The Coffee And Book People Are Still Out There

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“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” -Ray Bradbury

I travel a lot for work; and it’s easy to get the impression that nobody freaking reads anything anymore. It’s disheartening, man. I want to tell stories – there have to be people out there who want to unplug and hear them! This Thanksgiving, I got into a fairly cerebral chat with some family folks (I didn’t start it, honestly, was just munching chocolate pecan pie and it sort of happened!). It got me thinking, so I’ll hit you with the thought to see where you stand.

I don’t run into many people from day to day who get far beyond Youtube tutorials and whatever management book is in flavor rotation, so when this chat started, I thought it was going to go my way. Wife’s uncle leans over like he’s telling a secret and says,

“I understand you’ve published a book.”

Okay, cool. We can talk about that. And we did. He got a copy, says he’ll read it. I’m in. But somehow the whole conversation veered into the nonfiction he typically reads. Also cool, I read plenty myself. But I got the gist he never reads fiction at all. I’m back where I started. He’s not going to like the book, I know that already. But guys, I just can’t sit down and write a biography about Lyndon Baines Johnson. It’s never going to happen. We covered LBJ in more detail in that conversation than I’d have guessed you could. Apparently the man was complicated.

I enjoyed the conversation, actually. Yet it sent me off on this idea that if most folks do sit down to read, I’m not running into the type that want to get totally lost in an imagined world with gargantuan ideas, flash-bang battles and clashing intrigue. That’s my thing, man. I can’t get enough of getting lost in a great book where sometimes I have to look up and ponder something I read. That’s my baseline for when I’m writing – I want to engineer that. Every time.

Jump ahead a few days. Christmas shopping on-line. To be honest, I was actually looking for cool stuff to put on my own Christmas list so my wife doesn’t just get me more Doctor Who merchandise. Was reading reviews of the Kindle Paperwhite to see if I should go back to e-ink screen readers. Page after page of folks who are apparently of my tribe – talking about the lake, the beach, camping, trains, in bed at night, by fireplaces, in hotel lobbies. Awesome people who love a great book. I was feeling better.

Then I found a guy who put a Cheshire Cat grin on my face. He’s your kind of guy too. Check this out.

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If you can’t read the image, here’s the text:

“I wasn’t planning on posting a review. However, something happened that prompted me to go ahead and post a review of this amazing device.

“I was well into a nice space opera book on my Kindle Paperwhite when I caught myself talking, rather loudly, to the device in response to what was happening in the story within the book. It occurred to me at that moment that the Kindle had disappeared and allowed me to immerse myself in the book so fully that I felt as if I were living inside the story rather than reading text on a screen.” -Rev. Ian MacGregor

Let’s dissect this guy for a second. He was ‘well into a nice space opera book’. Wow. Already my buddy. The man was actually talking to his Kindle. I can’t say I relate to that; but this guy is one of my favorite people on the planet now. He was talking loudly to his Kindle. And he got totally lost in the story. Whatever the crap this dude was reading, I’d like to know. The Reverend MacGregor is not only in my tribe, he’s the goll-darn shaman!

So what do you think about the future of fiction? Interesting, ground-breaking fiction that pushes cool intellectual or narrative boundaries, I mean…not gobbledygook thrillers that software will eventually write, optimized through the bestseller list algorithms. Try this quote on for size:

“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries” Rene Descartes

I hear you, Rene. But who are we going to have these conversations with?

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Breaking Through To What Really Scares You

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what actually frightens people. Honestly, I’ve never been in a conversation with someone about ghosts or evil covens where they’ve told me they both BELIEVE those things exist AND are frightened by them. It’s usually a much more casual…’yeah, those things are possible’ kind of comment. Maybe I’ve not gotten out enough – if you have a good story where you got spooked for real, I’d love to hear it. For my part, I wanted to reproduce in a book I’m writing now the feelings in my life when I was actually frightened or shaken to my core. Since I don’t actually buy off on a lot of the supernatural stuff, it has to be much more grounded and personal to get to me. So I thought about September 11th.

All too often, people I interact with are too young to remember what it felt like when the New York towers fell in 2001. I couldn’t relate to the Pentagon fire or the Pennsylvania field; but I absolutely remember being in those towers  when I was a kid – I had family up there. I watched them smoke and fall and remember feeling entirely helpless. File that one away, it’s important.

I’ve also said before in these posts that George Orwell’s 1984 is, in my opinion, the most frightening book ever written. No goblins or possessions. No vampires. Not even a car crash. Just people being terrible to each other in a way I could believe – an awful momentum those people allowed in their society that left them with a nightmare like ‘ROOM 101’ at the ‘Ministry Of Love’ where they torture you to the point of breaking your entire personality. They turn your own children against you. They get in your head with endless propaganda. It left that society helpless. File that away, also important.

Every year, Chapman University conducts a survey of what frightens Americans the most. Check this out:

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Helplessness is staring you in the face here.

We can’t control huge, man-eating machines like government corruption where compassionless bureaucrats take everything you own or terrorist attacks where a smiling neighbor who always waved at you suddenly sprays bullets into a shopping mall. Look at number three – imagine yourself feeble and alone, your body failing and laying in diarrhea, without any money to pay for food or electricity. Shivers, man. That’s terrible! You’d be helpless.

Ignore some of the political stuff here, the things CNN or Fox told you to worry about; and there are some truly foundational horrors listed here, things that get to the heart of what scares us. We treasure stability and control and predictability. We expect the rules to be fair and unchanging, so we can continue to captain our own lives. Yet as suddenly as a phone call with a diagnosis, you can be the one staring desperately at someone you dearly love beside a hospital bed straining to understand why this doctor is contradicting the last one and why nothing is working. As they waste away. That’s us, man. That’s humans. We can’t control that; and yet we demand to. We’re helpless; and we don’t want to be.

I’m not saying I don’t have anything supernatural in the book I’m writing. Of course I do, I get bored with plain-vanilla things. But my aim is to ask you to concede only one fantastic element and let the implications fall out and shatter from there. So far, I’m having a blast. Along the way, I’m pondering what scares us for real. Things like the ones here on Chapman’s list.

I believe in the end, anybody stringing together words for profit or fun like a lot of us would be more proud of what you’d done with a horror story if you try to break new ground. Use something grounded or contextual with just a hint of the supernatural. Make me love the folks you’ve breathed life into, then tear them apart with something terrible.

That’s the gig, right?