Greg Rucka has the answers


Listening to: Nora Jones. Summertime.

I’m banging away on a story (working title: “Artemis”) about a female superhero in the near future. Women’s stories aren’t new for me, but what’s unchartered territory is The Future. Near future, so we’re not talking about spaceships and robots. Still, I have to create a world that is familiar but different, so that the story is one that could happen — maybe not today but within our lifetimes.

That’s a critical element of Batman. Not science fiction but futurism. Gotham City could be our city, if government corruption, unemployment and the criminal class continue to grow. Everything that plagues Gotham is nestled in our own hometowns. Tiny seeds. That’s part of what makes the stories so compelling — they’re not impossible. There’s no magic, nothing supernatural, no ghosts or faeries. Everything in Batman is grounded in what is.

So how do the writers create a world that is both strange and familiar?

Some of the answers are pretty simple. And I found them while reading Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country novel, Last Run. Heroine Tara Chace is in the Special Operations Section of the British Secret Intelligence Agency. It sounds like a real group, but it’s not. And the missions she takes on involve countries, like Iran and Uzbekistan, that we currently read about in the news. So everything dances in the real, the familiar — but it’s not.

One of my characters, of course, is a policeman. And I’ve been making a list of all the research I need to do on the Seattle Police Department, to get the details right. But Rucka inspired me to think a little differently. He reminded me that I’m writing about a familiar Seattle but not an actual one. I don’t have to confine myself to the facts of the city.

The last story I wrote was set in contemporary Los Angeles, and I spent a lot of time researching the details of the city, making sure my locations were right and I wasn’t citing buildings that exist in my memory but, in actuality, are no longer standing. Getting Los Angeles right was critical to the story and to making the characters seem believable. But in a futuristic world, believability isn’t built on authenticity. It doesn’t come out of recreating but out of creating. Grabbing familiar bits and expanding them slightly with imagination. Taking the lines and nudging them out.

It’s kind of freeing, looking for opportunities to invent. Not just story, but the city in which I live. To speculate as to how institutions would evolve if we became a metropolis in distress. And to imagine a place, like Gotham, where villains veer into the grotesque and heroes emerge as super.

Got a favorite story set in the near future? Please pass on your recommendations.


Breakthrough #2: You gotta have a plan

Listening to: Bye Bye Blackbird. Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

About a week ago, I came across an editorial by David Brooks about learning patterns. I read David Brooks regularly, wouldn’t call myself a “fan,” but appreciate Brooks’ ability to make me think about things in a different way. Plus, after hearing him speak in Dallas several years ago about growing up in New York City, playing in Central Park as a kid, and the importance of urban green spaces, I have a soft spot for the guy.

So the editorial. Learning patterns. Brooks was summarizing an essay by Scott Young, a blogger who writes about “how to get more out of life.” In his post, Young says that there are different kinds of learning curves, logarithmic, exponential, etc. Big words that probably describe profound concepts. But the point that stood out to me, the great reminder, was that learning things that matter takes time and the process isn’t a straight line with constant, consistent progress.

I remember when I first started writing fiction and was frustrated by how bad at it I was. I had no idea how to begin a story, tended toward Lifetime Movie melodrama, and wallowed in upholstery descriptions without ever building a plot. When I moaned about this to a wise friend, she asked me, “How long have you been studying piano?” “Twenty years,” I said. “Are you ready to play Carnegie Hall,” she asked, and I told her, “no.” “How long have you been writing stories, about 3 months?” she asked. Then she told me, “You need to give yourself time to learn.”

In my jazz lesson this morning, I started by telling my teacher that I was in a whiny mood, that I’d made no progress over the week and hated my Dog Song. She must have heard the despair in my voice, because she said, “You sat at the piano and felt overwhelmed.” Which was exactly what had happened. I’d hit one of those horrible plateaus and didn’t know how to get a jumpstart. She said, “Let’s break it down. I’ll play the bass, and you do the top.” And then I took over the piano on my own and worked on using my left thumb while I improvised with my right hand.

This all sounds remedial. Ridiculous to someone who can play well. But for a beginner, a critical thing to learn is what to do when you get stuck. Because staring at the piano gets you nowhere. You have to have a plan when you sit down to practice. This is something my classical piano teacher in Dallas would tell me, that you have to know how to practice. And she would often ask me at the start of my lesson, “How did you practice this week? Show me what you did.”

That was the flash of blinding light this week. That I have to have a plan. Sitting at the piano, playing around without a specific goal in mind gets you nowhere. And if you’re like me, you’ll park yourself someplace comfortable, instead of pushing yourself to discover something new. I need to tell myself when I sit down, “For the next 15 minutes, I’m going to work on X.” Really focus on one or two challenges that can take me forward. Sometimes that means isolating. Spending time on improvising at the top while just walking the bass to keep time. So that’s the plan for this week. Working on my right hand with a simple bass, and exploring movement with my left hand by moving my thumb around.

Here’s my non-me discovery for the week: Eliane Elias. Love the Brazilian stuff. And she’s coming to Jazz Alley in Seattle in September. Eu estarei lá.

Jazz breakthrough #1: Stop with the matchy-matchy

Listening to: Chris Botti. My Funny Valentine.

Three things about Chris Botti: 1) He has over 2000 followers on Twitter but 0 tweets; 2) I heard him at the Blue Note and he was way, way beyond what I expected; 3) the Kenny G-ish stuff you hear him doing on PBS is nothing like what he does in jazz clubs. Seriously.

My friends who’ve been following my jazz frustrations have been pushing me to find a new teacher, one that doesn’t make me want to cry in my lessons. And this week, I almost did it. I almost sent a text that said, “I’m done.” But somewhere in me, I couldn’t let go of the belief that L (let’s call her that) has something to teach me. Stubborn, masochistic, crazy. I know. But I today, I returned for another lesson.

My assignment this past week was to pick out a tune with my right hand and find some chords that went with it in the bass. So I did that and gathered a pretty cool list of chords to go with my G-minor -ish tune. I had a couple of core themes, a few riffs to hold everything together. I practiced. I had something to show for my week. I was ready to face my teacher.

The good news is: I didn’t get beat up. L listened to what I’d put together and liked what I was doing with the bass. I tend to go for minor 6ths and 9ths, moving in 4ths. So I had something going there. The problem was the tune. Which I knew was kind of lame.

My first attempt at songwriting, a few weeks ago, sounded like a church hymn. All my phrases ended in key. Once L pointed out the problem, I broke that habit, and my new song was a little better, but it wasn’t my kind of jazz. It was Yanni at Red Rocks. The New Age stuff that plays in the background when you get a massage. So I asked L, “What am I doing wrong?” The answer? Starting, staying and ending in clean G-minor. How do I fix it? Don’t be so matchy-matchy. (My phrase, not L’s). I hate it with clothes, hate it with music. And the way to get some color, some surprise, a little “hm” is diminished chords. That was the first thing I learned. The second: Sing words to create the tune, so the sounds connect to something real, rather than being atmospheric, wallpaper.

So I have my great set of chords for the bass, my diminished chords to put some flavor to my sound, and an idea for another piece. We did “Scarf song” in the lesson. But I think this week, I’m going to work on “dog song.”

Hey, this is where it starts. Love, pain and heartbreak require way more chords than what I’ve got — today. I’ll get there.

An evening with Justin Kauflin

Listening to: Justin Kauflin. A Day in the Life.

Amazing evening. My friend YY invited me to join her at the Triple Door to hear Justin Kauflin, who is in town as part of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). One of the films playing at SIFF is Keep on Keepin’ On, a tribute to legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry. Terry mentored a number of music greats, including Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, the film’s producer. Also in the film is Kauflin, whom Terry took under his wing, and the two musicians inspired each other.

When the emcee at the Triple Door said that Jones would be introducing Kauflin, I thought it was a joke. Quincy Jones? In this relatively small Seattle music club? And then, there he was. It turns out Jones grew up in the Seattle area, and he knows the Triple Door well.

I was completely starstruck. Quincy Jones. Twenty feet in front of me, telling a story about Clark Terry before introducing Justin Kauflin. (Even Kauflin, who’s Jones’ protege, seemed amazed to be sharing the stage with Jones. It probably never gets old.)

Kauflin is 28 years-old and looks like a kid at the piano, wearing an oversized suit. He’s blind, so he came on stage accompanied by his guide dog, Candy, and told the audience not to pet her after the show, that she’ll give you her “pet me” look, but she’s working, she knows that, so resist her.

I didn’t know Kauflin’s music until YY invited me to the concert and I looked him up on YouTube. He’s very much a musician in the process of becoming. Hugely talented, and he seems to love a wide range of sounds and styles. That’s what you get at his concert. It’s jazz. But jazz with lots of this and that. Kauflin is young, he’s fresh, and he’s someone to watch — to listen to — as he continues to develop a sound of his own.

Great concert. And I came home completely inspired. As soon as I walked through the door, I sat at my piano and played. Random chords with my left hand and a tune I made up with my right.

(Here’s a song Kauflin wrote for his Mom.)

The view from the piano lid

Listening to: Amy Winehouse. Someone to Watch Over Me.

This is the view from my piano when you thunk your forehead onto the top of the keyboard lid, muttering to yourself, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” after thirty minutes of playing random chords and producing nothing that sounds like music.

This week’s assignment from my piano teacher, who says she has me figured out and knows what I need to get out of my classical musician box, is to pick out a brief melody with my right hand and repeat it as I use my left hand to try out different chords, searching for sounds that fit.

Am I feeling like Jarrett? No, not tonight. In fact, I’d call it more of a Prof. Harold Hill experience. And I’m on the verge of a complete Think Method meltdown.

I have no insights to offer at this point. No breakthroughs. Maybe tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Dark Knight Returns

Listening to Take 5. Dave Brubeck. Long version. And Coltrane. My Favorite Things (1961).

I have a new Piccadilly sketchbook in which I take notes for the new book. For the last few weeks, I’ve been researching Diana/Artemis. More on that to come. Not today. Later.

Today my sketchbook was for superhero research. Actually, Batman research, as he provides a lot of inspiration for the main character in my story. And Gotham City helps me think about mood and setting. How to use darkness. I like the idea that daylight hides things that the night reveals. Bruce Wayne runs around during the day giving speeches at charity events with lots of other rich do-gooders. But at night, the city completely changes. Villainy reigns. Usually, we think of the “curtain of night.” But with Batman, night is an open stage.

This afternoon, I cracked open a couple of volumes of Batman, including Legends of the Dark Knight, which features a variety of artists and writers, offering their versions of the Bat. The real treat, though, was going back to the David Finch/Paul Jenkins Dark Knight: Knight Terrors Vol. 1 (2012). I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting both volumes, all issues. Just because.

The thing I love about Batman is that he has no superpowers. And he often gets hurt. With Batman, things could go either way: He could either knock out the bad guys or get knocked out himself. Superman? Not as interesting. He’s Super Man. You know he’ll always win. But that’s not true with Batman. He can’t fly around the world to reverse time or push over skyscrapers. So he never gets Gotham City fully cleaned up, because he can only take out criminals one bad guy at a time. He can’t do large scale heroics.

And he’s afraid. All the time. The monsters that come out at night in Gotham are, in many ways, manifestations of Batman’s own terrors. He doesn’t trust, and he doesn’t see himself as trustworthy.

According to Batman, “There is no such thing as peace. There is only war.” Interesting. Even though he fights to clean up Gotham, he doesn’t believe it can ever be done. Not in a sustainable way. That’s a pretty dark view of the world. And strange. Because it means Batman spends he life trying to accomplish what he doesn’t believe can be done.

Here’s a question, though, I’ve never thought about until I read Dark Knight again What makes Batman attractive? The White Rabbit calls him a “sexy bat.” Why? Just his looks? Or is it the brooding thing? His emotional vulnerability? That’s another aspect that’s distinct to Batman. Superman has krptonite, but Batman has guilt, fear, mistrust, and anger.

Christian Bale aside. What is it about Batman that draws people to him? He says he can’t be trusted, but people do trust him and want to be near him. Why?

I’m in a box

New Rule. (Yeah, I’m stealing this.) I’m going to start out with what I’m listening to as I write.

Began today with Lyle Lovett. Road to Ensenada. Hard to believe that’s 20 years old. Great background music for working on my website. Finally made this thing live.

And now I have Gershwin going. St. Louis orchestra with Jeffrey Siegel. Piano Concerto in F.

After last night’s anxiety post, here’s the lesson update. I completely get what David Sedaris was saying when he wrote about the French teacher who forced the class to describe Easter using only 4 verbs and 8 nouns.

In other words, I almost cried.

I started my lesson with a prepared speech on “this is how I learn” and explained that I was a little overwhelmed by all the chords my teacher was throwing at me. “Can I just learn to work with a few and then add more?” I tried to show her what I meant by playing a song I’d written using three chords (C7, F7, G7). My goal was to demonstrate that if I focused, I could learn how to do different things with a few tools at a time, like building blocks. And then I asked for another set of I-IV-V chords to try out. None of this went over very well. Apparently, I’m in a box and need to be spanked like a baby to knock me out of all the bad habits my years studying classical music have instilled in me.

I’m seeing a book in my future: Me Play Pretty One Day.

Bottom line: I didn’t get any new blocks to work with. And my assignment for this week is to play random chords and make up a short melody. No structure. No key. No anything. “Don’t even look,” she said.

I wonder if that also means, “Don’t write anything down.” I mean, would I be putting myself back in the box if I stumble onto something I like and write it down, so that I could do it again?

I don’t know. Maybe this is exactly what I need. Or. Maybe not. I’ll keep you posted.