Elmore Leonard

If there is a single writer I owe above all others, it was Elmore Leonard. Some of his ten rules I had cadged beforehand from Hemingway — which is where he grabbed them too — like the distrust of adverbs or not lingering too long on descriptions. The one that has really stuck with me is not using anything other than the word “said” for dialogue. I will also use “asked,” which is similarly neutral. The teachers actually scold my sons for using “said” in their writing; they want melodrama like “cried” or “pleaded” or “demanded.” I don’t worry too much because a big part of writing is throwing away everything you learned in school and paring down your style into something distinct. They’ll do it like writers do.

Valdez Is Coming was his favorite Western, which is understandable; its twist ending could be seen, like Unforgiven was for Clint Eastwood, as a kind of love-letter criticism of the genre. I’m partial to Cuba Libre, his Western set on a Caribbean island. His crime novels? Probably Rum Punch but that’s a tough call since it’s difficult not to compare it with Jackie Brown. Get Shorty is good. Freaky Deaky is fun, about ex-60s radicals trying to dynamite their way to riches (I watched the 2012 film version with Christian Slater on Tuesday — small budget but definitely worthwhile).

Leonard was the last of the pulp writers, a World War II vet who went to Detroit to scrawl ad copy and wrote Westerns on the side. I’ve read most of his early books, though years later a lot of them bleed together. The plots are forgettable because they derive entirely from the characters — there’s very few MacGuffins. It’s usually: this person wants revenge on that person, or to scam or steal from that person, and then coincidentally this other person or persons becomes involved, and the whole thing becomes knotted. His plots are tangled but never confusing; and there’s only a handful of characters to keep track of. The women are always smarter than the men and the men — this is something I really like about Leonard — are often undone by their vanity and ego. There’s a graf in Riding the Rap (I think) where the character imagines how he should wear a do-rag or a hat or something and how bad-ass he would look if he did that. Because ladies, men are peacocks. Just one thing among so many others Leonard got right.

Full Steam Ahead

Reacting to IBM’s prediction that steampunk will reach the tipping point in 2013, Alternate History Weekly Update notes that, like it or not, corsets and goggles are the visible standard-bearers for the entire genre of historical what-iffiness:

Business News reported that IBM predicted steampunk will be the next major fashion trend in 2013. They based their prediction by having a supercomputer (presumably not a steam powered Babbage Analytical Engine) analyze “more than half a billion public posts on message boards, blogs, social media sites and news sources.”

IBM and, frankly, most people don’t distinguish between steampunk the visual-arts movement, steampunk the sartorial movement, and steampunk the literary movement, nor consider how much overlap between the three really exists. Cinematically I think saturation has already occurred; just as time travel was once a very explicit subset of science fiction but is now a common plot device in mainstream television, tropes like airships in the sky to telegraph an alternate reality (e.g., Doctor Who, Fringe) will continue to be absorbed into popular consciousness. I certainly welcome renewed interest in Nouveau style and Craftsman architecture and furnishings, but those stand on their own. As for fashion, I’m skeptical of who’s chasing whose tail. Designers may embrace Victorian callbacks like high boots and snug bodices — or even mirror steampunk’s notorious mix of 19th-century décolletage with 21st-century gam — but looking around at the women of New York and Connecticut, I’m certain any similarities occur independent of a cosplay community. Using steampunk as a marketing gimmick is different than drawing inspiration from it — an obvious deficiency of a metric designed simply to count buzzwords.

But will supposed popular interest in steampunk extend to what initially began as a literary trend? Magic 8-Ball says Outlook not so good. I doubt I’m alone when I question if alternate-history’s poster child has sunk to self-parody; for every VanderMeer collection, twenty girl-on-girl steampunk anthologies inundate Amazon. Meanwhile, some editors report a scarcity of appropriate material for their pubs. Would anyone not already a heavy spec-fiction reader pick up a Cherie Priest novel? Forget Main Street — has anyone already involved in steampunk ever read a Jeff Barlough novel? My guess is that the biggest in-roads are being made in the Young Adult market.

I’ve no reason to complain if steampunk as a whole has raised the profile of alternate history, regardless of whether the written variety — or at least, the inventive written variety — will ever be ubiquitous enough to reach a general audience. So chatter it up, Internets! And then go hit the Kindle store.

An Interview With Jeffrey E. Barlough

Over at Black Gate, you can read my interview with Jeffrey Barlough, author of the long-running Western Lights series of alternate-history novels.

There’s nothing out there on the shelves like Jeffrey Barlough’s Western Lights novels. The series — called such because “the sole place on earth where lights still shine at night is in the west” — is a bouillabaisse of mystery, ghost story, and post-apocalyptic gaslamp fantasy. His seventh and most recent book, What I Found at Hoole, was published in November.

Dr. Barlough, who moonlights as a veterinary physician, kindly spoke to me about the world-building of the Western Lights, his latest project, and which Ice Age animal he’d most like to meet in a dark alley.

Barlough has flown under the radar for far too long; in a just universe, steampunk convention-goers would be cosplaying his characters and dressing up their pets as woolly mammoths. Here’s hoping the interview brings him a little more attention.

Altered State

For a mile or so they would be aware of their running. Then, in time, they would become lost in the monotonous stride of their pace, running, but each somewhere else in his mind, seeing cool mountain pastures or palm trees or thinking of nothing at all, running and hearing themselves sucking the heated air in and letting it out, but not feeling the agony of running. They had learned to do this in the past months, to detach themselves and be inside or outside the running man but not part of him for long minutes at a time.

— Elmore Leonard, Forty Lashes Less One.

Recent Reads

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans
Lawrence N. Powell
Harvard University Press, March 2012 (Amazon | B&N)

I spend so much time dinging academic historians and their usually constipated prose that I’m obligated to call out an exception when it hits the shelves. This isn’t a definitive history of the city — it stops soon after the Louisiana Purchase, with the Battle of New Orleans as an epilogue — but, frankly, a complete recitation of NOLA during the 19th century, particularly during the Civil War, would fill a thick volume all its own. Instead Powell focuses on the 1700s, deftly explaining the events leading up to New Orleans’s improbable siting, followed by the convoluted real-estate scheming that shaped it (I like a writer who drops the word “autarky” into an economic discussion without feeling the need to explain it). Powell conducts his chorus so smartly that we can hear the echoes of those 18th-century voices today: the rise of nepotism (from a time when everybody in town really did know everybody else), corruption and disregard of the law (a reaction to mercantilism and a centralized state completely unresponsive to the city’s needs), lavish parties and displays of wealth (to create hierarchies in a world where everyone was sloughing off previous failures or humble origins to reinvent themselves), a rich African tradition (whites have always been a minority), and strong Francophile identity (a reflex against nearly 40 years of Spanish rule). Powell doesn’t overemphasize events either, which is always a peril for authors tempted to make A Point. The Accidental City is an accessible history of New Orleans’s haphazard beginnings.


The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, May 2007 (Amazon | B&N)

There are bad books, which I’ve decided aren’t worth talking about anymore. There are mediocre books — ditto. There are good books, which are worth promoting, and then there are books that provoke me as a writer to say to myself, What the hell am I doing with my life? I’m a complete fuck-up. I’ll never be able to make something like this.

Michael Chabon and I started off on the wrong foot. The first book I read — or tried to read — of his was Manhood for Amateurs, which included a ridiculous chapter on Lego, followed by an equally obnoxious interview. Lack of enough synonyms for “awful” prevented me from scribbling a full review of the book; suffice to say Chabon is a better fiction writer than public intellectual. This experience scared me off his work. Then recently I read his alt-history “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance” in the VanderMeers’ Steampunk anthology, which was wonderful enough for me to seek out The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I’m so glad I did.

Only after the last page did I learn the novel, a police procedural set in an alternate history wherein Israel was defeated in 1948, won a slew of awards, including the 2007 Sidewise. The first 11 chapters are very slow — he could’ve used a better hook — and Chabon’s cynicism runs more to the grotesque (people are defined by their deformities, by their fatness or dandruff or “larval white fingers”) than toward Chandler-esque wit. Still, Chabon has his moments:

The outer room holds a sleeper couch, a wet bar and mini-fridge, an armchair, and seven young men in dark suits and bad haircuts. The bed is folded away, but you can smell that the room has been slept in by young men, maybe as many as seven.


One is a black man and one a Latino, and the others are fluid pink giants with haircuts that occupy the neat interval between astronaut and pedophile scoutmaster.

For me, Union hit every right note: a brilliant noir in which a detective doggedly pursues a lone murder, only to uncover a greater conspiracy. There’s a very sweet love story too. But most of all, Chabon gets alternate history. It’s a setting. It’s not an atmosphere or a corseted costume or even a genre — it’s a time-space geography the characters inhabit and interact with. Can you tell I really liked this book?

Does Alternate History Have Value?

Civil War historian Keith Harris posted a review (I know — over a year old, but he just tweeted it Monday) of Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South. He liked the book. But alternate history itself? Not so much:

Acording [sic] to historian Mark Grimsley, there are roughly two kinds of counteractual history. First – for the basest of simpletons I suppose – we have the “beer and peanuts” counterfactual. These “what ifs,” such as “what if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg” generally make their appearance at various “buff” gatherings. Second, we have “counterfactual theory.” This theory, the brainchild (I believe) of Grimsley himself, couches counterfactuals in the high-toned language of academics. The objective: to derive an element of truth from what did happen by laboriously theorizing about what…ummmm….didn’t.

Frankly, I find both varieties equally absurd. I have always suggested to my students that counterfactual history has limited utility (apart from a few laughs) and analysis of the infinite “what ifs” of history bears little or no fruit. Why, I ask, should we dwell on what might have happened (something that we could never, ever, ever really know – ever…no matter what) when we still have trouble determining what actually did? Ughh.

His reaction is noteworthy as it’s the first time I’ve read a PhD’s opinion on the genre (well, not exactly — Turtledove himself has a PhD in Byzantine history). Overlook for a moment Keith’s conflation of alternate-history fiction such as The Guns of the South with counterfactual history — those scholarly presentations of what-if scenarios that have all the appeal and impact of a green Lunesta moth. And let’s set aside the obvious primary goal of fiction — to entertain — for a utilitarian argument.

Quoth William Faulkner, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.” Or history. Now, I’m more fully in the truth is stranger than fiction camp but Faulkner precisely diagnoses how alt history can underscore and engage fact in a way that should interest historians, academic or otherwise. Today there are people who insist, contrary to every scrap of paper written by anybody from the period or even the Confederate Constitution itself, slavery would have peacefully extinguished in an independent CSA. (The motivational poster at right, with its LOL and justice is served punchline, is actually a sincere expression swiped from an apologist’s blog). In my story “Glorieta Pass,” I not only call bullshit on the idea but further speculate that a peacetime Confederacy would have known little internal peace. If I can’t convince apologists of their stupidity outright, then I can mock them while entertaining everyone else. Through fiction.

But alt history further implies a question very relevant to historians, which is: Is history deterministic? Could it have unfolded any other way or is it — like perhaps the fabric of the universe itself — the summation of the only possible series of events? Why didn’t events happen differently? Think about it the next time someone at a dinner party suggests that without Hitler, another dictator would have still come to power in 1930s Germany.

(PS: You might not guess it from this post, but I actually like Keith — he’s a runner! — and I recommend his blog, Cosmic America.)