Category Archives: writers

Star Wars – Empire Under Construction

Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.

star-wars-rogue-one

carrie-fisher-1956-2016-vida-longa-c3a0-princesa

With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)

star-wars-7

inspiration2tm
Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) and Harrison Ford in Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)

flashcrawl

92538

Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.

Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:

Hero – Luke Skywalker

Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.

Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids

Princess – Leia

Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.

Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.

For me, the structure is this;

star_wars_hidden_fortress

Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers

wed1-2
Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare (1968)
han_luke_stormarmor
Han Solo and Luke Skywalker similarly dressed as the enemy in the Death Star

Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)

hqdefault

Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd.

       

Negotiating The Godfather

 

Godfather Cat Red

There is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. It’s not the opening scene which perfectly establishes the power and darkness of Marlon Brando’s Godfather Vito Corleone and the tone of the film and the resulting trilogy. It isn’t one of the many classic lines; “I believe in America!” “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,”, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again…ever.” (a line which foreshadows Michael Corleone’s murder of his brother and eventual moral downfall as he destroys his own family). It’s not the big, showy assassination scenes or the unforgettable minor characters that are patiently sketched out. I could go on listing all the many examples of masterpiece writing.

Godfather Negotiates With Sollozo

The scene I’m referring to is the subtle and under-appreciated negotiation scene with thug-on-the-rise Virgil Sollozzo a.k.a. The Turk. Brando’s Godfather is there as is his son Sonny (James Caan) and two of their henchmen with The Turk at the negotiating table. It is a verbal game of cards with everyone keeping their opinions close to their chests and giving nothing away. It is the 1940s just after World War II. The Turk wants money from the Corleone family to set up a drug-dealing operation (after the Prohibition booze boom of the the 30s, drugs would be the next one for organised crime) which is “infamita” and unacceptable to Brando’s Godfather. This frustrates The Turk and also Corleone’s son who can see the huge opportunity to get in early to the drugs market and make vast profits.

Godfather Sollozzo

The Turk offers a sweetener that rival mob family The Tattaglias will guarantee the Corleone family’s investment. Hot-headed Sonny foolishly puts all his cards on the table and reveals an eagerness for the deal. “Wait a minute,” Sonny says, “are you telling me that The Tattaglias will guarantee our investment?” There are subtle reaction shots from everyone around the table. It’s a huge mistake and all of them know it immediately. The Godfather tries to reprimand his son and makes apologies for his rashness but it is too late. A division in the family is now revealed and Sollozzo can start to take lethal action to get his deal.

Godfather Tries To Stop Sonny

That one line will change the course of the rest of the movie and the other two films that follow. It will result in the death of Sonny Corelone, the attempted murder of his father Vito, the exile of his brother Michael (Al Pacino) to Sicily for taking revenge on Sollozzo and a crooked cop and Michael’s subsequent merciless rise to power on his return, the near-destruction of The Corleone family and an all-out war between the five Mafia families.

Godfather Assassination Attempt

 

Godfather Sonny Shot

Sonny dies before most of these things happen, so he never sees the full consequences of his actions, but we don’t in life. We see some of them, but never all. Another nice touch in the screenplay. The Corleone family are clearly based on the Kennedy clan and their rise from immigrant obscurity to power and success in America with help from organised crime. There then followed assassinations and an unbelievable litany of tragedies just like the Corleones endure. No wonder Americans lapped up  The Godfather in the early 70s; they were watching their own history writ large with the drama bringing them even closer inside it.

The Sollozzo negotiation scene is rarely commented upon but it is masterful in its execution. Sonny’s unthinking rage is the Achilles heel of the Corleone family, a thread sticking out of a quilt that is gently tugged upon to start the whole thing unravelling. A superb piece of writing that, in a movie that is all about strength and power, reveals a realistic human frailty. The moment is even foreshadowed by Brando who says: “Women and children can be careless but never men.” A great deal of clever planning has gone into the script’s epic construction by Coppola and Mario Puzo based on Puzo’s 1969 novel of the same name. It rightly won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Text: © Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved

The Godfather © Paramount Pictures

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Legacy?

“I’m not just a boxer!” Muhammad Ali once said. He wasn’t. He was so much more than that. Apart from his fluid, balletic boxing skills in the ring, he was one of the first sportsmen to use psychology to wear down his opponents before a punch had been thrown. He was fighting some of the toughest, hardest-punching men in the world but he cleverly figured out that they had built up their bodies but neglected their minds. So he used words like weapons, chipping away at his rival’s psyche until they were beaten men and didn’t even know it. That tactic certainly worked with the brutish Sonny Liston in the 60s. Just watch the old black-and-white press conferences as Ali fires one verbal missile after another and world champion Liston can’t believe what he’s hearing from this cocky young pup.

Ali I Am The Greatest

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay. He changed his name for this reason: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.” He grew up in a time when black Americans were third-class citizens. He won the Light Heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, came back to America, and, when they refused to serve him in a restaurant because of his colour, he went outside and threw his gold medal in the river. Even after becoming Olympic champion for America, no one believed in him. So he believed in himself. He could use words to attack but he could also use words to pump himself up. He called himself The Greatest until he and the world believed it. It gave him the confidence, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, to make his dreams a reality against the tide of begrudgers who wished him ill.

He used words to taunt but he also wrote poems, told jokes and gave speeches to inspire. Some credit Ali with being the first rapper and creating hip-hop music.

Ali Handcuffed Lightning

In 1974, Ali had perhaps his most famous fight, The Rumble in The Jungle in Zaire, Africa against George Foreman. Nobody gave the ageing Ali a chance. If you watch the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, you’ll see the extraordinary mental process Ali engaged in to psych himself up for the fight. He begins at the first press conference asking who thinks he can win the fight. Nobody does and he seems down. Then he goes on the attack against his critics. Then he starts working on himself: “Everybody’s scared…there’s nothing to be scared of!” You can see he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying yet but he keeps going. He turned to his religion for reassurance: “All I need is a prayer because if that prayer reaches the right man, not only will George Foreman fall, mountains will fall!” Ali refused to watch Foreman training, even when they passed each other in the gym. He blocked out his fear. Then Ali tried a different form of psychology on Foreman, a similar brute to Sonny Liston. Ali was 32 then, his speed had left him and he needed a new tactic. He called it rope-a-dope in which he would go to the ropes and absorb punishment before launching a surprise counterattack when the other fighter was exhausted.

Ali Foreman

When fight night came, Ali started throwing right-hand leads at Foreman. As in any battle, doing the thing your opponent least expects usually ends favourably. A right-hand lead has to travel twice as far across the shoulder to land and it’s hugely disrespectful to any fighter especially the champion of the world to catch him with one let alone twelve as Ali did. Foreman, enraged, punched himself out in the blistering African heat and Ali shocked the world by winning back his world title at the past-it age of 32.

Ali Knocks Out Foreman

Ali was a political figure too. He became a black Muslim and changed his name, that was a political act. He was involved in the Civil Rights struggle with Malcolm X, that was a political act. And he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army to go fight in Vietnam, there is no greater political act than that. He said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” Ali was stripped of his titles, boxing licence and was out of the ring for four years in his prime. He didn’t sit around and mope but went on a tour of American colleges to get the young people on his side (and against the war) with his wit, charm and intelligence. Another political act.

Ali He who is not courageous

Those four years out of boxing cost Ali huge sums of money. Financial pressure and his enormous pride made Ali continue fighting long past his prime. His last, disgraceful fight came three months before his 39th birthday. An ailing, flabby Ali was easily outclassed and hurt by his old sparring partner Larry Holmes. It was an undignified end to an incredible career.

Then began the next great fight of his life when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome and the verbose Ali was replaced with a trembling, whispering giant. He still managed to light the Olympic flame at the 1996 games, a highlight for anyone who remembers it. His condition worsened in recent years until he was unable to speak. For the last 30 years, this has been his frail public image. If any good comes from his death, it will be that all his classic clips will get aired again so today’s youth can see what the man was like in his dazzling pomp.

joe_frazier

Ali had a dark side too. Fellow boxer Joe Frazier helped Ali out financially when he was banned from the ring. Ali later turned on Frazier, ruined his reputation by calling him an Uncle Tom and a bitter feud developed between them.

Frazier Drops Ali Bigger

It resulted in Frazier breaking Ali’s jaw and knocking him out in their epic Madison Square Garden encounter in 1971 (that resulted in Ali being out of the ring again for a good while). Despite having a white Irish great-grandfather named Abe Grady who’d married a freed slave out of love (not slave rape as Ali conveniently claimed), Ali said some nasty, racist things about white people including: “The white man is The Devil!” He even compared the white race to poisonous snakes. Pretty distasteful stuff but typical of the hardline rhetoric he was absorbing from radicals around him at the time. In 1972, Ali went to Ireland and received a rapturous reception from a then all-white country. Jose Torres, journalist and former world light-heavyweight champion who accompanied Ali to Dublin, said: “I want to tell you something now: I think that it was his experience in Ireland that reminded him of the goodness of white people and he began easing his attacks on the white man after that. It was when he began to take out of his dictionary the talk about the white devils. How could he think bad of white people when every street he walked down in Ireland, he had all these white people loving him?” In 2009, Muhammad Ali journeyed to Ennis in Ireland (below) where his great-grandfather came from and everything came full circle.

Ali Ennis Boxing Pose

Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ali is “a man more sinned against than sinning.” History will be kind to him.

Muhammad-Ali-quote-on-Elvis

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the Soviet news agency Tass granted him American icon status along with Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola. Muhammad Ali has more than earned that status too. So long denied recognition, Ali forced the United States to overcome its prejudices and acknowledge him and his people. That is perhaps his greatest victory and a lasting legacy that will inspire people of every race, colour and creed for generations to come. May he rest in peace.

Ali How I Would Like To Be Remembered

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Power of Dreams, The Richness of Nightmares

Dreams have inspired thinkers of all kinds to come up with great works throughout history. Author Salman Rushdie referred to it earlier this week as “the world of imagination and dream, the irrational world which is not subject to logic.”

The theory of relativity is alleged to have come to Albert Einstein in a dream. The genre of science fiction owes its existence to the nightmare Mary Shelley had that inspired her to write the novel Frankenstein in 1816. Bram Stoker had an erotic dream about female vampires ravishing him after a crab supper one night. That surreal spark lit the touchpaper of his classic vampire novel Dracula and became the “brides of Dracula” sequence.

shining_jack_stare

A nightmare inspired Stephen King to write The Shining:

“In late September of 1974, Tabby and I spent a night at a grand old hotel in Estes Park, the Stanley. We were the only guests as it turned out, the following day they were going to close the place down for the winter. Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect – maybe the archetypal – setting for a ghost story. That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his over shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of the bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”

Misery

A nightmare also inspired King to write Misery:

“I was on Concorde, flying over here, to Brown’s. I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.’ Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel.”

James Cameron was in Rome in the early 1980s. The production company behind his directorial debut Pirahna II: Flying Killers (you’re not missing much, folks) fired him. He was starving and penniless. In his hotel room, he had the “fever dream” that would lead to his big breakthrough – The Terminator:

“I was sick at the time. I had a high fever. I was just lying on the bed thinking and came up with all this bizarre imagery … I think also the idea that because I was in a foreign city by myself and I felt very dissociated from humanity in general, it was very easy to project myself into these two characters from the future who were out of sync, out of time, out of place.”

stingj0487d1

Dreams can even inspire musical compositions. Singer/songwriter Sting keeps a diary of his dreams and he named his 1985 album “The Dream of the Blue Turtles” after one of them.

Brian May

Queen guitarist Brian May on how he wrote the classic track We Will Rock You:

“Queen played a gig at Bingley Hall near Birmingham. It was a popular venue at the time. It was a big sweaty barn and that night it was packed with a particularly vocal crowd. They were definitely drowning us out with their enthusiasm. I remember that even after we left the stage they didn’t stop singing – loudly. They sang You’ll Never Walk Alone, which is very emotional. Quite a choking thing really. I certainly found it inspirational. Later that night back at our hotel I said to the others, “That was great. So what should we do to continue generating that kind of energetic response?” I woke up with the We Will Rock You lyrics in my head and had it written in about 10 minutes.”

macca-sleep

A similar thing happened to Paul McCartney when he wrote The Beatles classic Yesterday:

“I just fell out of bed and it was there. I have a piano by the side of my bed and just got up and played the chords. I thought I must have heard it the night before or something, and spent about three weeks asking all the music people I knew, ‘What is this song?’ I couldn’t believe I’d written it.”

The idea for my first book The Vorbing also came to me through a dream. I’m not for one minute comparing myself or my book to the aforementioned works of genius. Their reputations are set in stone, mine has yet to begin. I am merely stating that the process was the same for me. It was in June 1996 that I had a nightmare, a fragment of a dream really about vampires. They were coming out of the sky and flattening people around me. I woke up and ran downstairs to type it up before I forgot it. I wrote a short story that would become the first chapter of The Vorbing. From there, I kept working on it every day that summer. I was not on the internet then, so there were no distractions. I recreated the world of my dream on the page and then expanded it to see where it would take me. I was about to start the second year of my acting course and was so lucky to continue being paid during the summer recess. I could put 100% into seeing if I could write a book for the first time. Somehow I did and it felt like climbing a mountain.

It did become an obsession. I had not chosen to write a book about vampires, they had chosen me to write about them for some reason and I couldn’t stop. Now, 19 years later, the book is nearly ready for release. It is a time of great excitement but also great uncertainty as I push my baby chick out of the nest to see if it can fly. Some will try to shoot it down, no doubt, but some will also give my baby a chance and nurture it. Vampires should fly at Halloween and this year, The Vorbing takes flight.

“I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” – William Butler Yeats

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Reinforcing The Unknown

“I’ve come to the conclusion that mythology is really a form of archaeological psychology. Mythology gives you a sense of what a people believes, what they fear.”

George Lucas

Propaganda is most effective when it enhances beliefs that already exist in a society or culture. That was the conclusion that marketing analysts came to after studying German propaganda from the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis did a superb job of disseminating their obnoxious brand of hate. They did not create the anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. It already simmered covertly and sometimes overtly in Germany and the other countries that fell under German control. All they did was encourage it, make it legal and allow it to flourish. It was perhaps similar to the witchcraft hysteria that swept Europe in the Middle Ages and the belief that if “evil” scapegoats were exterminated, everything would return to an Eden-like Utopia. Precedents have proved important in making incidents happen throughout human history.

Even the Nazi symbol of the swastika means “hooked cross” in German. The symbol of the swastika had benignly existed in Neolithic times and in other cultures until Hitler twisted it into his genocidal logo. Even so, the Nazi swastika was surreptitiously piggybacking on the Christian iconography of the crucifix to sweeten a bitter pill and render it acceptable en masse.

“The story being told in ‘Star Wars’ is a classic one. Every few hundred years, the story is retold because we have a tendency to do the same things over and over again.”

George Lucas

Propaganda is the propagation of an idea. That goes for creativity too. George Lucas managed to collapse and rebrand many different mythological and historical archetypes, icons and structures into his Star Wars series. Take the Jedi knights for example. They were the protectors of the Old Republic. Just as King Arthur had his Knights of the Round Table, Roman Emperors had their Praetorian Guard and Hitler had his SS Liebstandarte personal bodyguard, the Jedi/Sith orders were riffs on structures that people were consciously or unconsciously aware of. Thus it leant an automatic credibility to Lucas’s ideas.

Ridley Scott did something similar with Alien. There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like but nothing concrete. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by conceptual artist H.R. Giger titled Necronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style that came across as suffocating biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.

hr_giger_alien_ii-copy

The creature collapsed many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth that recalled the vagina dentata (the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in ways that were not apparent at first.

It could be one reason why some sequels don’t work as they move too far away from what people already know and want. The best artists know how to give the public something similar in a new way.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Vampires In The Brain: The Genesis of The Vorbing

The only comment at the end of the first report card I ever got from school at age five said: “Stewart writes very interesting stories.” I can remember having a discussion with my headmaster in front of the class about the Watergate situation. He was impressed that a five-year-old even knew the word Watergate let alone the political and judicial situation. That was my dad’s influence; he treated me like an adult from the start and made me aware of things. My mother’s side of the family had a lot of performers. She herself had the rare gift of having one of those pure singing voices that brought an instant hush to the noisiest party. Such a shame the world never got to hear it as she is no longer with us.

As all children at the time did, I was into comics. Yes, the paper ones. Ones from England like The Beano, The Dandy, Buster (my brother’s comic of choice that I read when he was finished with them) and Whizzer & Chips. I particularly liked the cut-out masks of Guy Fawkes that came with them around November 5th as we don’t celebrate Guy Fawkes Night in Ireland (The Gunpowder Plot being an infamous part of British history) Look-In was my favourite kids magazine with articles on movies, TV shows and music. When Star Wars came out, I did buy the Star Wars comic too and enjoyed seeing characters from the movie spinoff into different adventures. There was even a Laurel and Hardy comic out then and a Popeye one as well. To this day, I can still draw a pretty good Popeye in under 60 seconds. (Today’s kids don’t do tangible. They’re mostly gamers, especially boys, and their first experiences are visual and online and remain so. There are phenomena like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games that give hope that the younger generation are keeping up literary traditions and forging their own path.)

Television gets a bad rap these days with some parents refusing to let their children watch it, but that’s a mistake. There was an excellent news show tailored for children on the BBC called John Craven’s Newsround. I watched that from Monday to Friday for years. Through that, I began to form opinions about things. I started to agree with one thing but not with another. Even just the awareness of what was going on around the world at that time like The Cold War shaped my world view. Denying children access to that is closing them off from reality and knowledge. Reading about something is one thing, seeing it happen in front of your eyes makes you a witness to history (all of that culminating in 9/11, a day I’ll never forget). Of course, there is selective editing from the journalist and news corporation’s viewpoints but the gist of it is yours to decipher and absorb. You come to an understanding of that later in life. An opinion makes your writing specific and different from others.

I saw the old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie The Hound of The Baskervilles on television one afternoon when I was around nine and was fascinated (you could argue that its Gothic influence is all over my novel The Vorbing). I saw the book on sale for 99p in my local supermarket and snapped it up. The book was even better than the film and a love of reading was born. I did endure an unfortunate Sherlock Holmes-related incident when I got a book on the Holmes movies from my local library. I returned it on time but received a threatening card in the post from the library saying the book was overdue. I told them I had returned it but for three years the threatening communiqués kept arriving. Not a nice experience for a kid who had done nothing wrong to go through. Finally, they copped on that the book was in fact back with them in the library just as I had told them all along.  I never got an apology only an admission that they were wrong. That experience put me off libraries and I usually buy the books I read now. It’s also probably why I can’t stand unfairness and bullying and will stop it as no one did that for me.

My school library proved to be a much more lenient and fruitful experience for me. The books were stacked along the windowsill of the classroom and they had a wide variety of texts. I read Rudyard Kipling, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and even The Iliad by Homer. There were books of ghost stories that I was just entranced by (even better if they were true, I always hated the endings of Scooby Doo cartoons when the ghosts weren’t real). A documentary came out at that time about the Bermuda Triangle and I was lucky that my local cinema actually screened documentaries. I urged my dad to take me to it and he did along with my brother. As with Sherlock, there was a book of the movie by Charles Berlitz. It was my dad’s birthday soon after the film opened, so I got him the book knowing that I could read it if I wanted to and I did. I remember one dull, wet morning our teacher was late or absent and I just took out my Bermuda Triangle book and lost myself in it. The rest of the class were getting louder and louder with unsupervised boredom. I heard none of it. I was off the coast of Bermuda searching for Flight 19 and various other missing planes and ships. I went further in that area by buying a magazine on the paranormal called The Unexplained. It covered not only the Bermuda Triangle but also Bigfoot and even things like spontaneous combustion with graphic photos that earned me major brownie points in the schoolyard.

In later years, I came across the work of James Ellroy, my favourite fiction writer. He has written L.A. Confidential and other noir thrillers. There is a great, obsessive rhythm to his work. It is expletive-ridden and gloriously politically incorrect. His attitude is, if you don’t like something he’s written: “Fuck you, put the book down.”

I also discovered the works of Antony Beevor, my favourite non-fiction author. In recent years, he has released one definitive text on World War II after another, his masterpiece being Stalingrad. The numerous awards it has won and the seemingly endless ecstatic blurb quotes by big names aren’t there for nothing. Again, The Vorbing is steeped in warfare and the influence of Beevor’s minutely-detailed but heart-wrenching battles scenes bleed into my vampire novel. My dad was also a soldier and so war has always been there in the background.

So now I come to put my own first book out there in October. It is surreal to think I will soon see a book with my name on it, in my hands and on the internet. To think someone could hopefully derive pleasure from something I have written is a thrill beyond words. Perhaps I could even inspire someone else to write something the way my heroes directly and indirectly inspired me. That is the literary baton we pass from generation to generation going right back to the oral tradition passed down the generations around the campfire and hearth. Long may it continue.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

(This blog was first published on my website earlier; http://thevorbing.com/2015/07/vampires-in-the-brain-the-genesis-of-the-vorbing/)

Don’t Shoot The Watchman

Readership implies ownership. It is something I have said many times before and no doubt will again. Getting a book published is a struggle in itself, hoping that book finds its audience and building up a devoted readership is even harder and takes years. Keeping that readership happy while staying true to yourself, your characters and their world is perhaps the hardest thing of all. Once people financially invest in your book and become emotionally invested in your creations, there is an implied ownership. They feel they have the right to disagree and even to pillory the author and, through internet reviews and social media comments, that has never been easier.

Such is the case with Harper Lee’s second and probably final novel, Go Set A Watchman. It’s been touted as the sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning-classic To Kill A Mockingbird when, in fact, it is really a rejected early draft of Mockingbird. It was written before Mockingbird, so it is not as if Harper Lee sat down and took a chainsaw to her beloved book. We know that early drafts, especially by young writers who are trying to find themselves and their voices, can go through vast changes before the finished manuscript is ready. So be kind in your judgement of this work-in-progress. We are privileged to be able to read it. As a writing exercise, it will be fascinating to see where she started out, what was kept, discarded and shaped into what became To Kill A Mockingbird.

Ironically, in a novel with race and racism as its central themes, the characters in Mockingbird are morally as well as racially black and white. The good and evil characters are clearly delineated. While this makes it easier for readers to understand the story, it is not how people really are. We are flawed and various shades of grey, perhaps more than fifty. I have always felt that Atticus Finch was less of a realistic character and more of a mould into which we pour our noble aspirations about ourselves. He is the perfect father and the courageous lawyer taking on the case no one else wants because he feels it is right. If Atticus Finch has become the “bigot” that early reviewers claim (and I have not read Go Set A Watchman yet) then it just reflects how people can change and go against the principles of their youth. We know, for instance, that Elliot Ness, the Untouchable who enforced Prohibition and brought down Al Capone, developed a drink problem later in life. The heroic early Ness is what we focus on because we want to believe in brave, righteous people like him and Atticus. The reality is much different. No one is all good or all bad. All of us are capable of compassion and kindness or great evil. That is the imperfect human condition.

It could be one reason why people withdraw from the media tag of hero when some major incident happens. They are aware that it is an impossible ideal to live up to that will severely restrict them in the future. Harper Lee is finding that out right now with the role model she created in Atticus Finch.

There have also been allegations that 89-year-old Harper Lee, who is partially blind and deaf and in assisted living accommodation, has been duped into releasing this book against her wishes. It is as if people don’t want to believe she would willingly publish something that would change Atticus Finch so drastically. She insists that she wants the book released. I say good luck to her. Writers must be free to do as they please with their creations. That is the joy of the creative process. The racism Harper Lee wrote about was a legacy of slavery which was a form of extreme control and a denial of freedom. In a further irony, her readership is now trying to exert control to deny Harper Lee the freedom to express herself how she wants (one reviewer even went so far as to suggest that Watchman would change Harper Lee’s own legacy. Nonsense.) It is a form of censorship, and, as my old acting teacher used to say: “Don’t censor yourself, that’s when all the interesting stuff appears.” Very true.

So don’t shoot The Watchman. Welcome them in, give them a chance and listen, really listen, to their tale and the uncomfortable truths therein.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

The Vorbing Cometh…

The provisional publishing dates from my fantasy/horror Vorbing trilogy (a.k.a. The Dubhtayl Saga) are as follows;

The Vorbing Part I – October 2015

The Vorbing Part II – January 2016

The Vorbing Part III – October – December 2016

Today, I reached the 8,000-word mark on The Vorbing Part II. I was being a bit impatient with myself with the new book. I had 18 years to get the first one right but today I really did some terrific writing and surprised myself. I added another layer of complexity to what was already there, I can feel it starting to come together and it’s really exciting.

That is how most writers write though, they get the bare bones finished first and then start slapping more clay on to shape it and layer in the detail

I even found an amazing piece of dialogue for my new vampire scribbled in the back of one of my notebooks. If I hadn’t written that down or lost the notebook, it would’ve been gone forever. It just proves how important it is to note down or voice record ideas because you cannot think of them afterwards. I had a blog post before entitled “Fishing in the Stream of Consciousness” and that’s what ideas are like. They swim past and then they go back to wherever ideas come from never to return. I love the idea of rescuing little nuggets from the numbness of amnesia.

I remember seeing a documentary about The Bee Gees. Barry Gibb recalled waking up in the middle of the night with the idea for their number one hit “You Win Again” in his head but he couldn’t find his tape recorder. He was running around in the dark going “where the bloody hell is it?” while humming the tune over and over again so he didn’t forget it. Luckily, he found the tape recorder. When his brother Robin heard it, he said, “That’s a hit.” He was right.

So remember the five P’s when it comes to ideas – Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. A design for life, to quote another song, if ever I heard one.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

(This blog first appeared on my website on February 16th; http://thevorbing.com/2015/02/the-vorbing-cometh/)

The 20-Year Itch

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

It’s the number one question writers get asked most. You can get ideas from anywhere, dreams can inspire you, memories, other books, radio and television, a conversation you overhear in the street or an online article or YouTube clip you might come across. As long as your mind is open to new ideas, there are infinite possibilities. Primarily, it’s my imagination that is the source of my ideas. You end up repeating that after a while and it gets boring. So now I tell a tall tale of meeting a person of restricted height named Eric in a Dublin alleyway, I slip him a brown envelope of cash and he slips me the ideas. Scarily, some people lean forward, wide-eyed and go: “Really???” That’s the joy of being a writer; you’re preaching to the converted, people want to believe what you’re telling them.

“How did you become a writer?”

That would be the next most-asked question to writers.

“Fleas,” I always reply.

WTF? their expressions say.

It’s true though, I became a writer because of fleas. The summer of 1995 was a real scorcher in Dublin. I got quite badly sunburned, the dark red agonising kind that you can’t get any relief from. The heatwave had an effect on my pets too and they got fleas. So I went to the pet store to get flea spray to destroy the little buggers. On the way home, I decided to stop off at the library to see if there were any good books worth reading, perhaps some on fleas or sunburn which were the pressing issues of my day. That was when I saw a leaflet on a table.

Interested in acting? it said

Yeah, I thought through my dark red pain.

So I applied for the acting course and was accepted. For the next two years I was there and it was a wonderful time in my life. There was a writing module on the course where we’d be given writing topics and meet up once a week to share and critique our ideas. It was then that I began to write seriously for the first time. My book, The Vorbing, began life during the summer break between Year 1 and Year 2 of the course. It was great because I continued to get paid from the course during the summer recess and could devote all my time to writing and I did. I’d finally found what I wanted to do in life and it was and still is very exciting for me. So, yes, I have to thank those fleas that I nuked back in the summer of 1995 for changing the direction of my life. Thanks, fleas. RIP you little bastards. The acting course is still going today long after my departure. The 20th anniversary reunion for all past pupils is at the end of this month. I will be in attendance. Boy George once said: “Unfortunately, with all these reunions you get to a point where you start remembering why you left.” We shall see. I owe that course a lot and I’ll be showing up as my way of saying thanks. Sunburn and fleas are optional.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

Back To Black: From Exterminator to Ex-Terminator?

The-Terminator-Poster

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the movie “The Terminator.” Even though it had been made in 1984, I didn’t catch up with it until October 1986. My parents had gone out for the night to my cousin’s 21st birthday party and I was left alone to watch whatever I wanted (a new and thrilling experience for a teenage boy!). They had also gone out the previous Friday and I’d rented a double bill of Bruce Lee movies (inspired by the early Jean Claude Van Damme movie “No Retreat, No Surrender” where Bruce Lee returns from the dead to teach a young guy how to overcome the evil Muscles from Brussels.)

This time I decided to choose a movie I’d had my eye on for a while. I had seen the phonebook-sized VHS cover with the word Schwarzenegger on it. I didn’t know who Schwarzenegger was, but the name sounded foreign, unpronounceable and vaguely threatening. He also looked cool in his shades, leather jacket and with his gun raised up by his face. I had no idea who James Cameron was either (I didn’t particularly notice or care about movie credits then). I think I’d gotten it mixed up in my head with a film called “The Exterminator” that my friends had told me about in school. They said something about The Exterminator putting a gangster in a mincing machine and teenage boys love a bit of cartoon gore like that. So, after school, I cycled over on my Raleigh racing bike and booked “The Terminator” before anyone else could.

As soon as my parents went out, I popped the cassette into our suitcase-sized Blaupunkt video recorder. I had no idea of the unique quality of the movie I was about to watch. From the moment the future war sequence appeared on the screen, I knew I was watching something really different. Then this legend appeared:

The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire.
Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.
It would be fought here, in our present.

Tonight…

I was spellbound. After the eerie opening images of Skynet’s probes and flying Hunter Killers (the precursors of today’s drones?) prowling the rubble of a skull-covered WMD-flattened city (the nuclear nightmare of every kid who grew up from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, including myself), there was now the promise of something even more exciting. How good was this movie going to get?

After the ominous Terminator theme tune by Brad Fiedel, we get to the time-travellers who in arrive in Los Angeles circa 1984. James Cameron, like John Carpenter before him, proves himself to be a master of atmosphere (indeed, the music for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” and “The Terminator” are very similar in parts and both movies deal with killer robots masquerading as humans). Both directors know how to use silence and shadows and even humour before hitting the audience with big shocks. The Terminator does ape the noirish photography, electronic soundtrack and editing techniques (Mark Goldblatt also edited Halloween II three years previously) of the Halloween series which was probably a clever move by Cameron as they were hugely popular at the box office then.

I was thrilled by Michael Biehn’s theft of a pair of Nike running boots as, believe it or not; I was wearing an identical pair of them as I watched this movie. I had bought them when I was on holiday with my family during the summer of 1986 and they served me well. The similarity in our footwear convinced me that this was a movie for me!

To cut a long story short, I was completely hooked from start to finish on the movie. I didn’t want it to end. But end it did and I turned over to watch one of those naughty “Red Triangle” movies they were screening on Channel 4 at the time. This one turned out to be Japanese.

Two months later, I went to see “Aliens” with my brother after he came home from America. (30,000 people emigrated from Ireland in 1986; my brother was one of them). So I suddenly got a double dose of James Cameron’s first movies all at once.

James Cameron, wanted “The Terminator” to be a film “that a twelve-year-old would think was the most rad picture he’d ever seen,” but also one “that a forty-five-year-old Stanford English professor would think had some sort of socio-political significance between the lines.” I can understand both perspectives looking at the film now and remembering my teenage experience of it that Friday night.

Terminator_2_poster

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as happened with the edgy protagonists in the Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon franchises, the Terminator character is softened greatly. He becomes a family-friendly, wisecracking father figure and is no longer the ruthless, casually homicidal character he was in the first film. The character and the sequel lost the intense, nihilistic feel of the original by letting the audience off the hook through comic relief. The end of the world doesn’t seem so terrifying if you’re laughing at it. It coincided with Schwarzenegger’s initial forays into politics and his association with the Kennedy family through his marriage to Maria Shriver and campaigning for President George Bush Sr. So it could have been an overt attempt by Arnold to exercise his star power and reboot his image. There is also the possibility that the studio and/or James Cameron wanted to tone down the violence to get a lower age rating for the movie to make more money and that it did (The Terminator got an 18 certificate age rating in the UK, Terminator 2 got a 15).

I’m looking forward to seeing Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, whenever he brings out a movie you’re going to sit up and take notice. He’s hired the writers of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to help him with the “Avatar” sequel scripts and they’re talented scribes. It should be interesting to see what they come up with. The fourth sequel to Cameron’s The Terminator, “Terminator Genisys” is coming out in summer 2015. (Schwarzenegger’s movies since his comeback after politics haven’t been great. Escape Plan with his pal Stallone is easily his best post-Governor movie and performance. The rest have been forgettable and Arnold looks tired and bored in them with no sign of his old charisma or one-liners.) The Terminator has undergone another image change for “Terminator Genisys” to reflect where Arnold is now and his android assassin will have grey hair in the new film. Yes, will people take to a granddaddy cybernetic organism? We shall see.

Grey Arnold

So Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, like The Terminator, will be back, if separately. Let’s hope they can reach the levels that they did with their unforgettable first collaboration. If not, we can always time travel to the original again any time we want by putting it on our TVs. Arnold’s not an ex-Terminator yet.

Terminator-Genisys-4

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.