The Privateers of Black Rock Harbor

On Wednesday, May 30 I’ll be giving a presentation at the Fairfield Museum and History Center on the privateers that sailed in and out of Black Rock Harbor.

There’s a fine line between a pirate and a privateer — and it’s as thin as a piece of paper issued by the government. Come hear how such Fairfield luminaries as Thaddeus Burr, Samuel Smedley, and Caleb Brewster as well as many other “gentlemen of fortune” banded together to attack the British on the high seas during the Revolutionary War.

I’ll talk about the differences between privateers, pirates, and traditional navies; how the booty from captured ships was divided not only between the owners and the crew but between the officers and sailors themselves (a scheme that relates back to the Golden Age of Piracy); and how many of the privateers in Black Rock didn’t sail aboard large ships but rather hunted in wolf packs of armed whaleboats.

The lunchtime presentation starts at 12:30pm. Full details here.

Remember That Thing I Wrote

Woman pouring alcohol from a cane into her Coca-Cola.
Library of Congress, 1922

Here’s a blast from the past: I just learned the entry I wrote on the Prohibition of Alcohol for the Cato Institute’s Encyclopedia of Libertarianism was put online last summer. Way back in 2008, I was asked to contribute a thousand words on the subject as a result of an article I had written in Reason on Prohibition in and around New York City, but until now the Encyclopedia was only available in very expensive print.

America’s discomfort with alcohol developed in the mid-19th century. Previously, alcoholic beverages were an established facet of American society: George Washington operated a whiskey distillery, Thomas Jefferson dabbled in viticulture, and Samuel Adams had his brewery. Hard cider and rum enjoyed mass appeal, and rum was a common barter item in the cash-strapped New World. Even religiously rigid groups such as the Puritans and the Quakers stressed moderation rather than abstinence.

Not long after the book was published, I read a review of it on a libertarian website which spent a disproportionate amount of pixels criticizing my entry. The issue lay in my very different interpretation of how Prohibition’s repeal came about in 1933. The standard libertarian narrative states that repeal occurred once politicians realized they stood to make more money by taxing alcohol rather than banning it, and therefore as rational actors they responded to market incentives and re-legalized booze, albeit under heavy regulatory control.

It’s true there were some politicians at the time who justified repeal to their constituents with such logic, but the real story is a lot more messy and, frankly, human. While in the beginning Prohibition was popular among certain groups of Americans, opinion had turned against it by the end of the 1920s, mainly because of its association with crime and violence. Arguably the biggest turning point was the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of seven gangsters in Chicago, which seems quaint considering how habituated we are today to an endless stream of violence, imprisonments, and overdoses in the name of the War on Drugs.

By 1932 — an election year — politicians had jumped upon the issue, which (if you read my entry) ranked higher in people’s minds than the economic crisis. At the Republican convention, Herbert Hoover, who was a staunch temperance man, refused to buckle to overwhelming public pressure for all-out repeal, so as a compromise the Republicans chose a “moist” platform, which called for the legalization of beer and wine but a continued prohibition of hard spirits. Like most compromises, this satisfied no one; the American public wanted full repeal while the Anti-Saloon League and their acolytes wanted to stay the course.

The Democratic convention followed afterwards. Seizing the opportunity, Democrats voted on a full repeal platform, and a group of them opposed to presidential contender Al Smith (who was Catholic and had enemies within the party) offered the nomination to Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. on the condition that he switch his stance from dry to wet. FDR was never one to let personal principles interfere with his ambition and flipped on the spot. Of course, he won the 1932 election, and before the end of his first year in office, the 21st Amendment had been ratified by the necessary 36 states.

I learned long ago to ignore that certain stripe of economist-slash-libertarian who assumes people are automatons single-mindedly programmed to chase dollar bills. My experience in anthropology and history has taught me that while, yes, humans are generally rational, the internal code that dictates that rationality is often a mix of fear, love, sex, vengeance, and a whole host of emotions beyond a simple appetite for monetary advantage. A man who pushes his child out of the path of a runaway car is not motivated by his economic desire to avoid hospital bills.

Anyway, I’m glad to see my entry finally made available to the wider world, even if its dated style has far too many thuses and therefores. Weren’t we just talking about writers being embarrassed by older work?

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

At Electric Lit’s Blunt Instrument advice column, an author asked how to absolve herself from the shame of publishing a book she now feels is “juvenile:”

I saw a tweet a little while ago from someone who said, “I would never forgive myself if I wrote a bad book.” I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself, either, and I can’t figure out how to move on. For a time I thought that I would just work hard and write something else that would be so much better and erase the collective memory of my first book (I think I flatter myself to even think there is a collective memory), but I remain filled with doubt. And self-loathing. This might be a better question for a therapist, but here’s the short version: how do you recover from publishing shame?

Elisa Gabbert, the Blunt Instrument’s fount of wisdom, replied in part:

It makes sense that young people, because they lack experience, would tend to undervalue experience and overvalue talent, which may be all they have. It also makes sense that older people would place a higher value on experience, now that they have it. I am not especially young, so you can take my bias into account, but I believe that experience is important, and that more life experience, reading experience, and writing experience are going to make you a better writer.

I don’t disagree with anything Gabbert said and her entire response is worth reading, particularly for her discussion of how the vagaries of publishing often result in a disparity between the fondness an author feels for a work versus its popularity among readers.

Yet what’s significant to me is that Gabbert explicitly underscores such shame being an issue of experience. Writers who are early in their careers — regardless of their age — have smaller portfolios and therefore are more conscious of it. If you only have ten published pieces to your credit and one is awful, that’s ten percent of your bylines; but if you’ve written 100 pieces and one is bad, the stink is confined to a negligible percentage.

All writers produce bad copy — God knows I have. Thankfully most of it is lost to the mists of time, but before you tell me that Google forgets nothing, keep in mind it works both ways: yes, some of my bad stuff has fallen down the memory hole but so have some pieces I’m particularly proud of, even though they were authored in the age of search engines. Publications come and go, and often they take their servers with them. The Internet is no elephant.

If you dug up one of those old pieces of mine, the kind I’d prefer were forgotten, and waved it my face, I wouldn’t be happy. But neither would I lose sleep over it. I have a number of aphorisms I’ve developed over the years. For example: The best response to a piece of bad writing is to create another piece of writing. (A related nugget of wisdom I tell myself is the best way to advertise or market a piece of writing is to sell another piece of writing). When I start something and realize it’s not proceeding well, I set it aside and write something else. Sometimes I will cannibalize it for words or ideas but at the very least the act was a warmup, a prelude to a new thing. To the inexperienced, a setback or criticism can seem monstrous but to the jaded rodeo clown it’s like, Meh whatevs.

This subject resonates with me, I think, because this week I’m putting the finishing edits on my current WIP, a 37,000-word novella. Today I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but while I can’t imagine ever hating it, five or ten years from now I may view it more critically. That’s OK because I’d like to think that in five to ten years I’ll be writing even better stuff.

And that, ultimately, is what you have to ask yourself: Does what I’m writing today reflect the best I can do in this moment? Is it a product of my current talent and ability? If not, throw it in a drawer. But if it is, then hustle it, and if your future self doesn’t like it, then tell him to STFU and get cracking on something better. Move forward. Forget the past. Let the dead bury the dead.

Reading Among the Ruins

The World in Winter and The Sixth WinterIn case you missed it, in 2017 I took a deep dive into the post-apocalyptic genre and then posted a mega-review at Medium of what I found.

It wasn’t until I went on J.G. Ballard jag a few years ago that I realized the depth and variety of post-apocalyptic fiction. One book led to two more, and soon what I thought was niche sci-fi turned out to be much richer and plentiful than I had imagined, so much so that I now believe it’s unfair to label post-apoc a subgenre or subcategory of something else.

I scribbled thoughts and impressions as I turned the pages, and eventually I wondered if those notes might act as breadcrumbs to other readers seeking to wander a literary wasteland—especially in these seemingly end times. I present to you the result.

My criteria for the list was often based on obscurity, so there’s no Leibowitzes or Lucifer’s Hammers. Instead, the more off-beat the book, the more likely it appealed to me. There’s some J.G. Ballard in there, naturally, but also some Leigh Brackett, John Christopher, and even Jack London. Still, the list of books I didn’t get to is even longer: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins (which I’m told is more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic), and on and on.

Strangely, as I read I felt like every book had something to say about the state of America in 2017, so if you’re looking for something to read that speaks to current times without being too on the nose, check it out.

Take the Next Chance, and the Next

For Christmas I received the memoir This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, a big coffee-table book about Garbage, probably my all-time favorite band. Incredibly Mrs. Kuhl and I saw them live for the first time this past summer when they toured with Blondie, and it’s strange to think I’d never seen them in the twenty-plus years of my fandom; but then I remember that in the 90s I was ramen-noodles poor and by the time we had money and were doing well enough to afford concert tickets and big nights on the town, we had babies and toddlers.

Flipping through the book at random I was immediately struck by a quote from Shirley Manson. In 2005 the band took a seven-year hiatus, and during that time Manson acted as a killer robot on the show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It’s not as weird a transition as you might think; Manson had been a print model in her teenage years and intended to segue into acting before, as she said, she “stumbled into music.” She took acting lessons with instructor Sharon Chatten, and although she hasn’t acted much since the show was cancelled, Manson considers it a positive experience:

“She completely changed my attitude to being an artist and my approach to making music,” says Manson. “She taught me how not to focus on results but instead to focus on ideas and taking creative detours and risks; how to cut the strings of who I thought I was and instead be in the moment, completely free of external appraisal.”

No musician, I suppose, begins her career with anything more than a vague idea about playing music. Then one day she may say, I want to record an album, but she has little idea of how the final product will sound, perhaps only a blurred notion at best. There can be no real understanding of the result; she can only understand what she is doing in that day, only in that moment.

She can only record one song, one idea, then another, and another, until she has enough to fill an album. Then later she does the whole process again, then maybe again. Eventually she has albums and albums of music and can look back and see a career and a trajectory which was completely opaque at the beginning.

Having two sons, our family is not immune to annual Star Wars madness, and Manson’s sentiment dovetails with a line that hooked me while recently rewatching Rogue One. Toward the story’s climax the heroine Jyn Erso explains her strategy for infiltrating the Empire’s top-secret base. “They’ve no idea we’re coming,” she tells her misfit team. “No reason to expect us. If we can make it to the ground, we’ll take the next chance, and the next, on and on, until we win or the chances are spent.”

Take creative detours, take risks. Take chances. That, I think, is the best new year’s advice I can provide, to myself and to everybody.

Wide Wide Sea

Weirdbook 37This morning I woke to the news that the latest issue of Weirdbook is now available. The issue includes my story “Wide Wide Sea,” wherein humanity has fled under the waves due to an unspecified cataclysm on the Earth’s surface. Also, because I wrote it, there’s ghosts.

“My mother,” says the sailor, “I saw my mother.” And he proceeds to explain to Dupont, in an unsteady tone that grows stronger and higher through the telling, that as he proceeded along the passage on his way to retrieve two washers and a nut to fix a corroded container bolt, he was stopped in his tracks by the apparition of his dead parent before him. She regarded him squarely with an expression the sailor could not exactly define but which he takes great pains to describe, then turned away to walk forward and vanish through the locker door. When he opened the locker, the sailor made his discovery.

“Wide Wide Sea” developed from the recognition that all post-apocalyptic fiction (which I’ve been reading a lot of lately) more than a few years old is a kind of alternate history. Post-apoc by definition pinpoints a catastrophe in time, whether it’s in the past, present, or future. During the Cold War, the apocalypse was going to be nuclear annihilation or alien invasion; nowadays we’re anxious about pandemics and AI and climate change. When invariably that apocalypse fails to pass, the work molts into a kind of retro-futurism, leading not into what-could-be but rather branching into what-could’ve-been.

With that realization in hand, I imagined what events in the 19th century might have precipitated a global apocalypse (I know what happened — do you?), and then fast-forwarded to the early years of the 20th century to paint a story of submerged survival. With ghosts.

And look at that cover art! I have no idea what’s going on there — it’s not from “Wide Wide Sea” — but man is that a great scene of tentacley horror and gloom. It reminds me of my days writing for Dungeon, so evocative of dangerous quests through the hex-map swamps. I don’t know who the artist is, but damn.

You can order a hard copy of Weirdbook 37 at Wildside Press’s site. You can also pick it up at Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.