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?

March 2, 2014

On Religious Bullies

Not long ago a stranger sent me this email, which I have anonymized as a courtesy to the sender. These things happen when you have the nerve to publish and make your thoughts available to the world.
Hello Brad,
This is R—. I have a brother named Brad so the name is familiar and I feel like I know you somewhat.
I recently ordered your book from Amazon, “What would Jesus drink?” I have read it.
Before I read it, as well as after, I looked at the outside of the book. and wondered why a Christian, a born-again believer, would be identifying himself with Jack Kerrouac [sic] and James Taylor. I was raised in Californina [sic], was a ¨hippie¨, a beach bum, etc. and am familiar with these men as well as others. I am 67 years old and a Vietnam veteran etc. Not a big deal, just experience I suppose.
I do want to say that if and since you are consuming alcohol you are participating in what this world system loves, adores, and even worships. Are you participating in what the world system produces on a grand, no immense scale and which, as first mention in the scriptures, the shame of Noah and one of his sons and their generations to come. First mention is very important as you surely well know.
Question for you Brad. Are you a member of a local independent church that is non-sacramental, and believes the Bible. By that I mean, not an Episcopal church, (I was raised Episcopal), nor Catholic, nor Luthern [sic] etc. Just wondering.
Thanks for reading this .
R— B—
Missionary to [a place]
Although, as I readily admit in the book, I make no claim to be a Bible scholar, it was because of messages like this one, often delivered through sermons from the pulpit, that back in 1996 I sat down to do the research on this topic, much in the spirit of the Bereans (Acts 17:11) who examined the scriptures to see if what Paul had preached to them was true. As a protestant, I am of the opinion that every believer can, and should, go directly to the source rather than be forced to rely on some religious hierarchy to tell them what to think.

I undertook this project not to defend a preconceived position but to find out what the Bible really said about alcohol. And I was fully ready and willing to accept whatever I found, pro or con, and live by it.

To that end, I ferreted out all 247 verses in the Bible that mention wine and strong drink and read them in context to make sure I understood what was actually being said. Up to that point I had heard many opinions on all sides of the issue, but I was not satisfied with hearsay. I spent several months reading and compiling the results.

The truth is that I had a sneaking suspicion that, despite appeals to scripture on both sides, much of what I heard was not scriptural but man’s opinion and personal experience. Based on my findings, I wrote an essay that found a wide audience on the internet, and in 2011 I expanded the essay to a short book called “What Would Jesus Drink?” It’s a quick read because I wrote it for regular Joes like me, not for theologians.

Despite my suspicions, I was surprised at the overwhelming clarity of the message I discovered. I won’t rewrite the whole book here because this post is not so much about what the Bible says about alcohol as it is about something else that has been around for a long time and that has been more at the forefront of my awareness since 2011. That thing is religious bullying.

While I have no doubt that the author of the email is completely sincere and believes that he approached me with the purest of motives, his email evinces several tactics of the religious bully. A natural-born manipulator will use them, probably without realizing it much of the time.

Perhaps I should first define what I mean by a religious bully.

A religious bully engages a person, whether in his/her local fellowship or a complete stranger, to attempt to enforce a personal view upon this person, all under the guise of spiritual maturity.

The engagement is not an attempt to come to a broader view of what the Bible says, not to understand the view of the other person, but rather to impose the view of the bully on the other person. And in most cases, this view is in reference to some peripheral, subjective opinion that is not part of the essential elements of Christianity. (Rather than define what those elements might be, I refer you to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis or Classic Christianity by Bob George or, for those who want the reader’s digest version, the Nicene Creed.)

With that in mind, let’s take a look at this email from R.B. First, he starts off by asserting that because I share a name with a member of his family, he somehow feels like he knows me. Somewhat. As if a relative of Charles Spurgeon might feel like he knew Charles Manson. Somewhat, at least. We’re only one sentence in and already words fail me in my attempts to point out the absurdity of that claim.

Next we get the “guilt by association” argument, as he is evidently at a loss to explain why I, a writer, would mention that I share a birthday with two highly talented and successful writers of the twentieth century. Instead he implies that because they were “hippies,” or in the case of Kerouac, the seminal beat writer who popularized the term, their ungodly ways disqualify them as a reference point for a writer who is a Christian. Notice that so far he is working in the realm of inference and implication, not scriptural authority. This is a classic tactic of a bully, whether religious or otherwise.

Then he plays the Vietnam vet card and as quickly discounts it. If it really is irrelevant, why mention it? Another bully tactic, to create the impression of authority via specious credentials.

Next, another guilt-by-association salvo, equating a glass of wine with endorsing the “world system.” This is actually two-for-one because he uses that nice evangelical code word, the “world system.” Very handy, that one. A nice catchall for whatever one wants to demonize.

Then he plays the “first mention” card, which “is very important as you surely well know.” Quite to the contrary, not only do I not “surely well know” that it is important, the law of first mention is an arbitrary and entirely unreliable “law” or “rule” of hermeneutics, as a little study and common sense tells us. And if that isn't enough, a simple search will provide ample evidence to the contrary. But it does come in handy for lending a veneer of authority to a pet position.

Finally, R.B. poses a leading question in the hopes that I will answer. The thing is, no matter how I answer, he will have a ready argument with which to beat me down. Because R.B. is not looking for a true dialog. In fact, of the entire email, the only sentences that are not blatant attempts at manipulation are the two sentences in the second paragraph, which are a mere statement of fact that the bought the book and read it.

R.B. is not wanting to understand and consider the validity my conclusions based on research. Since he told me he has read the book, he already knows my conclusions. So why is he emailing me?

What R.B. wants is to intimidate and browbeat me into submission, to enforce upon me his personal view on a non-essential, peripheral detail of doctrine. He’s made that very clear in every sentence of the unsolicited email he sent to me, a total stranger.

R.B. isn't seeking to understand my perspective, to find out what I think and why.

The reality is that he doesn't care what I think about this topic. And the reverse is also true. I don’t care what R.B. thinks about this topic. However, our reasons are quite different.

R.B. doesn't care what I think because, in his view, what I think is wrong if it is different from what he thinks, and he can’t let that difference stand. He’s zealous enough to engage me, a complete stranger, in an attempt to intimidate me into changing my mind.

And I don’t care what R.B. thinks because a position on alcohol is not a core element of the gospel. I’m perfectly content to let R.B. think whatever he wants to think about it without condemning him as “participating in . . . this world system” or trying to coerce him into recanting his position and adopting mine. (I also don’t go around trying to turn vegans into carnivores.)

If R.B. wants to abstain, I heartily support him in that view. Just as long as he doesn't pretend that he has any scriptural authority to enforce his view on others. The truth is that, according to scripture, the fact that he sees sin where scripture does not places him closer to the weak-in-faith end of the spectrum than to the strong-in-faith end. Where’s the authority in that?

What I am not fine with is R.B., or anyone else, attempting to bully people into conformity to his legalistic rules about whatever non-essential matters of faith he has decided we all need to submit to.

As Augustine said, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." Although Augustine of Hippo might not be non-sacramental and Bible-believing enough for R.B.

And that’s why I wrote “What Would Jesus Drink?” Not because I think everyone should start drinking wine, but because everyone should make up their own minds on the subject based on the actual scriptures, and let others come to their own conclusions without mounting a crusade to convert them to another view.

Jesus opposed the religious bullies of his day and only went along with their nonsense when it coincided with the plan of the gospel.

If you’re going to submit to something, submit to scripture, not to bullies.


True to bully form, R.B. could not let it rest. After four months without a response, he sent a second salvo in his assault on my view on this peripheral issue. That's a hallmark of a bully. An opposing view cannot be allowed to stand.

No matter that there are over a dozen books on Amazon on this subject, all of which agree with him. No, there is one book that offers a different viewpoint, and it cannot be allowed to exist unchallenged.

In the marketplace of ideas, there should be only one shop. None of this open discussion of ideas and let each make up their own mind.

This new note is more than twice as long as the first. He opens with the same "my brother's name is Brad" approach, and then immediately fires all guns with this choice paragraph.
I want to tell you that you sir, are unwise. That is a strong word in the Bible. Your book ¨What the Bible says about alcohol.¨ reveals what you are. What is that? Well, the name of your publisher Wunderfool Press describes you and your book.
He also played the Vietnam vet card again, and indulged in a host of other transparent bully tactics, but I won't belabor the point by enumerating them all. You get the point. But I will use his P.S. as a final illustration of the type.

In reaction to my FB page tag line
Serious novelist, casual musician, amateur hermit
he writes
Are true believers hermits?

Lack of a sense of humor is another mark of a religious bully, often combined with a dogged insistence on applying religious or spiritual interpretation to even the most casual utterance or action in an attempt to guilt the victim into submission.

I leave you with the same exhortation: If you’re going to submit to something, submit to scripture, not to bullies.

March 1, 2014

Harry Bosch

Turns out Amazon Instant Video has finally released the pilot of Bosch, a proposed serial with Michael Connelly's fingerprints all over it.You should go watch it, and then rate it highly so we can see more.

In celebration, I provide an index of all the Connelly books that I have reviewed in the past. The first few are brief, but as I go along I wax more poetic.

Harry Bosch novels

The Black Echo
The Black Ice
The Concrete Blonde
The Last Coyote
Trunk Music
Angel's Flight
A Darkness More than Night
City of Bones
Lost Light
The Narrows
The Closers
Echo Park
The Overlook
The Brass Verdict
9 Dragons
The Reversal

Other novels

The Poet
Blood Work
Void Moon
The Lincoln Lawyer
The Scarecrow
The Fifth Witness