll send them the address.


author interview -- Leti Del Mar inspires DIY authorship

Posted by Matt Posner on August 21, 2014 at 7:40 PM

I am happy to have exchanged interviews with fellow teacher and YA author Leti Del Mar. I love teachers who write -- and I especially like Leti because she has a huge cat! Read on!


I like to start each interview with a sense of place, so let's talk about where you live. Sunny Southern California -- greetings from currently sunny but frequently gray NYC. Tell us more about the lifestyle where you are. also, where else have you lived.


 I love where I live! It is within an hour drive from just about everything, the city, the beaches, the mountains, the desert, concerts, museums, shopping and lots of natural beauty. There is always plenty to do to keep me and my family busy. The downside is we only have two seasons, summer which lasts about 8 months and not summer, which tends to confuse us.



You have an abnormally large cat. Talk about the cat, and send me a picture I can share. Please tell me this cat could squash Grumpy Cat. Oh, please tell me that.

My 20 pound cat is a ragdoll tabby who is very loyal and protective. He has scared away every dog, cat and lizard for blocks and despite what the pictures looks like, he has yet to eat my daughter.  (See a picture of the cat in this site's photo gallery.)

We're both teachers. My field is English; yours are math and science. So let's talk about teaching and then about teaching and writing.

How has Common Core changed your experience of teaching?

Common Core seems to be having its biggest effect on Math and I am happy to see that change. For my entire teaching career, I have felt that Algebra is pushed too early for kids not yet ready for it. I look forward being able to take my time and teach depth not breadth.

What was the reaction in your area when you got the results of Vergara v. California, overturning your tenure? What's next for you guys? We have a similar suit filed here in New York state now, so we should soon understand what you guys were going through while waiting for your own case to make its way through the courts?

I can understand the feelings behind the case. I have seen some truly awful teachers not get fired, but instead get passed from school to school. The verdict won’t change things for most of my colleagues. We don’t don’t try to be the best teacher we can because we are afraid to get fired, but because our kids deserve it.

The stress and energy demands of teaching strongly interfere with my writing time. Have you any advice for me and fellow writers who are trying to write on top of a demanding job?

Make your writing time golden. Don’t do anything but write. Try to set a word count goal or time goal. Make it reasonable and don’t get up until you reach it.

How has being a teacher informed your subject matter or your understanding of human nature?

As a teacher, I am always reading. Sometimes I read to improve as a teacher, better understand my subject matter, improve as a writer or just for pleasure. An example of a great crossover was when I read a book on genetics by Nobel Prize winner James Watson to help me with the biology class I teach and it inspired my YA Dystopian series.

Let's begin talking about your writing.

You have a volume called How to Self-Publish: A DIY Approach. It's hard for me and some of my writer buddies to be entrepreneurial. How can your book help?

This book started as a series of blog posts about my own journey as an Indie author and the feedback I got was extraordinary. Authors were thanking me and saying that they could pick out something they found helpful with every post. So I compiled these posts, expanded them and asked some fellow Indies to contribute a chapter. I have a little bit for everyone, like formatting an e-book, establishing an author’s platform, and making your own covers. There are hundreds of ways to self-publish. My book outlines one of those ways and is for authors just getting started and for people who want to do as much of their self-publishing on their own and inexpensively.

The Confederation Chronicles is a YA Dystopian Romance that deals with the theme of changing your appearance vs. being true to yourself. You are writing in a crowded field (as I am myself). What makes your book stand out?

Two things. It is very much a romance and told from the dual points of view of the hero and the heroine. So you get to experience the long romantic journey through both of these young people. Also the heroine, Rose, comes from the ruling class and is in line to be the next ruler of this dystopian world. It may be out there, but I haven’t come across a dystopian book told from the point of view of someone in significant power. Over the three books in this trilogy, we get to see what Rose does with that power, which is kind of cool.

Introduce your romantic couple from the series, as well as an interesting supporting character or villain.

Rose comes from the capital of the Confederation of Cities where its citizens live in luxury and the greatest fashion statement of all is being Altered. People change everything about the way they look as often as they do their hairstyle but Rose is different. Her position of privilege has made her an outcast and led her to suspect that something sinister is happening to the citizens and flees the capital along with a past that imprisons her in search of a fresh start in the Land of the Unaltered.

Flynn lives in the Land of the Unaltered and hates the capitol and everything it stands for. So when a spoiled capital girl is assigned to work with him, he wants nothing to do with her and is prepared to make her life miserable. But Flynn was not prepared for someone like Rose. She doesn’t fit the mold he expected and finds himself strongly attracted to her. As she continues to surprise and outwit him, they begin to forge a bond that is tested when they discover a secret that could change everything they know about Land of the Unaltered.

I had so much fun with the main villain in this series, Rose’s father. He is controlling and narcissistic and on the hunt for perfection and power that will crush anyone who gets in his way.

Your website's promotional scheme uses some sites called NoiseTrade and Diesel. I haven't heard of them before. What are they? What are reasons to use them?

Diesel is a place that sells paperbacks and is a nice alternative to Amazon for Indie authors. Some feel strongly against Amazon, so I like to have another place to get my books in print.

Noisetrade is a great place to get music and books for free. People can download whatever you put in and it is up to them if they want to leave a tip. I put long samples of my fiction on there (20%) and saw a nice correlation of put up those samples on Noisetrade and increased sales. In the future, I plan to put up novellas and short stories.

Like me, you have chosen to interview authors as a way to keep your website's traffic active. What made you decide to do this? What are two or three interviews you have hosted that make good starting places for reading your site (with links)?

Here are a few favorites with authors who have become great friends after interviewing them. I’ve learned so much from their experience.

Tell an interesting story from your writing life.

I am also a book reviewer and I had no intention of that happening. You could say that I am an accidental reviewer. It started with my own hunt for people to review my books. I thought I should pay it forward by review what I read. Then because I am almost OCD about organizing my reviews, I started a website to put them all.

Soon I started to get authors requesting a review and now I work with 4 blog tour companies and a handful of publishers who send me my pick of books to review. This means I rarely have to pay for what I read, I get to help out fellow Indie authors and I have been able to use book blog tour services at a discount. Lots of perks for an accident!

Tell an interesting story from your non-writing life.

I love to travel and so far, have visited 13 other countries. Being a serious Art History junkie, I love to explore museums all around the world. So far I've been to 43 museums in my travels (yes I've kept count) and have explored some of the greats like the Louvre in Paris or the Ufitzi in Florence and some hidden gems like the Chester Beaty Library in Dublin, which was about a hundered times more impressive than its more famous counterpart in Trinity College. I have mostly kicked around Europe and the Caribbean, but I’m planning a trip to India this fall. Even though I love where I live, I am always planning a trip to somewhere far away.

What would you like to say to readers to close this interview?



I would love for readers to give Indie books a chance. You can discover some fantastic reads at a fraction of the cost in a major bookstore. That means more books! Who doesn’t love more books?


guest post: Tony Healey wants to send a sick girl on holiday!

Posted by Matt Posner on August 18, 2014 at 9:40 AM

Here's a guest post from science fiction maven Tony Healey.

Tony previously appeared on this website here.

Take it away, brother...




At the beginning of this year I released a charity anthology, featuring the work of 16 fantastic writers and the artwork of the legendary Bruce Pennington, with all proceeds to go to The Cystic Fibrosis Trust (we've not hit enough for a donation yet – but we're getting there).

The original inspiration for that collection of stories – and for doing something to raise funds for CF in the first place – is a little girl called Tilly.

She has a chance to win a free holiday with her Mummy and Daddy next year, but she needs your help. It's very easy and will only take 2 minutes of your time.

Step 1. Click this link:

Step 2. LIKE the Haven Facebook page (you can always UN-LIKE it later).

Step 3. Hit the VOTE button.

That's it!

Of course, if you wanted to be super-duper cool you could also share the above link and get your friends to vote too. In fact, here's the link again in case you want to do that:

I'd like to see Tilly reach 1000 votes and take first place. I'll also be promoting this via my Official Facebook Page, too, which is:

Thanks for your help and support. Let's win this brave little girl a holiday.

Tony Healey



author interview -- Nicole Storey is a huge fan of unusual stories

Posted by Matt Posner on July 20, 2014 at 1:10 PM

I've been connected to author Nicole Storey on social media for some time, but until recently we didn't talk. As soon as we started talking (as usually happens) it turns out she's just the kind of person I like to join for a good long talk about life and writing.

I like to start off interviews about talking with place. You live in Georgia with a big family (including the pets). Rural or urban? Not suffering Atlanta traffic, I hope…? Please talk about your home town, how it feels to live there, and what a visitor to the area should do for good clean fun?

Hi Matt! Thanks so much for the interview.

I’ve lived in this small-ish town called LaGrange my entire life.

We’re about an hour south of Atlanta so no; I don’t have to contend with the “crazies,” as my dad calls them. My house resides in a rural area and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is a huge pasture and lots of land across the road from me and we get tons of visitors: coyotes, raccoons, deer, and we even have a resident possum we’ve named Captain Crunch who visits every night.

There is something special about a small town. We don’t have a lot of nice restaurants, towering buildings, or a ginormous mall, but we do have beautiful West Point Lake, BBQs, badminton, and horse shoes. We have peaceful nights to sit outside around fire pits and sip coffee while enjoying “country” music provided by wind rustling the oaks, crickets chirping, and tree frogs singing.

If you get a chance to visit, I would most definitely recommend spending a day or three on the lake. We have numerous picnic and camping areas, and boat docs. There is also a marina. The fishing here is excellent and the company is even better.

You stated on your website that you had early dreams of a seafaring or nautical lifestyle, but this was changed by a tragedy. Of course, I'd like to know more. Will you tell me for the interview?

From the time I was old enough to know what one was, I had plans of becoming a marine biologist. The ocean called to me like nothing else and I couldn’t wait to join her. My life’s ambition was to protect our oceans and the animals that call them home.

In ninth grade, I met a girl with the same dream as me. It was uncanny how alike we were. We both loved the water, books, and music. We came from families that were as poor as church mice. Our strengths complemented each other and by the end of our freshman year, we were inseparable. I had three younger brothers and no sisters and she filled that role for me.

All through our high school years, we made plans. By the time we were seniors, we had a rough draft of what we were going to do. We were nervous, excited, and determined. In early September, my best friend was taken from me in a car accident. I missed three months of school, my grades dropped, and the dream died. I still managed to graduate with college prep honors but I no longer wanted to go to the ocean. My parents told me to give it some time and I did, but the passion for that particular ambition never rekindled.

In the end, I realized that my path had changed course. I’m still fond of the ocean, but know that I was never meant to be one to protect her. Water used to be my element but now I am more drawn to earth. I love trees and the forests. I believe things happen for a reason and though it was hard to accept at the time, I understand it now.

I have a feeling that reading and writing were fascinations of yours from an early age? True? Tell more about that.

I grew up in a two-bedroom shanty with three younger brothers and parents who worked their fingers to the bone to support us. Two of my brothers are twins and were born when I was nine-years-old. My father worked days and my mother worked a mini-shift at night from 6:00 until 10:00. You could say I became a “mother” myself early in life as I was the one my parents leaned on for help while the other was working.

My favorite part of the day was when the twins went down for a nap. I would run out the backdoor with a tattered paperback – bought from a yard sale for a quarter – in my hand and make for a gnarled apple tree at the edge of our property. High up in its branches I would sit and lose myself in the works of C.S. Lewis or any other books I could get my hands on. My aunt was my supplier. She haunted yard sales like a ghost haunts graveyards. I read anything and everything. If I had no books available, I would read cereal boxes.

I received my first typewriter when I was fifteen. At that time, I wrote poetry, short stories, and song lyrics. I never knew my hobby would lead to where I am today. Back then, it was something I did for fun.

You write in the paranormal genre and you write about good and evil. What draws you to this subject matter?

I’ve always been a huge fan of anything unusual and spooky. While most kids looked forward to Christmas when November rolled around, I mourned Halloween’s passing. I was the child who snuck out of bed at midnight to watch classic horror movies on T.V.

I love writing about Good and Evil forces, cryptids, demons, angels, and normal, everyday people trying to do the right thing. I like spinning twists and infusing everything with a bit of magic.

The protagonist of Blind Sight is Jordan, who deals with teenage angst while dealing with unusual powers. I like reading and writing stories like that myself. Tell me something about Jordan that will make me unable to resist diving into her story.

Jordan is what I like to think of as a real teenager. She isn’t extremely beautiful. She’s a tomboy, psychic, and part-time slayer of Evil. While most kids her age might think that would be cool, she hates it and wants nothing more than to be normal. She questions authority, religion, and life. She represents the average seventeen-year old kid. She’s complex without meaning to be.

What's next for your series The Celadon Circle? What, and when?

I am working on book two of the Celadon Circle series, Refracted. I hope to have the first draft finished by the end of August. It delves even further into the question of right and wrong. The tag line of the first book is “We All Have Our Demons.” The second book is all about perspectives and how things aren’t always what they seem to be. There are dark sides to light.

You recently won some pretty cool awards for your work. Tell us more about that. Don't leave out the potty-mouthed pixies, either.

LOL! The potty-mouthed pixie is actually part of another series that I hope to get republished by Christmas. In December of 2013, Blind Sight hit Amazon’s bestseller list in two categories: Urban Paranormal and Coming of Age. It hit #2 in Scary Stories, even though I don’t consider it a true horror book. In March, the book received a Readers’ Choice award from Big Al’s Books and Pals. In May, it placed as a finalist in the NIEA award (Indie Excellence National Book Awards). A few weeks ago, I learned that it has made it to the semi-finals round in The Kindle Book Review’s Best Books of 2014.

Your upcoming book starts a new series called Grimsley Hollow, an irresistible name if I do say so myself. What should we expect?

I have three books written in this series so far and it was published by a former publisher. I hope to have it back up for sale by Christmas and the fourth book in the series finished by next spring.

It is considered middle-grade fantasy with a touch of paranormal and a lot of Halloween. The main character is based on my son, who has autism and Tourette’s. There are witches, werewolves, vampires, and other characters based in Halloween traditions, and yes, a potty-mouthed pixie. Its moral is that not all heroes wear capes. Courage comes in many forms and from the heart.

Why did you decide to write two different series? What are the pros and cons of that endeavor?

I spent the first two years of my writing career buried in Grimsley Hollow. I love it there, but wanted to try my hand at something for older teens – more gritty with darker plots and characters.

One of the pros for me is being able to take a break from one genre and having another to go to. It breaks up the monotony and helps keep my writing fresh. Both series have similar elements, such as magic and creatures. I just don’t have to watch my P’s and Q’s as much in the Celadon Circle series.

The biggest problem I’ve run across is trying to balance the age differences of my series. One is written for middle-graders, the other for older teens and new adults and in both books, I have kids who are growing older, growing up. Sometimes, it can be difficult not to cross lines I shouldn’t or to determine if a certain behavior or chapter has been taken far enough. Thankfully, I have wonderful beta readers who keep me in check.

You have an attractive website, obviously part of a good online marketing strategy. What else do you recommend other authors try to increase their market share?

I’m a firm believer in paid book promotions on sites such as Ereader News Today, Kindle Books and Tips, and Indies Unlimited. Discount one of your books and buy a two-day promotion from a few sites. There are also many Facebook pages that have free promotion authors can take advantage of. Whatever you do, don’t constantly spam on social media. “Buy My Book!” gets old real quick and is a surefire way to send potential readers running to the next author.

Tell an interesting story from your writing life.

I’m not sure if I have any interesting stories but I do have some bad experiences under my belt. In October of 2013, I decided not to resign with my former publisher. I had book cover art that I purchased with my own money and helped design stolen from me for four books and also had to get three books re-edited. The total cost of my freedom from a bad publisher was approximately $1500. To say I felt like hanging up my boots and leaving the writing field is an understatement, but I didn’t. With the help of some special author friends, I am slowly getting back on track. Bad things can and will happen. You can let it stop you from doing something that you love or pick yourself up and find a way. Always try and find a way.

What would you like to say to readers to finish this interview?

I’m not an author who writes for the masses or follows rules. I have been told that I “take too many chances” in writing and maybe I do. My characters are real and they express doubts that most people are hesitant or ashamed to concede. My only hope is that readers connect with at least one of my characters and, in that moment, realize they are not alone.


 Here are some other interviews Nicole has done:



gwen perkins.wordpress

oddity reviews

special interview -- publishing industry blogger John McAlester

Posted by Matt Posner on June 30, 2014 at 3:20 PM

This time we have a change of pace here at School of the Ages as I interview not a book author but a book blogger -- John McAlester, the driving force behind, which looks at the cutting edge of the publishing industry. (This is part of an interview exchange -- I will be appearing on John’s blog in July.) For this interview, we’re going to take a look at the publishing world’s big picture and see if we can sort through some of the complexities that we are now facing.

John, you’re currently in San Francisco, which still remains an aspirational destination for me. What do you recommend for first-time visitors who want to get a real feeling for that city?

I think if I had just one day to spend in San Francisco I would head to the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street for breakfast and then take the cable car to North Beach for lunch in Washington Square Park. After that I would do the Alcatraz tour which is a total tourist cliche but you get great views of the bay. If you do the Alcatraz tour I would highly recommend also doing the audio tour, it really adds to the experience.

San Francisco has recently been destroyed by the X-Men and then Godzilla (and a giant octopus in the 1950s). How did you survive the recent destruction? More seriously, why do you think your home city has been in the crosshairs so often in recent films?

San Francisco is a beautiful city with large man made structures. I think people like to see those structures get trashed by monsters. I plan on avoiding the zombie apocalypse by hiding in the library. Zombies hate books.

Talk about how you got interested in the publishing industry and how you acquired the background you use so well to cover it.

I started working in publishing as an assistant to a book packager, like a producer for books, and I sort of talked myself into being the website manager for the company. I've seen publishing go through it's struggle with change from print to digital. I know how the print publishing industry worked and I'm also familiar with digital publishing. Understanding both sides gives me a unique perspective I think.

In addition to your blog, what else have you written that we should look out for?

I write fiction pretty regularly on an application called Hi ( which I think is fantastic. Other than that I am working on a novella which should be finished this summer and I will be sure to market that all over the internet when it's published independently ;-)

Now let’s get down to talking about the industry. There is a lot of back-and-forth debate about the ongoing conflict between Amazon, the leader of the eBook market, and traditional publishers (now the Big Five). With all the finger-pointing on both sides, it’s hard to know where to stand. Can you recommend a strategy for straining the truth out of the rhetoric?

Sure. As I see it the conflict is all about business. The "Bottom Line" is what is motivating the players on both sides. The difference between them is that Amazon is at least up front about the fact that it's a business and although it has created some pretty amazing tools which allow authors to sell their work, Amazon openly states that it has done that because it is a mutually beneficial business relationship between them and authors. The big publishers on the other hand are operating as these faux benefactors to authors and I think that's disingenuous. The big five publishers have to answer to their corporate owners and the decisions that they make are decisions which have to increase profit. In the past authors had to deal with these publishers because the cost of producing a book was beyond most individuals. That's no longer the case.

So, if you want to understand what is really happening you have to view both sides of the conflict as for profit companies and understand that the financial success of the company is the underlying motive of all of there decisions.

Talk about the concept of the “gatekeeper” in traditional publishing. Then talk about how the role of gatekeeper has shifted in the 21st century.

The "gatekeeper" is someone who feels pressure from both sides. On one side you have the authors who are trying to become published and on the other side you have publishers who are trying to run a profitable company. So the gatekeeper has to make decisions about which pieces of writing get elevated to the "published" status based on those pressures. The agent's job is to find the manuscripts that will sell the most copies.

Because of marketplaces like Amazon, Apple, B&N Nook, and Kobo it's now possible for authors to get their work published without the downward pressure of publisher profit. So the role of "gatekeeper" as the decision maker can now be sidestepped. However, "gatekeepers" in traditional publishing played another, more subtle, role and that was as curators of quality writing. That role is even more vital today than it was before.

I would argue that the recent New Yorker article about Amazon’s actions in the publishing industry depicts Jeff Bezos as a combination of a people pleaser and a shark (depending upon who is sitting across the table from him). He is from a whole generation of technology-oriented business leaders who use data aggregation to make decisions, very different really from the personality-driven deal-makers of earlier generations. Do these statements fit your picture of the man and his methods? Set me straight.

I haven't read all that much about Bezos so I am not sure I can talk much about his specific data driven methods. I would say though that I don't think being data driven is really very different from being personality driven in your business decisions. At the end of the day it's all about the balance sheet. How you keep your company profitable. I think the piece in The New Yorker paints the picture of a very good business man who has a whole new set of tools at his disposal. I don't believe that Jeff Bezos is any more or less benevolent to authors than say Michael Pietsch, the CEO of Hachette. At least Bezos is up front about the fact that the reason they built KDP and the Kindle is because it's great for Amazon. It also happens to be great for authors.

Tell me about some people in the publishing industry (from any generation) whom you admire, and why. Then tell me about some people in the publishing industry whose influence you perhaps regret, and again, why.

Craig Mod is someone who I think is doing fantastic things in publishing. Craig is the founder of Hi, he also writes for Medium. I've heard Craig speak before and he has so many intelligent things to say about publishing and how we can effectively create organizations which are publishing works that readers enjoy. I also have a lot of respect for Glenn Greenwald  and the work that he did with Edward Snowden. Regardless of how you feel about the legality or ethics of what Snowden did, the way that Greenwald, and the rest of the journalists involved, handled the responsibility of reporting the story was admirable I think. I hope the episode is taught to younger journalists as an example of journalistic integrity.

I don't necessarily regret any specific individual's influence in publishing but I do feel that collectively, the New York publishing establishment has done a poor job of shepherding authors into the internet age. It may be an impossibility for entrenched companies of a certain size to adapt to technological and market changes and if that's the case then the changes will continue to wash over the publishing establishment and there is nothing they can do about it. I do think though that if publishing culture were more in love with writing's ability to be a cultural influence and less in love with the aesthetics of Bookish Intelligence then books would be much better positioned to be an important part of our culture in the future.

The digital self-publishing marketplace is really different since Amazon vastly expanded customer interest in e-books in the early 2000s. When we in the industry talk about this, we tend to talk in some mixture of platitudes and sound-bytes. Is the situation too vast and complex to understand until hindsight kicks in?

In some ways yes, I think were are too close to the "ebook revolution" to fully understand what the internet has meant to publishing and to use that understanding to guess what will happen next. It is possible however to see these recent changes as part of the continuum of information democratization. Humans seem to keep creating ways to disperse information more broadly, faster, and with less effort. The internet is a huge, maybe quantum, leap forward in our efforts to do that.

If you want some insight into the value of the current changes in publishing I think you could look at things in that context.

To what degree is digital self-publishing a meritocracy, or to what degree are we seeing the appearance of meritocracy covering an actual interregnum while big business interests reorganize to resume control of the market?

The ability for individuals to instantaneously broadcast their writing globally is not a temporary phenomenon. Whether big publishers get their act together or not the cat is out of the bag as long as our computer networks are open.

I think it may be a misnomer to call what most people are doing "self-publishing" because even if a publishing company isn't involved there are still lots of people who work on a piece to get it ready for sale. Cover designers, developmental editors, web designers, marketing consultants, all these people can work on a project before it is made available for sale so I think "Independent Publishing" may be a better term. The reason I point that out is that I think it's important to understand that books are products. Once you put them in a store then there are lots of people who have a stake in whether those books sell. So whether a book rises in popularity is still very much based on market forces.

As an individual, and admittedly for sour grapes reasons, I am particularly hostile to literary agents, whom I have referred to as feckless and reactionary. My view is not necessarily shared across the industry, with many authors still seeking to do traditional deals through agents, and many authors still believing in their integrity and the importance of their role. What is your assessment of literary agency as a profession, now and going forward?

Book agents are an example of the type of gatekeepers that I was talking about earlier. Agents make money when they sell a manuscript to a publisher and agents have to pay bills just like everyone else. Regardless of how great an agent personally thinks a manuscript is, if they don't think they can find a publisher to buy it then they won't represent that author. Agents are ruled by the same marketplace pressures as acquisition editors. I think we should all just stop pretending like that isn't the case. Authors would understand more clearly that if you want your book to be published by a traditional publisher it must be marketable and if it's not then the author should just publish it themselves and now they can.

As a teacher, I find students on the average to be less interested in reading than I would like. However, I have seen some online reports that kids read more than they used to. I don’t know what the truth is, but is it your impression that reading is on the rise or on the decline in the United States? How do you account for the situation as you perceive it?

I think the death of reading has been greatly exaggerated. I think kids are reading a ton. I know they read and write a lot of texts for example. The real question is *what* are they reading and does what they are reading have any value? Our culture has all kinds of storytelling formats and I don't think some are necessarily better than others. We should be reassessing what literature does well and where it fits in the spectrum of storytelling options that are available to kids right now. Reading campaigns are never going to work if you try to force kids to read, that feels like taking medicine. Maybe literature is viable as a smaller part of our storytelling spectrum and I'm cool with that. I have a feeling that if we were to focus more on positioning literature as easy to access and fun to share then its value, even though more focused, would be recognized and that would be a bright future for kids' reading.

Let’s turn our attention to your blog. Tell us about some of your past features that should be required reading. Then tell us about some upcoming features.

I think my favorite piece so far has been the interview that I did with Nate Kontny who is the creator/lead developer of an application called Draft. Draft is a pretty amazing writing tool and the design of Draft has been infused with Nate's totally wise perspective. I love doing interviews with people who are doing cool things in publishing. We have some great interviews coming up including one with Hugh McGuire who is the founder of PressBooks, another fantastic free tool for authors.

John, what would you like to say to readers to finish this interview?

Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I hope all your readers are able to carve some time out of their busy schedules to do some of the reading and writing that they love. Cheers.


author interview -- Russ Hovendick, employment expert and military supporter

Posted by Matt Posner on June 27, 2014 at 2:40 PM

I meet many authors on Twitter these days, and Russ Hovendick is one such. I offered him an interview in order to ask some tough questions about the job market for young people (and ex-teachers). He's a great friend to veterans, and is giving college scholarships with his own funds. Read on to find out more about both.

Your business is located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. What is it like there? What activities would you recommend for visitors?

I live in Sioux Falls, SD, a city of 180,000 people that has seen dramatic growth within the last few years. At the heart of Sioux Falls is the actual water falls themselves, which have become a tourist destination, due to their beauty. Our zoo is regionally recognized and their collection of preserved exotic animals is rare, and considered to be one of the best in the world. Many would expect the major economic driver to be coming from the agricultural sector, however, Sioux Falls is the headquarters for a number of national financial companies and also boasts two of the best medical centers in the country, which have now expanded operations worldwide.

Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up in Minnesota on a farm with six other brothers. We raised hogs, cattle, chickens, and operated a large dairy farm. I love to hear people complain of lack of work life balance. I can assure you that work life balance was never considered by my father, who instilled a tremendous work ethic in each of us. He believed that if you were going to kill time, then you needed to work it to death. There were times we were sure HE would work us to death. But I survived, as did all my brothers who have gone on to be successes in their chosen professions.

Tell an interesting story from your non-professional life.

In high school we were playing a team from Evansville, MN. I was on third base when the opposing coach went out to talk to the pitcher. My coach pulled me aside and advised me to steal home on the first pitch. He said just focus on home and don’t let anything stop you. The pitcher wound up, my eyes were locked on home and away I went, sliding perfectly before the catcher caught the ball. Everyone in the stands and on the field started roaring with laughter. I looked up to find that they had switched pitchers and the new pitcher had just thrown his first warm up pitch. Quite embarrassing! The coach then told me to wait until he finished his warm ups and then steal home. I did and then turned to the crowd and said, “Well he was warming up and so was I”. This prompted a lot of laughter as well.

Tell an interesting story about interacting with readers or other writers.

My books were created to make a difference in the life of each reader. One of my readers, an Army veteran of the military conflict in Afghanistan, was struggling to find work after his return. He advised that he had done 17 interviews and not one had gone to the next interview in the process. After reading my book and working with him on interviewing skills, he discovered a new found confidence. This confidence carried him to a final corporate interview with a Fortune 500 company, in which he received 3 of the 5 required votes to be hired. Although he didn’t get the job, he was able to capitalize on this experience and landed a job within the next week. It’s a passion within me to help people find out that they actually can be more than they thought possible. It’s really cool!!

You’ve done some significant TV interviews. Any good stories to report from those experiences?

One of the local TV stations did a story on my book Deployment to Employment. They were so impressed with the book and our efforts to help veterans, that they donated their anchorman and studio, to let us record several videos for free.

You have taken a particular interest in military transition – where does that strong commitment come from? What caused you to write Deployment to Employment?

I own an executive recruiting agency and was recruiting for a Fortune 500 company. They informed me that they were a “Top 100” employer of military veterans and advised me to consider bringing veterans to them. I shared that I had spoken with a number of veterans, but didn’t understand them and typically just set their information aside, but if they wanted them, I would bring them. After this conversation, in a later interview that I did with a veteran, I started to probe deeper into what made him the leader that he was. At first he had been unable to communicate these traits to me, however, when we started to dig deeper, he and I both had the proverbial “Ah ha” moment, where he began to see what he brought to the table and I realized his value. From there I started placing a number of veterans and they were in deep appreciation of my abilities to help them interview. It just seemed to be wise to write a book that could affect the lives of hundreds, as opposed to my one at a time approach. Even though I am not a veteran, I believe that we owe veterans everything that we have, so it’s out of a deep appreciation for them that I moved forward with the book.

How does post-traumatic stress affect veterans’ job placement efforts? How does it affect employers’ perceptions?

PTSD takes all forms. Unfortunately, it seems to have been exploited by some of the media. TV shows depicting a PTSD veteran unable to cope, is a shame, when so many veterans have learned how to cope with this condition and have gone on to be very productive members of the workforce.

What makes veterans such good hires?

Veterans have performed under some of the most difficult situations imaginable and have succeeded. They bring a tremendous loyalty, coupled with self-discipline and a passion to do their best. Because of their military experience they also bring a maturity level and vision that brings great value within the workplace.

Your company Directional Motivation is free for users but “for profit”? How does that work exactly?

My life has centered on helping people have greater success in life. An example is being a volunteer prison, jail, and juvenile chaplain for over 20 years. Directional Motivation was created to provide services that could be used by anyone, without cost or obligation. I didn’t want to establish a non-profit organization, because in the future there may be products or additional services that may generate a profit of some kind. At present, the services are free and scholarships monies have been paid out of my pocket.

How does the psychology of a job applicant in general affect that person’s success? Does it matter more than skills?

As I coach job applicants, I find that most don’t realize the value that they bring to the marketplace and that they also have a difficult time in communicating these values to a prospective employer. Once these two issues are addressed, we find that they have a better understanding of what they need to concentrate their improvement efforts on. Numerous candidates, as well as employers, have stated they have seen the level of self-accountability increase. Employers continue to state that the soft skills outweigh the job skills, as job skills can be taught easier.

I used to teach job interview skills in the early 2000s, but you are far more expert than I have ever been. What have been the changes in proper interview preparation and interview behavior since then?

Today’s interviews focus much more on the soft skills and general communication abilities. We have an increasingly diverse workforce that requires more attention and development, than in the past. Interviews are now directed toward behavior based techniques, which require the interviewee to provide specific examples of performance behaviors, which employers believe will be indicators of future behavior within the work environment.

Just one specific question about interviewing. How should one best answer “what are your weaknesses”?

Answer: I am always striving to improve. For instance, I realized that I was lacking in _____ area. I have made a concerted effort to improve in this area by taking the following classes. I now have the ability to obtain a level of ____ performance in this area. In fact, I have now started on focusing on _____ to improve these skills in this area, as well. (Shows that you are willing to not only acknowledge a weakness, but self-driven to overcome. This can be very impressive – but don’t fudge on the answer!)

You’ve written a book about negotiating raises. However, it seems to me that outside a high-demand field like computer technology, employers are more likely to fire people with high salaries or invite those who want more money to go find it elsewhere. Am I too pessimistic? Set me straight.

Yes, you are way too pessimistic. Read my book!! Employers are not against giving increases, but self-accountability has to be in place first. The chances for a raise are greatly enhanced by taking a very pro-active approach in your own personal development, thereby, raising your value in the marketplace. By taking this action, even if an employer doesn’t acknowledge your development, a future employer is much more likely to see this.

As you know, my main reason for interviewing you is to ask about the job market for upcoming college graduates. I read this article from al-Jazeera which introduced to me the term “post-employment economy.” It describes a situation in which employees get the least respect, security, or pay that they have had within living memory. Is this a correct perception?

I am always careful not to classify individuals into certain social classes or to use blanket statements. It is my belief that each individual brings unique talents and abilities to the workplace. However, if I were to note a frequent trend in these newly entered job seekers, it would be that many have a tendency of taking a self-centered entitlement approach to employment. Does everyone take this approach? Certainly not. However, I see a continued widening of the gap between those who are appreciative and respectful within marketplace and those who definitely want to live by their own standards of operation. This may spawn a feeling on the part of some employers to withdraw from caring as much about their employees, which in turn, affects benefits and long term job stability. It has the appearance of a vicious circle. Even with this said, I find that many progressive employers are trying to find new ways to entice employees to stay, whether through improved benefits, increase in pay, or the creation of improved workplaces by offering various alternatives that fit the needs of the employee.

My research has suggested that most college graduates in the next decade need to anticipate unpaid work, constant job shifts, unstable professions, regular retraining, and little connection between their degrees and their employment. Do you agree with this to some extent, or is it media fear-mongering, or what?

I believe that our workplace is one of constant change, due to the influences of economic pressure. Employers are continually being challenged to do more with less, while that employee has the challenge of bringing more value to their workplace. I believe that the employee will need to focus on the future trends affecting the workplace and take a pro-active approach to defining their continuing education to meet the needs of employers. I believe that you will also see employers taking a much more active participation in the continued educational needs of their employees. The traditional degrees will see a decline in value, while coursework directed toward future needs will provide increased value.

Is it the case now that most traditional college majors are useless for post-college employment? Should all young people be in career-specific college programs? Do even those help?

It is my belief that you will see the value of traditional degrees continue to decline and many colleges will struggle to prepare many graduates for the employment world. However, I also believe that the type of degree does not always influence the hiring prospects of future graduates, nor is a career-specific degree the right approach for everyone. I believe that careful consideration should be given to type of future employment that they are seeking.

 If you were advising a group of high school seniors about how to prepare for their future in the workforce, what would you say? I will pass it on to actual high school seniors, of course!

The world is changing very quickly. Seniors need to realize that with the acceleration of change, future needs of employers will change as quickly. What may seem to be a great career track, can quickly diminish with the creation of new technology. I would challenge seniors to take a very active interest in finding areas of interest through internships and shadowing programs. I would also advise them to refrain from accumulating a lot of debt. With debt comes a lack of freedom and flexibility to change. I found this with many individuals that were displaced during the recent economic downturn. Those that were heavily indebted had an extremely difficult time in being able to shift to accommodate the change within their family units. Those without debt or with limited debt pictures, often had many more options to pursue, due to the economic freedom provided by not being servants to debt. I would encourage seniors to consider taking classes while working, to avoid debt. As an employee, many employers will consider participating in the costs of education, provided that they see your future value. Yes, it will take longer. However, you will be positioned to adjust with the continuing changes of the workplace.

It seems like massive forces are aligned these days against American teachers, as the powers that be fiercely work to strip away our job security, our salaries, our classroom autonomy, our belief in our own abilities. Do you have a vote of confidence for us or any positives for the teaching profession?

Just as changes are occurring within the private workplace, so are the guarantees that have accompanied the teaching profession. When I counsel employees in private employment that are facing downsizing or reduction in benefits, I advise them not to allow themselves to be caught up in the negatives of the issue. Instead, I challenge them to focus on the future and to work on creating additional value. In this case, it would be to not engage in the discussions surrounding these issues, but to focus on being the best educator possible, to win the hearts and minds of the students and to prepare them for the challenges ahead. Yes, it may mean doing this with a decrease in benefits and possibly pay. But was your love more for the benefits associated with that of your profession than the students you instruct? If it is, then I would suggest, just as I would to the disenchanted plant worker or supervisor, leave your present employment and find the thing that satisfies your internal needs. Scary? Sure. It is for anyone in this position, whether teacher, plant manager, or factory worker, but the satisfaction of doing that which you truly love, will in many cases, outweigh the economics. Watching the success of students that you have had a personal hand in developing, is still one of the greatest rewards there is. If your passion is there, continue to pursue it with the right focus.

Do it for love and accept the loss of money, hm? Well, I didn't enjoy that answer, but I asked, and you gave an honest reply.

What can teachers who are forced out of their jobs do to transition?

First I would recommend an exercise that I created for displaced workers. This can be found on the Directional Motivation site I would also encourage them to see this as an opportunity or a new door. Yes, it is very frustrating, but approaching this change with a positive attitude is the key to finding future success. Then I would suggest that they reach out to professionals to get guidance in discovering the skills that they bring and then work on developing great interviewing skills. A great resource would be my book How to interview: what employers want to hear in today’s competitive job market. (Had to get a personal plug in…right???)

Personal plugs are part of what we do here. (My book here.) What would you like to say to readers to close this interview?

My heart is to make a difference in the lives of the people I come in contact with. Whether high school or college students, or participants in today’s employment world, I believe that I can provide a number of helps and resources to really affect lives. I would encourage individuals to check out our site at for the free resources offered and also to apply for scholarships. They may even choose to get a copy of one of the books that I offer.

Thank you for the privilege of interviewing with you.



author interview -- the well-travelled Nathaniel Dean James

Posted by Matt Posner on June 16, 2014 at 12:05 AM

Thriller author Nathaniel Dean James is relatively new to the book market, but he is far from new to life -- I enjoy talking to well-travelled people, and this gentleman and I have a lot of places in common to talk about. Oh -- and we talk about his book as well.

You were born in Cuckfield in the UK. Is Cuckfield more of a rural, small-town, or small-city type of environment? What is there to do there?

Although I was born there, I never actually lived there. I was two when we left England for Sweden. I have been back through once or twice since and can tell you in no uncertain terms that it's a village with no pretensions of anything more grand. I have it on good authority that the hospital itself is long gone. So to answer the question, the only thing I know from experience that you could do in Cuckfield is be born, and that now appears not to be an option either.

I recently got to visit Sweden for the first time, but didn’t make it to Stockholm (I was briefly in Malmo for a little sightseeing). What are your top five adjectives to describe life there?

Steady, cold, safe, expensive and beautiful. Although I was only ten or so when we upped stakes and headed out for Denmark, I have a lot of vivid memories of life in Sweden. We lived in a nondescript apartment block overlooking the water that surrounds much of the capital. We were what you might call Scandinavian poor, which is to say, wanting for no essentials, but enjoying few luxuries. I spent a lot of time wandering around the buildings of the old dynamite factory down by the water, oblivious to the irony that it once belonged to that champion of peace, Alfred Nobel, and pretending to by anyone but myself. I think the genus of my eventual drive to exercise my imagination on paper may well be hiding in the shadows of that dreary place. Sweden, like Scandinavia in general, is a paradox of that dull sense of security that often defines life in a super-taxed welfare society. That said, it's a largely uninhabited and very beautiful country and my fondest memories are of flying across its great expanse of lakes and woodland with my grandfather, who was a pilot well into his seventies. 

Let’s talk Copenhagen a little bit. Tivoli Gardens, three gorgeous palaces, overpriced food, everyone tremendously fit and happy – what did I miss?

Again, I was very young and we weren't there for long. My mother, by the sheer accident of fate, now lives in Copenhagen again. We recently traveled there with the kids and visited Tivoli. You're not wrong about the food, it's borderline fraud. I have read somewhere that Denmark is one of the happiest places in the world. I don't know what statistic model was employed to reach this conclusion, but I think it's safe to say that it probably makes a lot of assumptions that don't quite pan out in the real world. It certainly isn't a conclusion you would reach by general observation.

I’m originally a Floridian and have been to Clearwater and found it pretty much a snooze. How’d you keep busy there?

Well, Clearwater is where I grew up and I've always thought of it that way. For most of my time there I was in an after-school program that put on all kinds of activities, from sailing to trips to the parks in Orlando and down to the Everglades, and much more. We raised all the money for this ourselves, selling cookies, local newspapers, and even collecting cans, which I think brought in a nickel a piece back then, or it might even have been a dime. The town (city?) itself is quite a slow going place, but I can't say I had all that much time back then to notice. But I've been back a few times since, and no, it's no carnival.

You were in Mexico City at a particularly bad time in its history, but just overall, what are the ups and downs of life there? Did you have to make a lot of paradigm shifts compared to growing up in the UK?

We were there for just over six months. Setting aside the devastation - the city was practically in ruins -  what really caught me out was the disparity between the US and its southern neighbor. It took me a while to get used to the heavily armed police positioned on every street corner, and the disproportionate number of VW Beetles. I've since learned that these were made in Brasil, where they continued to manufacture them long after the Germans had moved on. However, all of this was overshadowed by the seminal event of our stay. I walked in to a toy shop one day, and on a dusty display rack somewhere at the back of the store I found an original Snake Eyes, a G.I Joe action figure long since discontinued in the US and practically a legend by then. I think it was going for around fifty cents.  

You didn’t go to high school, but you attended Cambridge. That must have involved some culture shock, or something. Talk about it a little.

Let me clarify. I didn't actually attend Cambridge, but an affiliate of the university who certified graduates in their name, so to speak. That said, it took some doing - some innovation with the truth - to get on board. Everyone else on the course had degrees from this and that school. At the risk of sounding immodest, I'd read a lot by then and had little trouble passing myself of as a member of the club. The truth is, the cliches about college degrees and higher education in general are, like most cliches, based in truth. I'm not saying that people who attend college are necessarily wasting their time. Had things been different, I'm sure I would have done it myself. But it's no "be all and end all". Life, experience, independent study; these things can emulate much of what goes on in the halls of higher learning.

Your first novel, Origin (U.S. link), is about a government assassin who develops a conscience. Knowing this, I have a few questions related to writing that type of book.

To what extent would you call the book (U.K. link) realistic and to what extent fantastic? Do you think professional assassins exist in real life the way they do in fiction?

Well, there were several hundred attempts made on the life of Fidel Castro during his time in power, most of them sponsored directly or indirectly by organs and affiliates of the US government. And that's just one man. I'm inclined to believe that for the most part people hired to kill are neither as professional nor as resourceful as most of the assassins featured in popular fiction,my own included. But that such people exist I have no doubt. That said, my book isn't really about the protagonist, if that makes sense. It's about something far larger in scope, and more sinister. I guess you could say I use him to introduce the reader to the bigger picture by having him stumble face-first into it. We basically have a guy who's just come to terms with having worked for the armed wing of the Whitehouse, so to speak. He spends two years planning an audacious rouse to deep-six the entire damn thing only to find tone the goal posts had been moved. Consequently, he kicks the proverbial ball straight into the back of his own net and the world is suddenly a far more confusing and dangerous place.

As for realism, it's a very apt question. The central premise of the book - the whole series in fact- is a fantastic one. Nevertheless, I found myself going to considerable lengths to make it as plausible as I could. My efforts got quite surreal at one point. In a nutshell, the idea for this whole project was born of a daydream in which I found myself pontificating on the hypothetical existence of something way out there in the depths of space. I started sending emails at one point to various people at NASA trying to figure out if my idea was even remotely plausible. I didn't expect anyone to reply, but one day I got an email from an engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Institute. What ensued was a lengthy and bizarre exchange in which we effectively worked out how and by what means my imaginary object might be spotted and identified. I say, we worked out: he worked it out and I made notes. 

The real departure from convention in this story lies in the fact that the people who end up getting their hands on the golden goose have no government or national affiliations. This was important because it allowed me to exorcise a popular cliche from the equation, but it also presented a problem because in order to do anything but gloat they were going to need some serious financial backing. I'm as skeptical of employing the deus ex machina as the next man, but I can live with the gods whispering in the ears of mortals every now and then, provided it isn't a blatant and desperate attempt to circumvent a disaster of the author's own making. I think it worked. I hope it did.   


The idea of a former killer who has developed a conscience has become iconic in popular entertainment. Why do you think this type of story – a violent person redeemed by turning violence against the bad guys -- resonates with both creators and audiences?

I think the idea that people are capable of turning themselves around resonates in the popular imagination. You often hear it said that there are really only a few essential "stories" one can write, and that what we do as authors is pick one or more of these and tell them again. If so, the "coming of age" or the "birth of conscience" story is probably one of these. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as an evil person by design or birth. People fall from grace by any of a thousand means and the descent into moral decline can easily become a self-perpetuating spiral under the right circumstances. In an unconscious attempt at justification one ill deed often begets another, and then another, until a person loses all sense of perspective. Killing is no different. When a person finds the strength to extricate himself from this vicious cycle and seeks to redeem himself we all feel a little bit better about the world, even if it's not real. And because most of us live in a society where you rarely get to take an eye when you lose one, watching someone else do it can be liberating. It let's you blow a little steam, so to speak.

Reflect upon these popular thriller characters and series in any way that illuminates your ideas about characters and storytelling:  Jason Bourne; Lizbeth Salander; Jack Reacher; Jack Bauer; Lincoln Rhyme. 

I'm a big fan of Robert Ludlum, god rest his soul. Jason Bourne is the quintessential bad ass. When I saw your list the first thing I wondered was how long it would take him to kill the rest of them. No, I'm kidding. Francis Moore,  my own one-time hitman, was definitely influenced by Ludlum's character, minus the amnesia.

I'm also a fan of Stieg Larsson, both the man and the writer. His death was a real tragedy. I recently read that his estate ended up in the hands of his estranged father and brother because he never married his girlfriend in order to protect his identity as a journalist. Not cool. As for Lizbeth - that was my grandmother's name - I think she's a breath of fresh air. I read the original books, although not in Swedish because that would have taken too long. I also saw the Swedish TV production which was right on the money. Why Hollywood thought it could do one better I'll never know, but their attempt was a dog's breakfast by comparison. It's just a shame Larsson never had a chance to witness the amazing success of his novels.

I'm not a big fan of Lee Child, although I certainly admire his success. My father-in-law is a Reacher fan of the hard-core variety, but all his efforts to bring me around have thus far failed. As for Jack Bauer, I must confess, I've never watched a single episode of 24 and don't think I ever will.  I hadn't heard of Jeffery Deaver's books until now, but I'm going to make a point of getting one of his books and giving it a shot.

Characters make a book, no doubt about it. In my view breathing life into a character is one of the most vital disciplines of fiction. I would break this art down into: mannerisms, reaction and dialogue. The physical description of a person is not hugely important. You give the reader a few pointers and let them paint the person for themselves. Most readers will end up doing this anyway. But to really animate a character you have to make them sequitur, you have to imbue them with a persona and bring these things in line with it or you end up making a monster instead. As a reader, you've lost me the moment one of the members of your literary entourage opens their mouth and says, "I brought the drugs, now where's my suitcase full of money", or gets a hard on brushing their teeth. Okay, maybe a case could be made for the latter under the right circumstances, but you know what I mean.

Let's talk about the state of publishing today. Some have been predicting the situation is dire for authors as Amazon is in the process of seizing control of the industry from the Big Five publishers. These pundits predict that when the Big Five are beaten, the 'Zon will strip indie authors of their present commercial position. I acknowledge this to be a realistic fear, but I am pretty deeply in Amazon's camp, because without Amazon, I would not be in the marketplace at all. I am of the view that traditional publishing in the early 21st century, before Kindle Digital Publishing, had become a narrow, bestseller-driven, winner-take-all affair. So maybe the self-publishing author has no allies? You are shrewd and well-travelled, so what do you see as the near future and long-term potential of our business?

I agree, the future is anything but certain. The timeworn adage about power breeding corruption is an apt one. Put a man in a position where what might have been a forgivable oversight yesterday is amplified by influence into a virtual if not literal crime, and the spiral is a short and violent one. I remember watching the election of the new millennium gods in Silicon Valley and wondering how long it would take them to fall prey to history. I recently read an article chronicling the rise of Jeff Bezos and his garage start-up. Talk about the road to hell being paved with egalitarian sentiment, he's got all the makings of a bona fide monster in the pipeline, doesn't he? In the other corner, as you rightly point out, sits the ancient temple on the hill, just as formidable, and perhaps more so now that its divine right to grant immortality to the chosen few is under siege. It's all but impossible to find a morally palatable affinity for either camp, but like yourself, my dog is in the Amazon hunt. I guess as an author I'm hoping to reach cruising altitude before the storm breaks. But as a member of the Indie movement I'm inclined to believe that our only real chance at fair play in the long run will lie the our ability to present a united front. In what form? I don't really know. It's a bitch kitty isn't it? Even if we mustered the fortitude and willpower to put enough people in one room and get them all signing the same tune, how long would it take an organization like that to morph into the next big problem. Maybe you and I should follow in the footsteps of Shawn Fanning and start Bookster, the world's largest collection of free pirated eBooks. It would certainly make things a bit more interesting. No but seriously, my gut says the way forward for Indie authors of the future is going to lie in cultivating and managing their own audience. That's already happening now, of course, but it may become more important, especially if the middleman starts squeezing you out. At least until Amazon start encoding their eBooks to stop people from loading un-purchased material onto their apps and devices.

I'm not in favor of DRM. I used it at first, but I soon realized, from the lesson of the music industry, that it doesn't help and just drives away customers. People who pirate wouldn't buy anyway. But please continue your remarks.

I don't know exactly how all this is going to go down, but no matter what happens, I think we Indie authors are going to have to get smarter. Maybe that's the silver lining. There are a lot of serious and dedicated writers on the Indie scene, writers who put in the hours and do it right. But there are also a lot of people hanging around the clubhouse whose attitude and approach is less than admirable. If the events unfolding now turn into a wake-up call to us all to get our house in order, so much the better. Time will tell.  


Important, but solemn words we exchanged there. Let's lighten the mood:  can you tell a funny story from your personal experience.

A funny story? Well, it wasn't very funny in living color,  but I once hitchhiked from Vienna to Venice. I was drinking in a bar in Budapest with a buddy of mine, as you do, and we took things a little further than was perhaps prudent. we decided to up stakes and go somewhere and Venice seemed as good a place as any. I don't remember if either of us had anywhere we needed to be, but by this time it didn't matter. Somehow we reached the train station - I seem to recall pulling open the side door on a cargo wagon at some point and watching with stupid wonder as several tonnes of coal poured out onto the tracks - and we used his parents credit card to buy to tickets to Vienna. It's a short trip and we hadn't come even close to sobering up by the time we arrived so we found the motorway and began to hitch. You wouldn't think so, but Austria is hitchhiker heaven. I don't think we ever waited more than half an hour for a ride. At one point a woman with two children in the car picked us up. I remember telling her as we got out that as grateful as we were, she shouldn't ever do that again. The good times ground to a halt when we crossed the border into Italy. Not only do Italians not stop for hitchhikers - we were actually warned about this by a German couple who dropped us off at Trieste - but within fifteen minutes the carabinieri had kicked us off the highway into an open field in the middle of nowhere and told us we would be arrested if we didn't stay off the road. I met a platoon of them in Sarajevo a few years later - by this time I was a military policeman myself - and complained about the incident to no avail. Anyway, we ended up walking for a whole day and I had a really bad case of the shits because we'd stopped in an orchard on the way and eaten our fill of unripe apples. We finally reached a train station and made our way to Venice by rail. When we arrived the first thing we did was buy two bottles of cheap tequila and drink ourselves into a stupor. I woke up in a hospital the following day with a headache so bad I think I begged the doctor on call to have mercy and kill me.  Of my friend there was no sign so I spent a week exploring Venice as an honorary member of the local homeless community, went to few parties and lived on water and cigarettes until I ran out of willpower, found the nearest American Express office and begged my parents to buy me a ticket home. it was an experience, but I don't recommend it. 

Tell an interesting story from your writing life.

My first attempt at fiction was a short story called Hurricanes and Butterflies. It was about a troubled plumber living in Vegas who develops an unhealthy obsession with a Hispanic hotel cleaner at the Golden Nugget. When he finally musters the courage to make an advance, her sharp rejection sends him into a psychotic spiral that culminates in his determination to kill someone. The girl is gone by then so he spies out an alternative, a woman of similar ethnic origin and build who he spots several times out on a run. To cut a long story short, he kidnaps her one evening and drives her out into the desert. Only when he unties and tries to rape her she beats the loving shit out of him and leaves him there to die. The story ends with the woman driving his van pack into the city and passing a billboard featuring a picture of herself standing in a boxing ring, gloves raised and teeth barred, because she's in town to defend the her title as the female middleweight champion of the world.

I suppose the idea wasn't all that bad, but the writing was a total mess. I wrote a lot of stories like that, stuff I would never show anyone, before I eventuality decided I'd spent enough time in boot camp to give it a real shot. Something a lot of Indie writers these days don't seem to have any time for.

Tell an interesting story from your non-writing life.

Well, I almost got killed once by a black bear. Is that interesting? When I lived out in Palmdale in California, we used to go camping up in the Sierra Nevada. On one of these trips I went with a friend of mine and his dad and we spent a few days on the trails. when we got back to the jump-off point our ride was nowhere to be seen so I volunteered to stay behind while they headed down the mountain to make a call. When they weren't back by nightfall I headed back up the trail to the nearest camp site and bedded down for the night. I woke up several hours later in pitch darkness to find a bear cub standing next to my sleeping bag. In that moment I failed completely to make any connection between the cub and the likelihood that it wasn't alone. By the time the pieces came together it was too late. I couldn't see the mother but I could hear her easily enough. I remember grabbing the .357 magnum inside the sleeping bag and setting off stark naked to meet my destiny. I don't know how long I ran for, but it was quite a distance, and by the time I stopped I had lost all sense of direction. I must have made quite the spectacle standing there in my birthday suit with a giant revolver in one hand and my wedding tackle in the other. Luckily the sun crested the horizon before I had a chance to freeze to death and I found my way back without being spotted. There's a lot to be said for the great outdoors, but you're always taking a gamble when you leave civilization behind and make for the mountain.

Thanks for a long and enjoyable talk. Keep those books coming, and be sure to visit here again when your series continues.

Godzilla (2014) review

Posted by Matt Posner on May 26, 2014 at 9:30 AM


I don't often review movies -- not because I don't like to, but because there are only so many things I can do with my energy and some have to be sacrificed. But for Godzilla (2014), I will make an exception, because I am one of those individuals who have seen every Godzilla movie, starting from childhood. I will co-opt the common term "G-Fan" for people like me. I was a religious viewer of Saturday morning creature features, and in my childhood, I even got up in the middle of the night to watch the films when that was the only time to see them. 

The holy grail for American G-fans like me was always an American Godzilla movie. You can imagine how excited I was in 1998 to know that that movie had finally been made.

Except it wasn't. Godzilla 1998 wasn't a Godzilla movie. It was the name Godzilla slapped upon a vastly banal, sanitized, cynically manipulative turd. Toho, the studio that created and owns Godzilla, dealt with its weaknesses well in Godzilla: Final Wars, in which they had the real Godzilla fight that movie's creature and defeat it in mere seconds.

So we still didn't have an American Godzilla movie. Then Toho closed up shop "for ten years" with Final Wars, and it seemed that G-fans were out of luck in the long term.

Now the wait is over, however. We have an American-made movie called Godzilla, and it stars the real Godzilla, and it's a Godzilla movie in every sense of the word.

The holy grail for G-fans has arrived.

This film has all the conventional strengths and weaknesses of Toho-made  Godzilla movies, except one. It has earnest scientists who appear to have no personal lives. It has the military trying bizarre schemes that everyone knows aren't going to work. It has tanks. It has fire breathing, left out of the '98 film.  It has monsters knocking each other into buildings. It has disgustingly adorable little kids. It has random plot elements that aren't used properly -- and I know that sounds bad, but we G-fans kind of consider that charming after so many years of it. The only thing this movie is missing, compared to most Toho films, is goofy, lame humor coming from clownish characters.  I'll be fair:  not every one of the older movies contains humor, and there is one funny peripheral moment of the type in this film, involving some Japanese parents picking up an androgynous child at a police station. But let me get into the specifics.

After a prologue featuring Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa (not the same eye-patched character as in Godzilla 1954, but using the same name as an homage), the movie starts its first act in 1999 Japan, with an American family headed by nuclear reactor manager Bryan Cranston. Cranston's job is to be earnest and deadly serious, to react to a devastating loss, and then to convert to a paranoid nutcase in the second act. He does it all with great professionalism:   I never felt that he was winking at the audience. In the second act, his son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson AKA Kick-Ass, is a Navy bomb disposal expert who has to leave his own wonderful nuclear family in order to deal with the crazy Cranston.

Elizabeth Olsen as the hero's wife is tasked with being first sexy, then concerned, then caring and responsible, then imperiled, and pulls off all of them. Sally Hawkins, a jobbing actress, gets to be Watanabe's understudy, and veteran character actor David Strathairn, who was so good in the early seasons of the wrongly cancelled Alphas, does the best he can with the role of the American admiral who has to handle the entire military operation on his own. He's miscast; he has the wrong type of gravitas. However, he's there, and he isn't a foaming-at-the-mouth type military leader, as American monster movies sometimes show us. There are also a few scenes with the superb French actress Juliette Binoche, but I didn't even recognize her:  her characteristic sweet smile and glamour have been masked by a comfortable suburban-hausfrau presentation. I thought at the time -- who's that actress? She's pretty cool, but I don't recognize her…

Cranston and Taylor-Johnson team up to infiltrate a mysterious multinational project involving a radiation-eating giant egg which happens, right when they are there, to hatch into a MUTO, a giant flying insect that looks like a praying mantis. Cranston's post-mortem information helps the officials, headed by Watanabe, to figure out what the MUTO is up to, and eventually it turns out that there is another MUTO, which is bigger and which moves quickly across the western states of the U.S. to hook up with the winged version. At this point, Godzilla finally appears in the Pacific, leading to the third act, which takes place in the monster war zone of San Francisco.

Director Gareth Edwards takes great care to limit our views of Godzilla until certain key moments. We are held off from seeing his head, from hearing his roar, from seeing his entire body in profile, and so on. All the shots we are made to wait for are good when they come. In terms of design, this version of Godzilla is bulky, with the head emerging from the torso without much neck. The hide is entirely black rather than the typical military green. There is little expressiveness in the eyes in most shots -- they often seem to be closed -- and the lower body looks too heavy to move well. The big backside and thick legs were weaknesses of some of the shabbier suits used in the Showa period of Toho movies (1950s-1970s) that could have been corrected in this CGI version.

Godzilla's roar is special to G-fans, and deserves extended mention here. This 2014 roar is well-made, but it isn't as much based on the original roar as I would like. The 1954 Godzilla's roar had an arc, going to a high pitch followed by a low pitch, and every Toho version has been like that, although some movies had a little too high-pitched variants. Godzilla 2014 has a low roar that rises a little but doesn't drop. It sounds like half of the Toho roar. Taken on its own terms, it's fine, and should work to introduce the character to new fans, but for me, an old-school G-fan, it's a little bit lacking. The website for this movie claims that the new roar is based on the Toho original. I downloaded an .mp3 of it and listened several times, but I can't find the level of similarity that would be to my taste.

The story line this time around is that Godzilla, and his opponents the MUTOs, are survivors from races of primordial super-beings that ate radiation and that fled underground or undersea when the surface of the planet came to have too little radiation for them to eat. Godzilla is described as coming from the "alpha predator"  species, and Watanabe opines that it is his role to "restore balance" on behalf of "nature." All claptrap, but such nonsense is what one would expect from a genuine Godzilla movie. Less satisfactory is the partial explanation of the name, that as alpha predator, Godzilla was like a god. Dumb -- that explanation doesn't include where the "zilla" part comes from. Explaining the actual origin of the name (gorira+kojira, gorilla whale) would have been comprehensible to American audiences. That aside, Godzilla has in this movie the same kind of cunning and measured weariness as King Kong did in the Peter Jackson remake. I am used to Godzilla being a superhero, to the idea of injury being temporary and weariness being illusory. This was done probably to sooth the fears of Japanese kids for those Showa movies. A tired Godzilla is more like Gamera, the flying radioactive turtle, which has spent most of its movies on its back recovering from getting its ass kicked. The signs of Godzilla's vulnerability are too subtle for it to bother most viewers, so I am probably off-base talking about it, but there it is.

I should note that physical dimensions seem off in the Pacific scenes. Godzilla in this movie rolls U.S. naval vessels off his back, yet is supposedly 350 feet tall. The current class of naval destroyers is 500 feet long, and recent aircraft carriers are twice that length.  I've only seen Godzilla 2014 once so far, but based on that viewing, I think they have made Godzilla too large in proportion to the ships. At least once the monsters get into San Francisco, the proportions appear to be better managed; the tallest buildings in San Francisco are slightly taller than Godzilla's height of 350 feet, and are shown thus in the movie.

The MUTOs, the enemy monsters, get  more screen time than Godzilla does, but favoring the enemy monsters is not unusual for a Godzilla movie. Most of these monster sequences are fairly predictable and familiar, but a few things are done well. First, using CGI, it is possible to emphasize the size of the monsters in contrast with people and places. This is something Toho did rarely (My favorite sequence from the early movies is found in Kaiju Daisenso, known in the U.S. as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero or Invasion of the Astro-Monster). Second, there is one particularly strong sequence, involving the female MUTO and some soldiers on a bridge, that blew me away.

There are also a few badly done sequences. For example, as shown in the first trailer, soldiers do a HALO drop into San Francisco, passing by Godzilla as they descend. The editing of this sequence is very choppy and fragmentary; I was reminded of a bad music video.

The closing sequence involves a bomb that needs to be defused.  This part also was not handled well. The internal logic of the story calls for a very different outcome, and I can see no reason for how it turned out other than perhaps to set up a sequel. There are no sequel hints in this film. If I may make a suggestion, they should remake King Kong vs. Godzilla (Gojira tai Kingu Kongeru).  Also, they might also get some mileage from adapting the time-travelling Godzilla storyline from Dark Horse comics, in which Godzilla trashes the Spanish Armada and wrecks the Titanic. In a lighter vein, I also recommend that going forward they give Godzilla a chance to whoop Clover from Cloverfield, eat the aliens from The Avengers, and rip apart the mediocre robot Gypsy Danger, from Pacific Rim.

All weaknesses aside, this is clearly the best Godzilla movie in a long time. Considering only those made in this century, I would give a slight edge to Gojira Nisen: Mirenamu (U.S. Godzilla 2000) which has more humor and more appealing characters, but rank this movie  above Gojira:  Fainaru Wozu (Godzilla: Final Wars), which is acceptable but rather frenetic. (I haven't ranked the other millennial Godzilla movies, which reflect too many flaky changes of direction and often contain extended dumb uses of Mothra.)

Godzilla fans should be satisfied with this movie, as should general audiences. It's all right for children unless they are easily scared by monsters. I'll give it four stars out of five for people like me, and three stars out of five for action movie fans.