Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Page 69: Momentary Illumination of Objects In Motion


Disclaimer: The Page 69 Test is not mine. It has been around since 2007, asking authors to compare page 69 against the meat of the actual story it is a part of. I loved the whole idea of it and so I'm stealing it specifically to showcase small press titles - novels, novellas, short story collections, the works! So until the founder of The Page 69 Test calls a cease and desist, let's do this thing....







In this installment of Page 69, 

We put Jason Arias’ Momentary Illumination of Objects In Motion  to the test. 







OK, Jason, set up page 69 for us.

Page 69 lands us on the second to last page of the story “The Uncomfortable Augmentations of Earl Sneed Sinclair.” The story starts with Franklin talking his roommates, Rasheed and Jay, into purchasing a theme park quality costume of the father dinosaur character from the 90s TV series Dinosaurs as a means of making extra money. At this point in the story the three roommates have just gotten back from a trial run downtown. They didn’t make any money. Franklin is still inside the Earl Sneed Sinclair costume and Jay is starting to question Franklin’s motives for buying it in the first place. The last three words on page 68 are: Is a costume…    



What is Momentary Illumination of Objects In Motion about:

Sometimes I answer that question by saying that the collection is a lens to explore the bigger issues: Life and Death, Identity and Race, Change and Resistance to Change (that’s also on the back cover of the book). Other times I say that the collection is a way to scrutinize the differences and similarities between youth and middle age and old age—a meditation on how we can be the same person in different situations, or a different person in the same situation, but should start worrying when we’re the same person in the same situation. Mostly I think the collection was a way to experiment with holding uncomfortable things closely.




Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what the story collection is about? Does it align itself with the collection’s theme?

Well, one of the characters is envious of the double-paned windows that are tied to the insides of outbound trailers, and the other character is trying to find a way to never take off a giant dinosaur costume while cooking scrambles eggs so, yeah, I guess that’s a pretty accurate vibe for the collection.

In the scene on page 69 both Jay and Franklin are dealing with feelings of alienation, unresolved pasts, and uncertain futures; they’re just not fully aware that’s what’s happening. They’re unclear on where (or even who) they should be. These underlying themes tend to play throughout the collection in many forms.  Some of the characters include a paramedic confronting burnout, three politically incorrect magicians stealing Rap tapes, a man trying to convince a jury that humankinds’ ultimate destiny is to return to the sea, and a pellet-gun-incited showdown in a mall food court.        



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
PAGE 69: 
MOMENTARY ILLUMIATION OF OBJECTS IN MOTION


even a thing? I’m pretty sure he was just making sure Earl wasn’t some kind of terrorist bomb.

Once we got back home, Rasheed and I worked at getting some of the stuck gum out of Earl’s flannel.

“That was some fall!” Franklin said, recalling his descent down the square’s stairs, as I picked at a particularly stubborn pink wad.

“Might be easier to clean if you just took the thing off, Franklin,” I said.

“I’m good, man. It kind of takes a while to come out of character, you know?”

“No. I don’t know,” I said.

I went to bed.

I got up late the next day. I didn’t see Franklin or the Earl costume at all before leaving for my nightshift at the windows factory.

All night, I placed windows against other windows, frame to frame, like rows of tightly packed translucent dominoes. I tied them in place to the slats on the trailer walls with trucker knots. I worked with mostly illegal immigrants. They worked harder than me. I drank cups of coffee during my lunch break. I thought about how this job was going nowhere. I thought about how the windows I tied down saw other parts of the country while I stayed put. I wondered if it was healthy for me to be working nights and thinking so much.

When I got home the next morning, Earl looked like he was trying to set himself on fire at the stove again.

“Dude, careful!” I said.

“No, it’s cool,” Franklin’s voice said from inside Earl’s head. He turned around and held his palms out to me.

I could see he’d made cuts below the costume hands so that he could use his real hands while still wearing the thing. When Franklin turned back to the stove, I noticed a row of safety pins holding closed a homemade flap on Earl’s butt region that wasn’t there the last time I saw him. A tube exited Earl’s crotch to what looked like a partially filled urine bag taped around his thigh.

Franklin took the pan off the stove and dumped some of the scrambled eggs into a bowl. They were the same color as the pee in the bag that was taped around his leg. I wondered if Franklin



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~








Jason Arias’ writing has appeared in NAILED Magazine, The Nashville Review, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Perceptions Magazine, and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto as well as other literary publications. Momentary Illumination of Objects In Motion is his debut short story collection published in late 2018 by Black Bomb Books. To find more of Jason’s writing and readings visit JasonAriasAuthor.com.


Monday, February 4, 2019

My January in Reading

Here's a review of all of the books that I buried my nose in last month:

(btw, I probably won't read this voraciously for the rest of the year. Due to a fluke of perfectly timed vacation days and a light month of publicity work, I was able to spend almost all of my downtime in January reading!!)


Chloe Caldwell
SF/LD Books
(Oct 2014)

5 Stars

SF/LD Books sent this to me ages ago in a care package with another title I had been excited about reviewing. Yes, it took me until this christmas, while rearranging my shelves and rediscovering that I had it, to get me to pick it up out of the pile. 

The book is fucking adorable, no wider than the palm of my hand, and it holds our narrator's heart hostage from the get go. She finds herself totally falling for a woman for the first time, one much older, more experienced, and who's already in a committed relationship. It's about discovery and identity, and as you'd probably expect, it's a wonderful hot mess. We know it's not going to end well and we don't care. 

Chloe is like the female equivalent of Sam Pink. In their stories, they are tortured souls in shitty relationships that they obsess and die over. They are manic. They are depressive. They see the glass is slowing draining of alcohol and order another. And then another. And then they are home, hung over, in bed, alone sometimes and sometimes with someone else, and they are wondering how in the fuck they got there, in their life, in this particular fucked up version of their life. They write their fiction autobiographically, pulling the reader right up to the table, conversing with us as though we are part of their story and it works so hard, like you wouldn't fucking believe.





Adam Lauver
Plays Inverse Press
(Released January 24th)

5 Stars

Hot damn. A mother fucking apocalypse of the mind told in three distinct parts, within five wickedly deceiving acts. Lauver has cleverly placed you smack in the middle of this bizarre yet captivating dreamscape of broken characters in the midst of their own mini existential crises - what meaning lies within our dreams? what does it mean to "be"? to what lengths would we go to unbreak what is broken within us? - and a pretty badass game of chess taking place between a young kid and Eleanor Rosevelt outside of a quickmart that plays out through eternity.





Robert Kloss
Self Published
(Nov 2017)

5 stars

I cannot think of a greater example of an author who was once traditionaly published making the move to self publish in order to retain the integrity of the vision for their book, refusing to release it any other way. The way Kloss abuses language, entirely spinning out this tale in abrupt em-dashes, whittling down the prose to what is only, absolutely needed. And it reads seemlessly, feverishly, beautifully. Evoking, crushing, tugging at you. I thought The Alligators of Abraham was untouchable. Here, Kloss has quite possibly given that debut a run for its money.





Nick Cato
Bizarro Pulp Press
(Released January 25th)

4 stars

Holy hamster sex, batman, and mayhem, madness and mysterious monsters galore!

Nick Cato lets it all hang out in this collection of compellingly ludicrous and grotesque short stories. Within these pages, we find ourselves partying inside the walls of a hexed musician's ever-expanding penis; drumming alongside a vacationing family man who's trying to save humanity from the end of the world; gunning down a tobacco field's worth of toilet zombie teens; and cringing along with the last surviving man of a group of bigfoot adventurers when a run-in with the giant beasts goes badly. 

The stories, which appear to have been previously published elsewhere and many of which have strange sexual themes throughout, work incredibly well with one another. Cato knows just how far to stretch things, sprinkling just enoughbody horror into these absurdly bizarre situations to make our heads spin but keep our eyes firmly stationed in our sockets!





Steve Anwyll
Tyrant Books
(Released January 8th)

5 stars

Tyrant Books is cranking out some really amazing literature.

Welfare is a manic, depressive, highly infectious novel about a runaway teenager on the cusp of adulthood who is incapable of giving a fuck about growing up. I mean, sure, he thinks about giving a fuck, he thinks about giving a lot of them. But when push comes to shove, he's inexplicably unable to actually give them. 

Our narrator Stan spends a lot of time wallowing in self-pity, painfully aware of how he got to where he is - living in a shitty dump with a roommate he sorta hates, penniless, always on the verge of starving. He's knows how dire his siutation is. He's humilitated that he's had to resort to collecting welfare checks, yet he refuses to apply for jobs that he believes are beneath him, and harbors this bizarre fantasy that he's owed better. Everything he touches or tries to accomplish turns to shit, mostly because he half-asses everything. And when his case worker starts putting the pressure on, he suffers from a near-paralization and over-rationalization of ridiculous reasons why he shouldn't have to search for a job, convincing himself that they are super reasonable excuses and so refuses to give a fuck. 

While Stan is a total piece of shit, the book itself is a fucking riot. Much in the same way Sam Pink can take a a peice of shit asshole and make us love then, Anwyll's a master at making us give a crap about someone who certainly doesn't deserve it. He's created the perfect mooch - that guy that you'd let crash on your couch because you just feel so damn sorry for him. In fact, he tells Stan's story so well I have to wonder how much of what I've read is autobiographical.





Stephanie Allen
Shade Mountain Press
(Releases February 5th)

3 stars

Set in my home state of Pennsylviana in the early 1900's, Tonic and Balm is the tale of Doc Bell's Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show, which is cleverly told from the perspective of each of Doc's motely crew - a collection of talented, traveling misfits who wow the nightly crowds with their acrobatics, sword swallowing, and dancing routines. Highlighted throughout each personal account is the mysterious heart of the show, the sideshow freak Miss Antoinette, a woman who suffers from hydrocephalus and whose silence and strangeness creates much unease and uncertainty amidst the group's members. 

While wholy intriqued with Stephanie's approach to storytelling, the diversity of the cast which includes LGBTQ and POC lead characters, and the descriptions of the common chaos that seems to naturally rise up within the group, I found myself longing for more... I dunno... more sparkle? more subterfuge? just.... more.





Meghan L Dowling
Univeristy of New Orleans Press
(Released January 25th)

4 stars

This is the story of a sister, daughter, grandaughter and her collection of memories - of things remembered, of stories shared, of physical and sexual violence witnessed and suffered and assumed. It is a story of strength and survival and secrets. Bouncing back and forth in time and perspective as the narrator decountructs her family history, beginning with the relationship between herself and her older sister yet reaching as far back as that of her grandmother Agnes and Agnes' estranged husband Gene, Dowling beautfully unpacks their truths (or fictions?) in a series of vignettes, letters, dated article snippets, and photograph notes.




Benjamin DeVos
Dostoyevsky Wannabe
(Sept 2018)


5 stars

Fuckin' A, did Ben just set the bar really high or what? If his other books are even remotely comparable to this one, he'll quickly snuggle up next to writers like Bud Smith, Sam Pink, Brian Alan Ellis... sexy ass gents who write books that I want to just stretch out naked in, pressing their words into my bare skin, absorbing them into my very veins. 

Deceptively short, overflowing with awesomeness, The Bar is Low is the story of an amputee who takes his pegleg to work at a pirate-themed resturant. It's the humdrum life of a guy determined to make things easy for himself - living in a rented apartment with a roommate he despises, working a humilating job with a boss he can't stand, killing time at support group for people with missing limbs. 

Not one word is wasted. Not one sentence is fluff. Ben has cut right down into the bone and marrow of everyday nuances. Shit, we all know this guy! The one who's got so-so hygeine, who's always cracking jokes and daydreaming about ridiculous shit, who never seems to sweat it while the rest of us dumbasses are breaking our backs to get ahead, to get the girl, to make ends meet...




Karen Thompson Walker
Random House - Audio
(Released January 15th)

2 stars

Oh man, this was such a difficult book to listen to. 

The overall pandy (aka pandemic) storyline was interesting enough. Small college town succumbs to a sudden and highly contagious new super-virus that puts its victims into a deep, dream-filled slumber. You gotta admit, that sounds pretty awesome, right? But I could tell right from the start that this book was going to be a struggle. The net was too widely cast, initally. There were waaaay too many character introductions, much too much backstory into each one of them before any of the real action began. But I hung in there. The author is just setting the stage. You can see that she's going to pull everyone together. That soon, it'll all start connecting. I was also hopeful that, once people start getting sick, things would speed up a bit. But nope. As storylines began merging and people started falling ill, I swear... the book started going even slooooower. 

Doubly irrating was the fact that I had downloaded the files for the audio directly to my phone, so I was unable to speed up the narration, which, under normal circumstances I NEVER do, but I'm wondering if it would have helped in this case? The audiobook's narrator speaks in a slow, lilting voice which, when paired with the author's slow, meandering style of telling the story, just made this book draaaaaag on. It felt like it was never going to end.

I felt like I might have been better off catching the Santa Lora virus myself. 

(note to self - stop reading popular big five books. you know you'll just end up being disappointed. why keep putting yourself through that?)





Alex Difrancesco
Civil Coping Mechanisms 
(Releases February 15th)

4 stars

In Psychopomps, Alex swings wide the doors, letting the reader crawl deep down inside, sharing with us their confusion, frustrations, losses, and ultimate relief as they move along their journey to self discovery. 

An impressively powerful collection of essays on gender exploration and identity, finding and losing and rediscovering religion, and the always problematic quest for love and understanding as one is still learning to love and understand themselves. And it's courageous as all fuck if you ask me. Shedding your skin like that in front of everyone? What a big hot beautiful mess!




Tyler Barton
Split Lip Press
(Released January 31st)

4 stars

The Quiet Part Loud is a punchy, powerful little thing. It's about blowing your youth wide open - turning a freshy lawned cemetery into a temporary getaway, breakdancing on rooftops, suffocating the crushing boredom of being on the run by pranking everyone who rides the hotel elevators, and wreaking havoc down sleepy neighborhood streets on trash night....Each story showcasing both the beauty and brashness of shedding ones childhood on the strangest of stages.





Shane Jesse Christmass
Apocalypse Party 
(Released January 31st)

4 stars

I really have no idea what I just read. It's one of the more refreshingly experimental fiction titles I've read in a while. The narrator and the characters with which they engage all appear to switch genders throughout the text, and engage in a ridiculous amount of sex... rough, kinky, oh my god some of that must have hurt sex. 

Though the story is linear - it appears to have a start and an end - there isn't actally much of a "story". Shane cleverly hynotizes his readers with an onslaught of short, incomplete sentences that hit you like repetitive bursts of color behind the eyelid, in rapid, manic succession. Honestly, the book is one giant paragraph of paranoia. 

This is certainly not going to be for everyone. I bet it won't even be for you, my dear loyal readers. But holy hell it was a fun fucking ride for me!

Monday, January 28, 2019

Bronwyn Reviews: The Stone Building and Other Places


Translated from the Turkish by Sevinç Türkkan
Longlisted for the 2019 PEN Translation Prize
Publisher: City Lights Books
Released: 2018





Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin





The stone building of Aslı Erdoğan’s collection is a place. It is also a state of mind:  

“Up and down, you pace your memory’s endless, shadowy hallways, you climb up and down its stone stairs, enter empty rooms, wait and listen. Sometimes, in the silence of a stone or a human face, by a noose hanging in the forest or on the gallows, you trace circles that expand and contract. Like a voiceless scream, like a word denied its syllables, like a half-erased verse, you wander on life’s worn-out trails, its dark shores.”

Though she began her career as a particle physicist, Erdoğan is now an acclaimed Turkish writer and journalist who has covered such charged issues as state violence and human rights. An honorary advisor to a pro-Kurdish newspaper, she was arrested in 2016 and jailed for nearly five months, accused of supporting terrorism. She was eventually released and currently lives in Frankfurt, Germany.

The Stone Building and Other Places captures the relationship between place and mind with the claustrophobic feel of a prisoner pacing a cell. Thoughts repeat and turn back in on themselves, over and over, like a prisoner counting first the stones in the wall, then the cracks in the stones. It is sometimes difficult to tell how much of what we read exists outside the narrator’s mind. Narration flows from one character to another until it is at times impossible to discern first from third person.

Though this translation into English was published only in 2018, this collection originally came out in 2009, long before her imprisonment and exile. She was awarded Turkey’s prestigious Sait Faik Short Story Award. Many years later Erdoğan has said her experience of solitary confinement was much more difficult than she had ever imagined.

And she had imagined it with a powerful intensity. The protagonist of the first story in the collection, “The Morning Visitor,” is a former political prisoner living in exile who sums up a the long-term effects of prison torture when she reflects,

“That dank cell, it follows me wherever I go. In fact, it lives inside of me. It grows like the roots of a tree at night. It spreads and spreads, tearing through my skin to get out, and then it takes shape, finding its outline in the emptiness.”

Aching poetry like this appears on nearly every page. Erdoğan has said she does not depend on storytelling conventions like dramatization and personification in her writing, preferring instead to focus on language, metaphor and music. While any English translation would likely lose some of the rhythm and sound of the original Turkish, the poetry remains in Sevinç Türkkan’s translation, which was longlisted for the 2019 PEN Translation Prize:

“Still, it was the language of wounds that spoke in him, of wounds and desolation, of deserted marketplaces, streets, beds in a jail cell, of stories with no protagonist… A language that no one wants and no one hears, made of words wrested from silence, wrapped in an aura of inscrutability, and returned to silence.” (ellipses in the original)

The book is organized into a novella and three stories that are referred to in the title not as stories but as “places,” which seems appropriate to Erdoğan’s style. Whether these are four different places, though, is not entirely clear. A stone building appears in nearly every story. Also present are hearts of stone and stone-faced masks. Imprisonment and exile run through the pages like threads designed to help us find our way through the building’s tunnels.

The second story, “Wooden Birds,” is the most plot- and character-driven in the book. This is one of her best-known works, winner of the Deutsche Welle Prize in 1997. Its lighter touch stands in contrast to the other stories. Its delightfully unexpected ending suggests a rethinking of Odysseus’ story about the Sirens that resonates in our #metoo moment.

In a 2017 interview, Erdoğan spoke about a novel she has been working on for years, one that revisits the cells and tunnels of this stone building as a metaphor for Istanbul. The Stone Building and Other Places is only the second of Erdoğan’s books to be translated into English, and we had to wait eight years for it to appear. Let’s hope we will see her next book much sooner.





Bronwyn Mauldin writes fiction and poetry and is creator of The Democracy Series zine collection. Her newest work appears in Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California.  



Monday, January 21, 2019

Where Writers Write: Kate Vane

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!



Where Writers Write is a series in which authors showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen.






This is Kate Vane. 


She lives in Devon, in the UK. She worked for a number of years as a probation officer. She started writing crime fiction because she thought made-up criminals would be easier to manage (she sound found she was wrong).

Her latest novel is Brand New Friend. You can find out more about Kate and her writing at
katevane.com









Where Kate Vane Writes





I start my day at my favourite café. They all know me there and have my llama milk latte ready when I arrive. I take my noise-cancelling headphones and listen to the calls of baby dolphins as I type. In the afternoon I rent a space at a trestle table in a converted tannery. The networking opportunities are great if you can get past the smell –

Actually, none of that is true. I work at home. I have a desk, a proper keyboard, an adjustable computer chair and a footrest.



Here’s a picture of my desk. I have headphones there because sometimes I dictate. That’s partly to take a break from typing but also because I find it uses a different part of the brain. One that can’t spell, mostly. I have a timer because I use the Pomodoro method (timed sprints) for writing. It’s one of the few productivity hacks I’ve tried that actually works.

I’d like to say that Robert McKee’s Story is there for inspiration but mainly it’s there because it’s just the right height. (Although it’s a great book and I’ve read it several times. It makes the physics of story structure seem comprehensible and clear, at last until I try to apply it to my own work.)

My workspace looks very much like the office that I was so keen to leave behind. Why so bleakly utilitarian? Firstly for the good of my health. I want to have a long writing career and not ruin my back by writing hunched over a laptop on a sofa. An employer would have to provide decent equipment (here in the UK anyway) so why treat myself less well than they would?

I understand why writers like to go somewhere else to work. Being at home is boring and there’s no one to talk to. Those are the very reasons why I like it. It’s a kind of anti-inspiration. I am forced to fill the emptiness with what’s inside my head.

If I did go to a café or a funky shared workspace I would be distracted all the time. I’d think, why bother writing when I could be watching and eavesdropping on all these other humans or even (out on a limb here) talking to them? I can write at home.



I save the inspiration for my breaks. I live in a small town in a beautiful part of England, on the Devon coast. I can see the sea from my window (I do allow myself to look at it) and love to walk along the beach.



You can just make out the train line which runs along the sea wall. This was the idea of 19th century genius and engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It means that this rail journey, along the Exe Estuary into the cathedral city of Exeter, is world famous for its stunning views.

It also means that the trains can’t run for several days a year when spring tides batter the tracks and the alternative is a slow, expensive bus ride that twists and turns through the narrow lanes and gives me motion sickness.

My workspace might look like an office, but at least I don’t have to commute.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Indie Spotlight: Watch TV Like an Author - Jennifer Spiegel



Jennifer Spiegel is no stranger to TNBBC. In fact, she may actually be the most frequent author contributor here on the blog, for which we are incredibly appreciative. 

Back in November, she self published her novel  And So We Die, Having First Slept. And today she's here sharing an essay on how much she digs.... TV.....










Watching TV Like A Writer*

I love TV.

I may need to justify my TV habit, my love affair, which it is. Nightly, when the kids are down, my husband and I—shamelessly—make our way to the big, brown couch in front of the big screen. He brings over his ubiquitous bowl of Frosted Shredded Wheat and raisins (why, oh, why did I fail to invest in raisins?). Sometimes I wear my purple socks with paw prints on the bottom for traction. We call our stinky dog into the room. And then, then, for one hour only, we watch TV.

 It just seems so—I don’t know—gauche?

I’m going to tell you a little story. It’s embarrassing.

I grew up with parents who watched Primetime TV. Like every night. My skinny-ass dad pulled out this black goblet from the kitchen cupboard, filled it with ice cream, and settled in for a night with my mom, miscellaneous pets, and the Idiot Box. Reading this now, I’m like, Oh No. I turned into my parents.

As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get my nouveau-independent, brie-eating, book-reading self out of there, straight into the halls of Academia, where I could get on with the scholarly life. Always a dork, I didn’t dream of being a supermodel. I dreamt of Nabokov, Roth, Brontë. While I never stopped shaving and I never joined a Kill-Your-Television Hate Group, I did ban most TV-watching for years, making exceptions here and there.

But, by the new millennium, single-womaned out, I succumbed. There was a brief, dark time in which I watched “The Bachelor”—alone, in my thirties, with my now-dead cats, prior to hitting up e-harmony with a fake name (Jennifer Jacaranda). I had thought I was done with self-inflicted psychosis when I had stopped binging-and-purging in the nineties, but apparently not. I got a grip—though months had passed—and I turned it off, with a kiss-my-ass swivel and a clash-bang-boom.

Screw That Reality TV!

TV-tainted, I swore I’d never relapse again.

The rest of that decade is a hazy blur. I know that, somehow or other, I got married to another hater, had kids, read a book by Donna Tartt (seriously, this is all I remember), saw one doctor about removing varicose veins but didn’t follow up, and began—not without a measure of indignity—watching “Lost” with my husband.

But the crazy part is that TV seemed okay now, even among us faux-intellectuals. No one was ashamed anymore. TV was cool. Forty was the new thirty, and TV was the new novel? Getting old wasn’t that bad. Was there a TV Renaissance happening? Were we on the brink, with “Lost,” of Literary TV?

There I was, all highfalutin about character development (Sawyer and his heart of gold) and the combo of a backstory (I don’t remember it) with a current story (the Others!), along with the beauty of this story confinement in terms of time and place, et al.

Well, this tale ends badly, I’m afraid.

As you know, “Lost” went south with its craven ending (and the Smoke Monster). I still can’t talk about it. That grand finale—rife with McGuffins, a Deus ex Machina or two, and red herrings galore—killed me, like, religiously. Part of me died. I mean, by now, I was already in the throes of pretending I was a real writer—and I wanted “Lost” to work. I wanted it so badly. I wanted narrative success, not unlike a sinner craving redemption. With each show’s offering of clues and with climactic tension building, my hopes were high. My disbelief was so suspended that I was utterly convinced in the Dharma Initiative and All. But that conclusion was so unbearably lousy, so disappointing, so theoretically unsound, that I turned off the television for another couple of years. My hands still stained with the sin of Bad TV, I was in need of cleansing (not to be dramatic or anything). The TV stayed off.

Till the Renaissance was in full-swing.

And that was when the TV was declared a source of marital together-time, a discussion piece, a happy ritual. However, I needed it to somehow benefit my writing too. I then started my Big Project: Watching TV Like A Writer.

We discovered gold in the Renaissance. “The Office” was a gift. We only began watching when it was over.

And now a crash-course in what I look for . . .

Veracity/Emotional Truth: I am ever-conscious of authenticity. It’s a literary habit, yeah?

It was the appeal of “The Office.” The absurdity of the real. The side glances. The cast of nuts in our lives. The ordinary setting. The I Am A Nut Too-ness of it. The “Breaking of the Fourth Wall,” if done in a particular way, draws our attention to what is and isn’t real, to artifice. When Michael (or Leslie in “Parks and Recreation”) addresses the audience, the audience is asked to be active, not passive, to note the absurdity of the moment, to see it for what it is.

But it can be even larger than that. It can speak of the human experience. I might turn to “Better Call Saul” because I am perpetually blown away by strange human ministrations in the scenarios. It’s a quiet show, you know? One just watches Jimmy live out a breathtaking humanity that almost embarrasses the viewer with its scrutiny but also evokes empathy. It speaks to what it means to be human.

I often think of certain odd moments in “Saul.” One thing I really love about that show is how it will dwell in the moment. It will linger. TV (and other mediums) often doesn’t let the individual moment sink in before racing onto the next, maybe more exciting, moment. “Saul” savors such times, and I think writers might learn much about the ravishing or devastating or colorful effect of minutia. Watch this scene. There are many, many others like it. “Saul” dwells. Should writers do the same?

Character Development: This is really hard for TV, I think. It’s a plot-centric medium, yeah? Built to be an After-Dinner Drink, following the long, hard day. Characters on TV, for the most part, have always been stable. Reliable. We could count on Lucy to be Lucy. (Laverne to be Laverne!) Which is why we might make a case that there’s a TV Renaissance going on. Characters have the potential to develop as at least some shows get novelistic. Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos” goes into therapy, and it affects his behavior. Walter White of “Breaking Bad” transforms over the course of several years, making the phrase breaking bad meaningful. The direction of the plot hinges on character development.

(Side note: This is why I’m done with “The Walking Dead.” Rick gone, protagonist no longer on any kind of character-trajectory: The show is dead to me.)

The Good Detail: This, too, is maybe novel in television, because formulaic recipes have proven so successful. But how great is it that the family unit in “Breaking Bad” consists of a high school chemistry teacher, a pretty unlikeable mom, and a kid with cerebral palsy? How great is it that Jimmy’s brother in “Better Call Saul” is cra-cra and demands that cellphones are put in the mailbox? These are great not because of the eye-popping weirdness, but because they’re not formulaic and they’re painfully true. That’s the stuff of my life, your life. We’re the chemistry teachers, the ones with the crazy brother (or maybe we are the crazy brother).

Production Values That Are Probably Equivalent to Language: Well, yes. I listen for dialogue. But there are other kinds of language. I’m thinking of Nina Simone at the end of the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” or the use of the color red in the show. I’m thinking of the stylized settings and clothes from “Mad Men,” “Peaky Blinders” maybe (watch this!), and even early “Walking Dead.” I think, personally, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the best in making a beautiful language out of its production values. Ouch--this is so great. I find it utterly chilling, nearly perfect.

Bad Guys: They need to be fully human, right? Tony Soprano and Walter White were bad guys who were also good guys. Remember Tony’s weird soft-spot for animals? Sometimes, there are great bad guys roaming the sets of so-so shows. I loved Boyd Crowder on “Justified.” (That show was a fave, though I’m not totally sure I can make a big case for it.) “Ozark,” a newbie, seems to have a great mix of complex characters.

Endings: I’m possibly over-sensitive about endings. I have a thing for closure. There is little I like better that a seven-year commitment to a television show with resolution at the end (this is hyperbole.) Resolution can be in different forms. I’ll try to avoid spoilers. There are two kinds of satisfying endings.

First, the This-Is-The-Way-It-Goes end of “Breaking Bad,” which was close to flawlessness. What true thing will follow these other true things? That is the lovely path of “Breaking Bad.” A variation of this kind of end is the Hate-It-Love-It End of “The Sopranos,” which requires the viewer to ponder the inevitable. That show ended with the lingering presence of the Inevitable.

Second, there is the metaphoric, Somehow-This-Totally-Works End. “Mad Men” did it. It’s right. It’s philosophic, symbolic. It’s probably—because everything is—a little Great Gatsby, even if no one rides off into the sunset like I was hoping they would. Another winner here was “Six Feet Under,” which you know we’re still thinking about . . .

I guess I would say that I’m in constant lookout mode for the satisfying end. I’m a student of ends. I don’t know if other writer-types feel as strongly about this as I do. For me, the value of the story may just depend on the end. I say that, and I’m sure that I can think of a ton of exceptions. Still, I always marvel at the effective ending. (“Seinfeld” bugged me; “St. Elsewhere,” a formative show in my early life, robbed itself of veracity.)

The Perfect Show is probably “Better Call Saul.”

Though “The Handmaid’s Tale” might be another kind of perfect: stylized writing—think about how George Saunders is real, but not real.

Watching TV Like A Writer means that school is never out. There is no such thing as downtime. I’m not all snob. I do or did “Downton Abbey,” “Call the Midwife,” “This is Us,”” The Americans,” and “Orphan Black.” I feel like I demand a lot from my narratives. Happily, my demands are often met.  


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Jennifer Spiegel has an MA in Politics from New York University, and an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Arizona State. She teaches college classes and writes. She is the author of three books: THE FREAK CHRONICLES (Dzanc Books), LOVE SLAVE (Unbridled Books), and AND SO WE DIE, HAVING FIRST SLEPT (November 2018, Five Oaks Press). Spiegel is also half of the book-reviewing team, Snotty Literati. She lives with her husband and two kids in Arizona. Please visit her at www.jenniferspiegel.com.


* Some of this appeared in a slightly different form in an essay I wrote on “The Walking Dead” in Dead Inside: Poems and Essays About Zombies.