James Sallis: The Killer Is Dying–masterpiece

Nowadays, I pick up a book with only one question in mind:  will it get me to write?  That means the book not only has to entertain but inspire, not only delight but instruct.  I have to put it down and immediately jump on the big black stallion of fiction—that terrifying apparition of the netherworld, glistening with foaming sweat and angry with flaring nostrils.

So, I picked James Sallis for reasons that would have never motivated me if I were reading solely for pleasure. First, a friend who had never actually read him had heard he was pretty good. Second, the book was thin.  I needed a sense of accomplishment.  After just reading a long book, I wanted a quick finish.  In other words, I was thinking like an elementary school kid, not like the lord of the underworld on a sleek, black steed.



But James Sallis is an amazing writer—he’s a real horseman–who straddles the line between experimental and genre fiction.  The story is split between a series of disjointed third person narrators—a boy abandoned by his folks; a hired killer whose victim has been offed before he could do the job; a detective, at the end of a marriage.  None of these figures ever meet.  But their stories intertwine in a way that is riveting.

There are many elements of conventional fiction that are missing in this semi-experimental narrative.  There is really no conventional whodunit mystery.  There is no linear plot.  There is no interaction between major characters.  What makes you keep reading is the intense voice of the narration.  There is an urgency in the voice.

Writers of genre fiction are often not thought to think deeply about fiction:  they are not self-reflexive—the technical term for ruminations about the nature of form, which makes its way into the story’s structure.  But in Sallis, we see this is not true.  Here is moment of reflection by the victim immediately after he escapes the hospital:

In early youth he’d read a lot of fiction.  Novels like Treasure Island and the Tom Swift books, short stories published by the dozen in magazines back then, Redbook, Argosy, Boy’s Life.  Over time it came to him that most fiction, maybe all of it, from the grandest tales to the most commonplace, was about things that were missing.  Family, lovers, sustenance, peace, ideals.  At the heart of all those stories were emptinesses, yearnings, hollows that couldn’t be filled—as though bereavement were hardwired into mankind.”  (136 The Killer Is Dying)

You know what’s not missing from James Sallis’s story?  The ring of truth, the wisdom of philosophy, the excitement of good reading.  Tallyho.



Continuity: The Dream of Scrivener



I’ve been dreaming about this software—Scrivener:  vivid dreams of us intertwined in the sands of a beach with pounding waves: the sky is blue; our limbs, entangled. “Scrivener,” I say.  “You are the answer to my prayers.”  We feel the heat of our passionate soul kiss, which keeps the coldness of the ocean at bay.  White sand—virginal—lies everywhere…except the delicate, tender flesh of our private parts.


Scrivener is a writing software that allows you to organize your novel—or many other writing projects—spatially.  There’s a digital corkboard with little flash cards on which you place synopses of the major plot elements.  Each flash card represents a chapter.  Click one and the individual chapter pops up.  Rearrange the cards; the plot—including all the writing–will rearrange itself, too.  How easy is that?


I’m midway through my novel (yeah!).   And now the crazy, hairy disorganization is starting to set in, so Scrivener is always on my mind.  Many years ago, I had dinner with this writer who penned a book called Neatness Counts, which argues that so much of the craft of writing is about organization.   If your desk is a mess, so is your novel.  If your file folders have no system, neither does that staggering work of heartbreaking genius.

Right now, I use real index cards that I lay out in sequential order.  Then, I write whatever catches my fancy that day, which means everything is out of order.  Writing out of order has advantages over writing sequentially:

1)  it allows you to get your most inspired writing in

2)  it prevents the block which results from writing from A to B to C

3)  if you’re stuck going from B to C, you can just skip to Z

The drawback of this “system” is disorganization.  If you have so many little pieces, you’re bound to have a crisis.  You have to try extra hard to not let the disorganization get overwhelming.  I didn’t care because, for a while, I could keep everything straight in my head.  It was preliminary stage back then.  Now, it’s not so easy.  Like I said, I’m midway through the novel.  Things are getting ugly.

I just spent a good hour organizing the file folder on my computer.   I even compiled a list of things that I’ve finished, which is the only way I know I’m midway through the novel (yeah!).  I spent so much time, poring through my note cards, obsessively collating and re-collating.  You know:  actual note cards get into a big mess if a certain cat decides to roll around on them.  Digital cards stay forever neat.

Index cards seem kind of boring—like that wife who sits around in the kitchen drinking coffee in her robe and slippers, her hair a god-awful, untidy nest.  Scrivener looks better and better every day with its tight little beach body and golden tan like freshly baked buttery bread.  And as I think of Scrivener’s luscious thighs, I really do often wonder that if I rely on technology, it might give me permission to forget the story.  Writers need to obsessively go over and over the story and, so often, technology allows us to shelve things; otherwise, the story can’t live inside my head.  This is the only thing that is keeping me from cheating on my cards and running off to that beach for the ephemeral pleasures of smooches that, no doubt, will shatter a long, strong marriage.


Alcoholics Anonymous

So, I’ve been attending these meetings for an organization that helps people recover from their addictions using a proven twelve-step method.  I’m not allowed to name it–the by-laws say that disclosure of any sort is forbidden.  As a writer, I want to maintain a level of integrity, a standard of confidentiality and ethics, in whatever I do.  So, in the interest of discretion, I will just refer to it simply by its initials:  AA.

Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t have a problem.  But I have a friend who has a problem.  He still has a problem and according to the tenets of AA, this problem will never go away unless he puts himself at the mercy of a higher authority and recognizes his absolute powerlessness before alcohol.  This is the first step in the twelve steps:  this basic recognition.  And my friend now has made it through four more.  So, I’ve been going to these meetings with him as moral support.  I don’t go all the time.  Just sometimes.  I suspect that he believes I’m an alcoholic, just like him (which most assuredly I’m not; I’m a social drinker—that’s all), so he keeps inviting me to tag along.

There’s a research dimension to what I’m doing.  In another blog, I mentioned that I helped my friend out during his attempted suicide (on a beach with a box cutter) and his month-long institutionalization (where I kinda became popular among the nursing staff) and then throughout his yearlong odyssey through rehab and sober-living facilities (where he lived separated from his wife, among men who were all grappling with their addictions).  I’m not going to recap it but if you are interested in more in depth explanation, you can find it somewhere among my blog posts.

box cutter image

The capper is that, I ended up writing a novel about an alcoholic Vietnamese American detective.  It will be the first ever Vietnamese American Detective Novel with the first ever Vietnamese American detective, written by a Vietnamese American writer.

Phew.  That’s a lot of firsts.  So I knew:  I had to get things right.  I couldn’t do anything half-assed.  So, even after my friend was well on his way to attending meetings alone—without a mother hen around—I kept on tagging along.  Sure, it’s kind of uncomfortable at first when they go around the room and everyone says that they’re an alcoholic…and then it’s your turn.

Writer’s Guilt

Here’s the stock advice for a long and happy career:  write every day.  If you write every day, even a little bit, you’ll end up with a lot.  Some of the most prolific writers of our time have written only one page a day.  Others, just three.  Phillip Roth mentioned that a good day for him was five.  It adds up over time.  In this way, writers are not unlike obese people:  it’s not the binge eater that gets grossly overweight; it’s the slow and steady snacker of Snickers, Oreos and KFC.  Those people get mega-behemoth.


With this Detective Novel, I was well on my way to splendid, shimmering fatness.  On good days, I was writing seven double spaced pages a day; on bad days, just two.  But I was writing every day no matter what.  It was wonderful to feel my belly of writing extend and form into a pot you could cup in your hand.  The budding breasts, the double chin, the incipient stretch marks—those were all things I desired for my body of work:  my corpus.  Every day, in every way, I’m getting fatter:  this was my mantra.


Then Memorial Day happened.  And I was determined to be good:  I wrote that day before the barbecue.  But after that meal…I slid down hill.  I gave myself the next day off.  Everybody deserves the day after Memorial Day off, right?  I used that day for movie watching and leftovers.

Then, I gave myself Wednesday off.  After all, Wednesday is still part of the Memorial Day Weekend.  I used that day for movie watching and leftovers.

And Thursday, I realized that I was at a crossroads:  I could stop the insanity and start writing and possibly end up with a big fat book.  Or I could continue down this other path, with a big fat stomach.  Guess what route I chose?