Four great podcasts

By Alan Glynn

It’s commonplace these days for people to declare, proudly, almost defiantly, that their attention span isn’t what it used to be, that it has been shot to bits, atomized, and chiefly by overexposure to digital technology. I do this myself, because that’s very often how it feels. My typical day, like everyone else’s, is an endless, relentlessly twitchy interaction with my various online accounts. I check Mail and Twitter dozens of times (an hour), I select articles that look interesting, save them for later, and never go near them again. I watch movies on a ridiculously small screen in ten-minute increments over a period of . . . days. I bob along the clickstream, like a smack addict gamboling in a field of poppies, never satisfied, retaining nothing, craving more.

But this is just the way it is, right? This is how Mother Technology wants it, her servile legions of content bots lined up and waiting for the next nanosuckle.

If this is really the case, though – I find myself wondering – how do we account for the podcast? Not all podcasts, clearly, but a strain of the form has emerged recently that is muscular, self-reliant, and unapologetically counterintuitive. This motherfucker demands, and gets, your attention. What we’re talking about here are essentially extended interviews, one- and sometimes even two-hour-long conversations, usually uninterrupted, that are substantial, probing, often surprising, and ultimately satisfying in a way that has become all-too rare in the Clicktopia.

And as a form it has developed organically. No one planned this, in the way that no-one thought the talkies would ever catch on or that SMS text-messaging would ever be anything other than a gimmick. The bastard child of online radio and the now quaint-sounding “audio-blogging”, the podcast has elbowed its way into the mainstream and surely has a bright future ahead of it. Of course, there are thousands of them out there, and many different types, so any selection will necessarily be limited and personal.

For me, the extended interview is where it’s at, and I believe the podcast has given the form a new lease of life. Some of the interviews I’ve listened to recently on the Kevin Pollak Chat Show, on Marc Maron’s WTF, on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, and on The Moment with Brian Koppelman, are among the most riveting, involving and stimulating examples of the form I’ve ever come across.

And the mainstream extended interview itself has a pretty interesting history. In print – and again, selection here is inevitably personal – the two biggies would have to be the Paris Review and Playboy. The collected Paris Review interviews has been an indispensable resource for writers for decades, and although I didn’t have access to Playboy growing up in Ireland in the late 70s and early 80s, I did have a book (all text) of collected interviews from the mag (edited by G. Barry Golson) that was nothing short of astonishing to me. Here were really long in-depth interviews with the likes of Miles Davis, Vladimir Nabokov, Marlon Brando, Timothy Leary, and – holy shit – Albert Speer.

On TV, at the same time, there was Parkinson, a late-night BBC chat show, hosted by Michael Parkinson. This was one full hour, no commercial breaks, often a single guest – Orson Welles, say, or Muhammad Ali – and just great, natural conversation. Parkinson bagged a whole generation of Hollywood greats in their later years and got them to talk, and tell stories, in a way no one had ever heard before – real golden-age “icons” talking candidly and at length, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, and many more. Parkinson’s unobtrusive style allowed his guests to relax and open up, and he also showcased comedians in a way that has rarely been seen since. I remember people like Peter Cook and Dudley More, Morecombe and Wise, Les Dawson, Peter Sellers, Billy Connolly, and others, being funnier on Parkinson than they ever were in their own acts, shows or movies.

Post-Parky, the TV celebrity interview fell into a sharp decline, with subsequent hosts making the show increasingly about themselves – step forward Russell Harty, Terry Wogan, Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton. Norton’s show is entertaining, but he is the undisputed ringmaster, and the format – three guests all together on the couch, the questions flitting around chaotically – is tailor-made for the attention-deficit age.

In the US (as far as I understand it), for any kind of substance, there was Dick Cavett back in the day, then Larry King, and now Charlie Rose. Otherwise, it’s the six-minute late-night chat show segment – Carson, Letterman, Leno, Conan, Fallon – something that Kevin Pollak has repeatedly said he wants to provide an alternative to. And with his podcast often running to a whopping two hours an episode he’s certainly succeeding.

And man, what a two hours it is. As on the other podcast shows mentioned, the guests tend to be actors, writers, musicians or comics, and while Pollak retains certain conventions of the chat show – the sidekick thing, for example – the conversation will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard on TV. And I don’t just mean the swearing – there is an honesty and a commitment here that is incredibly refreshing, to the point that you almost feel like you’re eavesdropping. The podcast “space” is different, there is an intimacy to it, a freedom, but also a Wild West-ish sense that no one has written the rulebook yet. It’s remarkable how often you’ll hear a guest declare that a thing they’ve just said had never occurred to them before, or that this is the first time they’ve ever said it out loud. And, crucially, you believe them. Listen to Pollak interviewing James L. Brooks, Jon Favreau, Eddie Izzard. (And if you’re lucky, ace impressionist Pollak will give you an occasional hit of Shatner or Albert Brooks along the way.)

In some respects, Marc Maron’s WTF is the cathedral of podcasts – a cathedral constructed inside a garage. Maron apparently fell into podcasting as a last ditch attempt to save his career and stumbled on something he turned out to be really good at – sharing and eliciting the dark and deeply personal shit that most people want to hide but that also very often reveals itself to be the motor of their creativity. Maron is both vulnerable and fractious, but he’s also curious and deeply empathetic. Among other things, his show is an insider’s history of stand-up comedy, with the archive of interviews surely on its way to becoming an invaluable cultural resource – even if only for the accumulation of hilarious Lorne Michaels impressions it has chalked up. There are too many amazing episodes to list here, but you could start by listening to Maron interviewing Patrice O’Neal, Paul Krassner, Todd Glass, Robin Williams, Louis C. K., Phil Stutz, Douglas Rushkoff, Bill Hader, Dylan Moran, Michael Keaton, Mike Myers, Kathy Griffin . . .

Bret Easton Ellis, like Marc Maron, is a big presence on his own podcast – he talks a lot, his questions (and follow ups) sometimes running to several minutes. But he’s always fascinating, and he returns obsessively to (and sort of re-makes his guests in the image of) certain pet themes – what’s happening in the culture, empire and post-empire, infantilization, political correctness, indignation porn, gay identity, TV and movies. Some podcasts have (and need) sponsors, and one of the unexpected pleasures of the BEE Podcast is listening to the creator of Patrick Bateman read out ad copy for healthy snack foods. (How would Bill Hicks have coped?) Listen to BEE interviewing Michael Tolkin, Ira Sachs, Tom Sizemore, Matthew Wiener.

Brian Koppelman’s show is called The Moment and deals with what he calls “inflection points” in people’s careers, those moments when everything changes for a performer, writer or artist, when something happens that vindicates the choices they’ve been making, consciously or unconsciously, all their lives. Koppelman’s approach is celebratory, most of his guests are heroes to him, and he revels both in their stories of perseverance and in their thoughtful explications of process. Listen to Koppelman interviewing Mario Batali, Tim Feriss, John Heileman, Ray Liotta, Lawrence Block, Seth Godin.

If there is one takeaway from all of this for me, one common element that ties these interviews together, it is the weirdly reassuring revelation, heard again and again, that most creative artists, regardless of whatever level of success they’ve achieved, are deeply insecure people and suffer almost universally from “impostor syndrome” – that nagging suspicion that one day a man with a clipboard will come up behind you, tap you on the shoulder, and tell you that it’s all been a dreadful mistake. This career you have? These wonderful opportunities? Sorry, but they were meant for someone else. The flip side of this, of course – as it turns out – is another thing that these same people also happen to share. Despite the insecurity, they never give up and they keep producing the goods.

The word podcast was first used ten years ago, but it’s only in the last five that there’s been this great leap forward in terms of content and quality, and I really hope it lasts. Because it’s not only the requirement of a decent attention span that makes the extended interview somewhat of a counterintuitive proposition, the grown-up complexity and raw confessional nature of many of them would also seem to go against a certain mainstream, corporate grain. And how long are the suits going to put up with that? But maybe the genie really is out of the bottle. If so, the next challenge for podcasters should be to get a few big-ticket CEOs and politicians sitting in front of them. Then it would be game on.

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Put the Blame on Meme

by Alan Glynn

It’s a cultural meme at this stage . . . that the new longform narrative TV shows we’re all obsessing over and binge-watching these days are like novels, like big, sprawling, multi-character nineteenth-century doorstops. And they are. Sort of. But maybe it’s time for a bit of a backlash.

When we say these shows are like novels, we usually follow the claim up with comparisons to Dickens and Trollope, to Balzac and Zola . . . the realist novel, the social novel, the way we live now, or even, The Way We Live Now (1875). But in these discussions not too many twentieth century novelists get name-checked. There’s no Joyce or Fitzgerald, no Kafka or Woolf, no Greene or Nabokov. And maybe this is because the longform TV shows resemble only the big fat nineteenth-century novels, and what’s more, resemble them not necessarily because they are novels per se, but more particularly because they’re a form of serialized story-telling.

All of Dickens’s novels were serialized in either weekly or monthly periodicals, and each new installment would be keenly anticipated by his readership and cause great excitement on publication. The format influenced how Dickens – and others – wrote, determining to some extent the narrative scope and rhythm of the novels. It was also easily affordable and until mass-market book publishing came along really the only way most people could access and enjoy this kind of story-telling. When cheaply available books did come along, novels changed, and in a sense were liberated. They were now conceived and written differently from when they were being drip-fed to the public in magazine installments – suddenly they could be experimental, more introspective, less plot-driven . . . exploratory, wildly surreal, fantastical, poetical, belligerently minimalist – they could be anything a writer wanted them to be.

Serialization and magazine fiction continued, of course, and in the 1930s and 1940s, with cinema, there were movie serials, and after that, in the 1950s, TV soap operas, series, and, later again, the mini-series. So, if it’s not sacrilegious to suggest this, I think that the more appropriate comparison is not to novels as we understand them today, but to these various forms of popular serialized story-telling. Mad Men, therefore – or Boardwalk Empire, or BSG, or House of Cards (make your own list) – are less novels than highly evolved and extremely sophisticated forms of the soap opera, where you have a defined world, a wide range of striking characters, and a continuous, flowing, open-ended river of story-telling.

Where these new soaps have mainly evolved is in psychological realism and depth of characterization. There’s no denying the fact that Tony, Don and Walt are a Great Leap Forward in terms of what it is now possible to do in an original TV drama (as opposed, say, to a mini-series adaptation – itself a great tradition, from The Forsyte Saga to I, Claudius, to Roots, to Lonesome Dove to Mildred Pierce). But watching these complex new characters appear seemingly out of nowhere, and being able to spend so much quality time with them, has been one of the key pleasures of this putative golden age of television. Add in the addictive quality of rapid episode consumption, spiked now to fever pitch with boxsets and on-demand streaming, and you have a form of entertainment as far advanced from its earliest manifestations as a movie showing in iMax 3D is from the five-cent nickelodeon.

But it is also in the one area where these shows most resemble soaps that they least resemble novels. Let’s call it Seasonal Drift. When a writer starts out on a novel, he or she has (or will soon develop) some sense of the shape of what they’re working on, and in time this will lead to an appropriate sense of an ending. What is certain, though, is that the novel won’t see the light of day until the writer has figured out exactly what happens or is said on the last page. With today’s longform TV shows, on the other hand, it’s often enough to just get the thing up and running, and only later might it become necessary to figure out where you are going with it, or even – depending on ratings – if you are going anywhere at all. But if it does work out, and multiple seasons follow, drift can easily set in and it can then become a question not so much of how to end the show in any satisfactory way as of just stopping it, pulling the plug because the love simply isn’t there anymore.

With Seasonal Drift there is another danger, one that traditional soap operas (out of necessity) blithely ignore – and that is the law of diminishing returns in respect of credibility. Because how many major life events can happen to a single character before the whole thing becomes, frankly, ridiculous? How many shock reversals? How many repetitions? The novel – the good novel – is carefully calibrated to avoid the problem, but in the longform TV narrative, you’re never far from a tipping point, and all too often things tip the wrong way. In a traditional series, where each episode is more or less standalone, no one is surprised by the convention that extraordinary events happen week after week – that Morse’s Oxford, say, ends up with a murder rate that would put Detroit or Baltimore to shame, or that the hospital where Dr Gregory House works seems to attract patients with only the rarest and most bizarre of medical conditions. But with “arc TV” (as it’s apparently now being called), unless you’ve really thought it through to the end, the more seasons you add on, the harder it’s ever going to be to get out of your created world with any kind of narrative integrity left intact.

These things are never black and white, of course, and there are exceptions. David Simon’s original pitch for The Wire envisioned “an America, at every level at war with itself”, and Vince Gilligan famously pitched Breaking Bad as “from Mr Chips to Scarface,” and both of these visions, I think, were executed with the utmost narrative integrity. Special mention, too, to David Chase’s The Sopranos, which did suffer to some degree from Seasonal Drift, but the way it ended, or indeed – controversially at the time – just stopped, was perhaps the most radical and artfully constructed sequence we’ve ever seen on a television drama.

But still, I worry. I worry about Mad Men – perhaps the greatest soap opera of them all. Even though I love it, I’m happy to hear that they’re ending it with the seventh season, and I sincerely hope that they don’t blow it. Another show I love is The Americans and I’m looking forward to its second season, but as a show it depends on a subtle trope of dramatic irony and if things go on too long I can easily imagine The Americans buckling under the strain. After all, look what happened to Homeland.

Because here’s the central problem – maybe seventy or eighty hours of storytelling is simply too much – assuming, that is, you’re looking for something more than just the sugar rush of a soap opera, of a one-thing-after-another narrative unmoored from any organic structure or ultimate meaning. It’s not that novels can’t drift and fall apart, of course they can, and frequently do, but not when they’re good – and the thing is, when a novel is good, and you get to the last page, that’s it, no one can mess with it. End of story.

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A Plague of Words

Here’s a rant I’ve been meaning to have for quite some time. Getting it off my chest will probably do me some good, but I can’t speak for anyone else.

Okay. I have too much to read. In fact, I have so much to read that I find it hard to settle into reading anything at all. Despite this, I’m actually a constant reader – books, newspapers, magazines, letters, web pages, blog posts, comment boxes, e-mails, texts, tweets, screen crawls, signage, billboards, labels, cereal boxes. So I suppose it’s a question of the quality of that reading. But with a thoroughly modern attention span – fragmented, obliterated, atomized – can there even be any quality to one’s reading? And if so, what is the measure of it?

Finishing something?

That rarely happens anymore. I’m usually up for finishing a tweet alright, or a text message, but with newspaper and magazine articles the penultimate and final paragraphs frequently go unread, assuming I even get that far. As for books, forget about it. Many are abandoned after a few pages, or a couple of chapters. A completed book is a rare occurrence these days – an occasion for celebration. But any sense of pride I might feel in the achievement quickly turns to dust as the absurdity of what I’m celebrating hits home. I’m probably reading about fifteen to twenty books at the moment, concurrently, and only Charles Darwin knows which ones I’ll finish. They’re all over my house, in different rooms, on different surfaces, each with a hopeful little bookmark in it. Depending on circumstances, or mood, I might snatch a paragraph or two from one of them and then put it back, wistfully thinking how in an ideal world I’d have enough time and energy to read on until I reached  the last page.

Retention of information?

I have no idea how much I retain of anything I read. Because this is rarely, if ever, put to the test. Quite simply, I don’t know what I know. I receive information from so many different sources that it’s hard to sort it all out. There’s no filtering process, no mechanism for grading or prioritizing. If I’m reading this, say, I stop and think to myself, why am I not reading that? And I have no answer. I could drill down and spend a few hours reading in great detail about Italian terrorism in the 1970s, or I could dip into those P. G. Wodehouse stories I’ve been meaning to re-visit for years. I could start the biography of Walter Winchell I got a while back. Or what about that new study on Big Data I’ve been threatening to download? Threatening myself. But does it matter? No one person can ever again be what was once called “well-read”, in the sense that they’ve read all of the books that matter. Those days are over. There’s no shame anymore in not having read a classic such as Middlemarch or The Golden Bowl, or even The Catcher in the Rye. And if you’re in your teens now and starting out on your reading career, you have nearly forty more years of books to get through than I had when I was that age – all those literary bricks, all those multi-volume biographies, all those great crime titles. To say nothing of the graphic novels, the memoirs, and the endless acres of “must read” journalism.

Good luck with that.

Pleasure?

I remember the pleasure, which used to be constant. But now it’s all fraught with anxiety. Thomas Pynchon’s eleven-hundred-page Against the Day, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Ian Kershaw’s Hitler and a sparkly new paperback edition of The King James Bible all look down at me from the shelves they occupy, thinking to themselves, This guy isn’t ever going to read us, is he? On my web browser there’s a read-later feature where I have about two hundred articles stored, stuff ranging from detailed critiques of austerity to advice pieces on lifehacking. Don’t ask. On my iPad Kindle I have maybe thirty books I have yet to read. A lot of my unread material is for research purposes. Supposedly. When I’m writing a novel, I’ll routinely spend a fortune getting books I’ve convinced myself I need – books without which I’ll be unable to proceed. But then I don’t open them, don’t bother to crack their spines, the logic seeming to be, I bought the damned things, now I actually have to read them, too? So a lot of the pleasure has been squeezed out of it for me. Browsing in bookshops, for example – that used to be a big part of the experience, but now I’ll often stand in a bookshop, glance around and think, I could go pound for pound with this place.

And I have my own coffee machine.

So what’s the problem?

I suppose it’s too easy to blame it on having kids. Life does fragment into a thousand little shards of responsibility when you become a parent – there’s always stuff to do, and interruption is your only constant – but it’s not exactly some new craze, is it, having kids? The other easy target is digitization – the move away from paper, from the physical book, from the fully engaged. Everything is on a screen now, but the very definition of what a screen is – its size, its function, its location even – is up for grabs, is ever-shifting. As a result, the reading experience has become fragmented, a sub-set of the digital experience – an arrow in its quiver, rather than the whole hand-stitched, tanned-leather, jewel-encrusted quiver itself. Look at the notion of interactive fiction apps, where you get to determine the outcome of the story, or the order in which you read the chapters (if that’s what they’re still called). But are you reading here, or playing a game? Either way, I don’t like it that the illusion of choice this seems to impart is something I had no choice in creating to begin with.

The digitization argument is basically that the internet has rewired my brain and I’d better get used to it. But let’s face it, the internet hasn’t rewired my brain. Maybe I just have ADD or something. I don’t know, you know, who knows? Because . . .

Look, take my wife. No, please. (As Henny Youngman used to say). She has the same kids I have, and lives in the same digital world I live in, and is, hands down, busier than I am – but she still manages to read about three books a week. Books made of paper. She starts one, reads it right through to the end, and then starts another one. This is radical to me, hardcore, almost unimaginable.

So what is it? A male/female thing? One more telling example of how quintessentially infantile we blokes really are? It could be. But I don’t buy that either.

So what is it?

Maybe this isn’t a rant after all. Maybe it’s just a confession. To wit, I’m simply blinded by choice. I can’t make up my mind what to read because there’s so fucking MUCH to read and I want to read ALL of it – every new literary novel, every new genre title, every new biography that nails its subject like no one’s ever done before, every new popular science book that effortlessly shifts a paradigm or two, every compelling longform piece of journalism, every blog post that illuminates that day’s sky (along with every measured or mealy-minded comment in the box that follows it) . . . every e-mail, and yes, even every goddamned tweet (especially the ones containing links to whole NEW worlds of wonder and horror and opinion and . . .)

But clearly, this isn’t possible. It wouldn’t even be possible if I could speed-read, which I can’t. Or was on special medication (MDT-48, please), which I’m not. So what tends to happen, I think, is that this glorious superabundance of information and content gradually  blurs, and loses definition. I know that the concept of entropy in physics is very complicated and that its use as a metaphor is probably galling to scientists. But fuck ‘em. That’s what this is. Entropy. The point at which all data reaches thermodynamic equilibrium. The heat death of what we know and understand. The moment when a single mouse click can take you either to Syria or to Beyonce, and when you pause to consider but then realize that your decision doesn’t matter . . . that the ones and zeroes have triumphed . . .

Oh look, here we are at the penultimate paragraph – which, if this were a piece written by someone other than me – I most likely wouldn’t even be reading now.

Are you?

 

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Publication of GRAVELAND

An update of reviews and articles here on the publication of GRAVELAND :

http://bit.ly/1bjcrd3

http://bit.ly/13EJqY6 

http://bit.ly/11yJiJp 

http://bit.ly/10WCzWB 

http://bit.ly/ZyqYBD

http://bit.ly/ZcvzXN 

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One more from the vaults . . .

This short story was published last year in the Strand Magazine. My only ever published short story. Not for the want of trying. So be nice to it.

http://www.alanglynnbooks.com/stories/five-oclock-shadow/

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An Alternative Reality

This, by me, originally posted on  http://www.mysterycenter.com the new blog of the venerable Strand Magazine: http://www.alanglynnbooks.com/articles/an-alternative-reality/

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A third one from (very deep) in the vaults . . .

Revisit Black Monday 1987 in DALTON DROPPER:

http://www.alanglynnbooks.com/stories/dalton-dropper/

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Another one from the vaults . . .

Here’s another short story from the vaults – from deep in the vaults . . . a longish, Gothic tale of murder, inheritance and insanity: ‘Locals’

http://www.alanglynnbooks.com/stories/locals/

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One from the vaults . . .

With the publication of GRAVELAND just three weeks away, here’s a short story from the vaults: ‘Amphitheatre’

http://www.alanglynnbooks.com/stories/amphitheatre/

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A Raid on the Inarticulate

Stav Sherez, author of the great A DARK REDEMPTION and the forthcoming ELEVEN DAYS (which I have yet to read) posted a really interesting piece on his blog last week (stavsherez.com ) about writing first drafts. Of novels. He describes very eloquently the anxiety of initiation. This is something that most writers will understand all too well – that sea of possibilities that is either seductive or paralyzing. He quotes T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (. . . so each venture is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate . . .) And then he lists a few tips for starting a new novel.

I love lists like this, as I think I made clear in my first post here. But I’d like to present an alternative view to one of the items in Stav’s list. And let me just say, this isn’t an argument, it’s not even a debate, there’ll be no pistols at dawn in either Chiswick or Terenure – because there is no right or wrong in these matters. It’s just that my experience is clearly very different from Stav’s, and it’s a subject I find pretty interesting.

When starting a novel, Stav says, “Don’t Look Back! – Don’t ever look back at what you’ve written until you’ve finished the first draft.” This makes a lot of sense, I can see the attraction of it, and for all the reasons Stav outlines. But my problem – and I’ve just embarked on a new novel – is that I . . . I . . . I LOOK BACK. There, I’ve said it. And if you were to ask me quietly, like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, “How often?”, I’d have to look you in the eye and whisper, “ALL THE TIME”.

I can’t help it. Can’t NOT do it. I’ve tried, but not recently. And that’s because I’ve been writing for long enough to know that this is how I operate and that there’s nothing I can do to change it. But in a weird way, at this stage, despite the glacial pace at which I write, and all the frustration that that entails, I wouldn’t want to change it. Because it makes sense to me. I find that I’m unable to move forward until I’m sure of what’s behind me, that I’m unable to bring the next thing into focus until the last thing has been properly brought into focus. At its simplest, it’s that I can’t know where I’m going if I don’t know where I’ve been. So I constantly re-read, and re-write, as I go . . . inching forward. This might seem to preclude spontaneity, but it actually doesn’t, because I’m constantly being surprised – maybe in smaller, more frequent bursts, but it’s there, and it’s essential to the process.

One result of this is that I don’t really think in terms of drafts at all. When I reach the end, I’m pretty much done. There will be changes, and additions, and lots of corrections, and fixing, and editing, but it’s all small stuff. I’ve never had to make major adjustments at this point – no structural or plot changes, no substantial cuts. Along the way, of course, there’s plenty of paralysis, and despair (writerly despair, not the real kind), and too much of what feels like soul-sapping idleness. And it takes a long time. It’s not a perfect system by any means, and I certainly wouldn’t have designed it this way, but somehow I always seem to get there in the end.

Not that it feels like that now, of course.

The new book is called UNDER THE NIGHT.

Hey, at least I have a title.

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