About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

Down the Road

Photo by Sam Filip for Al Thumz Photography

I turn 70 in September. That is the plan, though I am aware that man plans and God laughs. That aside, there is no question that I have fewer miles in front of me than I do in the rearview and less time to traverse them. I am at the same time mindful that I still have a number of things to check off the “to-do list” and want to make time to do that. I accordingly have decided that this will be my last regular post at this wonderful place.

I assure you that the decision to stop contributing has not come easily. This moment nonetheless seems like a good time to make some changes. The thought of meeting deadlines and obligations  — even for things that I enjoy, like this blog — isn’t a good fit for me at this stage. It additionally feels as if it is time for my next act, and I want to end the current one on a high note (or at least a medium one).  I am also retiring from most of my professional activities, other than for writing.   I will continue to keep busy, but busy doing other things. Everything is on the table. You may even hear of some of them in other contexts and places. 

I’ve gotten to hang with the cool kids here at TKZ for over a decade. They are each and all wonderful, terrific, and enormously talented people who give, give, and give. It’s been a privilege to know them and be here with them. I’ve certainly become smarter by reading their contributions every morning while at the same time attempting mightily every other weekend to not embarrass myself in their or your presence. I won’t miss them because I will continue to read their contributions every day, as I do now. I’ll be commenting frequently too. I won’t be completely gone until I’m, uh, completely gone, which hopefully won’t be for another fifty years or so.

And you out there…I hope I have imparted something useful to you over the course of the past ten years or so.  I’ve made a number of dear and wonderful friends here. Some of them are no longer on this side of the veil. Many of them are still here and I want/hope to stay in touch with them. You will continue to see Dr. Steve Hooley —  speaking of friends, I could not ask for a better one — on alternate Saturdays. As for what I have come to regard as “my” Saturdays, the baton is being passed to  Reavis Z. Wortham who, commencing on Saturday, July 10, 2021, will be filling this spot on alternate Saturdays.  Rev is amazing. He writes a historical mystery series set in Northeast Texas during the 1960s and counts C.J. Box and Joe R. Lansdale among his many fans. It doesn’t get any better than that. Rev is an author’s author who, I assure you, will have you forgetting all about me within a month. 

That’s me for today. Let me leave you with a music video that seems appropriate. Be well. Keep reading, writing, and doing what you love. And thank you so much for everything. You’re the best.

Photo by Sam Filip for Al Thumz Photography


Get Thee to a Party

Photo by Tyler Rutherford from unsplash.com

 I have a quick fix if you are out of dialogue ideas and/or characterization elements.

Go to a party. 

That would have been hard advice to follow a few months ago but the genie is out of the bottle now. Folks are throwing soirees for all sorts of reasons. There are mask-burning gatherings, graduation parties, birthday celebrations, and all sorts of other gatherings. No matter how social-adverse you are (and I’m in the redline there, I assure you. I just fake sociability. For awhile.) someone is going to invite you to a gathering somewhere. Go. Observe. Listen. Heck, with graduation parties you can just follow the signs and balloons and enter, whether you are invited or not. 

Photo by NIPYATA! from unsplash.com

I went to a graduation party last weekend for a young woman I have known for many years who has finished high school. She is part of one of the best families I have the pleasure to know. Each and every member of the clan is instantly memorable, for different reasons. . We live in the same city in a similar neighborhood. Their home is wonderful. It puts mine to shame. I have a backyard. THEY have a nature preserve.  It has a small barn with a fenced-in corral in which a mini-pony cavorts and takes apple slices from your hand while trying (though not too hard) to avoid stepping on a couple of Flemish rabbits that hop around while merrily depositing chocolate chips, or something like them. There is a separate chicken coop next to the corral, where a rooster and a few chickens warily eye a calico cat who wanders about gazing wistfully through the chicken wire at them (Buddy…I know how you feel). It’s all wonderfully maintained and beautiful. One could spend hours there, just watching.

Photo by Levi Guzman from unsplash.com

It is the family’s friends, however, who received the primary focus of my concentration last week. Imagine if the characters of Twin Peaks and Fargo came together for a party, all knew each other, and were benevolent, without a woodchipper in sight. That’s what it was like. I wandered about, aurally dipping into conversations and taking mental notes. I occasionally noticed individuals sitting more or less alone. I beelined over. If people are sitting alone for no apparent reason there is probably a very good one that will eventually manifest itself. You should find out what it is without directly asking. I always check to make sure that there is not a mechanism labeled “Point in Direction of Enemy” within their reach before I fully approach and strike up a conversation point like, “Pretty good ice cream, isn’t it?” 

They are going to say something

It might be anything from “No” to “That isn’t ice cream. I had an accident” to 

“Well, it was okay, but we had this Isaly’s in Wadsworth when I was growing up and my dad had just left us and the waitress knew the story and would give us a little extra because it was tough on my mom and everyone knew we didn’t have much and we’d get lunch for free sometimes too but what nobody knew was that Mom ran the Pain Clinic on Medina Street and was making money hand over fist but it was all in cash so we had to be careful, hee heh!”

Now…I did not have that conversation. I did, however, have one with an elderly-looking gentleman (who was actually younger than I am) who appeared unapproachable at first but quickly warmed up when we found a bit of common ground. He noticed the guitar pin on the Santana Mohican fedora I was wearing. It seemed he had played guitar for some time before turning to truck driving. My response to the truck driving information was, “You probably have driven more miles backwards than most folks drive forwards.” He liked that and proceeded to tell me all sorts of stories that were easy to remember because they were extremely interesting and for the most part probably true. I also encountered an individual who I have not seen for awhile and who I am convinced will develop notoriety as a serial murderer within the next five years. He may have started already and just hasn’t been caught yet. That is an entirely different story for another time. 

Circling back…I finished up my conversation with my new friend, said goodbye to my hosts and the guest of honor, and then sat in my car for several minutes while I recorded everything that I could remember of what I had heard and seen (yay, Easy Voice Recorder app!).  Everything, because that which might seem inconsequential and uninteresting on a Sunday afternoon might be of use the following Wednesday, in the same way that one might dual-purpose a screwdriver handle for a hammer, or use a party in general for a TKZ topic. 

Photo by Dallas Reedy from unsplash.com

I hope that your current weekend is as good as the one I had last week. In the meanwhile…have you ever overheard a conversation that developed into dialogue within your work-in-progress or provided inspiration for a new work? If so, where did it happen? Thanks in advance. 

Photo by Hedi Alija from unsplash.com

But wait, there’s more! I would be sorely remiss if I failed to note that TKZ’s Elaine Viets is named on the cover of the new Mystery Scene magazine (Number 168, Summer 2021) and contributes the article “My Book: Death Grip,” in which she discusses her new novel and dive bars. Congratulations all around, Elaine!


The Unintentional Writer

Photo by Kasper Rasmussen on unsplash.com

I have received some correspondence recently to the effect that TKZ has some regular visitors who are not necessarily interested in becoming authors themselves.  They stop by because they are interested in how authors engage in the process by which writing is done. They have no inclination towards writing, let alone publishing a story. Think of folks who like to eat but who have no inclination toward cooking. This is aimed at those who enjoy literary feasts but have no inclination toward stirring the pot, though the Emerils in the audience may find it interesting as well. 

Our own Jim Bell contributed a deep but highly accessible piece the Sunday last titled “Advice for the Demoralized Writer.” It contains terrific advice which is applicable to all regardless of occupation but the crux of it is to do your very, very best while sublimating your expectations of awards or recognition. If your efforts garner such you will be pleasantly surprised. If not, you won’t be disappointed. I am going to take that advice a step further while aiming it in a different direction.

My suggestion is to write every day. That is not new or original advice. I am offering it particularly, however, to those of you who have no intention of or inclination toward starting or completing a story or having it revealed in the harsh light of day. Writing something every day because you want to, instead of when you have to, is good for you. I truly believe that writing regardless of length or motive makes one smarter — whatever that is — and yes, happier. Writing even one sentence of a few words per day enables you, the unintentional writer, to say, “I wrote this.” It may not give you an adrenaline rush but I submit to you that it will produce, at the least, a drop of it in your cup. It’s the difference between doing an action because you are required to (for reasons from within or without) and doing it because you want to. It can crack the ice that freezes your thinking, whether you write on a post-it, a computer, or your hand. It is an activity that you can do without prompting, or the desire of future reward, other than that occasioned by performing the act itself. I have mentioned this before, but the television series Miami Vice was born as the result of two words handwritten on a piece of paper. The words were “MTV cops.” Your results may differ. That’s the point. There are those who may keep a diary or journal for a similar reason. What I propose is not as involved. 

This post is but one example of “wanting to” as opposed to “being compelled to.” I started this post with one sentence, though it is not the introductory sentence that you see above. I wrote a few words to get rolling and then took off, as John Coltrane said, in both directions at once. It was because I wanted to. “The Kill Zone” name notwithstanding, no one here writes with a gun to their head. We are all here because we want to be, whether to write or to read what is written. 

Now we present below an example of some writing that a six-year-old miscreant was compelled to do as a classroom punishment in the closing days of first grade. History has not recorded what the lad did over sixty years ago to earn this assignment. If rehabilitation was the purpose please rest assured that the effort failed miserably.  It is a wonder that he ever took pen(cil) to paper again voluntarily, but he did occasionally and still does.

Photo by Al Thumbs Photography. All rights reserved.

Try what I suggest and see what happens. At worst you will have wasted a few seconds. At best, it could be the start of something big. As with most things, the end result may be somewhere in the middle. Don’t worry about that. This is a worry-free activity for enjoyment as opposed to production. Just put a few words down for the fun of it. You might be surprised.  

Actually, let’s try it right now. Seven words or less. Go! Here’s mine:

“He wondered where the painter was.” 

Have a relaxing Memorial Day. While you do so, please remember the reason for the season. Thank you. 

Photo by Justin Casey on unsplash.com


Falling but Not Failing

Image (c) Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

A novel titled Falling is scheduled to be published on July 6, 2021. There has been quite a bit of pre-publication chatter about it. Many are calling it the beach-read for this year. The truth of that declaration is way above my paygrade but I have read it and suspect that beach-read or not, many other people will read it this summer as well.

Falling has a terrific plot and is well-written, two parts of a creative equation that are not always present at the same time. Falling concerns an airline pilot whose family is taken hostage by an enigmatic individual while the pilot, his plane, and one hundred forty-nine innocent souls are in mid-air. The pilot is given a choice: crash the plane or his family dies. His response is that neither will happen. 

Photo (c) Melissa Young. All rights reserved.

That is the plot. Let’s talk for a minute about the well-written part of the equation, which means that we get to talk about the author. T.J. Newman worked for a while at a bookstore in her home city of Phoenix. She left that worthy and honorable position approximately ten years ago and, as did her mother and sister before her, became a flight attendant. Ms. Newman often found herself on “red-eye” flights, so-called because they are long in duration and take place late in the night. She conceived the idea that became Falling during one such flight. After asking a pilot a “what if” question about her plot and receiving the reaction she hoped for (a look of utter terror) she began writing her ideas, vignettes, sentences, and paragraphs in dim light during her flights while her passengers slept. Her software was a pen and cocktail napkins. She somehow kept all of those little paper squares dry and legible until she could transcribe them into what eventually became the story that she wanted to tell.

Ms. Newman, thanks to her bookstore employment, knew a bit about what she was getting into before she started. Writing the book was the first and extremely important step. The next step was finding an agent. Falling flew out into the ether forty-one times and crash-landed on takeoff. Query forty-two, however, met with success. An agent, who saw something that forty-one others did not, accepted stewardship of Falling and pitched it to Simon & Schuster. S&S offered Ms. Newman a two-book deal for an amount I am too polite to disclose. Let me say that it is enough to keep her in wine, cheese, and whatever else she might reasonably want for the foreseeable future. Oh. I almost forgot. There was a bidding war for the film rights. The winner paid a royal sum for the right to create a movie version of Falling. The book that nobody wanted thus became the movie that everyone wanted to make. 

I originally wrote that last sentence to include the phrase “all of a sudden.” I took it out because what occurred here didn’t happen “all of a sudden.” It took well over a year of writing, keeping those napkins dry and secure, polishing, proofing, and polishing some more, and then getting so used to hearing “no” that, I would guess, Ms. Newman couldn’t believe it when she heard “yes,” “yes,” and “yes” again.

After learning this backstory, one might wonder why the author and her manuscript were rejected by forty-one agents, each and all of whom knew what they are doing and who are probably exhaling a collective “oops” over this missed opportunity. Agents spend a lot of toil and trouble learning what editors and publishers want and don’t want at any given point in time.  Whether an agent likes a book or not is important, but it is but one moving part of the entire process. Another is that an agent, and for that matter an editor at a publishing house, does not get in trouble on the job for the books they turn down. They get in trouble for the books (and authors) they take on that do not subsequently sell, for whatever reason. You, as an author, can’t control that part. What you can control is forming your premise clearly and writing the best book that you can, regardless of genre. When you get discouraged, think of Ms. Newman writing the best book she could on those cocktail napkins at thirty thousand feet in a dim cabin sometime after midnight, and then being turned down forty-one times by individual gatekeepers who, probably to their quiet dismay, wound up looking like Monty Python’s Black Knight. The lesson is that, regardless of the endeavor, we must hack our way through the naysayers until we reach our personal Holy Grail. You have just read the story of one who did. 

Happy reading on July 6, and happy writing for the rest of your days. If you are inclined, would you care to share any encounter with adversity that you have experienced recently, in writing or otherwise? How did you get through it or around it? Thank you.


In Praise of the Antikythera Mechanism!

When I was last here two weeks ago I discussed ancient books and authors. I was gratified to receive a number of comments on the topic, including one from Dan Phalen, who wondered what would become of our digital prose. Dan used the example of an archeologist coming upon an iPhone a thousand years from now who would be faced with the task of coaxing digital text from the device.  

Dan’s example isn’t going to have to wait for one thousand years to occur. It’s happening right now. Remember floppy disks? Some of you may not. They were and are these square things that were read by something known, by amazing coincidence, as a floppy disk drive. If some of you have a bunch taking up space in a forgotten corner of your office you might be surprised and disappointed to find that the data on them is corrupted or bye-bye. On the other hand, some companies, like Boeing, the airplane people, still use them.  Think about that the next time you are in the air and you hear your pilot say “Uh-oh” on a hot mike, followed by an extended period of turbulence.

There are also .art files. Back when AOL was (almost) the only game in town and you downloaded pictures from the internet using AOL those pictures were saved in the form of an .art file. A great many of those are corrupted as well. I have tried several programs to open them but none have worked. AMF. That said, the unknown of the obsolete goes back much, much further than the most recent turn of the century. More on that in a minute.

I did another research deep dive — this one into the topic of information storage retrieval — and almost didn’t get this post written because of it. I was in so deep and had to come up so fast that I am still recovering from the bends. I did find a number of interesting websites dealing with the topic of retrieving data from obsolete technical doo-dahs. I’ll (attempt to) limit my discussion to two of them, which hopefully will be particularly relevant for those of you who labor in the historical fiction grammar mine. As an aside, let me note that there doesn’t seem to be an agreed-upon definition of what “historical fiction” is. For our purposes, we’ll call it a story set at least twenty-five years before the year in which the story is written. That would be from the beginning of all of this around us to…um…1996. That is disconcerting because I can remember a number of major events in my life from that year but not what I had for lunch yesterday. Oh, the humanity!

Onward. There is a wonderfully nerdy (and I say that with the highest respect) site named the Museum of Obsolete Media which is a time bandit of the highest order. If you look under the “Popular Tags” section you will see links to decades beginning with the 1860s. If you are neck-deep in writing a series set in the 1900s and want to see what was there in 1906 that ain’t no more and want to use it as a starting point for some element of your novel, this is the place to go for that and so much more. I was surprised when looking through my own timeline to note how many cutting-edge items (at that time) were listed that seemed futuristic but are now practically forgotten. Anyone want to buy a non-functioning Apple Newton?

Obsoletemedia.org is a labor of love. If you want to get up to your neck in things, however, the oft-forgotten but absolutely indispensable National Archives has an area — a very, very large area — devoted to “special media preservation.” That area has everything from wire recordings and machines to play them on to that new iPhone that you’ll brick in two years. It is particularly noteworthy that you can email questions to them about such topics and the worker bees there will happily email you back with everything you ever wanted to know about, say, wax cylinder recordings, the same way that your local library still does for more mundane topics. 

It all sounds very cool. The problem, though,  is that all of that data, particularly the digital type on collections such as the ones in the National Archives, is sitting on a time bomb. The immediate problem with contemporary “media preservation” is that digital media isn’t built to last. It is fragile coming out of the box and deteriorates relatively rapidly.  That is but one reason that I can’t open .art files I made twenty years ago but I can go on eBay and buy photographs taken in the 1800s. As far as digital information is concerned, there is more and more of it being made, lost, and found even as there are fewer people dedicated to exploring the obsolete storage mechanisms and preserving what they find. Information is being lost, as is the ability to retrieve it in the first place. Meanwhile, wire recordings made by Thomas Alva Edison still work and can be repaired.

Getting back to archeologists and the like…this photo may look like the water shutoff valve in your basement

but it is something called the “Antikythera Mechanism,” considered to be the world’s oldest computer. It is believed to have predated Bill Gates’ monster by around two thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered amidst the ruins of an ancient shipwreck in 1901. It was not until 2008 that it was recognized for what it was (“Why…that’s an Antikythera Mechanism!”). Yes. It took a looong time for archeologists and scientists to figure out what the f-heck it was and what it could do, which was predicting solar eclipses and organizing calendars (“Meet Lycastra on the down-low. 4P by the sundial”). It can probably do a heck of a lot more, such as spontaneously opening dimensions between our reality and the netherworld on July 11, 2021.  What I find particularly interesting is that our contemporary technology had to catch up with the Antikythera Mechanism so that it could be recognized for what it was. Otherwise, it would probably be a paperweight on a desk of a Greek fishing boat.

Sobering, isn’t it?

 I had a conversation last week with my granddaughter, who is starting high school next year. We talked about fields of study. My advice to her was to master computer systems and storage retrieval. “This is all going to break down,” I said. “All of it. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when.’ When all the king’s horses and men need those digital bits put back together be ready to be the one to do it. You’ll be able to name your own price. Settle for nothing less than your own island and a bunch of people — well paid, but well paid by somebody else — to look after it.” 

When I think about the Antikythera Mechanism, that advice looks better with each day. 

So what technological device, program, or storage entity do you miss? Windows 7 is an okay answer.


Achieving Immortality Through Fiction

Debbie Burke’s recent post about falling down research rabbit holes has launched a couple of ships this week. Here is mine. I fell through a research wormhole and found myself engrossed in a topic totally different from the one on which I started.

What I ended up digging into is what is (generally) regarded as the first known book and its cousin, the first known novel. It’s a fascinating topic. Folks, including myself, might reflexively answer the question as to what the first known book is with the response (index finger in the air for emphasis) as “The Gutenberg Bible!” It’s not even close. The Gutenberg Bible is the first printed book from moveable type, which a noteworthy accomplishment to be sure. The first known printed book, however, is The Diamond Sutra, which was created in China in the ninth century, using wooden blocks somewhat like you can now find in arts and crafts sections at Michael’s and similar stores (don’t forget the ink pad). That said, even The Diamond Sutra isn’t the first known book. 

Since we are moving backward, let’s discuss for a moment what is currently regarded as the first novel. It is titled The Tale of Genji and is considered, with some dispute, to have been written almost one thousand years ago, in the eleventh century, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. That name is believed to have been a pseudonym, but Lady Murasaki, as she is known to us, was a noblewoman who was invited to be a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress Soshi at the Imperial Court. The Tale of Genji is considered to be a psychological and romantic novel. What is remarkable about this is that in the world of Japanese literature at the time genre literature was held in low esteem. Time really is a flat circle, isn’t it? The Tale of Genji was so well-written and popular that it nonetheless influenced Japanese culture and mores and continues to do so in present times. Genji, a courtier, is portrayed as being passionate and gentle, which is part of the appeal of the story. The novel continues to be studied, researched, and translated. The most recent translation that I could find is approximately 1300 pages long. It looks to be somewhat rough sledding to read but it nonetheless endures. 

That brings us to what is acknowledged as the first known book, titled The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is, by amazing coincidence, an epic poem believed to have been written in installments between 2100 and 1200 B.C. (what is a millennium between friends?) and is an exaggerated and fictionalized account of the exploits of Bilgamesh, the King of Uruk. It is preserved on cuneiform tablets but you can read it on a Kindle. You should. Its exact author is unknown but whoever it is launched a thousand literary ships. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s enemy turned BFF, cut a wide swath through the known world, drinking, fighting, and ravishing until they take things a step too far. A tragedy leaves Gilgamesh seeking the meaning of life and attempting to acquire immortality, with predictable results. 

Or maybe not. Gilgamesh lives on. There is a heck of a story here. You can find traces of it in Don Quixote, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, Robert Lee Howard’s Conan tales, and yes, the tales of Roland in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Oh, and did I forget The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Aeneid? There may be a book that is the source for The Epic of Gilgamesh, buried in spider doo-doo somewhere in the Middle East, but it hasn’t been found yet. So why isn’t it regarded as the earliest novel? It’s a poem, for one, For another, it’s only a hair or so over one hundred pages, which I guess qualifies it as a novella. It is in any event worth reading, in translation, of course.

Gilgamesh may not have physically lived forever, but he certainly has in the literary sense. I doubt the author(s) ever imagined that their epic poems would be read and revered thousands of years after being written but there you go. My best advice to you, my friends, is to dust off that trunk novel and give it another shot. Someone may be reading you at some point in the future and considering you the best of your time. Why not you?

Now, a question for you. Has there been any story/poem/novel from the time period which we have been discussing (a long one to be sure) that has influenced you, or that you still return to for inspiration, succor, or reference, for any reason, including but not limited to writing?


Preparing for the End of the Story

Photo Courtesy of Neptune Society, Inc. All rights reserved.

I recently attended three funerals over the course of a week. One of the deceased individuals was a month short of 90. The other two were much closer to my age. Of those two, one had an open casket. He looked good, but…you know. I had shared a number of meals and consumed a number of beers (when I did that type of thing) with the gent and seeing his empty vessel displayed in an open casket functioned as a wake-up call for me.

I decided to start pre-planning my funeral arrangements, or lack thereof. We talk of wills and trusts and of getting one’s affairs in order for the inevitable day of departure and the time that follows. What often gets lost is what is to be done in the minutes and hours that follow a death. The wishes of a deceased are sometimes noted in a will but a testamentary document isn’t usually looked at until weeks after passing. Telling your survivors ahead of time, with something in writing other than in a will, is an absolute must. I wanted to be cremated (and still do) without ceremony or recognition. Given that we are in the Age of Google, a quick search for “cremation” almost immediately in my devices being inundated with pop-up ads, emails, and phone calls from area funeral home representatives. This kind of browned me off, to be honest, though if you really want a lot of attention, google “housepainting.” That aside,  I was further upset by the refusal of the people contacting me to send me a price list concerning their services, insisting that I instead come to their offices for such information.  I know why. Funeral homes upsell. It is what they do. It is how they are able to stay in business. They have very high overhead and offer a service that almost no one else wants to perform. I just didn’t want it. 

I eventually as a result of my research contacted Neptune Society, a national organization that arranges cremation. I did this for a number of reasons. I wanted to be cremated. I contacted them, as opposed to them reaching out to me. They were upfront about their pricing and services. A friend of mine who would have found a problem with them if there were a problem to be found had personal experience with them (once removed of course) and strongly recommended them.  Their local office is on Cemetery Road(!) in a nearby suburb. And… they offered me a free lunch at a local restaurant where I could attend a seminar, even after I indicated to them that I would be using their services.

I showed up on the day and time appointed at a local sports bar with a few other crusty customers of the age where one wakes each morning with roughly equal amounts of surprise and regret. The other attendees eyed me uneasily across the table for a few minutes while I listened to them carp about the lunch choices (“I usually have a drink with lunch. Can I order a drink?”) and tut-tut about the cost of the services (“When my husband had this done ten years ago it cost less…”).  I silently promised myself to never be that obnoxious when I reached their ages. I learned over the course of the next hour that I was the oldest one there. You live and learn, even as you approach the end of the story.

The folks from Neptune Society were very nice and didn’t try to upsell me (“for just a little bit more, we can arrange a celebration of life for you”) or cross-sell me (“Don’t you think that a nice commemorative ribbon to match your urn would be a nice touch?”) as many funeral homes do. Their sales pitch was so low-key that it wasn’t an infomercial at all.  I was able to enter into an agreement with Neptune Society that afternoon and I became officially “pre-planned,”  meaning that my arrangements were paid for and my wishes set in stone. One item which was offered but not pushed was the “Travel Protection Plan.” I purchased it. The Travel Protection Plan is like “AAA-Plus” for a deceased, only better. If you have AAA or another roadside assistance service you are probably aware that there is a limit as to how far your car will be towed at no cost to you. If the towing mileage exceeds that limit there is a per-mile charge. It is not calculated in pennies. The same holds true for dead bodies. The general industry standard for funeral homes, at least in Ohio, is that if you die outside of a thirty-mile radius of your home the odometer starts ticking. Neptune Society has a seventy-five-mile radius, but with the Travel Protection Plan there is no mileage limit, even if the covered individual is out of the country. What this means is that should I pass away far from home Neptune Society’s sweet chariot will swing down and take me home at no cost.  The thought of my sons traveling to wherever I might be and doing a Weekend at Bernie’s trip to bring me back made me chuckle, but only initially. I paid for that and a storage box which I have taken to calling my “forever home.” Done. And done.

Photo courtesy of Al Thumz Photography. All rights reserved.

The surprise for me was how relieved I felt about making the arrangements, or lack thereof. I told my children that if they wanted a visitation to come to see me while I’m alive. If they want to celebrate my life, take me to Twin Peaks. It’s too late once that rusty gate swings open and I tapdance through. I also gave each of them a copy of my Neptune Society card so that when the time comes things would be taken care of promptly. 

All of this thought and consideration about death and its immediate aftermath of course sparked within me an idea for what I think will be a heck of a story with the potential to be much darker than The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. That brings us to you, my friends. Have any of you pre-planned your funeral? Have you thought about it? Do you know what you want? Or is the topic like that closet that you haven’t opened in years and are afraid of what you’ll find (or what will find you)?


Losing Your Identity

Good Saturday to you. Please consider this an update to Debbie Burke’s excellent post,  True Crime Thursday – COVID 19 Scams, of just a few weeks ago, as well as an addendum to the wonderful and still pertinent 2012 post by TKZ alum Kathleen Pickering concerning identity theft.

I groaned when I received my post office mail this past Monday. I knew immediately that someone was pretending to be me.

The moan-inducing missive was from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (“DJFS”). That agency in Ohio is tasked with administering unemployment benefits, among other things. There have been daily reports of individuals in Ohio having bogus unemployment benefit claims filed in their name using their personal information. The first hint that something is amiss is usually the receipt of a letter from DJFS, noting that they have filed a claim and that an account has been set up for them. That was precisely the type of letter I received, in spite of not having filed a claim. 

The fraud which is occurring is an example of never letting a crisis go to waste. The COVID-19 situation resulted in a great deal of unemployment concentrated in certain industries. Many states — Ohio, for one — wanted to get unemployment benefits to the unfortunate workers in those industries as quickly as possible. This resulted in some instances of “pay now, verify later.”  Someone figured out a way to take advantage of this. 

The scam is fairly easy to do once the scoundrel is in possession of another person’s name, address, and social security number. The despicable cad first sets up a bank account (usually with an online bank) utilizing a newly created email address and a burner phone for contact purposes. They then use the ill-gotten information to file for unemployment benefits and directing that the benefits be deposited to the online bank account. The victim, moi or vous, is usually unaware of this until the agency acknowledges the claim via letter to the victim’s snail mail address. At least two or three weeks of benefits have often been paid by then.  Should the person who is the target of the scam ignore the letter from the DJFS the fraudulent payments can go on for far longer.

It often isn’t immediately a problem for the victim. Whoever is doing this isn’t taking money out of the victim’s legitimate bank account. The problem with the false claim occurs later, as in the following year, when the victim receives a Form 1099 from DJFS noting that “their” unemployment benefit payment (which is taxable) has been reported to the IRS. There are of course other problems having to do with someone having your name and SSN. These would include the ability of someone else to open accounts and apply for credit in your name. 

There is a fix for this and it is free. You just need to do three things and do them immediately.  

The first is that you must immediately go to the website of the state agency that sent you the notification letter. You should find a link there that will take you to a page where you can report that you have had a fraudulent claim for unemployment benefits filed in your name. 

The second is to file an NCDF Disaster Complaint Form with the Department of Justice. This is not as intimidating as it sounds. It is actually quite easy to do and can be done online by following the link above which will give you some additional information and take you to another page where you fill out a form dealing with your complaint.

The third action actually has two components that concern protecting your credit. Part A is checking your credit report at http://annualcreditreport.com, which you should be doing anyway. Part B is placing a free, one-year fraud alert on your credit reports by contacting any one of the three nationwide credit reporting companies online or through their toll-free numbers. The bureau you contact must tell the other two. They are Equifax: 800-525-6285, Experian: 888-397-3742, or Trans Union: 800-680-7289. The companies will let you know if someone applies for a loan or credit in your name. Please don’t tell them that I sent you. 

I hope that you never need any of this. If my experience provides you with the germ of an idea for your next novel, however, that is all to the good. You can possibly ascertain how the personal information of the victims is being acquired. I believe that the databases of state departments of taxation are being cracked. I base this in part on the timing of my experience, which occurred a few weeks after I filed my state return. It could be for any number of reasons, however. 

Photo by sincerely-media on unsplash.com

My question for you today is whether any of you have had this experience within the past several months. that being a fraudulent unemployment claim being filed in your name. I hopefully am a loner, at least among my friends here. Thank you. 


Making a Movie With Spider-Man


(Note: Thanks and a tip of the fedora to TKZ’s Terry Odell, who noted that for some reason comments (as of 8:20A EST) cannot be posted. I am working on fixing that but having problems doing so. I’m sorry!)

(Update 12:28P EST: It appears to be a system problem as opposed to a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem. It will hopefully be fixed in time for Jim Bell’s post tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who is stopping by today. SJ)

(Update 12:46P EST: Comments are working. Thanks and a tip of the fedora to Lynne Reynolds, the Wizard behind the curtain! SJ)

The following occurred about a year and a half ago. I have had to remain uncharacteristically quiet about it until now due to an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) which blessedly expired on February 26. I left my home in central Ohio at 2:30A on November 27, 2019, and headed north toward Cleveland, a place where I misspent several of my formative years. I was to report, showered, shaved, and tap dancin’, at 6:00A to an address near Cleveland’s east side. 

I had been notified a few days previously that I had been selected for a (very, very small) part in a movie named Cherry. There was plenty of buzz about the project before it began, due to the presence of Tom Holland in the lead role and the involvement of Joe and Anthony Russo as directors and producers. Holland and the Russo Brothers had worked together before on such obscure cinematic projects as Avengers: Endgame and Avengers: Infinity War, with Holland appearing as Spider-Man and the Russos directing those films. Expectations for Cherry were high, my presence in the film notwithstanding. 

Shaker Heights, a somewhat tony Cleveland suburb, was my ultimate destination.  I misspent a good portion of my formative years in Cleveland. I had been to Shaker Heights only once, close to sixty years before, with my parents on a Sunday to go to a retail area named, by amazing coincidence, Shaker Square. I planned to take a look at the area while I was up there. Did I get to? Read on. 

I arrived on time at the appointed place. Despite being a little later in the morning it was somehow even darker and colder on Cleveland’s east side than Columbus had been three hours earlier. I parked and started following some hand-lettered signs through a parking lot, heading toward an unmarked building. A limousine pulled up next to me. Tom Holland got out, smiling, and yelled, “Joe! Joe Hartlaub! My man!” as he embraced me. Not really. Actually, a guy with an Eddie Murphy vibe exited the limo and asked me if this was the right place to be for Cherry. We had some introductory chit-chat during which he told me that he also had a very small part and lived about ten blocks away. I glanced at the limo. He said, “I was gonna ride my bike, but, like, how many times ya gonna be in a movie? Y’know?” I shrugged. He asked me how I had gotten there. “I coptered in from Columbus,” I answered, whirling my index finger around. I had him going for just a minute as he looked around us, perhaps hoping to see Jan-Michael Vincent lean out of a hovering whirlybird and wave. He was disappointed.

We walked into the building together and followed some more hand-lettered signs through a warren of what turned out to be dance rehearsal rooms that had been temporarily repurposed for storing movie equipment. We ultimately found a nice lady, complete with piercings, tattoos, and a clipboard, who checked us in and then directed us to a large room that had been set up like a cafeteria. Breakfast. It was a surprise. We were cautioned to use the serving line on the left and to sit in a specific area since the right line and the other tables were for the crew. Same food, no mingling. My fellow cast member looked at me and kind of smirked at the ironic separate but equal arrangement. We ate some breakfast, ate some more, and drank coffee. An hour passed before my new friend, a few other folks, and I were ushered through a different labyrinth of rooms to suddenly find ourselves outside and on Shaker Square, which looked both different and the same from how I remembered it.  We were given our assignments as the wind and sleet started up, and admonished that we were absolutely not to talk to Tom Holland if we encountered him since he would be working.  My acting assignment was to stand on the street in the wind while being peppered with ice pellets while reading a newspaper, all the while acting as if I were cold,  wet, and old. It stretched my abilities to the limit, let me tell you, but I am a true professional and got the job done, take after take. I was truly humbled by the applause I received every time I turned a page of the newspaper and the director yelled “Cut!”

We were all released at around 12:15 PM. I went into the diner to get some more coffee and saw my fellow actor. He was standing with a small group of folks and head-bopped me over. Tom Holland was standing next to him. Holland started talking to us after a couple of minutes about this and that.  Directives notwithstanding, it would have been rude not to have answered him. It turned out that he was/is a very personable guy. His younger brother was with him. Holland was much nicer to his brother than I would have been to mine under similar circumstances, but, then again, Holland’s brother wasn’t as irritating as mine was at that age. 

Photo by Joe Burdick. All rights reserved.

Things then became weird. I looked back across Shaker Square and recalled that, when I had been there on that long-ago Sunday, a drugstore had filled a storefront where a clothing boutique presently occupied. I had gone in there (probably to get away from my younger brother) and purchased some comic books with a dollar that I had saved from a week before (something I wrote about a few months ago). One of those comics was The Amazing Spider-Man #1.  My adult self kind of felt the earth and everything else shift for just a moment.  I didn’t have to wonder how eleven-year-old me would have reacted if he had been told that, in another sixty years or so, he would be standing across the street talking to the actor who played Spider-Man in a couple of movies while appearing in another movie “with” that actor. I would not have believed any of it.

Holland was called away to do more acting. I got my coffee and gave my new friend a ride home (a real come-down for him, I am sure, after his limo ride of the morning) and made the three-hour drive back home, thinking about life and how the choices we make and the chances we take often bring things back to where we start. 

Cherry was supposed to be released in July 2020 but…you know. That was changed to November 2020 and was delayed a second time. There was a limited (meaning not in Columbus) theatrical release on February 26, 2021, with a full release on Apple TV+ scheduled for March 12. I still don’t know if my scene made the final cut. I did, however, meet Spider-Man. If I could I would tell my eleven-year-old self, “Hang in there, Joey. It’ll be okay. Just don’t get involved with ________, __________, ____________, ______________, or __________. Oh, and you’ll get to hang with Spider-Man. Lastly, hang on to your comics.”

I don’t really believe in coincidence. Life stretched over many years just has too many moving parts. To paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane (and many have), life is not stranger than we imagine. It’s stranger than we can imagine. But we still try, don’t we? 

That is all I have today. I hope that I’ve been able to entertain you while you are waiting for your Coming 2 America feed to stop buffering. In the meanwhile, do you care to share a strange thing that has happened to you lately? 

Lupin, Then and Now…

I am going to attempt to fill a yawning void in your life by recommending Netflix series and the books that inspired it.

The Netflix series is titled Lupin.   It is a French production but dubbed in English for those of us who studied Latin in high school. It is also well-written and well-acted. Five episodes have been released so far on U.S. Netflix with five more coming this summer, so you can binge it relatively quickly. Lupin is interesting from the jump because no one in the series is named “Lupin.” The lead character is a charming and likable thief named Assane Diop. We meet Assane as an adult but there are frequent flashbacks to his childhood as well.  Assane as a boy emigrated with his father to France from Senegal. As an adult, Assane pulls off a major heist in Paris for the best of reasons, that being to clear his father’s name which has been sullied by a crime that he (possibly) did not commit. We quickly learn that Assane the adult is also profoundly influenced by a crime fiction series that he read as a child and continues to read. The books concern a master thief and occasional detective named Arsene Lupin. They were written by Maurice LeBlanc in the early 1900s. Assane as the episodes progress will often recall a Lupin story in a kind of “What Would Lupin Do?” manner. Lupin is actually an homage to, as opposed to an adaptation of, those books published so long ago. One of my favorite elements in Lupin is that one of the police detectives tasked with solving Assane’s crime is also a huge fan of the books. He sees similarities between what Assane is doing and what Lupin did. His fellow flics make fun of him but otherwise ignore the detective’s theory, though as he actually holds the key to solving Assane’s crime. Assane has a son of his own who shares his birthdate of December 11 with LeBlanc and who, to Assan’s delight, is a fan of the stories as well. 

The Netflix Lupin is more than worth your while, in great part because you can’t watch it without being drawn to the stories which it references. I knew absolutely nothing about Arsene Lupin or Maurice LeBlanc before binging the series.  It was easy enough to get up to speed. Most of the story collections are either online or available for free (if you dig a bit) in the Kindle Store. I thought I would try a few pages of one just to get the flavor of the character and wound up in a time suck. I couldn’t and can’t stop reading them. I quickly acquired all of the collections available and am working my way through them while enjoying every word. The Lupin of LeBlanc’s stories is a gentleman thief who changes identities more often than people change clothes. He is, in addition to being a master of disguise, an escape artist and pickpocket. Lupin has a frenemy in the form of Inspector Ganimard, a police detective who could well be the cousin of Inspector Javert, though the former has much more charm than the latter. Lupin also on occasion encounters Sherlock Holmes. LeBlanc did not take the time or effort to acquire the permission of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle prior to incorporating his famous creation into the Lupin universe, an act that provoked righteous indignation and protests from Doyle. LeBlanc, no doubt with the same twinkle in his eye possessed by his character, continued to use the English sleuth in his own stories but changed the name of Doyle’s character’s to “Herlock Sholmes.” “Sholmes” is no more successful in capturing Lupin than  Gaimard, something which no doubt also upset Doyle. 

The stories are delightful. There is always at least one little twist and turn that even the most seasoned reader won’t necessarily catch or expect. LeBlanc changes the narrator from story to story so that one initially never knows if Lupin is telling the tale or if someone else is doing the gabbing. The result is that it takes the reader a bit of time to figure out who is doing what to who, in the words of the famously salty limerick. Speaking of salty…LeBlanc’s stories are free of explicit sex, earthy language, and graphic violence. There might be the occasional fistfight here and there, but only to advance the narrative. One can accordingly recommend each and all of the Lupin stories to anyone of any age without concern.  Every story is also in equal measure clever and smart in the telling. The young Assane at one point in Lupin is asked, “Don’t you ever get tired of reading the same book?” Assane smiles and says, “No. I learn something new all the time.” Indeed. 

I consider myself to be fairly well-read and accordingly was stunned that in six decades of reading detective fiction I had never happened across this character. Aside from the reading benefits, there is much for a writer to learn here. One can study the stories for the manner in which LeBlanc makes Lupin, a thief who would ordinarily be an unsympathetic character, sympathetic, or even a hero of sorts. LeBlanc also demonstrates how point of view can be utilized as a sleight-of-hand device to make things a bit more interesting. Then we have the overall presentation of language and scenarios. I like sex and violence in stories as much as the next writer or reader but sometimes it becomes a crutch. We want it occasionally or even frequently in our reading and writing but we don’t always need it, even in so-called adult material. I know that things were a bit restrained in popular literature from over one hundred years ago but it is refreshing to encounter that restraint now. I’ve been redlining my own work here and there as a result. 

I hope that you enjoy Lupin the series or the books if you have the chance and inclination to try them. I would like for now to know if you have “discovered” a new-to-you author and/or character recently who has in fact been around for decades. If so, what influence if any have they had on you?