Sunday, May 24, 2015


Ben Boulden, who maintains several thoughtful blogs that are largely devoted to genre fiction such as westerns and mysteries, has read and reviewed my 2010 novel about John Charles Fremont, Snowbound. It is the finest, most discerning review, the novel has received, and I am honored by his interest.

Here it is:

Thursday, May 21, 2015

All For the Good

I've been busy putting my mystery, The Homicidal Saint, into a self-published print edition as well as in two more electronic editions. It is hard and confusing work.

These Lieutenant Joe Sonntag novels, written under my pseudonym Axel Brand, have been a late-life experiment for me. They are set in Milwaukee in the middle of the 20th century, mostly during the Truman presidency. I was growing up there, and the details have flooded back as I write. Milwaukee was a great industrial city, with labor strife, a lot of hard-working people who took streetcars to work, and a lot of first and second-generation people, mostly from eastern Europe.

I became interested in writing about laboring people, their daily toil, their low wages, their hard rides to the factories, but also their happier moments in the neighborhood taverns. I am also interested in one of the questions that occupy theologians and philosophers: why do people do such evil in the name of something good? Why did they take Joan of Arc, tie her to a stake, and burn her to death in the name of religion?

I have no answers, but I make that the occupation of my two principal characters, Joe Sonntag, and Frank Silva. Milwaukee is the place to look for answers to that; a place with a socialist mayor, and bitter labor strife.

The first two of these novels were published by Five Star and got fine reviews. But the world changes, and I've published three more on my own, as print and electronic editions. They'll sell a few copies, but no more than that. But they have become an old-age preoccupation for me, and keep me going, and asking questions, day by day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Social Godsend

Investigative journalism may well be the highest calling a young person can enter. It requires skills and background possessed by only a handful of people. A good investigative reporter needs a solid background in literature and art, in languages, science, philosophy, math, comparative religion, and psychology. And that is just for starters.

In a world increasingly secretive, good investigative reporters are the only remaining line of defense, the only shepherds of public wellbeing. Bureaucrats don't talk about their work or purposes; private businesses are largely silent, except for their usual propaganda. Nations and governments talk about everything except what they're really doing. Spy agencies pretend they are not invading civil liberties.

The only people arrayed against these players in a complex world are reporters who have a personal mission to bring to daylight the things carefully hidden away. That requires skills, especially the ability to cultivate sources. Without friendship and empathy, an investigative reporter will get nowhere, and crack no walls or expose no scoundrels. Without courage and daring, or a willingness to risk life, such a reporter will never enter the lists and take a hard look at the world's secrets.

I sometimes think that the only thing standing between my liberties and private life and security is the phalanx of good journalists who can't be bought and spend long, hard days quietly collecting evidence of mismanagement or malice or abuse. They die for it. They die in Russia and the Near East with shocking regularity.

Not even the death of papers slows them down. The internet is an open forum that will amplify the news, no matter how much censorship is imposed on the media.

I started life as a reporter, with dreams such as these, but lacked the traits and character to do the job right. I was too much the quiet wordsmith, and not enough the thoughtful outgoing person who develops key sources within bureaucracies or managements, sources who can point to gross evils.

I ended up a novelist, which is much easier. Any half-inventive simpleton can be  a novelist, and a lot of us try. Most of us end up self-publishing and selling five or ten books a year in an e-book format. If all the novelists on earth were to vanish tomorrow, there would be no great loss or social shock. But if the investigative reporters were rounded up and hauled away, that would be the beginning of disaster.

Monday, May 18, 2015


I recollect reading a review years ago in which the distinguished reviewer, with some acerbity, lamented that the book under consideration read like an MFA thesis about a dysfunctional family. He was pointing not only toward triteness, but toward a fad.

The first thing that writing instructors tell a student is to write about what he or she knows. Since most of them haven't yet lived or suffered, they write about their families and all the troubles that arise in most homes. The topic is universal enough so that plenty of people, also with wounded families, ended up reading such novels.

These fads shift from time to time. Just now the  fiction fad is to write about people who are disabled in some way, through autism or any of the diseases or disorders or social maladies that evolve in younger people. Suddenly everyone wants a novel with such wounded people at the heart of it. A few years from now, something else will take center stage. Given the lack of employment prospects for many young people, I suspect that the next fad will involve central characters who not only can't find work, but probably don't want to, and suffer esteem issues as well as financial ones. But who knows? The next literary fad might involve far away places with strange-sounding names, as the old song goes.

Fads are two-way avenues. If the author strikes the right note, he or she will find readers galore who have been wrestling with the same tribulations, and that happy conjunction of reader and author can make an author very rich, at least for a while, until the next fad rolls in and other authors latch onto it. 

It was my good fortune not to start writing fiction until the middle of my life; the result was that I had lived in a variety of places, engaged in various sorts of work, even horse wrangling at a dude ranch, and had suffered loss in marriage, employment, and various social situations.

But my early novels were not only about what I knew but what I didn't; they involved research, interviews, trips to the sites I would write about, and some imagination, too. I've come to believe that fiction is not just about what an author knows, but what he can find out, and how it all fits into the view of the world that is evolving within him.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


When I was young, movies usually opened with great fanfare that touted the studio as well as the film. Who could forget the Fox arc lights, or the Paramount mountain, or the MGM lion? Then it was up to the composer to set the theme for the film, and fortunately the studios did not lack the talent to do just that.

One of the finest was Dimitri Tiomkin, who generated the themes for one great film after another. Here is his memorable theme for a powerful film, The High and the Mighty, a theme that still haunts me and has ever since it was introduced in 1954:

But as we entered the 1960s, things changed. Younger generations didn't care for the grandeur or the fanfare that opened films, and chose instead more intimate openings, sometimes with nothing more than a singer and a guitar, and quiet, swift credits leading into the story. Each generation matures with its own musical favorites. The younger people argued that the grand openings were not always appropriate to the more intimate way of telling stories on celluloid, and perhaps they were right. I grew used to, and accepted, the new ways of opening a story, though in my heart of hearts, I preferred the older ways, when the studio was letting the world know of the importance of a film, and the themes that would come to haunt viewers.

The more intimate introductions won, but they are not always appropriate either, and don't belong at the forefront of an ambitious film. So, it's a generational problem. I would have hated to see Gone With the Wind introduced with a solo voice and a guitar. It is the largest and saddest story ever put on film, and composer Max Steiner had the enormous task of writing a theme that would catch the catastrophe befalling the characters, the loss of everything, including an entire way of life, all sinking into an uncertain and hard future. The result was Tara's Theme, which exuded sadness in every phrase, a sigh heaped on a sigh, over and over, making the theme the bleakest, and yet most beautiful, music ever to usher in a film. 

Here is Tara's Theme, perhaps the most haunting music ever to open a film, and a work of genius:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Oldest Profession

Storytelling is the oldest profession. It goes back through the mists of time to our beginnings, to the period when we were separating ourselves from the apes. Storytelling was the ladder by which we climbed into divinity-- that is, into intelligence.

Storytelling served a variety of needs and had several purposes. It instructed. It comforted. It posed examples. It celebrated such virtues as courage and loyalty. Stories were the school system of early mankind, long before there were schools. Storytelling was also the foundation of religion. That is why storytellers are shamans or priests or priestesses. When you examine the Bible, what do you see? Parables, which are stories told for instructive purposes.

I've been reading a lot about the death of storytelling, the demise of fiction. I don't believe storytelling is dying at all, though it is possible it is shifting more and more to visual stories seen on a screen. Written fiction may or may not be declining, but storytelling itself is not declining. Stories serve the same purposes now as they did from the dawn of mankind.

If fiction is in decline, that is largely the fault of the authors, or creators, of that fiction. I often see stories that are bereft of the underlying purpose embedded in fiction; stories that make no moral distinction between the protagonist and antagonists. In a way, these cease to be stories at all, because stories always contain some quality, or purpose, that wins the attention of readers. If there is nothing about a hero or heroine that compels a reader's loyalty or attention, then what the reader is seeing is not a story at all. Nor is it really fiction.

Bad writers make bad fiction. In one of my writing fields, western fiction, a lot of damage has been done by writers who do not distinguish protagonists from antagonists. I'll start reading a western story and suddenly stop: Who cares? If the world is indifferent to novelists now, there probably is good reason for it. But that is an opportunity for newcomers, who know what lies at the heart of storytelling, to make their mark and bring us fresh stories.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Fiction We Don't See

How long has it been since you've read a novel that follows the lives of its central characters from childhood through maturity to death? I suspect you have not read any such novel in many years.

How long has it been since you read a novel that begins with midlife crisis, and follows through to the death of the central characters, with the story showing how those crises affected the characters the rest of their lives? It's not likely that you have read any of these either.

How long has it been since you've read a multigenerational novel, perhaps about a single family, that follows that family through decades if not centuries? The Thorn Birds is a fine example. And so are the novels of James Clavell, such as Tai-Pan, Noble House, and Shogun. You would have a hard time finding any such novels being published now.

My point is that there are vast areas of fiction that have been abandoned, and we readers (as well as novelists) are prisoners of the vogue for writing stories that are imitation films. Those who lament that modern fiction has become sterile and pallid are right, but only because we who write and read stories have voluntarily made ourselves prisoners of modern literary fashion.

If any young author would like to bring a fresh perspective to literature, he or she would do well to pitch out the shopworn messages of the gurus, and restore fiction to its innate grandeur.