I’d Rather Be Writing (or maybe talking about it)

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The American Foreign Service Association filmed a few short clips featuring my reflections on Two Pumps for the Body Man, the inspiration behind the novel, and my thoughts on the writing process. It isn’t exactly Zack Galifianakis Between Two Ferns (more like Some Guy and Bamboo) but I hope viewers will enjoy it when it becomes available.

afsaWhile the footage gets some much-needed editing, I thought I’d share the text of one short segment now. Here’s how I framed my thoughts on the novel writing process (because I’m a writer and not a TV personality, the film version is unlikely to measure up to the prepared remarks).


My novels get written in one of two ways. There’s the linear way, from start to finish, and then there’s the other way. The linear way itself takes two forms: either I’ve laid out some kind of synopsis or outline from the very beginning and tracked closely to it, or I’ve freewheeled it chapter by chapter, letting the story find its own way into the world. The linear model seems to be neater, quicker, and more coherent—but not necessarily the most satisfying.

The other way, the way Two Pumps was written, was like working on a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces scattered all over the floor and the house and moved from house to house and country to country over the ten years it took to complete and publish. The job was to join disparate episodes, to shave this piece and build that one, to seek and identify episodes from years ago and connect them seamlessly to material written last night. The process was slow, cumbersome, and the trajectory of the narrative—even the primary point of view—didn’t emerge until years later.

Though tedious, and sometimes self-defeating—two steps forward, three steps back—the process was rewarding.

My only other thought on the novel writing process is that it’s as much about sitting down with pen and paper or keyboard and monitor as it is about state of mind. For me the so-called process is really a reaction—both inherent and trained through discipline—to experience. Do the people, places, events, details, etc., reach you only in the moment and as part of the world in which they actually occur? Or do they come at you with a richer, displaced value, something best discovered later on, in the attic?

The state of mind more fit for the novelist is the latter.

Beyond all that, the writing process is simply a numbers game: how many minutes and hours can you make yourself do it? But as my oldest fan tells me, that’s a question of discipline. Not process.

New Years Courage for the Novelist

Three weeks on the road–Johannesburg, Paris, London, Myesore, Bangalore, Dehradun, Delhi–and a week recuperating in my lonely Northern Virginia retreat bring an end to the old year and fresh perspective for the new one. Appreciate all the digital colleagues and partners in crime who made 2016 a special year. Looking forward to staying connected, supporting each other, and cutting new paths in 2017.

Amazon BookstoreAlways be writing

Reading & research are writing
Editing is writing
Blogging is writing
Promoting is writing
Reviewing plot is writing
Write by hand
Write more letters, fewer emails
Explore non-fiction
Know the truth
Stray from truth
Drink (less) beer

Always be writing

When the Music Is the Trip

journeySpeed-reading fans will rejoice in Ted Prokash’s latest gift to literature, Journey to the Center of the Dream.

Pills, beer, and blow fuel this fast-paced account of a rock band’s tour of 30 cities in five weeks, but even more than the chemical enhancements and a whole lot of weed besides, this epic road trip book thrives on the narrator’s rage: rage at complacency and artlessness, at the general dearth of vision in America, at the plight of artists and the absence of passion and respect for those madmen among us who dare to live their dreams.

In that, the book transcends its debauchery and elevates the whole enterprise to the level of euphoria.

The narrative zips, a trim account of Marlow, Leo, Dante, and Dessy bringing Black Darkness into the bars and basements and empty art spaces of America, small venues that sometimes conjure exactly zero fans. They plug in and strap on anyway, because that’s what you do when the music is the trip.

The pace is a testament to Prokash’s narrative control. One can only imagine the buzz saw it would take to trim the fat off the recollections of an addled mind, jotting notes god-knows-how in the back of a crowded van or while flopping for weeks to sleep on floors and sofas and soiled mattresses in places the like flood-damaged squatter homes of New Orleans. And after grinding off hunks, he appears to have worked with a precision scalpel. So while the principal concern is with the art and artlessness of modern times, the corners into which the music scene has been driven with indignity, Journey is itself a testament to the art of writing, the craft of prose, the channeling of human energy and spirit into a precise tale that informs, entertains, bewilders, inspires, angers, thrills, and so much more.

Part of this joy is in imagining for oneself what sounds Black Darkness conjures in the night. While his rendering of the bands and barkeeps, show promoters and rock devotees, drop-outs, drag-queens, drug abusers, artists, queers and even a few churchgoers in between capture the world he’s running in, Prokash spares few words on the music. His sets are summed up neatly: “We filled that big, empty room with the mournful sound of our souls’ lament” (Baltimore); “‘One, two, three, four…’ The little space exploded in sound and the four of us were engulfed” (Middletown); “We played our shit real cocksure and loose” (NYC); “Black Darkness played to nobody. We played purely for our own glorious gratification. Which isn’t all bad. A good, loud sonic blast will knock the cobwebs out the soul, anyway” (Olympia).

The expression “Living the dream”—usually uttered in grim acquiescence to its irony—seems to have gained a broad fraternity of users in my workaday world. But now these colleagues and others unable to break away from their timecard lives, who can’t for themselves live a bit of the dream, can soak it up here. A modern-day revision of On the Road and Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestJourney calls to mind so many accounts of artists turning vision into reality.

Maybe it all sounded like this.

Slightly more is revealed in this longer review.

December 06, 2004

Remembering those we lost. Remembering those who survived. Remembering this awful day and its  protracted aftermath.

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It’s the aftermath that sticks most. The long period that stretched through weeks when our broken mission pulled itself together again. We pulled ourselves up from piles of ash and dust; from the pulverized concrete and glass shattered by bullets fired into the chancery; from the smoldering heap of a Marine house burned to the ground.

I remember the rifles mounted on alien tripods behind sandbags and concertina wire that popped up around the compound with the arrival of a Marine detachment. I remember the flickering lights along darkened corridors that cast jittery shadows for weeks as we made our way through routine in an effort to restore ourselves to normal.

I came upon this essay about the day itself in the third edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy (2011).  I don’t need to read to remember, or to know that every day our diplomats put their lives on the line. Some wear a bigger target on their backs than others; some for longer periods. But we all serve in harm’s way, at some point.

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Two more pieces worth reading. Two Pumps for the Body Man is a satire about diplomatic life on the front line of the war on terror.

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Shattered Glass–The Story of a Marine Embassy Guard is non-fiction by the Marine standing Post as the attackers breached our gate.

GM Shattered Glass

For those of you who continue to walk this overlooked beat: we remember.

Foreign Service Blogs

The Books & News blog finds itself in good company, listed among many others at the American Foreign Service Association’s round up of Foreign Service Blogs. They got me looking around at the work being posted by other diplomats and colleagues overseas. Here’s a summary of the first few.

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  1. Address: TBD Recounts the early steps in the foreign service adventure.
  2. Adventures Around the World Currently posting from Vilnius, Lithuania, these FS tales go back to 2007.
  3. Adventures in Good Countries Humorous perspectives on “Getting along in the Foreign Service” going back to 2005.
  4. Dear Diary: Travels in the Foreign Service Lots of great photography as the writer travels around her current post in Europe. As the title suggests, regular reflections on the FS life.
  5. Deeblog Here’s one more along the lines of my own Books & News, though more intelligent. “Book Reviews, Film Reviews, Translations, Essays.”
  6. Journey Currently posting from Rome, this content includes lots of photos and fine art, as well as a helpful menu linking to various topical aspects of the Foreign Service, from the A-100 induction course to previous overseas postings.
  7. Kitty Non Grata Like letters to home from an ex-pat who wanted to be an FSO since sixth grade. Currently posting from Brazil and offering a chance to revisit this summer’s Olympic Games.
  8. Life After Jerusalem Also, “The musings of a two-spirit American Indian” FSO. The menu points to many more FS blogs, bringing me to the realization that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here and must stop.

For now.

Gratitude: Pie with Beer

beer_png2388The six year old appears bedside in the dark, wants to know if he can go downstairs and write.

“I’ll get up and write with you.”

He’s written a war story called The Attack of the Red Army. It’s three chapters long.

In chapter one Sam and Jacob are enjoying the last bit of summer sun. By the fireplace.

When Jacob asks what there is to eat, Sam lists apple pie & mac-n-cheese; hot chocolate, various juices, tea, coffee, water, wine & beer.

“I will have pie with beer.”

Startled by a loud sound and “A very hard and strong bump,” the two speculate that maybe there’s a war. Sam gets on his boots but it’s turned chilly, so he returns for a jacket, advises Jacob to put on his jacket. They step outside.

Sam was right: there was a war.

In the concluding chapter the two hear the loudest sound they had heard in their lives. Gunfire! The red army was attacking the blue army.


The story ends here, and I’m grateful for this, too.

Grateful for family, friends, health. Grateful for brothers looking out for brothers. Grateful for pie and beer and the people we share them with.

Billy Lynn’s Long Thanksgiving Slog

billy_lynn_book_Thanksgiving. The most American day of the year. More American, perhaps, than the Fourth of July.

Throw in a hyperbolically American venue—Texas stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys—and you’ve got Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (also now in theaters).

For the heroes of Bravo squad, barnstorming the U.S. on a brief victory tour to rile up the natives before returning to the front lines of the War on Terror, there is nothing more American than this. Even the stadium concourse reflects Americana: “Your Taco Bells, your Subways, your Pizza Huts and Papa John’s, clouds of hot meaty gases waft from these places and surely it speaks to the genius of American cooking that they all smell pretty much the same. It dawns on him [namesake protagonist Billy Lynn] that Texas stadium is basically a shithole.”

Basically a shithole.

Here’s a grunt deeply scarred by the memory of squatting in the roadside reeds next to his dying buddy, covered in blood, half-wondering if any of it is his, “His bloody hands so slick he finally had to tear open the compression bandage with his teeth.” Yet Texas Stadium’s the shithole.

This early passage about sums up the point of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Not a war novel so much as a warrior’s rebuke of the country he’s fighting for, a blazing satire of patriotism on the home front while the national treasury is raided in pursuit of a wholly unnecessary, errant, distracting war.

“The Catch-22 of the Iraq War”
–Karl Marlantes

It’s an accurate premise but a flawed approach, a long-ass slog covering maybe six present-time hours while the he-roes of Bravo squad (there is no such thing as Bravo squad) sit on their hands and drink with wealthy Texas hot-shots and wait to watch one of the dullest games on earth (football is still better than curling). Long before the end Ben Fountain’s satiric display of Americans at their worst is collapsing under its own weight. Anyone hoping for a better understanding of what the soldiers in Iraq have gone through should choose The Yellow Birds instead. This story tells us what we witness every day: the worst of America.

That isn’t to say Ben Fountain hasn’t got a few sticks of dynamite up his sleeve. There’s magic in the neat line he draws between the game of football and the game of war, the equipment production of a pro football team and war-time’s production of death. “Soon after kickoff Billy intuits the basic futility of seizing ground you can’t control.”

More than his own heroic actions, gunning down the enemy while simultaneously applying pressure to his buddy’s bleeder, that have made Bravo squad the toast of Amurica, Billy’s got Shroom on his mind. Shroom, the magical, mystical figure who embodies the warrior-poet (in contrast to Dime, the tough Sgt. In charge). Shroom foretells his own death and its simple as that: “I’m going down.”

When the grateful citizens meet him, “His ordeal becomes theirs… some sort of mystical transference takes place and its just too much for them… One woman bursts into tears, so shattering is her gratitude. Another asks if we are winning…”

Another grateful American man suggests the proper response: “You and your brother soldiers are preparing the way.” The question is—and we now know the answer—Preparing the way for what, exactly?

Full Review

The Anatomy of Political Implosion

Top 10 list requiring no preface or introduction—

10. Bubba. She enabled him. He enabled her. Until they didn’t.bubba

9. BO. The Affordable Care Act. Its moral necessity was lost on the selfish many.

putin8. Vlad. Great spook. Spooky guy. Data thief. Exposer of secrets.

7. Gowdy (hair!) & Chaffetz. Drawn out hearings to reveal nothing again and again.

6. FacebookBubbles, FacebookFakeNewsGuy, FacebookNYTWaPoPollstersCNN.

5. Wiener. Danger. Aptly named.weiner

4. Huma. See above.

3. Debbie. What happens when you short-circuit Democracy. (Also, nice hair)

2. Comey. The shamefully garrulous lawman.

1. HRC. So capable. So capable. So draped in corruption & surrounded by villains.

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Two Pumps for the Librarian

Six months back, guy walks into the library. Hands over his Foreign Service novel.

“Here ya go.”
“What’s this?”
“It’s a book. Go ahead. Put it on the shelf.”
“Not so fast, sonny. Two Pumps for the Body Man? Sounds dirty.”
“You don’t want this novel for your patrons?”
“We want four copies of that novel for our patrons. And it must pass a review.”
“A review?”Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 9.13.53 AM
“You know. To keep out the funky shit.”
“Did you just cuss in the library?”
“Sir, I must ask you to keep your voice down. And please fill out this form to submit your book for review.”
“It’s a pretty funky book.”
“Funky how?”
“Terrorism. Foot fetishism. It mocks Dick Cheney. It’s a farce and a fiasco all in one.”
“Sounds great. Can’t wait to add it to the collection!”
“How soon will that be?”

It’s been a long wait. But I’m glad to say Two Pumps for the Body Man is finally part of the Fairfax County Library collection! Put it on your reading list today!

2 Pumps hi rezJeff Mutton walks the diplomatic beat protecting American officials in Saudi Arabia. An expert with guns and knives, grenades and rockets, he’s survived assaults and sieges, stabbings and chokeholds, car bombs, carjackings, criminal hits, and countless other enemy threats. But instinct tells Mutton the menace he now faces dwarfs all these killers combined. The fool!—his foot fetish has him in hot water again.

Part soft-boiled noir, part literary satire, Two Pumps for the Body Man is an unserious look at a serious situation, a grim reminder that no matter how high the barricade, how sharp the razor wire, there is no front line to the War on Terror. And the enemy is everywhere, even within.

The Literary Excellence, III

My nominations for The Stephen T. Colbert Award for The Literary Excellence continue. Boy, this effort is really lifting my mood!

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In Preston Lang’s The Sin Tax a female baddy flashes her gun at a male ex-con baddy: “You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a carry permit in New York. It’s insane. But once they give you one, they’re basically saying they want you to shoot somebody.”

So many major issues from the campaign! Taxes—somebody didn’t pay them. Crime—somebody’s still wriggling on the hook over them. Boy v Girl. Threats of violence. It’s all here.

So, is Janet serious? To protagonist Mark she’s serious as a heart attack:

It was a real gun, small and cold, looking like the smartest guy in the room.

Probably a lot smarter than The Orange One, anyway.

There’s lots of Lang’s best ‘Who’s Hustling Who’ in The Sin Tax, a quest for money, smokes, and—less important—absolution. The petty take’s what matters. Watch it grow from 10’s to 100’s to ever bigger digits. Bigger as in life and death:

Only a psychotic individual would kill a man to make a point to someone as unimportant as Mark… once you erase a man as a form of communication to someone who isn’t even valuable to himself, there’s something very cold running inside of you.

To each his own vendetta in The Sin Tax, where even the winners get a taste the barrel. Let’s just hope our Republic can avoid the same fate.

Anyone who missed Lang’s first two crime paperbacks, The Carrier and The Blind Rooster, ought to jump right in and read The Sin Tax. Hard, straight writing. Contemporary plot. All the author’s wry and unobtrusive observation of human habit.


“Heroes, by buying and reading this book, you’ve proven you get it–and are therefore now members of the nominating committee for The Stephen T. Colbert Award for The Literary Excellence.” Use the medallions below to nominate any book that you feel embodies the values of the Colbert Nation.”

Previous nominees for 2016:

Sterling Johnson—English as a Second F*cking Language
Ted Prokash—The Brothers Connolly