So you want to talk about race

Well, probably you don’t, but that’s why we should talk about it. I know I’ve mentioned it at some point, but for as long as The Mechanic has existed, the titular character was an African-American woman named Sasha. I recently decided to revise the book for Sasha to be a white woman with a new name.

I wanted Sasha to be an African American because it’s important that my fiction be representative of reality. Not all of us are cis-gender heterosexual white people, and neither is good literature. To me, Sasha has been black from the moment I first thought of her. Regrettably, it was only recently I stopped to ask myself why I’d imagined her this way.

Once I’d finished the first draft of The Mechanic I knew I would need people of color to read it and to pay attention to their feedback. I also knew that if I was lucky enough to ever be interviewed about this book, the conversation would include my decision to write a novel whose central character is black when I so clearly am not.

Before asking any person of color to read The Mechanic, I read So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo, which is great even if you’re not struggling to write characters of color. Oluo’s book gave me ideas for improving The Mechanic, and I felt confident about moving forward. Not long after that, I asked a person of color to read The Mechanic. I knew this person from school, was confident they would provide frank feedback, and I genuinely thought it was a story they’d enjoy. In my request, I included a synopsis and an offer to pay them a dollar per page for their time. They respectfully said no, expressing concern over “reading about rape and assault – especially violence against black bodies.” 

My initial reaction was, “Don’t you want to see how I’ve handled this as an artist!?” which is the wrong response and thankfully remained unsaid. It wasn’t until my friend declined to read The Mechanic that I was honest with myself about why I’d written Sasha as an African American; she’s an inherently angry character, and I didn’t think readers would believe that level of anger in a white character. This is racist and plays on the stereotype of an angry black woman, for which there is no excuse.

Using race to render characters more believable is dangerously lazy. Once I realized this I knew I had to remove Sasha in favor of a white character. This will ultimately serve the story far better, forcing me to write effective characters regardless of race. The book will certainly be different, but it will also be much better.

I am still passionate about writing compelling characters of all races, and it was difficult to realize I’m not yet a strong enough writer to do so. Good intentions don’t mean shit if it leads to bad, offensive writing.

Sorry to get so heavy after last month’s whimsy, but my only other idea for this newsletter was to send an inflammatory email full of “would” statements, and then send a follow-up correcting all of them to “wouldn’t” statements. I’m not sure that’s any less depressing, to be honest.

To end on a cheerful note, here’s a song I really enjoy by Wild Pink, whose new record came out today.

Cover of Ryan Adams’ “Dear Chicago”

I thought I lost this recording a couple apartments ago, but found it buried in my Dropbox. “Dear Chicago” was too difficult for me to learn on guitar, so I came up with this piano arrangement. It’s a bummer, but ultimately hopeful, and one of my favorite songs by any artist.

Reading is a Beach

Beach Reading Season has arrived! Like a group of white people that’s never heard of Hawaii, my family and I will be spending the last week of June in sunny Florida, embracing our inner beach bums. Will I engage in the summer pastime known as beach reading? You bet your ass I will.

Perhaps you’re wondering, What is beach reading? There are many schools of thought on the subject, but I maintain there are four criteria to be met for something to qualify as a Beach Read. *Ahem*

  1. It must be short.
  2. It must be funny.
  3. If it does not meet criteria #2, it must make the reader look smart and/or trendy. Or at the very least, give the impression the reader subscribes to The New Yorker.
    It’s small enough to fit in the back pocket of your cut-off jeans.
  4. What follows is my fool-proof guide to your best Beach Reading Life.

@cottoncandaddy

@Cottoncandaddy is a Twitter account, something much better and shorter than a book. Written by Gracie Hoos, a witty twenty-something in Canada, this Twitter feed will have you obnoxiously laughing on the beach as you sip a Mai Tai, the other would-be beach readers all dying to know what you’re reading. In short, @cottoncandaddy is funny, attractive, and has a very cute dog!

What’s more beach read-y than a podcast? Nothing, especially when that podcast is This Sounds Serious, an eight-part, fictional-crime podcast that satirizes Serial et al., while being equally engaging and much funnier. In 2007, Orlando weatherman Chuck Brondstadt was found dead in his apartment after being killed with his own waterbed. Who did it? Was it his eccentric identical twin brother? A rival weatherman? Maybe a former member of an Atlantis cult?? The final episode drops June 19th, so get your binge on! If anyone asks what you’re listening to, say, It’s a compelling audio drama à la S-Town. Haven’t you heard of it?

Perhaps you left your Kindle at home, or maybe you’re on the lam to avoid paying your exorbitant library fines. Don’t worry, fearless Beach Reader, Netflix is here to save the day. Nailed It! is a competition cooking show, in which amateur bakers attempt to recreate pastry masterpieces. The fun part is none of them are particularly skilled, and they have very limited time. Whoever is closest to nailing it wins $10,000! This is better than a book because you can imagine fun stories about the contestants, like, How did this person ever get the idea they could bake? Are all of their friends gaslighting them while spitting half-chewed cupcakes into their napkins? Next thing you know, you’re writing a breezy thriller about a cooking-show contestant who has to solve a delectable murder before their time is up. Who needs Beach Reads when you can Beach Write, am I right?

Until next month,
Evan

P.S. This mailing list is one year old! Hooray! I don’t have any cake, but I do have tremendous gratitude. Many thanks to all of you for subscribing, reading Birthday Suits, and being excellent people.

Going Mental

 

scott-hutchison

I’ve been putting off this month’s mailing list, mostly because May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I felt like I should address it, didn’t want to, and then learned that Scott Hutchison had committed suicide.

If you’re familiar with Birthday Suits, you probably realized I’ve been dealing with mental health issues for some time, specifically depression and anxiety, since I was 18. I’ve been on medication since then, and when an ex asked me why I wouldn’t consider going off my medications I said, because I like being alive.

Comedian Chris Gethard has pointed out that no one ever tells a cancer patient they should try stopping chemo, but mental health patients deal with this all the time. Depression may not seem as immediately life threatening, but it absolutely can be. People are sometimes shocked when they learn I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation several years ago. Maybe because I seem “normal.” Everyone I met in the hospital was “normal,” as normal as all of you. Considering that one out of five people experiences mental illness, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for individuals aged 10 to 24, mental illness is alarmingly normal, although never recognized as such. That’s why I wanted to write about Scott Hutchison.

On Thursday May 10th, Hutchison was found dead on the banks of the Firth of Forth after an apparent suicide. He was 36 years old, and the singer and guitarist for Frightened Rabbit. This news would’ve saddened me even if Frightened Rabbit weren’t one of my favorite bands, but what’s heartbreaking is that Scott Hutchison has written so many beautiful and eloquent songs about his own depression that have provided me enormous comfort. He was able to think through his mental health to create gorgeous music, but ultimately couldn’t think or create away his depression. No one can. He sent these tweets shortly before he went missing on Tuesday:

scott-hutchison-tweets

The details of Scott Hutchison’s diagnosis or the extent to which he wasmentally ill are beside the point. What matters is he would’ve benefitted from talking to someone, and for whatever reason felt unable to do so. Considering how many people are affected by mental illness, it’s devastating Hutchison couldn’t or wouldn’t get the help he needed. Talking about mental illness is never easy, but that’s why it’s so important. If you need help, there are numerous resources available. Never forget how much you matter, especially on the days when you think you don’t matter at all. If you think someone you know is in need of help, reach out to them. A simple text of “hey, how’s it going?” can often do wonders. If you can’t get a hold of that person, keep trying. Don’t let them go.

BUT NOT EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE. The few people who’ve finished reading the latest draft of The Mechanic have been very complimentary, even though the moment my mother finished it she called to make sure I was okay. (I should probably start thinking of it as a horror novel.) I’ve also made tentative steps on a new project, something I’ve been thinking about for a while but is easily the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. Fingers crossed.

I also have a new job! I know all of you were dying to cross that off your list of concerns. As of May 7th I am employed as a technical writer for a software company. I guess all of this is to say that I was intensely depressed for much of 2017, but I’m now in a good place. Getting help for mental illness doesn’t mean I no longer have bad days. It means I know what to do when the really bad days bite me in the ass.

Until next month,
Evan

Annihilation

For longer than I’ve called myself a writer, I’ve been overly preoccupied with the question “Which is better, the book or the movie?” For many years I thought books were always superior. This is largely because I’m a control freak, and books are movies I direct in my head. It’s jarring to see a story you’ve lovingly rendered in your mind subjected to the vision of someone else. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because the film Annihilation was released last month, and it is arguably superior to the novel of the same name.

Annihilation succeeds by only using the book as a starting point on its way to becoming an entirely unique thing. Sort of like when you hear a cover of a favorite song, and you realize the cover is much better than the original. Part of me always knew that the question of “which is better” doesn’t matter, and I’m now certain that is true when the adaptation is done effectively.

Annihilation is a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the first book in an excellent science-fiction trilogy. My interest in the film stemmed from my love for these books, but also as someone who wants to write bestselling books and see them adapted into excellent movies. What is so interesting about the Annihilation adaptation is that it honors the spirit and ideas of the books while telling a very different, equally compelling story. To achieve one of these in a film adaptation is rare enough, but Annihilation’s success at reaching both is remarkable.

Part of this film’s success as an adaptation might stem from the fact writer/director Alex Garland began working on it shortly after the trilogy’s first book was published. Apparently, he started writing the screenplay without realizing two later books were slated for publication. While the differences between the book and film are pretty radical, they always work in the film’s favor. Somehow, no matter how far the film diverged from the novel, it always felt part of the world those books had allowed me to inhabit. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to compare Annihilation to its source material, because they are so different. This is a confusing contradiction, but it’s so exciting to see a book’s limits utterly surpassed in such a satisfying way. The movie accomplishes several things the book simply can’t, and remains self-contained. I’d be amazed if Garland decided to adapt the other two books in the trilogy.

So which should you choose, book or movie? Frankly, both. I don’t even think it matters whether you watch the movie before the book, which is something I never thought I’d say. However, while the book is scary and unnerving in a more cerebral sense, the movie is downright horrifying. It reminded me a lot of Alien, which is perhaps the best sci-fi horror film ever made. If that’s not your thing, I’d still recommend the book.

Questions of book vs. movie have been on my mind since I’m about halfway through editing The Mechanic. I’ve of course thought of who I’d want to direct the film adaptation (Jordan Peele), and had a few ideas for who will play the lead (Zoë Kravitz or Letitia Wright). Whether or not any of that comes to pass is beside the point, but it’s fun to think about.

Until next month,

Evan

It’s My Birthday, I Can Write What I Want To

Looking at the title you might be thinking, “Isn’t that what Evan does every month?” You are correct, but I typically write about things most people are interested in. Today, in honor of the 29th anniversary of my birth, I will be writing about my most cherished of obsessions, the music of Ryan Adams. Specifically his album 29, and the song “Carolina Rain.”

29.jpg

Adams’ 29 is the final installment in a trilogy of records he released in 2005, and it is by far the weirdest record of the three, and maybe even of his entire career. Adams has claimed the album is a loose concept album about his twenties, with each song about a single year. That’s like saying Batman comics are about a guy whose parents were killed; there’s much more going on, and it’s a bit of an undersell.

The album opens with the blues burner “29” and ends with the fragile and biblical “Voices.” In between the record ranges between lush piano numbers (“Nightbirds”), Spaghetti Western flourishes (“The Sadness”), and the murder balladry of “Carolina Rain,” one of my absolute favorites of all of Adams’ songs.

On one of my live recordings of this song, Adams introduces it by saying, “This next song is about a ghost, and several people that… die.” The characters include a waitress, a dead landlord, Caroline, her husband Alderman Haint, Caroline’s sister Percy, Percy’s husband the narrator, and a recently deputized sheriff.

The song relates the story of a drifter who arrives in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, falls in love with Caroline, and then marries Caroline’s sister “if only to be closer to you, Caroline.” Along the way we learn Rose is a prostitute who reveals the truth of Caroline and the narrator’s relationship to Alderman. Alderman is subsequently murdered and thrown into the quarry, where his misplaced rosary alerts the sheriff that something is amiss. Oh, but before that, both of Percy and the narrator’s daughters die. Then the narrator is killed outside the banquet hall as the song ends.

To say that I’ve become obsessed with this song since first hearing it is a bit of an understatement. In college, I attempted to adapt “Carolina Rain” into a short story. My writing workshop responded with, “This doesn’t make any goddamn sense.” To which I said, “I know! Isn’t it great?”

It’s unclear who exactly killed Alderman Haint, and sometimes I’m convinced he’s the landlord offed by Rose at the song’s beginning. Other times I think the narrator killed Alderman, and the nameless landlord was murdered only to set the stage for the bloodshed to come. But that would mean the narrator was killed for a murder he didn’t commit, which seems to defy the song’s fated logic. I’ll never be sure either way, which is what draws me back to “Carolina Rain” again and again.

Somehow, Adams manages to reinvigorate a traditional folk song form with all sorts of postmodern weirdness, and the result is utterly lovely despite its abundance of death. Death is one of 29‘s major preoccupations, which isn’t surprising since it was written by a man on the cusp of his thirties. The album’s cover is a painting by Adams, seemingly showing Death leading a group of people to a house to do God knows what. I like to imagine Death’s three followers as Alderman Haint, the song’s narrator, and maybe the landlord or Rose, all of them following Death hoping to learn who exactly killed whom. Whatever they find in that house, I bet it doesn’t make any goddamn sense.

Year of the Dog

In honor of the season, here are my New Year’s Resolutions listed in order of importance:

  1. Finish writing/editing The Mechanic
  2. Only refer to LL Cool J by his full name, Ladies Love Cool James
  3. Find a new job
  4. Go on a date with Saorise Ronan
  5. Go to more movies

What else is new besides my calendar? For starters, all 8 season of Psych are now streaming on Amazon Prime. If you’re not familiar with the antics of Shawn and Gus, a fake psychic and his pharmaceutical-selling best friend, they are my favorite re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Instead of being addicted to heroin, Shawn’s a compulsive liar with father issues, Gus is his handsomely neurotic partner, and they both love snacks. Below is a clip of the two of them doing their thing as a pair of superfly dudes from the 70s:

This makes more sense in context. Sort of.
I did start writing that screenplay I mentioned a while back. I wrote a handful of scenes, realized the narrative stakes were extremely low, and as of last week starting writing new stuff for The Mechanic. I haven’t given up on the screenplay, and while I’m not promising to eventually finish it, I will definitely go back to it at some point.

It has also come to my attention some of you thought I was being metaphorical about sticking The Mechanic‘s first draft in my freezer when I was being quite literal. I never joke about the contents of my freezer, as that is where most of my food comes from. The manuscript will stay there until I run out of ideas for stuff that should’ve been included in the first draft, or when I summon the requisite chutzpah to look on my works and despair, whichever comes first.

We’re in the thick of the awards season, and both The Shape of Water and Lady Bird are incredible films (as is the new Star Wars!). There are plenty of other contenders I haven’t seen, but if you’re into anthropomorphized fish dudes who fall in love, definitely check out William of the Bull’s latest work; anyone with a beating heart will love Lady Bird, which I sincerely hope wins best picture even though the Oscars are a farce.
Until next month,

Evan

 

The Mixed-Up Files of Mr. Evan W. Stoner – October Sux

Out of the numerous shitty months we’ve had thus far in 2017, October is well on its way to being the shittiest of the year. What happened in Las Vegas is horrifying, but this isn’t the place nor am I the person to tackle the issue. (Ta-Nehisi Coates? You there?) I’m far more qualified to talk about October’s other major bummer: the passing of Tom Petty.

For most people my age, Tom Petty was a legacy rock act you didn’t need to seek out because his music was so ubiquitous, sort of like seeing Coors Light stashed in the cooler at your neighbor’s backyard barbecue—it’s always around and you enjoy it on occasion. The Beatles have a similar status, but while the Fab Four tend to foster wild devotion, Petty instead had legions of people who maybe didn’t love all of his records but loved at least one of his songs.

I first recognized the excellence of Tom Petty’s songwriting when I was seventeen or so. My sister was in involved in her college’s equestrian team, and a prospective student had sent Allison a video of her horseback riding chops set to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” For some reason I watched this shameless self-promotion over Allison’s shoulder, probably to see if the rider in question was attractive. The video had been edited so Petty sang the line, “Loves horses, and her boyfriend too,” right as the rider and horse landed a jump in slow motion.

I said something like, “That’s a bit of an obvious song choice.”

To which Allison said, “But she loves horses before her boyfriend. That’s important.”

That moment has stuck with me every time I’ve sat down to write anything. The details matter, especially in what order they arrive, and few songwriters understood that as well as Tom Petty. In that one line he said far more about this “she” than maybe the whole rest of the song put together. It’s those details that give listeners and readers a world to inhabit, characters they’ll never meet but who feel intimately known. Tom Petty could’ve only written “Free Fallin’” and I still think he’d be one of the greatest songwriters America ever produced. The lines “All the vampires walking through the valley / Move west down Ventura Boulevard” offer the kind of immortality no heart attack will ever take away.

Part of Tom Petty’s charm for me was that he was so goddamn good without being particularly attractive. His voice was just whiny enough to remind you of Bob Dylan, but his songcraft was so impeccable he was equally loved by critics and the little kid sitting in the back of the minivan.

My favorite Tom Petty song is probably “Learning To Fly.” Like most of his work, at first blush it sounds so familiar you’re half convinced it’s a cover of something much older. More than any musician I can think of, Tom Petty’s songs sounded classic from the first listen. Plus, the instrumental break at 2:54 always makes me feel like I can fly, or at least levitate, which is more than I could ever ask for from a piece of music.

Hang in there, folks. Maybe the rest of October will be totally dope.

Until next month,
Evan