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September 25, 2014

Jamming with Julie and Buddy Miller in 1982

I finally got around to digitizing a box of old cassettes and found this little gem recorded with Julie and Buddy Miller. It's not a great song. In fact, it's unequivocally lame, but on this night 32 years ago it was my newest effort. I like to think my songwriting has improved since then.

In 1981, Julie Griffin left her band in NY and returned to Waco, TX, where I met her through a common friend. When my band played a gig at the fair, Julie played 3 songs to open for us.

Several months later, Buddy Miller came down to Texas looking for his lead singer and girlfriend. In January of 1982, Julie and Buddy invited my family over for dinner and afterward we broke out the guitars and swapped songs. I hit record on a jambox before we started.

I don't have the rights to post the recordings of their material, which included How Could You Say No, but I can post one of the songs I wrote that they sat in on, Julie singing background vocals with my wife, and Buddy playing lead guitar.

And also the fun part—some interaction from the Number One Son on the front end.

September 7, 2014

Y59 R 130C B03 27038

Then the lights on the ceiling fan went out and somebody had to figure it out, so I pulled the light kit off. No apparent problem. I called in The Helpful Neighbor, who has a tester and, more importantly, the brains to use it. We determined that power was coming into the unit.

The puzzler is that there is very little that can fail in this system. The only thing between the wall switch and the light bulbs is wire and a $3 pull switch, and the switch tested just fine.

After an inordinate amount of troubleshooting, The Helpful Neighbor noticed a component about half the size of my little fingernail buried among the wires. We speculated on its purpose, since you don’t really need electronics to run a light. I suggested that it was planted by the NSA to spy on us.


Before we bypassed it to see if it was the point of failure, I decided to Google ‘y59 r 130c b03 27038’ to make sure we wouldn't regret it. It took us several minutes to recover from reading the link at the top of the search results.

July 1, 2014

Postal Recycling

“You know what I like about Tuesday?” I said.

“It's not Monday?” the Number One Son responded.

"It's when the junk mail comes."

"Ah. Why didn't I think of that?"

"There's more."

"I can hardly wait."

"It's also when they pick up the recycle."

"Well, there's a mercy."

"Yes, and an efficiency."

June 21, 2014

Characters from Fred: Vernon Crowley

At the beginning of this millennium, I expanded a series of short stories into the Fred books. Jake was in the short stories, but as I fleshed out the story of Living with Fred, I wanted another way into Jake’s story, and Vernon Crowley was born.

In the Texas singer/songwriter tradition there is what I call “the old man” song. I drew my inspiration for Vernon from these two classic songs of the genre.

Desperados Waiting for a Train
Lyrics


Pontiac
Lyrics


A few days after Christmas 2003 I woke up at 3 a.m. and after an hour or so realized I wasn't going to get back to sleep. I sneaked out of bed, into my office, and started writing Living with Fred. I didn't start at the beginning. I wrote the scene where Mark Cloud meets Vernon Crowley.

After a few pages I realized I needed to know a whole lot more about Vernon before I could write him with any degree of authenticity. Months of binge-watching WWII documentaries and devouring a dozen or so books from the library of first-person accounts of the European campaign followed.

I ended up with one of my favorite Fred characters. A few years later I wrote a song of my own, The One That Got Away. It’s the first one in this video.



Who’s your favorite Fred character?

June 7, 2014

Books, Chocolate, and Libations

Chocolate? Well, of course. Who wouldn't?

Robin Hardy, author of countless novels and the one single individual most responsible for me getting published, besides myself, of course, suggested that I join in the conspiracy to link chocolate with books. But that’s not good enough for me. Where there’s chocolate, there’s a libation, so you’re getting more for your money.

Dove Dark Chocolate / Ouled Thaleb Syrah / Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury


Some have linked dark chocolate with dark subjects, but I disagree. It’s bittersweet, and so I link it with Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, the book that springs to my head when I think of bittersweet. I discovered Bradbury in high school and began a lifelong love with his work. You could drop just about any of his books in here—Fahrenheit 451, Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes—but the creamy smoothness of the Dove Dark fits right in with the glorious 1928 summer of Douglas Spaulding in Green Town, Illinois.

Cadbury Milk Chocolate / Jameson Irish Whiskey / The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse


Milk chocolate is less sophisticated and nuanced than dark, but is also excellent when done up right, and that’s where we come to P.G. Wodehouse. There is no pretense with Wodehouse, no hidden meanings, no delving down into the nuance of the human condition. Wodehouse himself said, “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without the music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.” He brings good, clean fun by the lorry loads. And The Mating Season has the most complicated, outrageous plot of the 19 Jeeves books. To go with the milk chocolate, a simple Irish whiskey that adds a kick without getting in the way of the flavor.

A close second would be the Lucia books by E.F. Benson starting with Queen Lucia. I’ve been a fan for over twenty years and have yet to meet another person who has read them. A shame.

Green & Black’s Organic Dark Chocolate 85% / Fresh-ground medium-roast South American coffee black and strong / Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies


If you really want to get down to it with the real stuff, there’s nothing like an 85% cacao. And nothing better to complement it than a rich, strong coffee served black. No need for milk or sugar. The chocolate takes care of all that. So get plenty of both and settle down with the very clever and highly amusing first novel in the Salterton Trilogy. Davies is not so much unappreciated as unknown down here in the lower forty-eight, which is unfortunate because he was a brilliant writer, both of the novel and the essay.

Next week, Lara Resnik, author of The Girl From Long Guyland tackles this weighty problem.

May 20, 2014

The Mugs


A reader expressed an interest in my Rosie the Riveter mug featured in the coffee/microwave video, so I thought I'd share the three go-to coffee mugs I use to claw my way through the mornings.

In order of preference, from left to right:

  1. My favorite. I got this one at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva eight years ago.
  2. A close second. I got this on a visit to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans two years back with my true love, The Woman. 
  3. Like the design, but not the color. Acquired when I attended the Writer's Police Academy last year. 
I also have two preferred mugs for when making tea. They have a prevailing theme, as you can see.

May 14, 2014

Getting a Handle On It



“You know what I like about this microwave?” I said.

“It gets things hot?” the Number One Son responded.

“When you put in a half-cup of coffee and hit the 30-second button, it stops with the handle pointed toward you.”

The microwave beeped three times. I pulled open the door and grabbed the cup. “See?”

The Number One Son shrugged.

“Our last one stopped with the handle pointed toward the back. You had to set it for 22 seconds to get it to stop with the handle pointing out.”

The Number One Son began laughing.

“What?”

“Only you would take the trouble to figure out the exact number of seconds to get the handle pointed out. I mean, who does that?”

“Anybody interested in convenience and efficiency, that’s who.”

Am I right, or am I right?

April 26, 2014

The Open Season Reading Test

TAKE THIS SIMPLE TEST to determine whether you should read Open Season.

What do you do when you read the following sentences?

1. Her brothers had tried to teach her to play pool back in Louisiana, but it was all about angles and she was never good at geography.
  1. Laugh.
  2. Say, “Hey, there’s a typo. I think you meant geometry.”
  3. Look up geography in the dictionary.
2. It wasn't a simple question to answer, not like “How many fingers am I holding up?” or “What’s the square root of two?” and his hesitation left a lull in the conversation into which Zoe leapt.
  1. Laugh.
  2. Say, “Hey, is that a typo? You know the square root of two isn't one, right? It’s not an easy question. Maybe you meant square root of four?”
  3. Say, “The square root of two is 1.414.”
Now score your results.

If you answered A, congratulations, Open Season is the right book for you.
If you answered B, set the book down and back away slowly without making any sudden moves.
If you answered C, further study is required. Read the sample.

April 22, 2014

A Poem a Day


If there's one thing I would recommend to everyone, it's to never give advice.

I used to give advice. Back when I was young and stupid and knew everything. But after watching several disasters flower from people taking my counsel, usually interpreting it in ways I never would have imagined, I swore it off. I could tell you stories, but there are several people who would have to die first, and that's not practical.

The thing is, you never have to explain something you didn't say.

But I'm going to break that vow right now and advise something. Read one poem every day.

It doesn't have to be some serious, stuffy poem. It can be light and fun, like Ogden Nash, or zany and divergent, like Barbara Hamby, or wry and witty like Billy Collins. Or reflective or romantic or whatever suits you. But I do recommend mixing it up.

This is especially good advice for writers, but is also good for anyone who likes to get a fresh perspective every once in a while.

Here's the nice thing. APM and Garrison Keillor have made it easy.

Writer's Almanac

You can go to the website and either read or listen to the five-minute show, which starts with events of note on this day in history and concludes with a poem. Or if you prefer, you can listen to it on a radio station in your area.

If I don't catch it on the air, then I click Listen while I'm eating my Cheerios every day.

March 7, 2014

Behind the Scenes: Postcards from Fred

On my birthday in 2013, as we made a dinner of the lovely happy hour specials at Jack Allen's Kitchen, (bacon-wrapped Texas quail, barbacoa stackers, and smashed guacamole with pumpkin seeds), The Woman and I celebrated the pending release of Endless Vacation. Releasing a novel into the wild is a significant effort and requires acknowledgement via suitable celebrations.

As I told her of my plan to write and release Open Season by October 1, she looked on with unmitigated horror. First off, I have generally taken a year per book, sometimes longer, and she was imagining the state of the household if I tried to do a book from scratch in six months. Second, this was a completely new project in a completely new style, a risk from both creatively and in terms of branding. Third, and probably most important to The Woman, she wanted another Fred book.

And of course, she was not alone in this desire. Many fans had importuned me for an addition to the canon.

The problem was that when Escape from Fred released in 2006, I meant it as the final word on the subject and had no intention of returning to Fred, at least literarily. However, The Woman can be most persuasive, especially during the Jack Allen happy hour specials, and she pulled a zinger out of her bag of tricks.

"What about the postcards?" she asked.

"The postcards?" I replied with a certain sense of incredulity that she would drag out this old chestnut. "We've hashed this out many times. There is just no way to market the postcards."

"But what if you use them in a Fred story?"

Perhaps I should back up and explain. In 1996 I was working 60-hour weeks at three different jobs and still not making ends meet. Then I got a call from out of the blue. A recruiting company from California had seen my resume on the internet (yes, I had my resume on the internet twenty years ago) and offered me a single 40-hour/week job at twice my annual income.

Of course there was a catch. It was limited to a one-year contract and it was in a town 1,000 miles away. I would have to quit my current job, all three of them, and move to another state. At the time my kids were in high school: one a freshman, one a senior. I told the guy it was a tempting offer but I couldn't leave my wife behind to face two teenagers alone for a year. Then I called The Woman and next thing I was packing a suitcase to live as a bachelor for a year.

A month into the gig, reality began to set in for The Woman and I knew I had to do something drastic to keep her out of the psych ward. So I went to the post office, bought a jumbo pack of blank, pre-stamped postcards, and sent her one a day for the rest of the year.


Yes, I sent one postcard every day the mail was delivered for eleven months. Two hundred sixty four cards. Two-hundred sixty four blank cards I had to fill up with something. I started off with the sexy quotes from the Song of Solomon and such, but eventually I ran out of verses and had to create new content. I wrote in my apartment. I wrote in restaurants. I wrote in bars listening to jazz or blues. I wrote on the plane traveling for my monthly weekend home.

The last one arrived in the mail the day after I moved back to Texas. The Woman slid it into the album she had acquired for the purpose and at last she had the full set.

Yes, those postcards. They were the ones of which she spoke, attempting to seduce me into writing another Fred book. I cogitated on it for a while and came up with a plan. What if I wrote a series of short stories in which Mark Cloud solved the relationship problems of himself and others by ghostwriting postcards? It could work. And I'd wanted to write some short stories anyway.

So I mixed up my first-draft magic potion, went out on the deck, set the iPod to play Led Zeppelin I-IV over and over, and began. When I hit 20,000 words I realized I was out of short story territory and decided it would be a novella. When I hit 40,000 words I realized that I wasn't going to achieve my dream of writing short stories, or even novellas. All I needed was another 30-35K words and I’d have a novel. And so it was.

I used many of the original cards written back in the nineties, and also wrote new poems as the plot required. And it turned out to be the best Fred book ever. Of course, given I wrote it ten years after the first Fred book came out, it would have been unfortunate if it was the worst Fred book ever. I mean, I’d like to think I've learned a few more things about writing novels in the last ten years.

So, there you go. That’s the story of how, after seven years, the fourth Fred book came to be. And also the story of the postcards.

By the way, if you sign up for the BradNotes newsletter and send me an email with your snail-mail address, I'll send you an actual postcard postmarked from Fred. What's not to like?