Tag Archives: Fiction

Jim Booth guest commentary over at Southern Creatives

If you’ve been paying attention you know that our boy Jim Booth recently published a novel. And that it’s really good. And that it presents us with the opportunity to consider fame and substance at war over the soul of an artist.

He has now authored a guest essay on “Southern Rock Stardom, Postmodernism, and the Persistence of Memory” over at Melinda McGuire’s outstanding Southern lit-focused site, concluding, appropriately enough that:

Here in the South, rock stars respect memory as all good Southerners do and, after all their wanderings, come back home where memory matters, Thomas Wolfe and postmodernism be damned.

Hear, hear. Give it a read.

ArtSunday: Are we seeing more character development in genre fiction?

Not long ago a good friend asked me if I’d take a look at this novel he was working on. He felt it was one of the best things he’d written, but was getting no bites from publishers. He was committed to making it work, and he wondered if I had ideas about what might be missing. So I read it.

The novel set out to be a genre piece – sort of a mystery story with a little bit of thriller thrown in at the end – but I could see why nobody wanted it. Truth was, the plot and action didn’t crackle like a successful genre novel, and while it had some very promising characters, none of them were sufficiently developed to stand the book as a “literary” work.

He was caught in the no-man’s land of contemporary publishing, and as our friend Jim Booth has suggested, that’s no place to be in 2012. My observation was that, the perversions of the publishing industry notwithstanding, what this particular novel wanted was to be more literary.

If you don’t follow what I mean by my opposed usage of the terms “genre” and “literary,” here’s the short version. Genre literature encompasses things like murder mysteries, adventure thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. They’re driven by plot, and the characters tend to be static, not really evolving or growing a great deal during the course of the narrative.

Literary fiction is more or less the opposite. It’s all about character development, and in some cases you can read hundreds of pages without anything noteworthy actually happening in the way of plot. And we find ourselves in a place economically where not only are publishers not generally interested in manuscripts that are caught in-between, the culture of writing itself is divvied into opposed camps. I think back to my creative writing program. At the risk of over-simplifying to illustrate the point, the lit types regarded the genre types as little better than $5 whores working the docks while the genre types sneered at the self-indulgent navel gazing of the “serious” writers. The mutual contempt was palpable.

Hopefully not all writing programs are like mine was in this respect, but the general tendency I describe will serve us for this conversation.

What I told my friend, then, is that there wasn’t enough in the way of action to sustain a true genre novel, but if he spent some time fleshing out the characters – especially a couple of the female protagonists – he might have something with significant literary depth to interest potential literary publishers.

He has now conducted a major revision and I’ll be diving into the manuscript right after I finish Christopher Moore’s Bite Me: A Love Story.

I found myself thinking back on the literary/genre discussion recently as I read Mark Todd’s Strange Attractors: A Story About Roswell. This book sets out to be a science fiction tale that, as the title might suggest, reimagines what went down in the New Mexico desert back in 1947. Todd follows an unusual path getting to Roswell, to be sure, and in the process forces us to think more closely than we might like about the implications of certain kinds of biotechnical research being conducted in the here and now. I won’t spoil the twist – instead, I’ll encourage you to read it for yourself. (Be patient – the first part of the book was driving me nuts because I couldn’t get a grip on what had happened, but then the wheels caught, as it were, and from that point on it got more and more interesting.)

In other words, Strange Attractors is a successful genre novel, mining the increasingly untenable terrain of science fiction. Intriguing premise (doubly so, given that it engages with real-world events), solid continuity of scientific plausibility, a narrative strategy that keeps you driving in the direction of revelation, unanticipated twists, etc. (One of the things I didn’t see coming was especially gratifying in that it explicitly violated some of the conventions of genre and forced me to question how formulaic sf can be. Loved that.)

But. I found myself repeatedly noticing, as I read, that much of what was most compelling wasn’t baked into the plot, per se. Yes, the mystery pulls you forward, but you find yourself diving ever deeper into the two main characters: research scientist Morgan Johanssen, who is unwittingly a critical pivot in human history (if you know the language of Chaos and Complexity theories, she is an archetypal strange attractor) and the odd alien ingenue, Gamma Ori. As with my friend’s novel-in-progress, I found myself drawn more to character than is perhaps common for genre lit.

All of which set me to thinking. The truth is that the genre novels I enjoy the most tend to have the most interesting characters. Neal Stephenson comes immediately to mind (not for REAMDE, of course – that’s a roadtrip into the heart of pure thrillerdom), but for the assortment of Waterhouses and Shaftoes (and the Baroque Cycle‘s divine Eliza) in CryptonomiconQuicksilverThe Confusion and The System of the World. Then there’s the cast around which the remarkable Anathem revolves. These novels are unarguably genre – very much plot-centered and not even remotely averse to bursts of intense action – but the characters are far from static. As the books unfold, the characters grow and our understanding of them deepens. Not only that, when you consider the conjoined saga of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, which spans centuries, we’re past character development and into the intricate evolution of bloodlines.

William Gibson, my other genre hero, also enjoys getting inside a character’s head (especially if it’s a female protagonist) and he does so in ways that extract all kinds of resonance from the dynamic between personality and material culture (a la Cayce’s phobia of labels, logos, trademarks and other trappings of consumer brands), which is as quirky a hook as you’re likely to encounter in the world of mainstream genre fiction.

Maybe I’m imagining things. Or maybe not. For sure, none of the works I’m talking about here are Salingeresque in their character obsession. And as I admit earlier, the literary/genre divide is abstracted to make a point. I mean, it’s not like nothing exciting happens in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Still, I have hated for years the kinds of sniping I saw in grad school and the ways in which those kinds of ideological rivalries balkanized literature. That the publishing and marketing landscape reinforces this artificial stratification of literature only exacerbates the problem. I mean, I’m not sure that Twain thought of what he was doing in these terms. He probably imagined that a good story and interesting characters sort of naturally went hand in hand.

In any case, don’t take this as an attempt to pronounce anything conclusive about The State of Literature at the Present Time®. Rather, consider it more something that I think I’m noticing and that I like, if in fact it’s really happening. Also, as always, take it as an invitation to comment and enlighten me if I’m missing something.

The incompleteness of the soul: an insider’s non-review of Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star

I’ve been thinking about Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, the third novel from my friend and fellow scrogue Jim Booth. I finished reading it a few days ago, but for me it’s been a slightly disjointed experience because I’ve seen most of it in its pieces before: chapters like “Fins” and “The Balcony Scene” have been previously published as standalone short stories and there are sections (the “Rock Star Handbook”) that Jim originally developed as an offering for an SMS entertainment company in which I was a  partner. So I’ve been familiar for years with the component elements, but this was my first encounter with the unified book in context.

After several days of reflection, I find myself musing on things that many readers and reviewers might not have twigged on. Read more

The economics of being-looked-at-ness: S&R interviews Teresa Milbrodt

Teresa Milbrodt is earning a good bit of acclaim lately, and her new short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories, should only amplify her reputation. Fiction Editor Dr. Jim Booth will have a review of the book in the coming days, and in the meantime we were able to persuade the gracious but extremely busy Milbrodt to field a few questions.

Scholars & Rogues: Bearded Women presents the reader with such a wonderful menagerie of freaks – there’s a gorgon, a set of conjoined twins, a giantess, a three-legged man, a woman with a parasitic twin, a woman with four ears, a Cyclops, women with beards, and the list goes on. I know this is a wide-open question, but can you explain for our readers where all these characters came from?

Milbrodt: I have always been fascinated by people who look different or those who don’t fit in. Read more

And now, some shameless promotion: Uncanny Valley launches and you need a copy

Some months back I submitted a long “poem” to a new publication called Uncanny Valley. (I quote-mark the word “poem” for reasons that are quickly evident to the reader. It’s part poem, but it’s also comprised of elements that are’t poetry at all – snips of drama script, blog entries, actual e-mail exchanges, photographs, newspaper clippings, playbills, and so on.) I was stunned when it was accepted – honestly, I never figured something that long and experimental had a chance anywhere.

But UV is different. Very different. They set themselves a mission to provide a forum for the unconventional. As the editors explain, “Other magazines make the words they publish fit their format. We make our format fit the words.”

Now, a few months later, Issue 0001 has dropped. My copy arrived in the mail today, and I can’t tell you how honored I am to be included in something this damned cool. Read more

One Thing Leads to Another

“One Thing Leads to Another” originally appeared in the Summer 2003 edition of Wilmington Blues.

It’s Saturday morning in Wallburg, North Carolina, and Rocky Rigby is sitting in his house on Baptist Church Road listening to KC McKey on The X, 96.3 FM. At the moment, Rocky is drinking a cup of coffee and puzzling over what it means to tell the truth.

The whole mess got started Tuesday night. Lou Ann Clodfelter had come up to him after English class and said she wasn’t sure she understood everything the professor had said, and since Rocky always seemed to get good grades on tests, would he mind helping her study?

Dr. A. Thaddeus ver Bose’s Survey of English Literature class had been studying enlightenment, “especially as epitomized in the oeuvre of the Dean of St. Paul’s, Jonathan Swift,” who, according to the professor, didn’t always say just exactly what he meant. Dr. ver Bose (he liked for people to call him Tad) talked that way sometimes, so Rocky told Lou Ann he wasn’t altogether sure he understood, either. But Lou Ann, who had been real nice to him here lately, said that if he’d help her study, she’d cook him dinner.

Which was exactly the sort of thing Mary Beth used to do before she threw him over and took up with Dr. ver Bose – Tad. Looking back on it now, Rocky realizes that this should have been his first indication that Lou Ann was up to something. But he missed the clue completely, and it was agreed that he’d come over to her apartment the next night around 6:30 for homemade lasagna and they could study afterward.


It was inventory week at All Star Auto and Fishing Supply, where Rocky was a Senior Counter Sales Representative, and an unexpected accounting problem had him running late. To make matters worse, Lou Ann lived in Canterbury Forest, which was a huge condo development down towards High Point where all the buildings looked just alike, and even though Rocky followed her directions to the letter, they just wouldn’t lead to #2107-G, which was where she lived.

By the time he finally found the right building, it was ten ’til, and Rocky figured he was in trouble because his buddy Terry had dated Lou Ann last summer and said she was a pure-T hellcat when things didn’t go the way she planned.

But she wasn’t upset at all. She met him at the door in a blue wool sweater dress that answered pretty much every question a man might have about her figure. Rocky realized he was still in his All Star uniform, which was kind of dirty, but if Lou Ann noticed she didn’t say anything.

“Did you have any trouble finding the place?” she asked. “I’ve never been real good with directions.”

“Me, either,” he said. “I missed a turn somewhere, but I figured it out finally.”

He looked around the living room. It was done up in peach and earth tones, and she had little crystal kitty-cats all over the furniture. There was a print of some flowers hanging over the couch, and Rocky immediately recognized it from Art Appreciation class as being by one of those French painters.

Lou Ann poured him a glass of wine to drink before dinner. “It’s a North Coast Riesling,” she said, whatever that was, but the way she said it made it sound expensive. Between the clothes, the condo, and the wine, Rocky decided that legal receptionists must make pretty good money.

The lasagna was real good. Rocky had dined at Jackson’s Restaurant six out of the last seven nights, and it was nice to eat something that didn’t automatically come with two vegetables and a choice of biscuits or hush puppies.

After dinner they sat down on her couch to study. As it turned out, Lou Ann had told the truth about not understanding the assignment. She said she thought Jonathan Swift must have been an absolute barbarian to suggest that the English eat Irish babies, and she blushed red as a Harvard beet when Rocky explained that Swift didn’t mean it literally, that he was writing a satire, where you say one thing but mean something else entirely.

That was when Rocky noticed Lou Ann was almost sitting in his lap, and was looking at him a whole lot more than she was at the book. It occurred to him that maybe Lou Ann Clodfelter wasn’t as interested in studying Swift as she had originally let on.

So to test her, he excused himself to go to the bathroom, and when he came back he sat down at the other end of the couch, because in Introduction to the Principles of Communication, which he’d taken during his first semester at Davidson County Community College, he learned all about interpersonal distance theory and how you could tell a whole lot by how far apart people sat.

Sure enough, it wasn’t two minutes before Lou Ann closed the gap, and now she was talking about how she’d always had a weakness for real smart men, and how her last three boyfriends were all dumber than a sack of hammers, and why couldn’t more men go to school and improve their minds?

Rocky had once overheard that Tad fellow talking to Mary Beth about what he called a “moral conundrum,” and Rocky thought this must be what he meant.

On the one hand, Lou Ann was just about the prettiest, sexiest girl he knew, and God knows Rocky had been lonely since Mary Beth dumped him. No one could fault him if he succumbed to her feminine charms. He could almost imagine a miniature Terry in a red devil suit sitting on his shoulder whispering “What are you waiting on, you idiot? Do her, do her now!” That’s just how Terry was.

On the other hand, Rocky wanted to do the right thing.

“Lou Ann, I don’t know if you ever heard any of this or not, but I’m still trying to get over my ex-fiancée,” and he told her all about Mary Beth, who was in their class at DCCC – she was the one who sat down front and asked a lot of stupid questions – and how she recently ended their three-year relationship and took up with their English professor.

“Mary Beth dumped you for Dr. ver Bose?”

“Yeah. She said she’s outgrown me. She needs a man who can fulfill her intellectual needs and help her actualize her spiritual self,” he explained, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as possible.

“Is she the one that’s always carrying on about ‘enlightenment’?”

“Uh-huh, and best I can figure, she’s over to his house getting enlightened just about every night.”

“That’s just awful,” said Lou Ann, and she put her arm around his shoulder and leaned real close. “I can’t imagine any woman preferring him over you. How can you stand to be in the same class with them?”

“It’s a requirement for my major,” he answered.

Lou Ann said she absolutely despised women like Mary Beth, women who couldn’t appreciate a man for his quiet strength and sensitivity. “You know, sometimes we all need somebody to hold,” she said, stroking his shoulder with her fingertips, and it sounded to Rocky like maybe she was volunteering.

“Lou Ann, what are you trying to say?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked down at the literature book, still opened to “A Modest Proposal,” and everything was quiet for a few seconds. “Why do you think I’m trying to say something?”

“Well…” And Rocky, who had never been very good with words, struggled for some way to say what he was pretty sure they were both talking about. But there just wasn’t any gentlemanly way to say it right out. “Look, this probably ain’t a very good idea. Maybe I better get on home.” But he didn’t move to get up, and she didn’t take her arm from around his shoulder.

“You don’t have to go. We can just stay here and…and be together. If you want to. I don’t have to be at work until ten tomorrow.”

Rocky picked up a crystal kitty-cat from the coffee table and started polishing it with his shirttail.

“Lou Ann, you ain’t got no idea what you’re asking. I mean, I’m on the rebound big time right now. If we were to…be together…well, it wouldn’t be fair to you. I’m afraid one of us might get hurt.” He meant her. “I just need some time to myself right now, and you ought to be with somebody that’s got more to offer.”

Which was the God’s-honest truth, as Rocky saw it. And in theory that little speech ought to have scared her off. But it didn’t. In fact, the harder he tried to talk her out of whatever it was she was trying to talk him into, the more she assured him that she wasn’t afraid, that she could take care of herself emotionally, etc. That she was a woman, not a silly little girl like this Mary Beth must be.

Finally Rocky gave up.

“So what do you want to do?” he asked.

“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”


When Rocky left her condo the next morning he felt just a little better about himself than he had at the same time the day before. But he knew the bill would fall due soon enough.

“Do you like veal parmesan?” she’d asked, as she kissed him good-bye.

So now he’s sitting in his kitchen on Saturday morning drinking coffee and trying to decide how to kill the day. KC McKey is playing a song by The Fixx, and Rocky wonders what he could have said to make Lou Ann understand. He knows from experience that people want what they can’t have, so he thinks maybe if he had come on real strong and told her he wanted her and had since the very first time he laid eyes on her….

That might have worked, he reasons, because then she wouldn’t have seen him as such a challenge. But his words wouldn’t have been true, and Rocky just couldn’t bring himself to tell a lie.

Like Swift, who’d said one thing but meant the exact opposite.

But, he thinks, if he had lied, then he wouldn’t have to do what he knew now had to be done, which was the whole point in telling her the truth in the first place.

Rocky is confused. He thinks about giving and following directions. The words on the paper don’t always take you where they’re supposed to.

He looks over the counter at the television in the den, which is tuned to MTV, but the sound is way down, and this hair and spandex band is lip-synching their big hit while some blonde wallows around on a Rolls-Royce. And everything seems disconnected for a moment – words from pictures, facts from truth, people from other people, and The Fixx is on The X, singing

Why don’t they do what they say?
Say what they mean?
One thing leads to another

Rocky sighs and reaches for the phone.

22 Questions with Jim Booth

I’ve known Jim Booth since August of 1975, when I walked into my freshman English class at Ledford High School and ran headlong into a teacher one of my friends had advised me to avoid (that’s the problem with being 14 – you don’t yet know that your friends are idiots). Booth was different – aggressively different – from any teacher I had ever had, seen, heard about, or even imagined. He was in his early 20s at the time, greatly admired the masters of the British canon, and also played in a rock band (and a darned good band, too, it turned out). And we read stuff that I actually liked – Sherlock Holmes, for instance. I had never enjoyed an English class before. This was all pretty edgy stuff for Ledford.

I’ve gotten to know Jim pretty well through the years (at one point we were even roommates), and was ecstatic to learn recently that these two novels he’s been sitting on for years, Morte d’Eden and The New Southern Gentleman, had been accepted, finally, for publication. I asked Jim if he could find the time to answer 22 questions from the Pit, and he graciously complied.

1: Morte d’Eden has been “finished” since the early ’80s, but during that period it has also undergone some major revision. Can you talk about the process of taking what was originally a book of tightly-related short stories and evolving it into a more coherent novel?

JB: Like most writers, I didn’t know I could write novels until I got started. Most of us who begin writing fiction think we might have enough for a short story, but almost none of us go out of the gate thinking we have a novel coming out. Read more