Sunday, January 29, 2017

Risk: Real and Imagined

Playing with a big knife in the African bush country.

Recently, an ITW Roundtable asked me and several other authors, this question:  What's the riskiest thing you've done in the name of research?

Knowing that a whole lot of peeps don't get to see the Roundtable, I though I'd publish my answer here at the Vox. So without further ado (Did you know the word "ado" can be traced back to the 1300s? As in, Much ado about nothing, which might actually be a more apt title for this piece...).

Risk or danger is relative of course.
Hemingway needed to place himself in some of the riskiest situations possible in order to write his fiction. War, bullfights, big game hunting, deep sea fishing, and eventually, a double-barrel shotgun barrel pressed against his forehead. If it were physically possible to have written about the experience after he depressed the double triggers and blew the entirety of his cranial cap away along with most of his face, with only the lower jaws intact, I’m sure he would have. It would have been the ultimate dangerous research act conducted with the utmost grace under pressure.

Mailer adhered to a different opinion about risk and the human condition. He once said that bravery isn’t just limited to placing one’s self in perilous situations. Ultimate bravery can be the little old lady who is half blind and half hobbled who must walk two blocks in downtown Manhattan in order to purchase food. Every step is wracked with anxiety, every time she crosses a busy street, she fears she might not make it to the other side alive.
My friends and yours, the Islamic Brotherhood...Cairo, 2012
Some writers go to dangerous places in order to create, not in the physical sense, but instead, the psychological. Stephen King delves deep into the frightening and the bizarre and I’m sure that, at times, he frightens himself almost to death. There’s serious risk in delving deep inside the over-active imagination. Noir writers like David Zeltserman explore the deep, darkest, places a man or woman can go. His characters are often nonredeemable. Such as the killing of an innocent child and not feeling a thing about it. When you write on such topics, you risk making yourself insane.

Others like Hunter S. Thompson, experimented with drugs and in particular, hallucinogenics in order to come up with his brand of prose…his gonzo journalism. In the end, it left him battered at a relatively young age and like so many writers who have lived life on the edge, he took a ticket to ride by swallowing a semi-automatic pistol barrel.

I’ve taken some risks in order to research my novels. I’m a firm believer that researching on Google just ain’t gonna cut the Gray Poupon Mustard. You need to see, smell, touch, the place you are writing about. The keen reader always knows when you’re cheating (so too do Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Book Reporter, etc.) When researching my first big novel, The Innocent (formerly, As Catch Can), I spent days inside Green Haven Maximum Security Prison and even a full night locked up in a cell at Sing Sing Prison. The novel was praised for its realism by the trades and even the New York Post called it “Brilliant…” An auspicious debut, but at the same time, I’d set the bar high for myself. I could never again research a novel without talking on a certain amount of risk. 

Pretending to be the double-agent.

As time went on I began to take more and more chances. Exploring the bush country of West Africa where my fixer and myself managed to get our 4X4 stuck in a swamp. The temperature was somewhere around 100 degrees F, and the humidity enough to make my bush jacket stick to my skin. The ants were as big as my thumb, and the mosquitos relentless. We were eventually recused by a band of mercenaries who, along with their band of voodoo practicing workers, pulled us out of the swamp with their own 4X4. One of them men was convinced I’d killed many men because of the leather bracelet I wore around my right wrist. When I gave him the bracelet, my fixer got pissed off. “You’ve made a connection with him now,” he said. “A physical connection. He can practice his voodoo on you now.”

Maybe a week later, while travelling the bush country along the Nigeria border during its civil war, a soldier wearing fatigues and wrap around sunglasses stopped out 4X4 which was occupied by myself and three Christian mercenary women. He demanded papers and money. We were surrounded by bush country for miles and miles. If he raped the women, and killed us, no one would ever find our bodies. Not long after that, when I was trying to get the hell out of the country, the soldier at the tin-roofed airport terminal demanded a bribe in exchange for my freedom. I gave him everything I had. It was quite the experience, and worth the risk.

Soon after that I would dodge bullets in Cairo’s Tahir Square at the tail end of the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood and their AK-47 sporting bandits prowled the streets, making the police useless. They were a big fan of Obama, but at the same time, hated Americans with a ferocity that was palpable. I was forced to ID myself on the street as a Canadian to which a native might reply, “Don’t die Canada dry.” Good times. I stupidly went out for a jog in the early morning, and ended up surrounded by pack of wild dogs. One of the policemen guarding my hotel came running out, swiping at the dogs with the butt of his automatic rifle. “Don’t ever go out alone in the morning,” he scolded. I took his advice from that moment forward. Too bad he wasn’t around when my truck was run off the highway by another truck occupied by armed bandits. As we sat in the ditch, the driver desperately trying to restart the stalled engine, I was sure were about to be shot to hell. But even though the truck stopped to check us out, they motored on.  

There were the bomb scares in Istanbul, getting lost in Shanghai, avoiding bombs and indiscriminate stabbings in Jerusalem, climbing a slick cliff-side on Machu Piccu in Peru, breaking my foot in several places in the Amazon Jungle, standing in the cockpit of a prop job as it flew beside the summit of Everest in Nepal, sleeping beside the camels under the open sky in the Sahara Desert, and of course, missing Mr. Putin by only a few moments outside the RT news offices in Moscow’s Gorky Park.

But perhaps the riskiest moment came when I was exploring the upper Ganges by boat along with two other women and a fixer. The wood boat was small and cramped, it depended upon the wind for its propulsion. When there was no wind, which was almost always the case in June, a young man rowed while his fellow workers manned a kitchen boat that followed us. We were camping along the shore for a few days but monsoon season storms nearly blew our camp away during the night. It was a hell of a night, let me tell you. On the final day on the river, the heat was so unbearable, I decided to strip down to my boxer shorts, and jump in, much to the dismay of my fixer. But he too was so hot he could hardly move.
“Let’s do it,” he said. Even the girls stripped down.

Swimming in the Ganges is a strange experience in that the current is swift but the river is very shallow in places. But then the shallow parts become very deep, dark water pools that can extend for hundreds of feet. Little did I know it, but my fixer was an Olympic swimmer, both girls were also no stranger to the water. When they decided to swim across a deep pool, I didn’t want to be the one to discourage anyone. After all, it was my idea. I run and lift weights daily, but I’m not much of a swimmer, at least when it comes to distance. I didn’t make it half way across the pool when I began to feel myself going under. Panic kicked in and I considered turning about, and going back. But even that was too far away. No choice but to move forward. But I knew I would never make it. Realization took over. Fear and panic was replaced with total peace, if not serenity. I knew I was going to die. Die on the Ganges, the river of death but also the river of renewed life. I had come to India to die.

But then, maybe thirty feet ahead of me, I saw my fixer stand up tall atop a sandbar. Just seeing him standing there filled me with renewed hope. Flapping my arms and kicking my feet, I made it to the other side, exhausted, my lungs straining and burning. But I was alive.

Later on I would write the third novel in my Chase Baker action/adventure series, Chase Baker and the God Boy, and I poured all my life-and-death experiences into it. Was the risk worth it? I think so. Readers can sense that I’m not only writing fiction, but that I’m writing fiction based on a specific reality. If you’re a writer, and wish to be considered the real deal, get out of the house for a while. No one ever wrote great prose by sitting on the couch all day and Googling your research. No one ever wrote great books without taking risks.

So there you have it. My risk assessment. It's funny because I'm not afraid of entering into a dangerous country, or a dangerous situation for that matter, where life and limb could be compromised. But you know what scares me the most? Or put another way, what gives me nightmares? Being married again. No joke. Lately, I've been having this vivid recurring nightmare, where I wake up inside my old house, with my ex-wife (the first one), and she's yelling at me. Screaming. And I'm like, How the hell did I get here? Then she even goes so far to tell me, You're not gonna get away so easily this time, jerk!...I get the cold sweats just writing this. I'd better go do something else, take my mind off the fear, before I reduce myself to a useless heap of rags and bones.


Friday, January 20, 2017


I've been hearing a lot of talk about the revision process lately. Some authors, especially independent ones, are talking up the fact that they don't revise much, if at all. They simply revise as they go. Of course this saves a ton of time and the authors are able to put out more work that way. And work is content and content is money. Or, as the old cliche goes, content is king.

As for me? I come from the old school which pretty much dictated that you spend an entire year, minimum, on a novel of say, 60K words. Never was this arduous process more apparent in writing school (I did my MFA in Writing at Vermont College in the mid-90's) where my writing profs would grill me on a manuscript and all too often I'd be forced to go back to the drawing board starting with word one. This proved an invaluable experience for a young fiction writer of 29 or 30 years old. There is no better schooling than having to take beating after beating yet still persevering when many others would simply pack it up and head out to law school.

For all I know, student enrollments in MFA programs could be down or for all I know they could be way up. Whatever the case, publishing a book is no longer an achievement or at times, a seemingly impossible achievement. It's more a matter of course. Taken a step further, authors have choices like never before. For instance, over the course of the next three years, I will have three books published traditionally in hard-cover. The books will be in all the bookstores, and the novels will receive the usual trade reviews (good or bad), and all will be well. Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, I would have focused entirely on those three books and spent the in-between time doing something else, like freelance writing or teaching or even writing a short story or two. Hell, maybe I'd do nothing.

But now, I can publish those three books, sign another contract with yet a second publisher, and on top of that, put out any number of books, novellas and short stories under my own label, Bear Media. My choices at that point are thus: do I go exclusive to Amazon KDP or do I go wide with a distribution outlet like Draft2Digital? In the end, I usually do both. a full-time author, you gotta love them.

But this revision thing bothers me a little. I take my work seriously, and I only want my best work to be published, no matter what form that publishing takes. Sometimes this takes serious revision. Sure, I'm a fast writer, and very prolific, but I also take the time to revise. So much so that I've driven some of my publishers crazy by insisting the galley proofs be gone over again, and again, and again, even if it means pub dates must be extended (in one case I insisted a book be revised post-publication!). In any case, it could be that I publish too much material. One of my publishers recently told my agent that "Vince is over extending himself."


Writing is what I do. I do it fast. But not at the expense of the revision process. Listen up writers, your books will remain long after the worms have had their day. Make sure it's as good as you can make it.


Buy my new books. They rock....

THE ASHES   (For you horror fans)

THE CORRUPTIONS  (For you hard-boiled crime fans)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Perfection: the relentless pursuit

Of course, we'll never get there.

But there is the relentless pursuit. I think it gets worse as you get older...the desire to get things right, perfect. If not the first time than the last time. Or die trying.

I'm about to board a flight back to NYC so I'll make this quick. But I'm reminded of an old video I caught on You Tube of Genesis playing a concert circa 1985. There's this long, and dynamic medly based on the song The Cage, and it goes on for maybe 20 minutes or more with tons of drumming on Phil's part. It's an amazing display of musicianship with a variety of tempos and time signatures. It's not for amateurs.

Towards the end of the piece, Phil must exit his drum kit in order to take over the lead vocals once more. It occurs at the song's most dramatic point, when things slow down and a lush tune called "Afterglow" begins. But here's the thing: you would think Phil would simply get up from his drums, head over to center stage. Which he does. But before going there, he pulls out his drum key and takes maybe three seconds to tune one of his tom-toms. He doesn't go nuts over it, but he takes the time out to adjust it enough to suit his sense of perfection.

Now just imagine the tens of thousands of screaming fans in the crowed and the ear blistering music going down, and yet, Phil feels the need to tweak the tom-tom before the song's ending. Something he could have easily let go. Something that would have gone totally unnoticed. Imagine if you will, people driving home from the concert complaining, "Great show, but Phil's ten inch rack tom was out of tune." You get the point.

My latest, THE CORRUPTIONS, was to be released in hard-cover this past week, but the galley's aren't perfected yet. Not yet tweaked enough. I don't know if perfection will ever be reached, but the publishing folks at Polis Books were good enough to delay publication for a couple of weeks, until we get it right. One of the reasons I'm flying back early from Europe is to make sure everything, including the launch goes perfectly. In fact, one of the characters the novel is based on, David Sweat who broke out of Dannemora Prison back in June of 2016 is anxiously awaiting publication of the novel inside his solitary confinement cell at New York's Five Points Max. Sweat and his partner pulled off one of the most perfect prison escapes in the history of humankind's organized incarceration. My story is a fiction, and only inspired by him, but hey, all the more reason to get it right.

Get it perfect.
As perfect as I can. 


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Richard Godwin: Hard-Boiled Enigma

The hard-boiled enigma, Richard Godwin
He is an enigma.
A tall, wiry man who is as comfortable surrounded by the surviving members of the Sex Pistols as he is London's most gifted literati. He no doubt dominates the conversation when engaged with both respective groups, or any group or gathering for that matter. He's that smart, that gifted, that interested.

He's also prolific and versatile, having written...well I'm not sure how many novels Richard Godwin has written in his 52 years, but I'm sure it's a lot. His style and themes are as diverse as our big blue marble of a planet. There's the dystopian Paranoia and the Destiny Programme,  the horrific Mr. Glamour, the violently raw Apostle Rising, and even the sexy One Lost Summer.

His short work has appeared in more anthologies and journals than one can shake a pen at (29 according to his official bio), and he's a regular at popular underground noir and hard-boiled magazines like Pulp Metal Magazine and Crime Factory. His work might not be readily visible on the New York Times bestseller list, at least not yet, but I'm not sure that's what he's going for. Richard Godwin doesn't just write stories because he hopes to make a buck. He is instead painting a picture not necessarily of a event as it happens, but rather, as it could happen. What he's interested in is the violent, horrific and at the same time, erotic human experience. He's a writer, but he's also a philosopher, a descendant as much from John D. MacDonald as he is Albert Camus. It would be interesting to open up his head to see how his mind works, how the gears spin, what kind of instrumentation God provided him with. But then, I'm not sure I want to go there. I might be too frightened by what I see.

And of course, Godwin doesn't just limit himself to novels and short stories. He also writes poetry and plays. Having never read the former, or experienced the latter, I can't tell you precisely what to make of them, but if his fiction is any indication, my guess is that the participant will be exposed to a raw and thoroughly brave presentation, that will leave him or her sweating bullets. But then, I risk making all this sound like a love letter. 

Despite his title, Mr. Glamour, Richard is a decidedly private man. At least, that's my assessment. He bears a little more anxiety than the average writer, meaning he doesn't trust publishers, big or small, as far as he can toss them. We share this sentiment, perhaps because we've both reached middle age in an occupation better known for its casualties than successes, or maybe because we're just two stubborn coots who don't know when to come in out of the rain. Those rainy days, by sheer luck or Providence, are fewer and fewer these days, thanks to income streams that are in direct proportion to prolific output than they are anything else. But hey, we'll take it.

Richard Godwin, for all his distaste of the unsavory business aspects of being a writer, is not without joie de vivre. He travels so much, speaking about writing and about the writing life, there should be a special Godwin Noir Space devoted to him at every major international airport. And the funny thing is, I've found myself within a very reasonable proximity of him (say within twenty miles) on several occasions, and yet I've never met him in person. But that doesn't mean I feel like I don't know him. We email, talk on the phone, text, commiserate, strategize, share advice, gossip, or just plain laugh together. I haven't been properly introduced to the man, yet I know him like a brother from another mother.  Or maybe I don't.

So now we have a Richard Godwin "reader" in the works from Down & Out Books. It only makes sense for a publisher to figure out the benefits of offering noir readers the chance to sample some of the best hard-boiled prose being banged out with two fingers on both sides of the Atlantic. Back when I was a young writing student at Vermont College during the mid 1990s, any author who boasted their own "reader" was an author who had not only made it, but was revered by their peers. I certainly revere Richard Godwin. Not that I know him as much as I pretend to. Because, like I said, I've never actually met him in the flesh. I guess it's more accurate to say, I know the work, and the work is, well, killer. But as for the man, who knows. Like I said, he's an enigma.