Rare Interview of Master Criminal Greg Downs

I first met Greg Downs when I was serving in the French Foreign Legion in Namibia. We were taking fire from a heavy platoon of British tourists. Ladies, mostly named Hortense or Mabel, elderly and wearing those  tight compression stockings that assist in varicose-vein sublimation. They had the usual assortment of mortars and 6-inch recoilless rifles and RPGs. Plus, they had a sniper the Namibians called the Suet Death Pudding who could shoot the cigar out of your mouth from three miles out. We were pinned down, outgunned, out-womaned, and in need of backup. I remember Greg well because he had the foresight to bring a cooler of pastrami and stone-ground mustard sandwiches on a nice marbled rye, and a few bottles of cold beer. He was a good man. We lost touch, however, when he went to work for the Chinese Tongs in Macau. Mostly smuggling guns and pharmaceuticals and misfortune cookies into Belgium.

Anyway, I ran into him recently at a performance of Swan Lake at Carnegie Hall. Mikhal Gorbachev was dancing lead, along with Al Gore as the Prince. It was a hard thing to watch, but that’s why I always bring along a flask of the even harder stuff. We got to talking during the intermission, while people were running out, screaming about the end of the world and hollering stuff and looking nauseated.

While I know Greg, I’ll pretend I don’t, for your educational sake.

So, while I know you, for the sake of discussion, who are you?

My name is Greg, but who I am is rather difficult. I think the answer has to do with writing, at least somewhat, or I wouldn’t be here, would I? It started in highschool, when I wrote and published some short books on Kindle, my Song of the Aura series, which is when I met Mister Christopher here.

To date, I have published three books: one, a collection of novellas and short stories, two, a novel reimagining King Arthur’s world through the eyes of the (guy you thought was the) villain, and three, a big hulking fantasy epic compiled from that series I mentioned. Nowadays I mostly just doodle, write poetry, blog a little, and go to college.

One day I’ll know who I am, too. Then I’ll tell you.

Speaking of King Arthur, what are your thoughts on modern education and its role in either encouraging or stifling creativity?

I just read Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, where the kids are given more and more information in school, are schooled earlier and earlier, and learn less and less of what will actually give them meaningful lives. I think we’re on the threshold of that. Creativity is not killed by modern education, not judging by all the creative public-schoolers I’ve met, but it’s giving it its best try.

Ray Bradbury was a good man. I have fond memories of that evening he shot up a Taliban bar in Kabul. Good times. Speaking of the Taliban, what are your thoughts on the self-pubbing/indie movement?

I think it’s a great way to encourage people to write more, read more, and generally get involved. It does have a tendency to create a swamp of various amateur books, but I think 50 Shades shows us that everywhere is a swamp nowadays. So really, we have a lot to gain by people taking their writing and their careers in writing into their own hands.

I’m with you there. 50 Shades is to books as Robespierre is to democratic rule. I’ve even heard that those geniuses in Hollywood are in pre-production on a film version. Do you think Hollywood is maintaining its creative edge or losing it?

I think a lot has been lost from a thematic point of view, but a lot has been gained in a visual sense. We have a lot of really good ways to portray events and characters that we didn’t have before… but we don’t use a lot of that potential. Instead we just blow more things up. And then more. I am watching less and less contemporary film nowadays so I think I’ll stop there.

Contemporary film seems to be all about the big name actors and actresses who, frankly, seem to be mostly several noodles short of a bowl of Vietnamese pho. Lately, that’s exemplified by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling” end of their marriage. The subtext in that is they are crazier than mercury-addicted loons. Speaking of marriage, do you think marriage should be arranged by the State?

No. See 1984 for details.

Ah, yes. 1984. Every year is 1984 these days. So, what is creativity and how do we access it and are we truly individual with it?

Got to admit this is my favorite question and I was waiting for it the whole time. So naturally instead of answering it directly I want to go on a tangent. Plato, in his Ion, reckons creativity as a sort of inspiration that begins in a Divine Source (the gods), and proceeds down in a chain from the gods themselves, to the poets and artists, to the performers of poetry. I find that idea a lot more interesting than calling creativity a mush mix of social/political/historical/psychological sources that kind of bubbles up from us every time we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it now were). Think about it. What if creativity was not brainwaves, but a Divine Light we could tap into? What if our creativity, what you might call our artistic self, is like a crystal that the light shines through? When we hone our artistic craft, we chisel at, refine, and polish the crystal. We determine its shape by the life experiences and art experiences we have, and this shape, whatever it is, will reflect the Divine Light in a different way. So if this were true (I don’t know if it is, but it’s worth thinking about), then creativity is something beyond us, which we nevertheless have a good amount of individual control over. So, yes and no, as the elves say.

Very wise of you to retreat to the elves. I’ve always admired their thought processes, but not their sartorial sense. Too many tight pants. Speaking of tight pants, do you think the government is hiding information from us on things like extra-terrestrials, etc?

I could answer that question, but then I would have to kill you to protect my employers.

I trust they’re paying you well! Thanks, Greg, for taking the time to come on by and chat. If anyone wants to learn more about Greg Downs–the man, the writer, the cheese expert–stop on by his blog and spend some quality time.

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The homogenization of Bookbub

Let me be clear (as Obama is fond of saying). Bookbub is the best deal in advertising for indie books. I’ve had some amazing success with them. Good explosion for the dollar. Or, as the marketing twirps are fond of saying: positive ROI. There isn’t much out there that rivals Bookbub, all due to their slice and dice email lists. Facebook ads, Google ads, blog ads…pretty much worthless. Save your nickels and buy yourself a coffee (what is with how expensive coffee is these days? Is it because they call it fancy Italian names? Whatever, Starbucks.).

However, I’m starting to notice a numbing homogenization of the blurbs in my morning Bookbub email. I’m signed up on the Fantasy and Thriller/Mystery lists. All the book summaries, complete with exclamation marks and quotations from the Library Journal (“remarkable!”, “ground-breaking!” “nausea-inducing!”), are starting to look the same. It’s almost as if the Bookbub staff create those summaries by using a Madlibs book.

“This remarkable novel stars Sabrina, nursing a broken-heart as she tries to flee a hot-abbed investigator and finds a corpse in her bathtub and uncovers a conspiracy that reaches to the very halls of power and plunges into a whacky whirlpool of chaos, geckos, and disco dancers all bent on world destruction! Heck, this story will even rip the fabric of reality! This utterly disturbing and heart-warming tale has over eight zillion five-star reviews on Amazon!”

Yeah, whatever. Gimme an old PG Wodehouse and I’m happy. Er, plus some Brie and crackers. Any maybe my tax return. Come on, IRS! If you can track everyone so amazing and awesomely, you can cut my check and put it in the mail.

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Tall duck and handsome

tall duck and handsomeWhy? Because we can. That’s why. After all, lots of people seem to be interested in such qualities in their personal ads. With the alteration of a few letters, of course, but language is fluid these days…so, what does it matter?

At any rate, this just goes to show you that if you can’t pronounce the letter R, you might be in trouble in many different ways, not the least of them your love life. Or your culinary life. Or you love of culinary things.

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Rosamonde: the real story of Sleeping Beauty

the real Sleeping BeautyThe old stories about Sleeping Beauty never got it right. I’m sure you suspected that. I’ve written the real story. The genuine article. It all began in a little Central European country called Bordavia with a princess named Rosamonde. Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll have to read the story for yourself and find out about Rosamonde and the family curse. It’s actually more of a novella than a story, being a length somewhat in between a story and a novel. Now, I’m off to work on my newest Tormay tale. It can’t wait any longer (actually, I’m about 2/3 of the way through the first draft).

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Manhattan Cocktail Parties

Manhattan Cocktail PartyFor some odd reason I’ve had this image stuck in my head for years. I’m not an illustrator by any stretch of the imagination, but I finally scribbled down my mental rendition. I don’t know why, but the scene makes me laugh. Snooty cocktail party at some Tribeca loft, young financiers glad-handing over drinks, and one guy turns to his girlfriend and introduces a couple he’s just met… File this one under Random, that’s for sure.

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Delayed by disappearing airplanes, etc.

One of the laws of thermodynamics states that higher temperature always flows toward areas of lower temperature. Something like that. The same idea can be applied to custard. Or culture, I suppose.

I’ve been meaning to write something for this here blog of mine (not to be confused with Guns and Roses’ sweet child of mine/Axl Rose), but I’ve been delayed by life. Disappearing airplanes. Kendo lessons with Offspring #1. Gophers. Troublesome hot water heaters. Tax returns. The entire state of California, which I think should be sold on Groupon at a big discount.

My latest manuscript, Rosamonde, is currently in the hands of my editor (the inimitable Jen Ballinger–what does inimitable even mean? does it matter? do words matter anymore?). It’s not novel length. It’s a novella, which places it somewhere in between a very long story and a novel. 1/3 of a novel, perhaps.

Never again will I write a story from a girl’s perspective in first person. Rather difficult for me. My writing has limitations and, one of them, besides declining to write New Adult, erotica, romance, historical fiction about Canada, and cookbooks, is that I cannot write from a girl’s perspective. At least, not in first person. First person is quite different from omniscient. I wrote quite a few female characters in the Tormay trilogy, but it was always from an omniscient perspective. That’s a great deal easier for me.

Speaking of easy, what is with the hordes of people who think they’re going to win the Voice and become happy ever after? Life does not work that way. That said, I think Blake Shelton is going to win this year. He’s a canny guy, and he’s from the midwest.

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The first Autumn War concert

Autumn War concert poster

 

It was back in the fall of 1996. We opened for Caedmon’s Call, upstairs at True Tunes in Wheaton, Illinois. We were so young. So innocent. So blithely unaware of taxes and organic food and Russia’s expansionist tendencies. All we wanted to do was play some good music.

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Looms, Weaving, the Fates and Story

My mother is the quintessential picture of the renaissance woman. She’s never been fond of institutional education, having walked out of college on the first day of school, never to return. Yet, she is the consummate artisan in many disciplines: stained-glass, painting, weaving, tailoring, and other pursuits. A rather large loom sits in her studio. Occasionally, these days, she will set up a weaving, which involves a great deal of planning and the mysterious work of threading yarn through different eyelets on the loom, all in preparation to the actual weaving itself (the shuttle, pedals, etc).

While I’ve dabbled in painting over the years, as well as a few stained glass pieces, I’ve never tried weaving, as it looks too complicated for my patience level. However, the work of shuttling the yarn back and forth, twining the different colors with each other and then tightening and adjusting and tweaking…it all reminds me of writing stories. I imagine the Greeks were onto something when they pictured the Fates as weaving the stories of our lives together in their cave.

I’m currently neck-deep in another Tormay story called The Seal Whistle. It’s turning out a rather beautiful shamble of a tale, full of the sea and the north and lostness and the dark. I think about 2/3 of the way through the first draft, but what I’m looking forward too is tightening the threads. Like a weaver, I suppose, adjusting and tweaking and snipping here and there until the blanket comes out warm, practical and, hopefully, somewhat beautiful.

I can’t weave, but I can write stories. I’m glad to be back in Tormay, and I’m already teeing up the next Tormay story in my mind, as soon as I’m done with this one. The current one takes place about ten years after the end of the Tormay Trilogy, borrowing a few characters here and there from that story. The next tale, however, will jump off directly from an incident that happened in the second book of the trilogy, and incident involving an ogre. I’m looking forward to it, because I’ve often wondered what happened…

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Curse you, Costco!

I went into Costco today in order to buy a bag of shredded cheese (yes, I realize industrially shredded cheese sometimes contains sawdust particles in order to mitigate clumping; I appreciate the extra fiber). I left sometime later with a hundred dollars worth of goods. Dazed, no doubt, by the cornucopia of free samples. I’m pretty sure they lace the free samples with some insidious drug designed to induce consumerism. Curse you, Costco! Your wide and high aisles are so beguiling with their stacks of goods and their white-smocked attendants skulking behind their stainless steel carts.

I never realized I needed a combination power-washer barbecue snow blower. Very handy. Though, it doesn’t snow where I live except perhaps once every hundred years. When it does, I will be ready to clear my drive and cook up some hamburgers at the same time.

Speaking of snow, we need some here in California. Why is the rest of the country getting dumped on in spades and we have nothing except sunshine? California is in serious drought. However, Governor Jerry Brown (why is his nickname “Moonbeam”?) has just declared an emergency and says he has set aside 600 million dollars and change in order to solve the problem. I think he’s going to spend most of the money on funding gender studies classes at all the Cal States and U of California campuses. That should solve the drought.

Speaking of crazy people, I’m highly tempted to write a novel about California bureaucrats. My day job requires me, nay, forces me, to interact with them fairly regularly. Nice people as individuals, but the system they exist in (and enforce on us poor yokels) is stark raving mad. As in Mad Hatter (see: Alice in Wonderland and the old fashioned process of making felt with mercury). I’ve plenty of material to write such a novel, but I’m afraid nobody would want to read such a rabbit hole of a story.

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The Edge of Everything

We all live on the edge of everything. And I mean everything. Death, life, love, hate, happiness, misery, annihilation. We are tight-rope walkers, blindly and blithely unobservant to the abyss falling away beneath our feet. We are reluctant to open our eyes.

Everything crowds up around us, from the microscopic to the macroscopic. The tiny engines of cellular industry, invisible to our eye and rarely ever considered by us, industriously whirl and churn away inside our cells, RNA and DNA and mitochondria, as busy and busier than even the most sophisticated factory man possesses. Their minute movements preserve us from millisecond to millisecond. By their industry we stay alive.

And on the far side of the ruler, the universe looms in massive and ponderous majesty. I once wrote a passage about the boy Jute, the beleaguered main character of my Tormay trilogy, that he dreamt he lay upon the ground, staring up into the night sky, and soon found himself fancying that he was on the prow of a ship, rushing through an incredible and endless darkness. Our planet is like that. We stand upon its surface and it rushes through the solar system at frightening speed, swinging about the sun. And our solar system itself, bounded and baling-wired about with gravity, rushes through our Milky Way galaxy, turning on the spiral arm. And our galaxy, a modest one of billions, in turn hurtles through the dark corridors of the universe. While all this is happening, all this speed and distance and darkness and time, we continue on our way, puttering off to work or school or the store, oblivious and mostly content.

The edge of everything is everywhere else as well. Electricity flows down the lines, keeping us lit and warm. Tankers roll across the miles to bring us fuel. Semis haul in food. Countless worker bees swarm about the cables and ones and zeros of the internet, bringing us our daily consumption of news and not-news and Justin Bieber. Our money still works, blithely again, mostly due to trust and assumptions and some good will and a great deal of greed.

Even the starlight shines on the edge of everything. When we look up into the night and see those stars, what we see are not the stars themselves, but the memory of stars. The remembrance of them. That light has traveled millions of miles to get to our eyes and, perhaps, by the time we look up and see them, the stars have already died and gone cold and dark. They fell over the edge of everything and we can only enjoy their lonely light, their memories.

All of this teeters on the edge of everything. Fine-tuned, but teetering.

And our very own lives balance on that same precipice. This is the same for christian or for atheist, muslim or self-absorbed hedonist. One minute we are happily examining the annual return on our 401k, the next minute the thin wall of an aorta gives out in a pulse of exhaustion and we are flat on our back on the floor, staring up at the final glimpse. At that point we either tip over into heaven or hell or into nothingness, if the atheist’s hopes are real. Both options, regardless of final destinations, are still the edge of everything.

It is either a brave or foolish thing to create, to writes stories or make films or carve sculptures, when one is standing on the edge of everything. All those writers who wrote before, Steinbeck and Hemingway and Camus and Dickens and all their kin, they all fell over the edge and are gone. Their words have remained for us, but we are soon to fall as well. The words stay balanced on the edge, but for what purpose?

Some physicists believe that a dark matter binds the universe together, an unseen material that moves with purpose and power between those atoms that are known to us. Those atoms that also teeter along with us. Christians believe that it is God himself that binds existence into form, that his word, much more powerful and lasting than Steinbeck’s writing, weaves meaning out of chaos and keeps things balanced on that knife-edge.

Whichever belief is true, regardless of what we think, we truly do live on the edge of everything. And everything is crowded up around us, the past, the present, and the future. Everything a moment away.

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