What You Can’t Do with an e-Book

I recently received a box in the mail. It was from a life-long friend, a gent named Bill Plant who is responsible (or maybe irresponsible) for shaping much of my taste in literature. While Bill and I remain close friends, we aren’t in the habit of sending each other gifts on the spur of the moment, so I had no idea what was in the box. It could have been anything from a head to…well, anything. After making sure that it wasn’t ticking, crying, or leaking, I commenced to open it, a formidable task since Bill apparently used three rolls of scotch tape to seal it. After some effort, I folded the flaps back, pulled out some newspaper packing, and…well, I’ll confess, The Kid got just a little misty-eyed.
The box was full of books. Paperback books. From the 1950s. They were marked up and in one case a little chewed up and some of them had the binding falling loose and they all had that sweet scent of slow but inevitable decomposition. In other words, every one was a little treasure. These were USED, used books. Bill deals in antiques, and will buy items such as books in inexpensive lots in the hope of finding an acorn or two among the Buena Sierra. Collectors, alas, aren’t much interested in paperbacks that are dog-eared, or have had a crayon taken to them, or that have been labeled, using an indelible marker, with a five cent price tag.  took a bunch of such and sent them to me. I don’t think I’ve had a better present in quite a while. It reminded me of one Christmas, some fifty years ago, when my mother ordered a bunch of science fiction paperbacks for me from the gone but not forgotten S & SF Bookstore in New York. It was a laborious procedure back then — check books off an order list, write a check, send the whole kit and  caboodle off in the mail and wait six weeks for delivery — since the only “Amazon” most folks knew then was either 1) a river in South America or 2) Irish McCalla. But when that box arrived, it was special. And so was this one.
So what would I possibly want with such a litter of mutts? The idea of it, pure and simple. These were books that had been read and re-read before being consigned to a cellar or an attic or the back shelves of a used bookstore.  Most of it was science fiction. There were Ace Doubles in that box. Ace doubles. These consisted of two covers and two novels bound into one; read one, flip it over, and there was another novel waiting for you.  Hard Case Crime is going to publish two Lawrence Block novels in the doubles format in May 2012, and I can’t wait. But these were the original thing. A few short story collections were in that box, and included forgotten stories by famous authors (“Death of the Senator,” by Arthur C. Clarke, for one). There were a couple of early and forgotten novels by authors who have gone onto better things (Robert Silverberg’s THE PLANET KILLERS); and some soft core science fiction porn (are porn paperbacks even published anymore?). Then there was a copy of GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton, one of the first science fiction books I ever read.
Yes, there were a couple of mysteries and thrillers as well. I was six years old when Marjorie Carlton wrote ONE NIGHT OF TERROR. It got past me the first time but I’m going to read it this year. And there were a couple of Carter Brown novels in that box.  Most of the ladies who contribute to The Kill Zone are probably too young to remember Carter Brown. but gentlemen, certainly most of you do.  “Carter Brown” was the pseudonym for Alan Geoffrey Yates, and there was a time when he ruled the revolving wire paperback racks. Who could forget those Signet covers? I fogged up my eyeglasses in many a drugstore perusing the wares of those gaudy damsels while pretending to look for Mad Magazine paperback collections. I have discovered, belatedly, that the stories aren’t bad either.  It occurred to me a couple of nights ago, while reading   NO BLONDE IS AN ISLAND, that I had never actually read a Carter Brown book until now. I had committed many a cover to memory, however.
Some of the older paperbacks are now appearing in e-book format.  I discovered recently that all of those Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books which I purchased with my allowance a half-century ago are available in Kindle format, and for free; and there are even three Carter Brown books up for sale. It just isn’t the same, however. The smell and the small, non-adjustable print and the feel of paper and ink aren’t there. It’s like having a rabbit and a hat that sit next to each other without any involvement or relationship: there’s no magic. That may sound strange — if pressing a couple of buttons and having an entire book appear in a wafer thin tool that you can slip in a coat pocket isn’t magic, then what is? — but it’s true. We get something, true, but also we give something up.
So. If you had a friend as good as mine (and Bill, I know you read these posts, and you remain the best), and that friend sent you a box such as I received, what books would you want to find in it? What would bring a smile to your face, and a tear (or five) to your eye?

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Milestones

I will be mercifully short this week. I drove to Baton Rouge and back from Westerville, Ohio for a quick two day visit and am still working the road whine out of my ears and catching up on the archeological dig which I call my desk. I do have something to share with you, however.

This week marked a couple of personal milestones for me. The first, and more important of the two, was that on April 1 I completed twenty years of sobriety. I believe in giving credit where credit is due and the credit in this case is due to a now-retired Baton Rouge pediatrician named Leon Bombet whom I was fortunate enough to meet in 1989. Dr. Leon at that time had been sober for nine years, and my reaction, which I kept to myself at the time, was “What?! Nine years?! Without a drink! Wow. I’m sure glad I don’t have a drinking problem.” Of course, I did. I eventually stopped stuffing my life down the commode and it has been Dr. Leon’s friendship and example, and that of his wife Susan, that have kept me on the proper course some two decades down the road.

The second milestone was the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself as an urchin in short-pants in 1962. When I wasn’t sneaking Shell Scott and Mike Hammer paperbacks into my bedroom, I was reading a lot of science fiction. Ace Books at the time published a number of titles per month, Dick and Vance and Zelazny, oh my, as well as reprints of Burroughs’ Tarzan and John Carter titles with those beautifully painted covers by Frank Frazetta. I promised myself, at the tender age of eleven, that I would be published by Ace Books one day. That happened this week with the publication of Dark Delicacies III: Haunted, an anthology of original fiction in which my story “Starlets & Spaceboys” appears. “Starlets & Spaceboys” was inspired by a hallucination I experienced some six years ago in the New Mexico desert just west of Albuquerque while driving with author Marcus Wynne; the title was graciously given to me by my lifelong friend William D. Plant III. I would not be sitting here today but for the friendship and assistance of both of those gentlemen.

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What I’m reading: The Priest by Gerard O’Donovan. Just get it and read it, whatever you do. You won’t be sorry. You will have nightmares.

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Top Ten Writing Influences

A common interview question for writers is, Who were your literary influences? I’ve given it some thought over the years and have come up with a list of my top ten. Here they are, in no particular order:
Franklin W. Dixon
This was, of course, the cover name for the Hardy Boys series. Several authors did the actual work (a Canadian named Leslie McFarlane was the first). From The Hardy Boys I learned that you could make readers read on by ending a chapter with an exclamation point! Today I don’t use the actual punctuation mark, but try to achieve the same feeling—so readers have to turn the page.
The Classics Illustrated comic books guys
I loved the old Classics Illustrated series. I got acquainted with much great literature that way. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Men of Iron and on and on. Beautifully illustrated and written. I learned pure storytelling from these little gems.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
My first “grown up” novel was Tarzan of the Apes. I loved the experience of being pulled into a big story and then not wanting it to end.
William Saroyan
My beloved high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, encouraged me to read more than sports biographies. At a book fair she got me to buy My Name is Aram, which is still one of my favorite collections of short stories. I love Saroyan’s whimsical voice.
Ernest Hemingway
In college, Hemingway knocked me out. I think he is the greatest short story writer who ever lived. His style is easy to satirize, but no one has ever been able to do it better—not even the lionized “minimalists” of current fashion. I am very proud to have been a semi-finalist one year in the Imitation Hemingway Contest.
Jack Kerouac
I think most college guys who are into literature go through a Kerouac phase. I ate up On the Road and Kerouac’s idea of  “be-bop prose rhapsody.” Even now I try to follow some of his writing techniques, like:
–  Submissive to everything, open, listening
–  No time for poetry but exactly what is
–  Believe in the holy contour of life
Raymond Chandler
Oh man, when I discovered Chandler, I was in heaven. Still the best prose stylist of any hard boiled school you want to name. Nothing more needs to be said.
John D. MacDonald
Storyteller supreme. Great stylist of “unobtrusive poetry.” I’m thinking mainly of his 50s stand alone novels. The Travis McGees are enjoyable on their own and have much to commend them. But his output before that was amazing and the top quality of the paperback writers of the day.
Dean Koontz
I learned a lot from Koontz about how to write a flat-out page turner. Koontz also wrote a superb book on the craft, How to Write Bestselling Fiction. It’s out of print and goes for about $200 on the open market. I got mine off a library giveaway shelf and still refer to it.
Stephen King
King puts it all together. A great stylist, plotter and character creator. I read King and sometimes just shake my head at how good he is. Please don’t bring up the fact that he also sometimes seems to be the king of F-bombs. He succeeds in spite of, not because of, that little fact.
So writers out there, who are some of your writing influences? What is it about them you like?
If you’re primarily a reader, what writer would you pick as someone you’d recommend to a writer to learn from?
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