Inglourious Basterds: A decade of revisionist catharsis

File this under “writespiration” — ten years of it, as it turns out. I was shocked to find out that it’s been a decade since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds was released on an unsuspecting world.

I won’t take too much time talking about how the revisionist historical look at Adolf Hitler’s demise has gained new gravity since its release in 2009. Back then it was surprising and satisfying, watching Nazis die horrible deaths and Hitler peppered with bullets until his face looks like a cheap Halloween mask. Today it’s purely cathartic, as the very thing Aldo Raine, the basterds, Bridget von Hammersmark and Shosanna Dreyfus blew up in that Parisian theater has returned with internet memes, tiki torches and the presidential seal.

Instead, I want to focus on how Tarantino’s first installment of his revisionist trilogy (the other two being Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) inspired me to start writing speculative fiction. Revisionism and speculation are polar opposites, I get that, but they share the same starting point: Alternate reality.

Inglorious Basterds asks “What could have been?” I like to ask “What could be?”

The latter, of course, is the basis for science fiction, and I suppose I write a lot of that. But with my current project — of which the first draft is done (woot) and awaiting two months’ worth of extensive edits (oof) — I prefer to focus on what our reality would be if tech-enabled vigilantes existed and were widely accepted. Where Tarantino’s film asked what would have happened if a band of rogue American Jews were enabled to massacre the entire Nazi party in one night, I ask what would happen if the Good Samaritan line cooks and taxi drivers of the world suddenly became superheroes…and super-villains.

My hope is that my project says as much as Tarantino did in his film. But because of that movie from 10 years before, I know the kind of emotion I want to draw from my readers: Not catharsis at watching one of the most evil men to ever live get blasted apart like a piñata stuffed with C4, but the same curiosity hinging on the question “What if?”

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The Immortal Toni Morrison

It took me a while to know what I wanted to write about Toni Morrison that hadn’t already been said more eloquently. So before you keep reading, please take a look at what so many talented black women have written, like Charlene Carruthers’ piece in Out Magazine, Akwaeke Emezi’s letter in Them, or Roxane Gay’s piece in the New York Times.

And once you’ve read their takes — and hopefully followed the breadcrumbs to other fantastic writers who were not just inspired but seen and represented by Ms. Morrison’s writing — you can come back and read mine.

Back?

Cool.

I credit Meggan Burgoni, my 10th grade English and 12th grade Humanities teacher, with introducing me to two literary loves of my life: Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison. The first she sent me on a two-week getaway with in the form of a winter break Welcome to the Monkey House assignment. The second she teased me with in the spring of 2009 via a slow-paced reading of Beloved.

Recently I read Wired’s review of Euphoria that rightfully lauded the HBO series as the “perfect anti-binging show” — that part of the series’ allure is how it forces you to sit with what you’ve seen and develop your opinions, hopes and fears for each character over eight weeks instead of eight hours. Beloved can be described in the same way. You can read it in a single night, but it won’t have the same effect. You’ll miss things. And so Burgoni would quiz us daily to make sure not that we had done the reading we had been assigned, but that we hadn’t gotten farther in the book than she asked us to read.

(This is where I confess that I totally read ahead sometimes, just made a mental note of where each assignment passage ended so I’d still pass the quiz. Sorry, Mizz B.)

A year after I read Welcome to the Monkey HouseCat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five — the latter two by choice — Kurt Vonnegut died. When we heard the news, a lot of us didn’t even realize he was still alive. I think it was because Vonnegut’s wit and voice, while staying mostly relevant throughout the American Idiot Bush-led era we were teenage-angsting our way through, was clearly from another time. He was one of the literature titans that had formed modern sci-fi satire and been overthrown by the Zeustic powers of Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore and other nihilistic authors who captured our attention with their equally raw but timely storytelling. It was sad he was gone, but we’d still have fun scouring used bookstores for vintage copies of Timequake.

But on Tuesday when I heard that Ms. Morrison had passed, I was gutted. She was supposed to be immortal. Souls are immortal, aren’t they? After all, she was the soul of American literature. She was the conscience, too. And the heart. And the folds of the brain where relationships and emotion hold hands. I haven’t found another writer like it, and I’ve blown my book budget and deprived myself of sleep trying to find one.

There was no other writer who could slice me open; fill me with the faith, skepticism, jubilation, torment, distrust and fellowship felt by her characters; sew me up again for 200 pages; yank out the stitches and the stuffing with one hand at the stories’s climax; and leave me with more understanding and compassion than I had when we started. Her writing changed me.

And she did that without even writing for me. She wrote for black women — the “most disrespected person in America,” as Malcolm X famously and accurately said — but everyone else had the privilege of reading it and learning from it, too.

A couple years ago, I sat in the airport before a business trip, reading Beloved for the fifth or sixth time (I read it every 18 months and always find something new in it). A group of older black women walked past me, and one of them stopped.

“Great book,” she said, more to herself than to me. Then she called to her friends: “This white girl’s reading Toni!” We ended up talking about the book for a couple minutes before their flight was called. She told me the next one I should read was Sula. I’ve read it twice since.

I think that was the first time I saw through the privilege I had experienced as a Caucasian reader and recognized that I was reading something that wasn’t created for me. It was my first reckoning that artists don’t just write for anyone — they have a specific audience, and if they’re good enough, their work attracts readers from outside that group. And I thanked Burgoni all over again for tempting our mostly white, middle-class Humanities cohort to huddle around our red paperbacks at lunch, desperately reading ahead to see what would happen to Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver and Beloved.

There’s a lot more I could say about Ms. Morrison. How she pulled other underrepresented writers up with her, saying “the function of freedom is freeing someone else.” How she refused to be a victim of racism and demanded that white people be the ones to fix it. Then there’s her work on its own: How The Bluest Eye made me a sobbing wreck on a very crowded rush-hour train. How Tar Baby gave us one of the best deep-dives into the social and spiritual meanings of beauty, and Jazz gave us this beautiful quote:

Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”

Instead, I’ll leave you with one final story. I mentioned to my mom on Tuesday that Ms. Morrison wasn’t published until she was 39 or 40. As I currently lose sleep (and possibly friends) over a first-draft of a book that ebbs between good and garbage, this is reassuring to me, as well as a reminder to slow down — much like when reading Beloved. In fact, I joked to my mom as my throat closed up around a sob that maybe this is a sign that I should just stop and wait until I’m 35 or so to pick writing back up again. The Bluest Eye took five years to write, after all.

Then Mom countered with another biographical detail. When Ms. Morrison’s son died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, she quit writing from grief. But upon thinking about it, she realized that the last thing he would have wanted. So she started writing again.

“So what would Toni want you to do?” Mom asked.

It’s simple. It’s the quote that most writers have tattooed inside their skulls, if not on their actual skin. And I hesitated to include it in this post (everyone is including it in their posts), but it’s a rally cry that every writer should shout at the top of their lungs and blog pages for the rest of time:

“If there’s a book you want to read, write it.”

I love you, Ms. Morrison. Thank you. Rest in power.

Music of the write: “Roddy” by Djo

I love a song with a good mood swing.

“Roddy” by Djo is just that — a chill summer jam meant to play low behind a patio party or blast through ear buds during a hot morning commute. It’s got a twinge of 1960s harmonies and 1970s dance to it, just like a lot of indie alterna-synth-pop (think Saint Motel, Robert DeLong, Peking Duk).

And then the beat drops, and it’s like the room’s gone cold, everything has slowed down, and any movement you make is, as many of my yoga teachers have described in restorative flows, “juicy.”

So maybe the song doesn’t have a mood swing as much as a temperature change. It’s because of that shift that it’s on my writing playlist. Sometimes I get writing so fast that the word selection is shallow. The drop in “Roddy” reminds me to slow down, maybe break the action to give the reader time to breathe, and really dive deep for the right phrasing.

Now to give a plot twist via some context…

Anyone who watches Stranger Things probably has an infatuation with Steve “the Hair” Herrington, the jock-turned-big-brother-figure who represents one of the strongest character arcs in recent television memory. He is the Don Draper of demigorgon hunting, the Walter White of the Upside Down.

He’s also the artist known as Djo.

It’s fitting that an actor who has so expertly carried a role as complex as Steve’s would also produce a dynamic groove. I look forward to seeing what else he released.

The writer on the eve of her 28th birthday

Congratulate me, folks. Barring any freak accidents in the next 12 hours, I’ve survived the 27 Club.

Years ago I wrote an angsty short story from the perspective of a singer on the night before her 28th birthday. She grapples with death, trying to decide what would be more beneficial to her celebrity: living another day or dying just in time to join the 27 Club, the group of talented musicians who all died at that age. That story’s not posted on this site, as it was written by a sheltered 20-year-old in the thick of mourning Amy Winehouse.

I was never at risk of joining the 27 Club — apart from the occasional boozie night out and ill-advised habit of jaywalking, I rarely do anything to put my life in jeopardy, and I’m one of the very fortunate ones who has never desired let alone contemplated ending their own life. I also have a no-food-in-bed policy, which rules out taking the Mamma Cass route.

(For those who don’t get the joke, the Mamas and the Papas singer was found dead with a half-eaten ham sandwich on the bedside table, or so legend has it. Also she was 32, not 27.)

But 27 meant something more to me. Last year I announced it was my “golden age,” as I was born on the 27th and my lucky number has unoriginally but consistently been 27. It was going to be the year of publishing and handstands, style evolutions and more cooking.

Now today I’m finding myself taking inventory. Omaha is still “in sub” with publishers via my agent, and I’m not as far along in Nobody’s Hero as I hoped to be by now. I still can’t do a handstand, though my crow pose is fly (heh). My hair grew out, I hated it, and I cut it back to the pixie I had throughout my early 20s. I bought Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook and made exactly two recipes from it.

But then I think of what did happen. I did have a job change that plunged me into a new world of strategic communications during a turbulent time in our company’s history. I fell even harder for the Man with Time On His Arm. I spent 10 days in London, two of which I spent touring on my own and discovering not only the city but also myself. I bought my first pair of Vans.

So maybe the biggest lesson of 27 was to have goals, but be OK setting them aside to let other opportunities take center-stage. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens when you make other plans.”

Which is why I’ve decided to let the big things happen as they will and focus on a couple little, attainable goals for 28:

  1. Watch more documentaries, especially the kind that make me cry. I long for the same hopeful weeping I experienced during just the trailer for Knock Down the House.
  2. Get into Bruce Springsteen’s music. Like, wrapped in an American flag bandana, into it. Right now my phone has only “Hungry Heart” and “Pink Cadillac,” and I’m a disgrace to my generation and the one before it.
  3. Start being OK with mixing metallics in my jewelry choices.
  4. Admit publicly that I like Imagine Dragons and always have, from when they dropped “Radioactive” and played in our college street for free, to now when they make anthems for sports commercials. There. I did it. Check.
  5. Accept the fact that I will never watch every episode of 30 Rock, Friends, or How I Met Your Mother because there’s too many of them and I’m particular about my sitcoms.

In a year I’ll have to see just how many of these I achieved. Now I have to go learn all the words to “Born to Run.”

A letter home from Camp Dungeons & Dragons

Dear whoever,

I’m writing to you from a cozy but comfortable apartment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. There’s no seat back on the ottoman? piano bench? cushioned side table? that I’m sitting on, but I’ve been too busy leaning into this experience to care.

That’s a lie — my butt and back hurt — but hey, wasn’t that a great sentiment?

So far, Camp Dungeons and Dragons has been fun. Half of us is entirely new to the concept, while the other half is patiently tutoring us through character creation. Many of us have to get used to a game without limits: As a role-playing game, there’s no rules of what you can or can’t do, provided the dice roll in your favor.

At the head of the table sits our camp counselor, Kyle, the Dungeon Master himself, educating us on gameplay and character creation. Any race can be any class with any background, he explains, which means there’s near-infinite possibilities.

The nine others of us await our turn to peruse the guidebooks that will give us the details on what weapons a ranger versus rogue carries; what the differences are between green, black and red dragon-borns; how much strength versus dexterity a barbarian gets; and whether it’s more advantageous to be a sorcerer or wizard. There’s a difference, I’ve learned.

I’m Hepburn, the human barbarian who became an outlander after learning her parents, half-elves, had lied to her all her life about her identity. When they finally confessed after I couldn’t do the spells the other kids were doing, I ran away from home and wandered the land, not to be seen again until now, when I showed up with a glave, a dagger, four javelins, a staff, and what appears to be a viper fang dangling from one ear.

For a group of creatives, character creation is the easy part. It’s the math to figure out skill levels that requires us to snort lines of eraser shavings as we struggle with simple addition and multiplication.

After hours of preparation fueled by Totino’s pizza rolls, peppermint patties, carrot sticks, cheddar popcorn, beer, and a dozen Do-Rite donuts, the Dungeon Master announces it’s time to embark on our journey.

The setting: Neverwinter, a metropolis with a thriving gig economy where Gundren Rockseeker has recruited this ragtag team of wizards, humans, bird-people (“aarakocra,” campmate Alyssa calls it), halflings and demon-like tieflings to guard a caravan of food to a neighboring village. A bard styled after Orson Welles in his later years provides endless entertainment and infuriation.

Gameplay only lasts about two hours, with all of us struggling to track what kind of character each person is playing — apart from Orson, that is, as Cody is loathe to let us forget his identity — and half of us needing guidance on how to add attack bonuses, do perception checks, and determine damage points.

Our entourage takes on a group of overly amorous and jealousy-prone goblins that kidnapped Mr. Rocksucker (though I’m still not convinced this isn’t a setup on his part to get us to work for free — the gig economy is a capitalistic scam, after all). We tend to leave carnage in our wake, dropping goblins from cloud-shrouded treehouses, blasting them with poisonous gas, and even forcing their Wookiee-esque ringleader to laugh and vomit himself into submission.

By the end, my butt and back aren’t nearly as sore from my seat as my abs and chest are from laughing so hard at Katie the gruff-voiced Zorus the Tiefling, announce he is wearing “just pants,” Cody the reincarnated Orson Welles throwing a cream pie to cast Tasha’s Hideous Laughter on our Wookiee nemesis, and one of our more mild-mannered camp mates, Mike, getting swept up into the game and yelling at Alyssa:

“What do you mean? I’m half-elf, bitch! Oh my god, I am so sorry.

Leaving camp behind is hard, but we’ll be back in September when Kyle leads us to Byssia, a chain of islands and atolls amid conflict between the “free people” and the “civilized” capital. I promise to write frequently from our waterbound adventure.

Love from camp,

Kate, aka Hepburn

Time for a refresh: Blogging becomes routine

Most nine-to-fivers’ weeks revolve around Friday afternoon — that unavoidable feeling of temporary freedom from work when there’s a couch and a movie or friends and a drink waiting after 5 p.m. and two blissful days of no meetings, no deadlines, no mass-batch coffee that gets steadily more bitter throughout the week.

But for me, there’s something else that happens: Kellye Whitney blogs.

I met Kellye when she hired me in February 2014 for my first journalism job. It was one of the coldest Chicago weeks on record — nothing close to this year’s negative-40s, but at that time we didn’t see climate change plunging us into an Ice Age that quickly, so negative-teens was a catastrophe. For a year and a half, she put up with my New Grad Smell and how I, in her words, would “dance in her doorway” with a story idea or just another music recommendation she’d pass up because the artist didn’t sell physical CDs she could play in her car. I became a stronger writer under her editor-ship, and I became a more open-minded, critically thinking white woman under her mentorship. “Woke,” the young libs say these days, but more inclined to do something about it instead of just tweet about it.

We’ve remained friends after she lovingly nudged me out of the niche-magazine nest toward my next adventure and left our old company for her own odyssey as an independent consultant and content developer (hire her!). Except this time, she invites me to dance in her text messages on select Fridays with the same question: “What should I blog about this week?”

The text comes like clockwork in the morning, and most weeks I’m prepared with a list of things I’ve seen on Twitter that either made my blood boil or heart soften. My suggestions don’t always hit the mark, but when they do, Kellye never fails to acknowledge the source. Last week’s topic: Nike’s Betsey Ross shoe. This week’s topic — TBD. If asked, I think I’ll recommend some of the coverage of the U.S. Women’s National Team, as “A Life Not Grey” looks at diversity and media. Or maybe I’ll get her to ruminate on how if country cross-over “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a gay Black man, spends three more weeks at No. 1., it will become the longest-running No. 1 in history.*

*On second thought, she won’t pick this one, as I don’t think there’s a CD version of OTR available yet…

But coupled with the satisfaction that I can still pitch a good story comes the guilt of knowing I haven’t blogged on my own site for more than a month. Then add in how WordPress just sent me confirmation that my domain name has been renewed for another year to the tune of $18, and I guess I should put at least $18 of effort into “Convincing the Muse” again.

So yesterday I texted Kellye that I was going to take a queue from her and make Fridays my “pub day” for blog posts. Her response was what she’s told me for years as we’ve continued our separate second-lives as fiction writers: “Schedule and routine are wonderful writing tools.”

So even though today is Monday, I’m kicking my newfound routine now and committing myself to at least a post a week. Fair warning: There are going to be some anemic ones in there, as well as some egregious typos, half-baked stories, shallow characters and blatant self-promotion.

So nothing too different from what already gets posted here. Just on a weekly, regimented basis.

So thanks, Kellye, for continuing to be the editor I need — a total boss, in more ways than one.

 

Writespiration: “bury a friend” by Billie Eilish

My friend Hannah describes Billie Eilish as “if Tumblr was a person.” She’s artistically angsty with a dramatic edge that can almost induce an eye-roll if you’re not paying enough attention.

The first song I heard from her, her new album’s first single, “bury a friend,” was exactly that. God, she’s like the girl from The Ring meets Wednesday Addams meets a record deal. But then I payed better attention. The song is clearly about mental struggles — burying a friend isn’t literal, as it is in My Chemical Romance’s “Kill All Your Friends” (in that one, the singer laments that “We all wanna party when a funeral ends; and we all get together when we bury our friends; it’s been eight bitter years since I’ve been seeing your face,” hence the reason for the murder spree). For Eilish, it’s dealing with the emotional demons that haunt us. 

So perfect for half the character I write, as the greatest enemies they face are themselves.