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Why NaNoWriMo has this blog breathing again

October 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. This isn’t unusual; I’ve tried in years past and it’s been an epic fail on the level of Dane Cook stand up and the “Charlie’s Angels” remake. But I’m giving it another go this year, and I’m blaming Chuck Wendig, Lee Goldberg, and my wife’s Kindle.

This past year has found me trying to amp my writing up with silly little things like, oh, actually writing , and then finishing it, silly things like that. That includes the quintessential writerly thing of writing a novel. I’m on Round Two so far (Round One was a crime novel that I plan on revisiting), this time the ever-popular urban fantasy novel.

And I’ve been following a few writers on the Internet. Guys like Chuck Wendig are creating a fascinating on-line community, full of wit and fun and attitude. Lee Goldberg has been one of the biggest proponents of the change from legacy publishing to e-books, and his recent deal with Amazon.com on the “Dead Man” novels launching the site’s 47North imprint is a damn cool step forward with genre e-books. Along with folks like J.A. Konrath, John Locke, and Michael Prescott are finding amazing success in the e-book realm.

This isn’t where I say I plan on finding fortune and fame through e-books. There’s an incredible amount of dreck finding its way onto a variety of e-readers, and I don’t know that I want to be among those just slopping whatever at an unsuspecting public at 99 cents a p. What I do want is to write something good that people enjoy.

So NaNoWriMo becomes my excuse for actually writing and finishing a book. I’m being a monumental fool by deciding that my NaNoWriMo novel is the second book in a series where I haven’t even finished the first one. By November I hope to be midway through the first book and feeling good to start the second.

This blog is coming back because I need it to. It keeps me honest, gives me somewhere to post up my progress a la Cherie Priest, and lets me occasionally vent about whatever stupidity is pissing me off at that particular moment. I’ve had a few really great moments on this blog (making the IMDb hitlist and getting 4K in hits was one of ’em; interviewing Lee Goldberg was another), and I’d like to keep some of that going on a more consistent basis.

So let’s where this goes, and see if I actually finish the damn thing.

Interview with “The Dead Man” Co-Creator Lee Goldberg

April 4, 2011 1 comment

Lee Goldberg’s TV career dates back to the mid-80s, when he and writing partner William Rabkin sold their first spec script to “Spenser: For Hire.” The years subsequent have been both busy and interesting for Goldberg and Rabkin, writing on more than two dozen TV series and specials ranging from action-themed shows like “Hunter” and “Cobra” to more traditional mysteries such as A&E’s “Nero Wolfe” and “Monk.”

But Goldberg is an unabashed fan of TV and mysteries, and that was never reflected more than on his two-year run on  “Diagnosis: Murder,” where they brought back Joe Mannix and stunt-casted special episodes such as a  spy-themed episode with Robert Culp (“I Spy”) and Barbara Bain (“Mission: Impossible”).

And somehow he’s also managed to carve himself out a solid career as a novelist, writing the “Diagnosis: Murder” and “Monk” novels, as well as numerous stand-alone books. His blog is one of the best places for those interested in the ever-changing world of publishing and writing to get honest, unvarnished opinions (Lee’s not someone to hide what he thinks, and he’s scrupulously honest about his own time on various shows and dealing with their stars — his stories about working on “SeaQuest 2032” and “Martial Law” deserve books of their own).

The Dead Man

Goldberg and Rabkin have kicked off a new series of action/horror novels called “The Dead Man,” reminiscent of the “men’s adventure” novels that filled bookstore shelves and truck stops from the 1960s to the 1980s. Primarily meant to be an e-publishing venture, it’s an interesting move and marks another author deciding to dive deep into the new technology and away from the so-called “legacy publishers.” It is also a hell of a read, and anyone interested in taking the first leg on a fun, fast ride should download it immediately from Amazon.

He was kind enough to grant an interview to my itty-bitty blog.

1. THE DEAD MAN is a callback to the “men’s adventure” novels of previous years, but you’ve also said it’s influenced by King’s “Gunslinger” novels, and certainly has some strong elements of horror. Can you talk a little about the novel’s origins, and what led you to decide to go somewhat astray of what might be seen as the more traditional elements of the genre?

The project began about 15 years ago as a television series idea that Bill and I were pitching around town. We always got a good response to it but were never able to quite cinch the deal. At one point, out of frustration at how close were getting, we ended up writing the pilot script, and 12 story ideas, on spec. But we still couldn’t sell it so we  stuck the project in a drawer, though we’d pitch it again every so often.

Lately, I’ve enjoyed some success on the Kindle with my out-of-print back list, which includes four men’s action-adventure novels that I wrote for Pinnacle Books back in the 1980s. I’d been thinking that it’s a shame that the men’s action-adventure genre has virtually gone extinct.

One day, it occurred to me that “The Dead Man” would be make a kick-ass series of books…and we already had the story lines for twelve of them. It didn’t take me more than 30 seconds to convince Bill to go along with idea…and then I ran the notion past a few trusted friends, just to see if we were nuts. But they were as enthusiastic about it as we were.

So now, convinced that we were on to something, all we had to do was write the book that would serve as our “pilot” and the second book (which is actually coming out as the third book, as things turned out), which would serve as “a typical episode.”

We scrapped the script, but kept the basic story structure, the essence of the character and, of course, the concept of the series. We also made some basic decisions about the kind of hero Matt Cahill was going to be. The key difference between Matt Cahill and the typical heroes of these kinds of books is that we want to keep him as grounded, normal and as “human” as possible.  He’s David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble crossed with The Man With No Name. He’s not a superman. He’s not Dirty Harry. He’s a decent, regular guy in an extraordinary situation who genuinely cares about people. He can be hurt emotionally…and physically…and should be in each adventure. We always want him to have some kind of emotional stake in whatever he’s doing…to ground the action and supernatural in something the reader can relate to on an “every day” level.

One of the things that we think makes “The Dead Man” the perfect springboard for a revitalization of the genre is that it has all the elements of the classic men’s action-adventure series….a rugged hero, an open-ended mission, a clear enemy and the potential for lots of violence … but with an occult edge that allows us to imbue a dated genre with more surprising twists and  darker humor. We felt by embracing the supernatural, and the traditional elements of the men’s action adventure genre, we opened the door to story telling that would push the envelope a bit. More importantly, though, we adopted a voice, and an approach to the material, that we think is more character based, more self-aware, and perhaps more wise-ass than most of those series were back in the day (with the possible exception of “The Destroyer”).
2. You and writing partner William Rabkin are certainly best known for your television work, but you’ve both moved into novels in recent years. Does writing together for TV differ from writing a novel together?

On these books, one of us writes the first draft and then hands it off to the other writer to polish. These are short novels, so we’re only talking about 25-30,000 words, tops, or about 120 pages.

Bill and I have written together for so many years in television that it’s really impossible for someone to tell which one of us has written what. We’ve gotten very good at creating and maintaining a shared voice, though this is the first time we’ve collaborated on books.

On scripts, Bill and I tend to divvy up the scenes and then hand them off to one another when we’re done. Sometimes will divvy a script up into acts instead. I suppose you could divvy up a book by chapters but it’s somehow it doesn’t quite work as smoothly.

A script is more of a working document, a blueprint if you will, for the work that lots of other people have to do in collaboration.

A book usually represents a singular vision and voice. Bill and I are capable of creating that, but I think that’s harder to pull off in prose than in script.

That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if Bill and I wrote a “Dead Man” down the road by handing chapters back and forth to one another…if, for no other reason, than the challenge and fun of it. We might even try it without an outline, to see what happens when each of us tries to one-up or screw over the other!

I’ve been part of tag-team short story writing before … in fact, I just did it with a new story with my colleagues at Top Suspense…. and it’s a lot of fun.

3. One of the most interesting aspect of the DEAD MAN series will be various future installments written by a variety of authors. How does it feel to create the character but then put it in the hands of others? Are the others writers given free reign or are you and William keeping things close?  

Coming from television, this is not something that’s new to us. We are used to working with writing staffs and freelancers on episodic series. We are comfortable with it and very good at it. We’re simply applying that same model to a series of books.

We are, perhaps, giving the “freelancers” of the books more freedom then we would writers on a TV series, but most of the stories so far have been based on those original 12 episode ideas we came up with years ago.

We aren’t asking the writers to give us detailed outlines. Once we have okayed the arena, we ask them to basically give us a beginning, middle, and end in a few paragraphs. We give them some notes and send’em off to manuscript.

But keep in mind, these are writers we trust, that we know, and that we admire, pros like Joel Goldman, Mel Odom, James Reasoner, Marcus Pelegrimas, Harry Shannon and Bill Crider, to name a few. We’re confident they’re going to do a great job so we’re trying to stay out of their way and see what happens.

Once they turn in their first drafts then we give them notes, and so far its been mostly on voice and tone rather than plot. But these are pros and they know exactly how to turn those notes around quickly and efficiently.

4. You mentioned “The Fugitive” (which is actually my favorite series of all time), but certainly “The Dead Man” calls to mind other “men on a journey” shows, as well as something like “LOST,” which was also about a journey and a puzzle. Do you have an endgame in mind for “The Dead Man,” a point where you know you want the books to end, or, after the initial 12 and the books continue, are you sort of “24”-ing it, so to speak?

No, we don’t have an endgame in mind since we have no intention of ending the series until, and unless, interest dies down. There were 600 episodes of “Gunsmoke” and there have been hundreds of Mack Bolan novels and it’s that kind of episodic longevity we are aspiring to (not that we have any delusions about achieving it!) when the end comes, Bill and I will figure out a satisfying finale .

5. THE DEAD MAN has strong language and some great gore, without the restrictions you would normally find on more television shows, and certainly in your MONK or DIAGNOSIS: MURDER novels, though your standalone novels have what might be considered “strong content.” Is it freeing to be able to write without concerns of budget or studio bosses?

Oh yes absolutely. These books are an enormous amount of fun to write and I think it comes through in every word that were writing. Some of the readers and critics have already noticed that. It almost doesn’t feel like work. That’s because the genre, and the “Dead Man” franchise in particular, is sort of a literary thrill ride, for the writer and the reader.

It’s so exciting to be writing in a franchise that offers the opportunity for wild action, horror, sex, humor… damn near everything as long as the story keeps moving and yet remains grounded emotionally in stakes that the reader can invest in.

I think that freedom, and the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories, is part of the attraction of “The Dead Man” for the other writers as well. Several of them have long-running book series of their own and “The Dead Man” offers them an entertaining and invigorating departure from what they’re used to doing.

It’s certainly a real change of pace for me, after writing one of my Monk books respectively, to get to play in the action-adventure/occult sandbox.
6. You have certainly been one of the strongest voices into the world of e-publishing, though you have also maintained a foothold in the “legacy publishing” world. Was there ever a thought of taking the DEAD MAN series on the more traditional publishing route? Why or why not?
No, it never occurred to us to take this to a traditional publisher. They wouldn’t be interested. Remember, publishers have nearly killed the genre. They don’t see it as a moneymaker for them anymore. And bookstores, big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco, just aren’t willing to give up the shelf space for these kinds of books.

The Kindle, the Nook and the iPad are actually the perfect mediums for the genre to make a comeback… and we’re hoping this is the series that can do it.

7. Certainly e-publishing offers a new option for aspiring writers, and there are success stories such as Hocking and John Locke, as well as established writers such as Eisler and Konrath who have abandoned legacy publishers. What do you feel is the best advice for an as-yet unpublished writer between traditional publishing and e-publishing?
I get asked this question a lot. But this business is changing so fast that by the time my interviews appear, my comments often seem woefully out of step with events. But at this moment, I still hold on to the belief that it’s best for a new writer to resist the urge to self-publish…and that it’s far better to be published by a so-called traditional publisher. 

A publishing contract doesn’t come along every day. You can always go back to self-publishing later. That option isn’t going anywhere.

I think the people who are doing best in this field right now, by and large, are those who already have established a platform in the traditional publishing business. More importantly, you pick up experience and skills along the way that are essential to survival in the self-publishing world.

One of the big problems with self-publishing is how easy it is. People are doing long before their work is ready for primetime, so to speak. There a lot of people putting a lot of unreadable swill on Smashwords and Amazon simply because they can.

Yes there is good stuff out there, but I think it’s getting harder and harder for readers to find amidst the overwhelming amount of crap that people are putting up.

I don’t know that we were better off with the defacto gatekeeping provided by agents and publishers under the old, and still prevalent, system. There are a lot of virtues to not having anyone standing in the way of you getting your work out there. I’m certainly benefitting from it.

But I think you can hurt your career in the long run if you start publishing your work before it’s any good simply because you are in a hurry to call yourself a published author.

Goldberg/Rabkin’s “The Dead Man: Face of Evil”

March 28, 2011 2 comments

In the realm of publishing, if literary efforts by the likes of Irving and Franzen

The Dead Man

are what would be considered fine champagne, the “men’s adventure” novel is pop-tab beer, what you drink after you finish mowing the lawn and are looking for pure enjoyment. This said, there’s something wonderful in a nice, cold beer.

In all of the best ways, “The Dead Man: Face of Evil” by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin is a good, refreshing beer, solid and unpretentious and enjoyable in every way, a call back to Pendleton and Murphy/Sapir but with a distinctly modern feel.

Matthew Cahill is your archetypal wounded protagonist, dealing with the emotional scars of losing his wife to cancer. Just as he is begins to rebuild his life and find love again, Cahill is caught in a freak skiing avalanche and assumed to be dead. When he is found and revived three months later, this working class Joe finds himself able to actually see evil.

Goldberg and Rabkin, both novelists primarily known for their work in television dating back to the 1980s, have crafted a fast-paced piece of pop fiction, closer in length to novella than actual novel (though if you check back on those old “Executioner” novels you’d find they didn’t exactly clock in at strictly novel length either) that still manages to stuff more than its fair share of plot into roughly 80 pages, told with a minimum of concision and a maximum of efficiency

“Face of Evil,” the first in a planned series of novels, has set up an intriguing character in Cahill, a smart, self-aware man who becomes painfully aware of the “gift” he has. In fact, Goldberg and Rabkin’s treatment of Cahill is one of the book’s strongest suits, making him a far deeper and interesting individual than is typical in the genre. Not a trained killer, far from a superman, either blessed or cursed with a supernatural ability, Cahill feels like the guy who know who’s there to jump your dead battery and has your back in a bar fight, and he’s far the more interesting for it. By the end of the story, you’re rooting for Cahill and eager for more.

Goldberg and Rabkin are playful with the genre, throwing in generous doses of gore (a murder set piece is gloriously drippy and oozy) and smart, sly humor (a nod to the Murphy/Sapir “Destroyer” novels). The supernatural twists are unexpected but far from unwelcome and keep both Cahill and the reader off-balance.

All in all, “Face of Evil” shows two craftsmen working at the top of their game, away from the restrictions of network censors and obviously having the time of their lives. The book’s website promises a variety of writers to pick up future chapters of Cahill’s journey.

Road Trip

October 13, 2010 1 comment

They’ll be no word count update for today or yesterday because, well, no words were written as The Bride and I road-tripped out to Lexington, Ky. for an overnighter to see Citizen Cope in concert at the beautifully named Buster’s Billiards and Backroom. If you haven’t seen Citizen Cope or haven’t even heard of him, shame on you. One of the finest purveyors of neo-acoustic-folk-whatever you’ll hear, Cope blew through an hour and 45 minutes of performance, stopping mostly to change guitars, keeping stage patter to a minimum and ripping through what would constitute his greatest hits provided he actually had a hit song.

What Citizen Cope does have is one hell of a repertoire of music, a lot of it you’ve seen in movies or heard on commercials (“Bullet and a Target” probably the most ubiquitous of his tunes). It was a great show outside of some college kids hitting their party limit a little early in the evening, well before the show even started. There’s a sharp decline in concert etiquette, agreed The Bride and I, and as we each wore the spilled beer of drunken sorority girls, we thought back to those glory days where Greeks didn’t want to go see stoner rock. Ah, memories …

We also reveled in the glory of Joseph A. Beth’s, a Lexington bookstore where you can spend money faster than Takashi Miike in “Hostel.” We scored various and sundry goodies, including Paul Malmont’s “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril,” an ode to the pulpy fiction of olden days (one of my favorite genres — I’m looking more forward to this book than I can admit), and a goodly number of magazines that aren’t always easy to find when you’re on the last outpost on Mars.

And, of course, we got to see the insane number of Rand Paul bumper stickers and forced ourselves to ponder just how stupid people have to be to think this asshat presents a realistic option in Washington.

October. 7, 2010

October 8, 2010 1 comment

Here’s my daily update on the progress on “Christchurch Bells,” my novel about a writer dying of a brain tumor, his ex-wife’s ghost, a dead cheerleader, the destruction of a town’s movie theater, and a raven singing “Babe” by Styx.

PROJECT: Christchurch Bells

DEADLINE: January 15, 2011

PRESENT WORD COUNT: 7,063

GOAL: 100,000

Bits & Pieces:

  • I like the idea of Sandra Bullock for the lead in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” After a year that’s balanced between winning an Oscar followed by the exposure of her personal life and scandal, this is precisely the sort of post-Oscar win project as actress like Bullock needs. Her Best Actress win in “The Blind Side” was for a movie many saw as relatively lightweight, so working with Cuaron, a director unafraid of challenge, is just the right move to show the win wasn’t a fluke or a mistake on the Academy’s part. Bullock’s likability both on screen and in general has never been in question (her good-natured acceptance of her Razzie for “All About Steve” the day before her Oscar win shows that), but she’s generally maintained a limited range with comedy and light drama. Efforts to step out of that have ranged from promising (she was praised for her role as Harper Lee in “Infamous,” the same role that earned Catherine Kenner a Best Supporting Actress nod a year prior in “Capote”) to abysmal (the less said about  “Premonition” or “In Love or War,” the better), but “The Blind Side” and occasionally interesting choices like “28 Days” or her small role in “Crash” hit at a greater range than she’s offered. Cuaron’s plans for “Gravity” are ambitious, to say the least, and Bullock is a far less likely or traditional choice for a sci-fi epic than earlier options such as Angelina Jolie or Natalie Portman, both who were in negotiations for the role, but in this blog’s opinion that makes her the far more interesting choice. Cuaron will push Bullock harder in this role than she’s ever been pushed, and with fingers crossed may show Bullock has far more actor-ly chops than we’ve suspected.
  • DC Comics’ decision to drop prices back to $3.99 from $2.99 is the smart move in a time where not only is everyone’s wallet a little lighter, but monthly comic book sales have been consistently on the decline. While this blog appreciates what DC was doing, reintroducing backup features, something that was long a staple of comic books, nearly four bucks is a lot when you consider some of us remember when the price went from 35 cents to 50 cents. So many comics fans now wait for the trade paperbacks, but nothing really beats that trip into the store on a Wednesday and picking up on the story where you left off last month.
  • The Bride and I are fans of urban fantasy and that’s been what we’ve been utilizing as nightly bedtime reading. We just started the third in Patricia Briggs‘ “Mercy Thompson” series, and anyone who’s read the Sookie Stackhouse novels would do well to check these out. Briggs’ Mercy, a walker who can change into a coyote, must navigate the politics of vampires and wolf packs much the same way as Sookie, but the emphasis here in on the organization of the werewolves and werewolves as the resident heartthrobs, while vampires are portrayed in a most rote and unromantic way. Ohm and there’s gremlins too. Well worth the read.

Return of the Mack

October 6, 2010 Leave a comment

This blog has laid dormant for a while, because, well, initially I had to heal from almost cutting my finger off. After debate on where to go with this thing and for the few who read it (love you, Bride!), I said “Oh hell, why not?” and decided to jump back in.

Because I’m  actually working on being a real writer (I’m getting published and everything … more on that as it gets closer), this will become more of a chronicle on my writing process, with updates on how it’s going, as well as random comments on whatever crap is getting on my nerves that day. Of course I will have the occasional rant on something, and my goal is to both establish some regular features and trick IMDB.com into putting me back in its news feed.

I’ll be updating on progress in “Christchurch Bells,” a novel I’ve been working on in various forms and incarnations for more than 15 years. The goal is 1,000 a day, with a Jan. 15, 2011 completion on the first draft. It’s the touching story of a writer dying of a brain tumor, his ex-wife’s ghost, a dead cheerleader, the destruction of a town’s movie theater, and a raven singing “Babe” by Styx.

All of this is with apologies to Cherie Priest, who I’m ripping off copiously, but that’s OK because she’s already published 10 novels and was nominated for a Hugo, whereas I’m just trying to finish the damn thing.

PROJECT: Christchurch Bells

DEADLINE: January 15, 2011

PRESENT WORD COUNT: 6,033

GOAL: 100,000

Bits & Pieces:

  • The biggest geek news is, of course, Zack Snyder directing the new “Superman” movie. I worry less about Snyder, who’s accused of being all style and no substance but who I think has effectively brought it in all of his movies (it would be impossible to truly translate “Watchmen” to film, but his version is the closest we could probably hope for), and more about the script by David Goyer, whose scripts tend to be erratic messes and typically need strong directors to guide them (Guillermo del Toro with “Blade II,” Christopher Nolan with both Batman films). With Nolan producing, it’s an easy bet that another writer will come in to smooth over Goyer’s script, and since Nolan’s brother Jonathan is already listed as a co-writer, so attention should be turned to getting Snyder to draw back on his visual style (enough CGI and slo-mo) and casting Superman himself (I think they could actually go with Snyder himself; dude’s got some guns).
  • The Bride and I caught part of “Minority Report” on cable the other night, and we both pondered why this movie wasn’t a bigger hit, or why it doesn’t have a cult following? Sure, it was popular enough, and it more than made back production and advertising costs, as well as selling a boatload of DVDs, but it’s such a rich and interesting movie it’s forgotten in the Spielberg shuffle. It’s got Tom Cruise at the height of his popularity, Steven Spielberg at his most visually daring, a smart Scott Frank script, exciting action, some truly oddball humor, and Colin Ferrell before we started looking at him like a drug-addled alcoholic douche bag. Maybe the film’s never caught on because Cruise’s Jon Anderton isn’t the most likable of characters (a drug-addicted father mourning the kidnapping and presumed death of his son), or because the humor is so off the wall, especially for a Spielberg joint (the scene where Anderton crashes into the yoga classes always cracks me up). The movie is considered part of Spielberg’s “running man” trilogy, alongside “A.I.” and “Catch Me If You Can,” and together the three represent an interesting point in Spielberg’s post-“Saving Private Ryan” career where I think he took what could be conceived as big risks (no special efforts to fall back on in “Catch Me If You Can”; surprising dark narratives in “A.I.” and “Minority Report”; the very character-driven comedy of “The Terminal,” which followed “Minority Report”). “War of the Worlds” might be seen as a mix of risk and the familiar, and for many it’s a mixed success, though I think there are moments of brilliance in it, such as the Tim Robbins basement sequence, and “Munich” put Spielberg back into “Ryan”-esque territory. Though I’m blase about his upcoming Tintin adaptation, I hope he decides again to do something risky. Eastwood is a great example of an older director who’s still willing to push out of his comfort zone (“Hereafter” looks like nothing else he’s ever done), and maybe Spielberg, who produced “Hereafter,” might be inspired.
  • Ronald Moore may be updating “The Wild, Wild West,” performing the same duties as he did on the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica.” I’m willing to go with Moore where ever he opts to go, and I think he could really spend the rest of his career updating old shows; may I recommend “Automan,” “Manimal” and “Holmes & Yoyo.”

A few words on “Mockingbird” (Ok, actually closer to 700 words)

June 7, 2010 1 comment

It’s hard to imagine there’s much that can be added to discussion on Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”; it is one of those definitive works of Literature (note that upper case “L,” for the big time books) that most or all of us read at some point in school, and we all carry fond memories of long after we’ve written all those book reports about it.

I read it my freshman year of high school, in between spurts of cop procedurals and private eye novels. It was a book that spoke to me on numerous levels. As a child who’d spent his entire life in Appalachia, staring out at trailer park after trailer park of poverty, I understood these characters struggling against difficult times. As a white kid existing in a mostly white world, where racial epitaphs were as common as questions about the weather, I saw a world where individuals could be seen beyond skin color or their own prejudices and judged by their character. And as the child of alcoholics, I got to meet Atticus Finch, probably the single most noble character to ever exist, the father we all secretly (or not so secretly) wished we had. Between him and Bill Bixby in “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” the concept of fatherhood was totally skewed for me for at least 20 years.

I haven’t read “Mockingbird” in years. I saw the film afterwards, and though I liked it, it lacked the richness that the book possessed. On paper, “Mockingbird” shouldn’t work. In the hands of a less-talented writer, its combination of Southern gothic, Bildungsroman and courtroom drama would have felt scattered and disheveled. Instead, Harper Lee wrote what might be as perfect of a novel as the English language has provided, completely accessible to almost any reader, instantly compelling, a spot-on chronicle of time and place and character. I guarantee it’s the first Pulitzer Prize-winning novel most of us ever read (know anyone who started out with “Advise and Consent” or “Humboldt’s Gift“? I think not.) My daughter, aged 12, recently read it, and she, as all good readers do, loved the book. Of course she loved Boo Radley, which should be more worrisome than it is, I guess, and she was disappointed in the movie.

So if I’ve got nothing to truly say about “Mockingbird,” why I’d just spend more than 350 words rambling about it? Because it seems that while  “Mockingbird” is a novel we celebrate, we don’t truly appreciate. Most of us exist in, what could be termed, a “post-Mockingbird” world. Racial discrimination doesn’t seem as prevalent as it once did (we did elect an African American as president after all), but I suspect really we’ve just brushed it under the rug. We read “Mockingbird” as almost a historical chronicle, akin to Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children” books, as if racism in the South existed centuries ago, instead of merely decades ago, and only now more well hidden.

We all have these wonderful memories of reading “Mockingbird,” and we all seem to wish Atticus was our father, but what truly touches us in the novel is that understanding that no matter what changes, very little really changes. Sadly, we are still a world filled with fear and distrust, only now we hide it under the banners of “securing our borders” and “homeland security.” We’re not that different from the townspeople who show up at the jail to lynch Tom Robinson; we’re still scared, we’re still afraid, we still want to destroy what is different, what we don’t understand.

Were “Mockingbird” to be written today, it might have been a Grisham-esque thriller, the street-savvy daughter of the virtuous attorney, watching her father defend the life of an illegal immigrant as the nation, and her little part of the world, struggles to rebuild in the wake of an economic recession. It could have been a very different book, but the message would have remained the same: “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Perhaps that is what we should all hope to take with us as we finish the book’s final pages.