Writing the Human Experience: Guest Blogger Molly Tanzer on her Debut, A Pretty Mouth

Molly Tanzer and I both have new books released by Lazy Fascist Press. She invited me to do a guest blog crossover to help promote them, so here we go!

I’m proud to introduce an incredible imagination and talented writer, Molly Tanzer.

When you’ve read this post, you might want to go to her blog, and read mine.


I asked Alan Clark about the possibility of doing a blog-exchange to give readers (and potential readers) some insight into our most recent works—my debut, A Pretty Mouth, and his 5th novel, A Parliament of Crows. He graciously agreed, so huzzah! Today, you can read my post on his blog—actually, I guess you already are—and his on mine.

I specifically asked Alan about doing a blog exchange because his 5th novel, Of Thimble and Threat, was one of the best books I read last year. Oh, and his latest has a bit of overlap with mine. (Alan talks about this very thing over on my blog, so that’s another reason to go read it!)

I read Thimble because our mutual publisher, Cameron Pierce, sent me an ARC. He thought I would like it, and I did, I did indeed. It’s a wonderful book, perfectly appealing to avid readers of genre and those who prefer straight literary/historical fiction. It also had the effect of forcing me to ratchet up my game for Mouth. I knew if I was going to be published side-by-side with Alan I needed to get real and start taking things seriously. It was extremely intimidating, but in that way that gets me excited about a challenge. (That said, if Cameron had sent me Parliament, I might have just thrown in the towel and given up on writing. Yeah, it’s that good.)

Anyways, blog exchange! As it turned out, I got the easy job. Alan wrote his piece first, and I liked it so much I decided to just riff off his. Which, if you must know, is pretty much how I wrote the largest chunk of A Pretty Mouth. More on that after a brilliant quote from Alan’s post that I found so inspiring:

“… The period a writer chooses for a story will define the characters in it to some extent. Obviously, some experiences we have today are not possible for characters set within a time, say, 100 or 500 years ago. This can present real limitations unless the writer is willing to learn about the period and really open up the character’s world, discover the possibilities, and share that with the reading audience. … No matter the period, the emotional characteristics of human beings are just as subtle and complex as those of human beings today. The everyday realities and events that shape their feelings and motivations can be very different, however. In creating characters, I try to take advantage of the similarities and the differences, setting up parallels and contrasts with what we know today to express something about human experience.”

That’s Alan for you. Saying pretty much everything there is to say on a subject, and more concisely than I, perhaps especially, could ever dream of doing. I mean, read Of Thimble and Threat and tell me there’s more to write on the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper. (I mean, his introduction to the book was shocking in its simplicity, honesty, and wisdom.)

I suppose the above quote struck me in particular, because it’s talking about exactly what I wanted to do with the biggest portion of A Pretty Mouth, which, depending on what you want to call it, is a novel told in parts, or a collection of related short stories. You see, the title novella is a (hopefully) witty Restoration comedy re-envisioned as an 80s teen sex romp.

Huh? What? Yeah, I know. I figured I was going buck-wild with genre in the book anyways, so why not have a “school story” kind of thing? I love school stories, always have. But how do you write something realistic and fresh about school experience when writing about a educational system long gone?

Wadham College, in 1660, was an interesting community of intellectuals, half middle/high school, half university. Boys from 12 years old were required to take courses in Astronomy, Physics, Logic, and Latin; older students attended more college-style classes, as we might think of them. Girls were not allowed. In fact, at that time the only female servant employed by the college was the laundress, who was required by the statutes to be older (and lower-class) as to not distract the students. And she was only allowed to come to the gate of the college, lest her presence inflame the boys’ passions. Kind of hard to stage a panty raid, or whatever, under those circumstances, you know?

And yet, when you read Restoration-era texts—let’s say, for example, the poetry of John Wilmot, the novels/plays of Aphra Behn, or the diary of Samuel Pepys—it’s obvious that some things haven’t changed that much. Worrying over things like popularity, academic performance, uncertainty over one’s future, all those concerns existed then, as they do now. So I hoped to exploit those similarities to make an unusual setting familiar.

Now, my stuff is more anachronistic than Alan’s, deliberately so. Alan’s the kind of writer who shocks you with the horror of reality; I’m the kind of writer who thinks it’s funny when 17th century schoolboys say things like “Busted!” and, I dunno, “motherfucker.” Which let me walk that line between historical drama and 80s comedy.

Maybe. I say that, but you, dear reader, must be the judge of that.

One of My Students

I have been teaching acrylic painting for the last year at the Emerald Art Center. I taught two sessions of Controlled Accident painting. Controlled Accidents is my term for spontaneous image generating techniques that I use. They involve pushing the paint around on a painting surface with things other than brushes, such as rags, plastic, tin foil or balloons, in order to create impressions in the paint that suggest subject matter.

The most recent class I taught was Acrylic Painting—Illustration. I wanted to teach methods of creating atmosphere and a sense of space through the use of shadow color and light. Also I wanted to encourage the students to create illustrations that compelled audience participation by setting up relationships within the subject matter that were highly suggestive.

The painting included in this post was done by one of my students, Phyllis Null. She took my controlled accident class and the illustration class. The painting’s title is “warty bliggins and archy,” It is an illustration of “warty bliggins, the toad” by Don Marquis. In it she succeeded in using controlled accidents to help her “discover” textures and incidental landscape elements. She succeeded in creating a sense of atmosphere and of space by systematically reducing the value range of objects as they moved farther into the background. And she succeeded in setting up a relationship between the figures in the piece that invites the audience to wonder what is going on and perhaps imagine the conversation.

This is her success, but it makes me feel like I did my job!

Thanks for taking my classes Phyllis.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Show Up, Show Down?

Last week I spend an afternoon with a hired gun, Vernon T. Williams, who recently moved with his family to Eugene. He’d seen my art exhibit at the Springfield City Hall and something about the experience prompted him to contact me and call me out. We met at my studio and discussed creative process, among other topics. While we did so, Vernon shot me, over and over. It didn’t hurt a bit. In fact I had so much fun we became friends. We’ve discussed a possible future collaboration in animation, but what form that will take is not firmed up yet. Below I’ve posted his write up for the shoot as it appears on his blog and some of his incredible photographs. Looking at those photos, it was as if I were seeing my studio for the first time.  What a nice place to work!  To see more of them, visit his blog: Hired Gun – A Photographer’s Journal

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

portrait of the day – alan m. clark

Monday, January 18, 2010

What a truly enjoyable day I spent with Alan. A quick morning shoot turned into lunch, which in turn became the better part of the afternoon.

I encountered Alan’s paintings in a hanging downtown and was immediately taken by the work. Each piece captures a moment in a fantastic story; some dark and mysterious, some with a sly sense of humor. There were several that captured my attention for many minutes as they begged me to complete the story in my mind. Alan put it so well; the best art asks you to bring a piece of yourself to the viewing. It leaves space for you to collaborate with the artist in creating a narrative that is different for you than for any other viewer. His work did that for me in spades. Some of my favorite pieces were to illustrate stories by Stephen King. His depictions from the Dark Tower series captured beautifully the Roland that had come to life in my head over the many years I’ve enjoyed those books.

You should check out Alan’s work, but know that an image on the internet can’t capture the vibrant, saturated colors and the intricate detail that I found so enthralling. They can, however, show you how the color and detail is there to serve a higher purpose; the mood and story that are so beautifully captured by his brush. Unfortunately one of my favorite pieces isn’t even there – a brilliant book cover commissioned to illustrate the King story, “Riding the Bullet.” It’s a striking vision of a ’69 Mustang fastback speeding down the rails of a derelict roller coaster and I was instantly drawn in. It has more layers than a Roxy Music album and reveals more each time you look at it. My son, Shane, was really taken by Alan’s paintings. One of his favorites was a particularly striking piece showing crows picking at a scarecrow.

Alan responded with enthusiasm to my request to photograph him and showed me such gracious hospitality when I showed up at his home studio. I made some photographs I’m proud of that day but, more than that, I got to have some great conversation with a gifted artist. Alan shared with me his time and his talent and I am truly grateful

Hired Gun – A Photographer’s Journal

—Vernon T. Williams