Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Fantastic Reality of Max DeVoe Talley

Interview by Nicholas Deitch

I was first introduced to Max Talley at the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference in 2013, where he read from his then soon-to-be-published dystopian novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, a scene in which a ten-mile stretch of the 405 freeway has been converted into a high-security prison, an auto prison; the next logical step from its hellishly default traffic jam prison mode of the present day.

A strange elixir of the sarcastic and visionary, mixed with snarky, often biting humor and occasional doom, thus began my journey into the many worlds of Max Talley. Since that time, I have discovered his paintings, many of which could illustrate the peculiar characters and surreal landscapes of his stories, and I've even begun my own surreptitious digital collection of his artworks on my I Phone (but don't tell him).

For the past few years, I've been privileged to share the trust of a writer's group with Max, to hear his storytelling in process, and to receive his thoughtful critique of my own storytelling as well. So I was delighted, when the opportunity came, to delve into his inner world for the benefit of sharing in the 
Santa Barbara Literary Journal. 

"Trinity in the Soaking Pool” by Max Talley
Nick: In a perfect world, this conversation would have taken place over breakfast with bacon, at four o'clock in the afternoonthe way we conclude every session of our writer's group. So let's pretend that this is the setting for our conversation...

Your father was in the publishing business for many years, and your mother was a highly successful Wall Street executive who introduced you to art at a very young age. You grew up surrounded by books, and you're very well-read. How did your parent's work, and their world, influence your creative journey?

Max: Some of my earliest memories are of my dad bringing home the cover proofs for his hardcover books to show the family. He was not an artist but he micro-managed the art and cover copy for books he published. Somewhere around age 6, I did my own versions of his book covers with colored pens and maybe even finger paints. They looked abstract (messy) but the colors matched.

In New York, my mother took me to the Metropolitan, the Whitney, and Museum of Modern Art as a child, so I immediately related to Miro, Picasso, and Chagall, because they seemed playful and childish. By the time I was a teenager, Dali, Magritte, and other Surrealists had captured my imagination, then in college I became drawn to German Expressionists like Max Beckmann and George Grosz. 

“The German Book” by Max Talley
Nick: Your paintings and stories often weave cynical humor and social commentary with strange and fantastic twists of perception. Is the world of Max Talley more a place of dreams, or nightmares?

Max: Both. People look at certain paintings and ask, were you on drugs when you did that? No. I was always weird. Reading science fiction, horror stories, and comic books, studying album cover art and concert poster art, as well as surreal paintings were my main influences. I seriously dove into painting in my late twenties for economical reasons. I wanted cool, bizarre art on my apartment walls but couldn't afford paintings by other artists. It took a couple years to respect my stuff enough to hang it up, but I got some early encouragement from my teacher at the Art Students League.

Leatrice Rose told me I had imagination and originality, but needed to really work on my technique and mixing colors. She said I had to convince people I meant to paint the way I did. That it wasn't a mistake, or some experiment gone monstrously awry. 

“Desert Triumvirate” by Max Talley
Nick: The story, "Clap Hands," in SB LitJo Vol. 3, left me with some startling images and a lingering smile. Your stories and your art are often poignant, while also edgy and courageous. Where does this stuff come from?

Max: With writing, I get a lot of ideas in the space between waking and actually getting up in the morning. Those odd waking-dream ideas are easy to remember for a few hours. I cannot rise in the middle of the night and write them down. I'm too lazy.

For “Clap Hands,” I was thinking of Franz Kafka and Nickolai Gogol. In their absurdist stories where someone transforms into a cockroach, or a nose leaves a man's face and is seen parading about the city square, the fantastical event doesn't change the basic tenets of reality. Families still squabble over minor things, coworkers at jobs are annoying, and romantic relations are delicate minefields to be navigated. When I write such stories, they can disturb me, but I try not to self-censor. Of course some people will be outraged or annoyed, but perhaps others will be delighted. If universally loved creators like The Beatles, Norman Rockwell, and Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame had their detractors, I think most writers and artists should expect some slings and arrows. Keep creating; keep in motion. A moving target is harder to hit.

With art, some of my paintings are stories. Other times, I'm putting in various images that have lingered in my mind from a movie or from traveling and seeing unfamiliar faces. Maybe they add up to something, or they're just a laundry list of my focus at the time of painting. I think the best paintings are the ones you only understand a few months after completion. 

“Too Much Information” by Max Talley
Nick: Your novel, YWFT, was published in 2014. Since then you've had at least one other novel in search of a publisher, much of which I've had the privilege of reading. But you've been deep in the writings of short stories for the past few years, with lots of success in seeing them published. Can we expect another novel in the near future, and if so, what kind of a story can we look forward to?

Max: Yes. I have a finished novel that's about music and pop culture ranging from 1967 to 2010 that I hope will be published pre-posthumously, and am working on a crime novel or novella (depending on how brutally I edit it) that takes place in Santa Fe and across New Mexico. I would love to get a collection of my short stories published, but editors and agents have been telling people since Jack London and Ray Bradbury were in short pants that nobody's buying or reading short stories... So even if that's total BS, collections are still a tough sell.

Nick: Your painting, “Lady Autumn,” graces the cover of SB LitJo, Vol. 3. A woman with a wry smile, and a glint of mischief in her eye. A friend of yours, perhaps?

Max: I saw a photo of a woman on social media attending some steampunk meeting or convention. (I live in a cave and know nothing of these things.) I immediately thought, that would make a great cover for Santa Barbara Literary Journal. There was a sense of joy and fun and even glee in the pose, so I went to work. I added a background that was sort of Santa Barbara around the old Mission, but wanted it to be vague enough that people outside the area could appreciate it too. By the time I finished, I liked it enough to not care if it was accepted as a cover. We're in a dark time politically and perhaps socially, so I wanted to show positivity and hope, which I think sums up the contributors to the journal, as well as the creator of it.

"Lady Autumn Takes the Air" by Max Talley
Nick: You are a prolific artist, in words, music and painting. Your paintings are often much like your stories, set in fantastical landscapes, with strange casts of ever-changing characters playing out seemingly symbolic roles. In what ways are your paintings and your stories connected, and how intentional is this? 

Max: Sometimes I'll paint an image that would work with my short story or novel. Other times I'm thinking of a frozen scene in time. A paragraph could be written about that scene, but it's not a whole conclusive story. We all have our concerns, our obsessions, so similar themes may bleed over from one medium to the other. I will say that the more intentional I try to make it, the harder it is. Trying to recreate an exact story idea or image can be frustrating. Part of painting is allowing the unexpected to intrude. As a control freak, I sketch out my paintings in pencil before, to map out the canvas space. But I always change things, and welcome those changes.

More recently, I've been doing portraits. Part of it, a stupid part, was to prove that I could do art that is semi-realistic, semi-representational. I'll start with a photo, then put it aside and move on through instinct. If someone sees a self-portrait and says, “Is that supposed to be you?” that makes me happy. I don't want it to be exact. It's part me and part just imagination. Same with depicting other people. I want a semblance of a resemblance and maybe a certain tilt of the head or expression that's familiar, but then it should become a separate being—a painting individual from the person. 

“Robinson Forever!” by Max Talley
Nick: I attended one of your workshops, on submitting short-story writing and publishing. For someone whose outlook and writing are often sourced from a darker world, I was surprised at how generous and hopeful you were as a teacher and guide for other writers. Can you help us understand your motivation as a workshop leader and long-time associate at the SBWC?

Max: You know I'm a snarky guy with a twisted sense of humor. However, that has zero value when teaching a submission workshop. Over the years, I have attended classes and writing workshops where I've seen other people destroyed and also had my work lambasted. Sometimes with reason, other times not. I decided I didn't want to lead a workshop where people leave broken or go back to their rooms and cry. It sounds melodramatic, but I know this has happened at writers conferences. It's not my job to crush writing that doesn't align with my interests, nor compete with individuals nice enough to attend my workshop. Not every story brought to me sounds ready to submit to literary journals, and not every topic/genre is of interest to me, but what do I know? I'm one guy. It seems best to just accept that the person is going to write the story they want to, and I should just think of ways to improve their writing so it has a better chance at publication.

If I get cranky about anything, it's formatting. If you want to submit to journals or to book editors and not be immediately rejected, you have to obey formatting rules. I hate following rules, but we all have to obey rules while driving, we have to wear clothes in public, not scream “fire” in crowded theaters, etc.

I once thought that if publishers and literary journals wanted my scathingly brilliant writing, they should take it the way I sent it to them. That stubborn, idiotic thinking is why I'm getting published as a middle-aged writer instead of in my thirties.

“Gates of the Deserted City at Dawn” by Max Talley

Max Talley’s fiction and essays have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Gravel, Hofstra University - Windmill, Bridge Eight, Santa Fe Literary Review, Litro, and The Opiate. His novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014, and he teaches at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. www.maxdevoetalley.com. 

Nick is a writer, teacher, architect, and activist. Originally from Los Angeles, California, he now lives in Ventura, with his wife, Diana. He is an annual participant at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. He has been published in the London literary journal, Litro, and is currently writing his first novel, Death and Life in the City of Dreams, a story about a dying city and those who struggle to save it. 

Max's art art will be featured in Volume 3 of Santa Barbara Literary Journal: Bellatrix, coming out on June 8th. His painting "Lady Autumn Takes the Air" will be featured on the cover.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

A Word from the Word Wrangler: Announcing the Flash Cat 2019 Awards!

Dear Readers,
I'm happy to say that we received more than 50 submissions of Flash Fiction, defined as works under 1,000 words that offer character and plot development, for the Flash Fiction competition this year. A profusion of creativity, skill, imagination, and heart flooded the Lit Jo inbox. But of course, in a competition, judges must judge. The Flash Cat is a juried competition, with all submissions being read blindly (no author information included on the page). I helmed the committee of three, joined by Ted Chiles, published author, and Chella Courington, SBCC writing instructor and published poet. We delighted in reading the mini-sagas, nano-tales and micro-stories that were submitted. The following two authors presented work that stood out to us in particular, along with four writers we felt deserved honorable mention.

Flash Cat Award for Humor: “Lipstick” by Margaux Dunbar Hession

Former rock wife to Journey and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer drummer, Aynsley Dunbar, Margaux’s comic material springs from her backstage life and other colorful life escapades: Chief Sloganator for Big Dog T-Shirts, Celebrity Pet Sitter, Cruise Ship Magician’s Assistant, Associate Film Producer, Sailing Skipper, Horse Wrangler, and Stand Up Comedienne. Her fiction accolades include a 2018 Erma Bombeck Humor Award, AFI Screenwriting Award, a Women’s Fiction and two Jefferson Awards from Santa Barbara Writers Conference. 

Flash Cat Award for Literary Excellence: “A Piece of Work” by Diane C McPhail 

Diane C. McPhail is an artist, writer, and minister. She holds an M.F.A., an M.A., and D.Min., and has studied at the University of Iowa distance writing and the Yale Writers’ Workshop, among others. Her debut historical novel, THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER, is to be released from Kensington Publishing on April 30, 2019. More on her novel at dianemcphailauthor.com. 

Honorable mentions:
“Nano-dog” by Jeremy Gold 
“The Scream” by Cheri Kramer
“Wisdom” by Nate Streeper
“In Hand” by D. Avery

If you're curious to meet the authors and experience their writing, Margaux Dunbar Hession, Jeremy Gold, and Nate Streeper will be present at our June 14th reading at the Santa Barbara Public Library. Chella Courington will be presenting the Flash Cat Award for Humor there. See our Facebook event for more information here

The stories from both honorable mentions and winners will be published in the Santa Barbara Literary Journal: Bellatrix, Volume 3, which will be published on June 8th. Congratulations to all of the above, and thank you to everybody who took part in the competition this year.

Rachael Quisel
Word Wrangler and Guest Editor of Flash

Friday, May 31, 2019

Announcing Santa Barbara Literary Journal, Volume 3: Bellatrix

Santa Barbara Literary Journal
Volume 3: Bellatrix
June 2019

Silver Webb

Laura Hemenway, Mistress of Song
Ron Alexander, the Poetry Baron
Rachael Quisel, Word Wrangler
Señor McTavish, Contributing Editor

"Wisdom" by Nate Streeper
"Her Chemical Highness Sets Out" by S.M.C. Wamsteker
"Shutter" by M. M. De Voe
"A Piece of Work" by Diane C McPhail
"Medicine Walk" by Jack Eidt
"The Scream" by Cheri Kramer
"Clap Hands" by Max Talley
"Nano-Dog" by Jeremy Gold
"The Post" by Jesse Krenzel

"Blessed are the Flesh Eaters" by Zane Andrea
"Lipstick" by Margaux Dunbar Hession
"Express Lane" by Chris Casey Logsdon
"Swimmers" by Melanie Doctors
"In Hand" by D. Avery

"St. Gregory’s Abbey" by Isabelle Walker
"Cling" by Perie Longo
"Believer on a Bullet Bike" by Perie Longo
"Asphalt" by Ronald Aden Alexander
"Starters Block" by Ronald Aden Alexander
"Caterpillar to Sparrow" by Isabelle Walker
"El Norte" by Paul Lobo Portugés
"AfterWords" by Cie Gumucio

"Golden" by Dennis Russell
"The Santa Ynez Valley Song" by Randall Lamb
"Mellow" by Burton Jespersen and Patrick Rydman
"Fires" by Mark A. Alciati
"Tectonic Trance" by Sonya Heller
"California" by Dan Bern
"I Won’t Come to California" by Russell Brutsché
"Please, Don’t Come to California" by Natalie D-Napoleon
"Surfliner" by Bryan Titus
"My State of California" by Laura Hemenway

"How Do You Keep a Wave Upon the Sand?*" by Ronald Aden Alexander
"Interview with Literary Agent Eric Myers" by Silver Webb
"A review of Come and Get Me by August Norman" by Lorelei Armstrong
"Mountain of Ashes: Interview with John Reed" by Christina Lay
"A Review of Mountain of Ashes: A Cosmic Love Story" by Chris Wozney

Volume 3 will be available for purchase on Amazon on June 8, 2019. And if you'd like to meet some of the authors and experience their writing and music, join us at the Santa Barbara Central Library on June 14, 6-8 p.m. See our Facebook event, here.

Curious about the cover art and our featured artist? June 8th, look for Nicholas Deitch's interview of writer and artist Max Talley, to be published here on the blog.

Friday, May 24, 2019

A Letter from the Excitable Editrix

It is a known fact that I am easily excited. By things like fruity cocktail beverages, grilled cheese, potato salad, potato chips, tater tots, okay pretty much anything that involves a potato...Oh, and good writing too. To wit, you might ask, what am I excited about right now? So glad you asked. Because June is always epic in Santa Barbara, especially at the Lit Jo.

To start off, let it be known that these overly excitable moments have a tendency to end in publications. Usually after one of the above-mentioned fruity beverages. One fateful evening, tipsy and flashing big puppy dog eyes at my editors, I assured them it would be no problem to add an anthology to our planned two volumes of Lit Jo this year. Why not publish it April 1st, I reasoned, plenty of time to produce and print Volume 3 by June, right? Ha. Ha HAH. From February until the end of May I clung to sanity like a three-toed sloth, on a mad burn of Photoshop, InDesign, proofs, and permission slips. My stalwart editors did not abandon ship, although they may have wondered if I was going down like Ahab, cackling and soliloquying about a whale named Moby. But we pulled it off. Volume 2: Cor Serpentis came out in November; Hurricanes Swan Songs is now on Amazon.

And guess what's coming out mid-June? You got it, Volume 3: Bellatrix. On June 8, we will be publishing an interview here of our featured artist, as well as revealing the cover. Who is our featured artist? What does the cover look like? Oh, just you wait, chickadee!

June 14, and this is a biggy, we will be partnering with the Santa Barbara Public Library and holding a reading of Volume 3: Bellatrix at the Faulkner Gallery. Contributors will read fiction, flash, and poetry. And our singer-songwriters will perform. This is a bigger venue than anything we've "played" before and we will be awarding the first ever "Flash Cat" award for best flash submission. See event details on our FB invite here. And while you're there, be sure to like our FB page!

June 15, we're having a Lit Jo house concert. Our Mistress of Song assembled a beautiful collection of songs about California for Volume 3, and Dennis Russell, Sonya Heller, Randall Lamb, Mark Alciati, and Natalie D Napoleon will performing their music. Interested in attending? Email sblitjo at gmail dot com.

June 16 to 21, this is the real fun! Once again it is time for the Santa Barbara Writers Conference! I will be attending the workshops of at least two of our contributors. Matt Pallamary's Phantastic Fiction workshop is legendary for fomenting fantastical tales, and this year, he will be selecting one of his writers to receive the Santa Barbara Literary Journal Phantastic Fiction Award!

Matt June 2018
Contributor Max Talley will be teaching a 3-day workshop on "How and Where to Submit to Literary Magazines and Online." I went last year and found it immensely helpful in getting ready to send short stories out.

Max at his SBWC workshop June 2018
Volume 3 contributor Perie Longo will be teaching her morning poetry workshop and Stephen T. Vessels will be reviewing manuscripts.

The indubitable Mr. Vessels June 2018
In the wee hours of the night, contributors Lorelei Armstrong and John Reed will be leading the aptly named Pirate workshops. And for the first time, I'll be participating on a panel, "4 Authors Celebrate 4 Genres", which will be hosted by Trey Dowell. There is still time to sign up for the conference, so join us if you want to improve your craft and have fun!

What more could possibly happen in June? I'll be walking in the Solstice Parade, as part of the Pink Party. The theme this year is wonder...and if you're wondering what I'll be wearing, just look for the pink top hat and the ruffled pantalettes...If you see a pink flamingo by my side, it might just be the Mistress of Song, because that's how we roll at Lit Jo!

Silver Webb

Thursday, May 23, 2019

An Excerpt of "My Dinner at the Boy Restaurant" in Hurricanes & Swan Songs

by Shelly Lowenkopf

Ken Cole’s sister swept her hand over the display of papers and photos spread over her kitchen table. “All this stuff. So like you. And so wrong.”

Cole confronted a lifetime of his big sister’s track record of right choices. “I want this to work.”

Cole’s sister offered a raised brow he recognized from the reaches of similar gestures from their history. Not disapproval. Meg didn’t disapprove; not of him. Meg wanted him to succeed.

“And why Perry’s, of all places?” Meg said. “Why not here? That’s a genuine offer. She’s been here before. She knows everyone. “We’re glad to do it because—”

“I know,” Cole said. “You’re happy for me. Your entire family’s happy for me. Means a lot. Really.”


“I enjoy details.” Felt his cheeks begin to redden when he let on, “Perry’s? My favorite restaurant.”

Meg sent disappointment his way. Landed with a smack. “Such a boy thing, Perry’s. Stiff drinks, comfort food menu. Elaborate ice cream deserts no one ever orders, except boys who’ve had two or more of the stiff drinks.”

“I want this to go well,” Ken said. “Not like my last disaster.” Grimaced distaste. “I even went to New York for—”

“I saw the box,” Meg said. “Not surprised you’d think to go to New York for it. You could have bought local.” With her own, more emphatic sweep of the hand, she made an arc over the photos, pamphlets, and documents spread over the kitchen table. “Why do I suspect of all this—”

“Preparation,” Ken said.

“Evidence,” Meg said. “Except we’re not talking courtroom trial here. You seem to have forgotten a vital consideration. Does Maddy like Perry’s?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“You’re lawyering up on me, Little Brother. Does Maddy like Perry’s? Not a tough question. Have you ever taken her there?”

“We usually go to Stella Mare or Bouchon.”

“But not Perry’s?”

“Geez, Meg.”

“Never mind ‘Geez, Meg.’ There are three kinds of restaurants, boy restaurants, girl restaurants, and neutral ground restaurants. Perry’s is a boy restaurant. Have you ever taken Maddy to Petit Valentien?”

“Geez, Meg.”

“Boy restaurants mean something different to a girl.” She paused to let this sink in. Reminded him of earlier times, her how-to-get-along-with-girls lectures when he needed advice.

“You want things to go the way you hope, bring her here.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Missed your true calling, Ken.”

“How’s that?”

“You may ace it as a lawyer, but in your heart, you’re always conducting orchestras. You’re a control freak in a tuxedo.”

Okay, maybe Meg’s approach had merit. He did over-plan. And she knew it. Still cherished the Zippo lighter gift from Meg, back when he smoked. Had part of the text of Occam’s razor engraved on the side. The simplest solution is the best solution. So, away with the clumpy pocket file of honeymoon cruises, the photos of places they might live while searching for a starter home. The drape of his jacket sighed in relief without them. Meg always made sense. Give a nod to her bias about Perry’s, but Perry’s could take care of itself.

Okay, then. Nothing but the neat little blue box from Tiffany, containing the engagement ring. Hardly made his jacket pocket bulge. She might even notice, make the variation on the old Mae West joke, “Looks like you’re glad to see me.”

Hummed to the radio during the drive to Maddy’s. Comforting, the way Bach got such a rich effect from a Brandenburg Concerto. No frills. All the instruments contributing.

Bounded up the steps to Maddy’s door. Overcome with the effect of her when she greeted him. Even in a pantsuit, she radiated. “Wow,” he said.

“You wore a tie,” Maddy said.

“I wanted this evening to be special.”

“Special,” she said. Was that a flicker of suspicion? “You didn’t tell me where we’re going.”

“Perry’s,” he said. When he opened the car door for her, couldn’t tell from her reply, “Oh, boy.” Or “Hoo boy.”

In the car, Maddy said, “ I wasn’t expecting Perry’s.”

Fired up the BMW. Didn’t quite burn rubber when he pulled off, but the squeal of acceleration sounded like a cheer. “Yeah, Perry’s. Special place.”

“I can tell from the way you drive.”


Perry’s. Generous sprawl of a steakhouse restaurant, stuck in the rear of a strip mall off upper State Street. Local legend had the mall named after a lovesick Italian stonemason, name of Loreto. Nice if true. Suited Ken’s mood.

Gave his name, reservation time to the hostess.

“Aw, sorry, Mr. Cole. Should have told you when you called. We keep our booths for parties of four or more—” Stopped when she saw Maddy. “Miss Dunn. Didn’t realize it was for you. He shoulda said. Happy to seat you wherever you’d like. So nice to see you again.”

“Whoa,” Ken said. “You never said you’d been here before.”

“You never asked.”

On their way to the booth, “Hey,” Ken said. “You okay? You seem—”

“What?” she slid into the booth. “What do I seem?”

Slid in next to her. Bumped the pocket with the ring against her. “Abstracted.”

“That’s good, Ken. Really good. Abstracted.”

“Hey,” he said. “What gives?”

Man in a dark suit, curly white hair, stood before them. No clip-on tie for him. Hand-tied bow. He presented a champagne bottle. “Miss Dunn,” he said. “So nice you’re here. The moment I saw you, I went back for this. Nothing elaborate. A California champagne. Our complements. I’ll have your waitress serve it.” Nodded to Ken as though an afterthought. Backed away.

“Wow,” Ken said. “Champagne. I was going to order. And some shrimp appetizers.” Motioned to the waitress. Felt that inner wave of confidence crest. On our way to Mr. and Mrs. Cole. Start of a tradition. Anniversary dinners for two, in this booth.

“That what you were thinking, Ken? Champagne and shrimp. That how you were going to start this?”

Motioned to the waitress again. “I get it now. Maybe I wasn’t so secretive, after all. You read me. You guessed.” He reached to pat her arm. “Can’t hide anything from you. I really like it that you saw.”

“Then let’s get right to it, okay, Ken?” Withdrew her arm from his touch. “Fuck the champagne. Fuck the shrimp.” Started probing her purse. Found her cell phone. “In fact, fuck you.” Started thumbing a number.

“What’s going on here? What gives?”

“You brought me here to dump me. Okay, I’m dumped. Now, I’m calling Uber to pick me up.”

....to find out what gives, please read the rest of Shelly's story in Hurricanes & Swan Songs, available on Amazon.

Shelly Lowenkopf lives, writes, and teaches in Santa Barbara. Former editor-in-chief of four book publishers; ran the LA office for what was then Dial, Dell, Delacorte Press. Had an editorial hand in three genre magazines and one literary journal. Reviewed fiction for major metropolitan dailies, taught at graduate, undergraduate levels for thirty-five years. Did all this with a BA and abundant chutzpah.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

An Excerpt of "Nutritional Value" in Hurricanes & Swan Songs: A Strange Anthology

by Lisa Lamb

"Shoes" by Grace Rachow

Alice was nervous. Pulling into a parking space outside the restaurant where she’d agreed to meet him, she saw on the glowing dashboard clock that she was a full fifteen minutes early. Should she go in and get herself a steadying drink? Should she drive around listening to NPR until the appointed time? Or should she just go home and pretend that she had forgotten the meeting altogether?

If she did that, she could heat up some soup, drink a glass of Sauvignon blanc, and watch an episode of Masterpiece Theatre with her pants unbuttoned instead of making polite chitchat with a relative stranger. Doubtless he’d be affronted and wouldn’t bother trying to reschedule, a notion so appealing that Alice very nearly put the car into reverse there and then. But she didn’t. She was not the sort to stand a person up; she’d been raised with better manners. Also she was more than a little afraid of what her daughter would say.

She could already hear Clara’s exasperated voice castigating her for her cowardice and lack of gumption. Clara was very keen on self-improvement, particularly as it pertained to her mother, and rarely tired of suggesting the myriad ways in which it might be achieved. Alice suspected that Clara’s motives were more about restoring her mother to a state where she could be comfortably ignored than any real understanding of what might increase her overall happiness. Nonetheless, Alice was grateful for the attention. Tiresome though it was to listen to her only child’s earnest badgering, she preferred it to the sound of the telephone not ringing at all.

Clara’s latest obsession for her mother was Internet dating. At first Alice had flatly refused even to countenance the idea, but after several months of being cajoled and harangued by Clara, it had just seemed easier to let herself be signed up for “Senior Mingle” than to continue her resistance. The name alone filled Alice with a sort of scornful despair, conjuring up as it did images of bewildered pensioners playing festively inappropriate parlour games. Oh well, she reasoned; she didn’t actually have to use the site. Surely she would gain some respite merely as a result of her capitulation?

This proved a miscalculation, however, as Clara immediately turned her attention to pestering her mother with suggestions for specific potential matches. It hadn’t occurred to Alice that Clara might also be able to search the profiles of available men, and while Alice was absolutely certain that none of them could possibly be of any interest, Clara was equally assured that almost any of them would do.

“What about this guy?” she’d say, pointing to the profile of some beaming, bald-headed hopeful. “Or this one?”

If Alice demurred, and she always did, Clara would castigate her for being preemptively judgmental.

“Really, Mom! Don’t be so picky! At this rate you’ll never find a new love!”

But Alice didn’t want a new love. She had been perfectly content with the old one until he’d selfishly expired of cancer at the ridiculous age of fifty-eight. It had been two years since Jim had died, and Alice was still exhausted from nursing him through a long and brutal decline. She’d been in her late forties when he’d received the diagnosis, and she’d still had her youthful figure and a glossy dark bob. By the time he’d finally slipped away, his body shriveled and his mind ravaged by morphine and disease, Alice had put on all the weight he’d lost and her hair was as steely as her heart. She no longer felt a part of the functioning, emotional world and honestly didn’t think she could manage a relationship any more intimate or demanding than the one she had with the cat. Even that was a little tiring, with its litter box and fussy, changeable palate. But Clara was adamant and eventually Alice agreed to contact the least offensive looking of the prospective candidates.

Alice had not been on many dates in her life, and certainly none in the current century. She’d married Jim straight out of college in 1980; a trajectory more in keeping with her parents’ generation than her own. But young Alice had not been interested in going to discos, backpacking around Europe, or hooking up with gel-haired Lotharios. An unpleasant, if hazy, experience at a frat party her freshman year complete with copious vomiting and a shameful stain on her underwear had cemented her desire for lifelong security and stability. All Alice had wanted after that was for everything to be normal. Safe.

She’d switched majors from pre-med to English lit., giving up her girlhood dream to be a flying doctor with Doctors Without Borders, and accepted first an invitation to dinner, and subsequently one for marriage from kind, plodding, unassuming, reliable Jim. Not a small part of her affection for her husband was the implied promise that she’d never have to get “out there” again. Alice was fully prepared to swap excitement and imagination for steadfast affection and the knowledge that he’d never let her down.

Yet he had. Here she was, all alone with nobody to clean the gutters, take out the trash, or warm her feet against on chilly nights. There was no one to nod and not really listen while she told him she was thinking of getting her hair cut short, or about that nice young man who’d held the door for her at the library which was so rare in this day and age, didn’t he think? Jim had never been much of a talker, but since he was gone, the silence in the house had a solemn, almost hostile quality that was notably different from the comfortable, receptive quiet of his presence. Not that this made Alice any keener to meet someone new. She managed her loneliness by keeping the radio on at all times and talking to the cat who, truth be told, was just as disinterested in her day as Jim had been but had less compunction about walking out on her mid-sentence. Slightly less, anyway.

Alice looked at the clock again. She’d been dithering for ten minutes and was now only five minutes early. Deciding it was too late to back out now, she resolved to pretend a stomachache after the first drink and that way she could truthfully tell Clara she’d met the prospective suitor, and still spend most of the evening at home. Clara was bound to phone twenty minutes in to check up on her anyway. It was getting hard to tell who was the parent these days.

Pushing open the door of the restaurant, Alice was greeted by the hostess, a heavily made-up, mature woman in jeweled, plastic spectacles, black slacks, and a white shirt.

“Can I help you, hon?”

Suppressing irritation at the diminutive term of familiarity, Alice gave her a frosty smile and said she was meeting someone.

“Do you have a reservation, hon?”

Alice didn’t know. She certainly had not made a reservation—wasn’t that the man’s job? She realized she’d forgotten to ask her date whether they’d be at a table or at the bar. Or even how she’d recognize him. All she could remember from his profile was that his hair was grey and he’d been smiling. Which, as she scanned the room, was a description that fit almost every male present. In fact everyone in the entire establishment, staff included, appeared to be well over sixty, which put Alice at the very youngest end of the demographic. Could it be that dating in the second half of life was actually just like eating at a retirement home? Unbearable. Alice decided instantly to leave.

Turning quickly toward the door, she yanked it open as hard as she could and immediately bumped into a gentleman who had been trying to open it from the other side.

“I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t see you there.”

“No, no, it’s my fault. I was in a rush,” she apologized, eyes on the door as she attempted to sidle around him. It was imperative to make as swift and unobtrusive an exit as possible before her date spotted her.

“Say, you’re not Alice, are you?”

Too late. Alice’s heart sank, then lifted for a wild second as she considered simply lying and running away. But her upbringing pipped her impulse to the post.

“Oh. Yes. Hello,” she said, stupidly.

“Well, hello there!” he enthused. “John Elliot. Good to meet you in the flesh. You know,” he chuckled, “for a moment there I thought you were trying to stand me up!”

....How do John Elliot and Alice fare on their date? You'll have to read for yourself! Hurricanes & Swan Songs is available on Amazon:

And on May 12, 2019, at 3-4 p.m., Lisa will be reading from her story, along with Ted Chiles, Chella Courington, Shelly Lowenkopf, and Stephen T. Vessels.

Lisa Lamb was born and raised in the UK, where she had her first career as a pop star. She has written multiple global hit songs (published by Warner Chappell) and worked as a copywriter for a big branding agency. She has also owned her own audio branding business, published a nonfiction book on stellar nucleosynthesis, and is currently teaching K-6 music in a Santa Barbara public elementary school.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

An Excerpt of "Closing Credits" from Hurricanes & Swan Songs

by Dennis Russell

"Steel Guitar" byViolet Sayre

“Under blue El Rancho skies
The morning air is fine
We’ll head out on that trail
Friend by friend, side by side

New adventures we will find
Open pastures we will ride
where the streams and rivers wind
under blue El Rancho skies”

—First Verse of “Blue El Rancho Skies,” 
opening theme from El Rancho film and television series

Carlos Garcia pulled open the door of Gary’s Steakhouse and Grill and stepped inside. He took off his sunglasses and put them in his jacket pocket, and paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim barroom light. He grimaced and waved off the hostess at the front desk and took a quick scan around the front dining room and bar. Every booth and barstool was red diamond-tufted Naugahyde, and the floor was covered in green short-pile carpet. “Gary’s” was spelled in blue stained glass in the lamps above every table. Carlos flashed a smile and waved hello to Darla, who had been working at Gary’s since the place was established in 1959.

She must be the oldest waitress in any diner in any town, Carlos thought. Darla didn’t wave back. She never waved back. He quickly walked through the archway to the second, larger dining room, decorated with historic photographs of the city of St. Hervé and some of its famous residents, and kept on to his final destination. He pushed open the stained-glass doors of El Rancho Sky Room and shut the door that separated the monthly meeting of Los Hermanos Benéficos from the regular patrons of the restaurant.

Most patrons of Gary’s never saw the inside of El Rancho Sky Room, but it was a quite familiar place to Carlos. To his left was the restroom for the exclusive use of El Rancho Sky Room patrons. The next third of the wall was lined with La Cantina, the oak bar that served the banquet room guests. For Los Hermanos Benéficos meetings, the top-shelf liquor was moved to the bottom shelf, as most of the members displayed their financial status through upscale alcohol. Carlos winked and shot his index finger gun-like at the bartender and went straight to the end of the bar, where five chafing dishes held today’s Benéfico buffet. One dish was filled with cheese enchiladas (for the vegetarians), another dish was filled with buffalo chicken wings, the third held slices of tri-tip, the fourth held miniature versions of Gary’s “world renowned” ham and cheese sandwiches, and the fifth contained Gary’s “famous” Hot Tots potatoes (tater tots with bacon and jalapenos). Neither of the world famous dishes were really very well known outside the doors of Gary’s.

There are varying degrees of fame, Carlos thought, as he used the stainless steel tongs to transfer some of the famous wings and Hot Tots onto his tiny plate. A few feet past the end of the bar was a round table where Carlos grabbed a slice of sourdough bread, a pat of butter, and a small paper ramekin with Gary’s special salsa. For those, like Carlos, who didn’t imbibe expensive liquor, there were glasses of water and iced tea. For the sloppy, there were extra napkins. Carlos grabbed a few.

Buffalo wings are pretty sloppy eating, thought Carlos. Before stepping away from the table, he reached down and took a few more. The drunken members of Los Hermanos Benéficos were always bumping into somebody, and with the tiny plates and strong drinks, there was a good chance of getting sauce on your shirt.

Besides the restroom, the bar, the round bread table, the carefully arranged dining tables with red and white tablecloths, and chairs to seat Los Hermanos Benéficos, the rest of the décor was a shrine to Los Hermanos Benéficos founder, Cal Evans. Everyone in the world knew the first verse of the theme song to the western series El Rancho. Between the years of 1952 and 1959, Cal Evans’ voice yodeled it over the opening credits of 125 Sunday night television episodes and five feature films. Cal was the last and the biggest of the Singin’ Cowboys. He was a true icon: a nostalgic symbol of the American West, representing the mythological chivalrous code of the courageous, courteous cowpoke.

A glass shadowbox displayed a pair of fringed tan leather gloves that Cal wore in one season of the TV show, alongside a pearl-handled Colt 45 revolver in a tooled leather holster, a Cal Evans lunchbox, a deck of Cal Evans playing cards, and three different Cal Evans collector badges that had only been available in select boxes of El Rancho Rings breakfast cereal. Next to the case was a beautifully seasoned brown leather saddle, the actual one that Cal swung on to the back of his horse Mercury at the beginning of every ride. Intricate hand-tooled roses and vines offset silver and turquoise inlay.

Carlos had been a huge fan of Cal Evans and El Rancho when he was a kid. He and his father watched reruns every Saturday morning. He thought it was worth donating his time to be the accountant for Los Hermanos Benéficos just to be able to marvel at the saddle once a month. Even better, hovering like a halo above the saddle and the case was one of Cal’s grey felt ten-gallon cowboy hats, with a beaded band that also contained a fair amount of turquoise and silver. Carlos glanced over to a modest corner that displayed the poncho, sombrero, and fake oversized moustache of Cal’s comedic sidekick, Pedro “Pappy” Sanchez.

The other walls of El Rancho Sky Room were lined with enormous photographs, mostly group photos, taken during the yearly Los Hermanos Benéficos charity horse rides and parades. Cal Evans and Pappy Sanchez were central figures in most of them. Carlos had never been on one of the rides. He was more of a desk jockey than any kind of vaquero. Looking at the photos, though, he could imagine the ride: the smells of leather, horse shit, beer, whiskey, and barbecue.

Carlos stood, studying the photographs one-by-one while eating his wings and tots. By looking at them sequentially, he felt he was looking at a time lapse photo of these men’s lives. A single moment stood out to Carlos, blown up, poster-sized, glass-covered, and wood -framed. A small plaque below that particular picture bore the etched words “Music on the Trail.” Though he had seen it many times, today for some reason, this photo particularly intrigued him. It made him think of the bridge to the song “Blue El Rancho Skies.”

“Out on the breeze, there’s a pretty melody
If you hear it, come on, sing along
We’ve got no cares, just some stories to share
And a place where we all belong.”

Carlos looked deeper and deeper into the photograph, trying to join with the black-and-white images behind the glass. There were several men in it. Cal was there with his guitar, singing. An unknown, hatless cowboy plucked a banjo. A plate of fried chicken and a few beer bottles sat on a barrel head. Carlos settled his eyes on a man in the foreground, in profile, squeezing an accordion. Carlos studied the face of “Pappy” Sanchez. He mimicked the beaming smile Cal’s co-star always had when he was playing accordion and singing. Carlos shuffled closer to the glass of the photo, his own face superimposed its reflection on the glass. It was as if he was there among them. Carlos also saw in the reflection the one remaining buffalo wing on his plate; it looked as if was stacked with the fried chicken in the photo. Feeling like a cowboy on the trail, he heartily took an enormous bite out of it.

Just at that moment, Justin Clay passed by on his way from the restroom back to his seat. He slapped Carlos’s back and said “You hear music out of that, dude? Isn’t that the best kind of accordion? The silent kind?” Justin laughed at his own joke all the way to back to the table where all the car-dealing Los Hermanos Benéficos sat.

With Justin’s slap, the bite of buffalo wing shifted from Carlos’s mouth to the back of his throat and wedged there. He tried a quick cough to dislodge it, but no luck. The sauce was dripping into his trachea and started to burn. He gave a couple of coughs with no better luck. He hurried to grab a glass of water from the banquet table. He downed it. Still stuck. He downed another. Still no luck and the water caused more sauce to dilute and drip further down his windpipe, causing it to burn even more. He grabbed a napkin and coughed into it. Nothing came up.

Does Carlos ever make it out of El Rancho Room? Dennis will be reading and *singing* May 7th at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, 7-8 p.m., along with Max Talley and Nicholas Deitch. We promise we're not serving chicken wings! Join us for strange tales, refreshements, and oh yes, cake!

Hurricanes & Swan Songs also available at Amazon here.

Santa Barbara-based singer-songwriter Dennis Russell has released 5 albums: My Little World, Primitive-Acoustic-Sensitive-Singer-Songwriter-Type-Guy, Golden, 7 of Townes, and Plain: Primitive-Acoustic-Sensitive-Singer-Songwriter-Type-Guy, Too. He has also self-published a book of short stories, That Fourth of July, and a book of poetry, Surfer Songs. For concert dates and recordings, visit dennisrussellroad.com

Thursday, May 2, 2019

An excerpt of "Ghost Moose of Clary’s Cafe"

by Nicholas Deitch

"Moose" by Grace Rachow

His father would not approve. But then, his father had been dead for forty years, and the killer looked down on William Jeffers from a place of dubious honor. Thin spider trails laced the antlers, and someone had managed to land a bowler hat on the great beast’s head, and at a rakish tilt. From beneath the bowler, Moose glared at him with familiar disdain.

Jeffers looked away. “I’m not in the mood for your bullshit, Moose. Let me enjoy my beer in peace.”

The bartender wiped the counter with a slight shake of his head.

“Don’t judge me, kid. A man oughta be able to enjoy his beer without some scornful Moose looking down on him with that damn judgmental smirk.” He swallowed the last gulp and set the glass down hard. He glanced up, and the beast winked at him.

“I didn’t say anything, Mr. Jeffers. But there’s plenty of seats in this place, and you always sit in that one and complain about that moose staring at you.” The bartender grabbed the glass and pulled the tap, amber bubbles rising to a foamy head. “And aren’t you the one who gave that thing to old man Clary in the first place?”

Jeffers sighed. “You’re new here, kid, but you oughta know. That’s not just some rustic bit of bar decor molting on the wall.” He looked up at Moose and tipped his glass. “Some would tell you he was a great Mohican Chief. A spirit warrior, with a slight chip on his shoulder.” Jeffers took a long gulp and finished his third beer. “But Chief or not, this is my stool, and I’m not about to move my sorry ass on account of this goddammed Moose. He had it coming, and he knows it. I was there.”


Forty years. Well, forty-two to be precise. He’d been to Vermont for a family visit, and he’d found himself traipsing the backwoods with his cantankerous old man. They were going to bag a real trophy, an elusive old bull that had become his father’s obsession. Jeffers had heard the stories. Tales of the sightings, the near misses. The startling size of the animal, which seemed to grow with every telling. And don’t forget the taunting.

“Really, Pop? A taunting moose?” Maybe. Or maybe the old man was just losing it. Whatever the truth, this wasn’t just another hunting trek. This was personal.

It took them a full day to make their way in, well past the last of the cabins and lodges in the outer reaches of the Long Trail Forest. Woods that had been home to the Algonquian people for thousands of years. Woods that, despite the intrusion of the white man, still lay mostly undisturbed.

When they finally stopped to make their camp, the sun had already slipped beyond the trees. Jeffers built a fire, and the old man opened a couple of cans of Hunstworth’s Stew. About as close to dog food as a body could fear to come, but the old guy loved the stuff. And Jeffers had to admit, when the can sat on a fire for more than a few minutes, the aroma could be oddly alluring.

They ate in quiet, listening to the crackle of the fire and the sounds of the nocturnal woods awakening around them. In the light of the flames, the old man’s grizzled face seemed near to mythic, creased with years lived through many winters and a whole lot of mostly unnecessary tribulation.

Why, for instance, were they out here in the first place? Hunting some fabled beast that, if he existed at all, likely didn’t give a fiddler’s cuss about the old man and his obsessive pursuit.

“I almost had him, Willy.” At the last mouthful of stew his father set the can down and nodded to the fire. “Three years ago, I had him in my sights, not sixty feet out.” The old man leaned in. “I raised my gun and the beast looked right at me. He gave me a nod, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t smile.”

Jeffers shrugged and poked at the fire. He’d heard this all before.

“Not a nice, friendly smile. Was more like a sneer.”

“You were about to plug him, Pop, with a Creedmore six and a half. You expect him to wave and say, ‘Howdy’?”

The old man turned to him. “I’ve been hunting these woods all my life, and I never once saw a moose smile. It was a mean smile. The kind that says, ‘You’d better watch out, cause I’m coming for you.’ I had him, I swear it. I pulled the trigger, and the son of a bitch just stood there sneering at me. And then he was gone.”

He gazed up through the trees, at the branches that danced in the firelight. “How the hell does a bull like that just disappear? Unless he’s a ghost.” He reached into his pack and brought out his hunting flask. He took a long swallow and handed it to Jeffers. “I’ve tracked that bastard Moose for years. He remembers me, Willy. I swear it. He knows who I am.”

“So, we’re dealing with an angry, vengeful moose here, eh, Pop?” Jeffers scratched himself and sucked on the flask and handed it back to his father.

“I hear your doubt, son. But I grew up on this land, and my papa before me. He knew these woods as well as any Indian. And he knew their stories. This land has its spirits and its ghosts.” He took another swig. “He’s a trickster, that Moose. And I will not be made a fool. Come first light, I’m gonna find him and take him down, and you’re gonna help me do it.”

They finished the flask between them. Then they readied their rifles, tidied the camp, and unrolled their mats by the fire, waiting for sleep. It wasn’t long before he could hear the old man snoring. Jeffers lay in the fire’s glow, looking up through the branches at the stars that winked in the nighttime sky. And soon he, too, fell asleep.

The crack of wood broke the night, and Jeffers sat up, peering into the darkness. Beside him the fire glowed dim through the whisper of the dying embers. His father lay nearby, snoring softly.

Jeffers reached for his flashlight and swept the beam around the camp. Nothing but the black of night beyond the trees. He set the flashlight down and laid back on his mat, and closed his eyes, and tried to still his breathing.

An owl hooted far away. Something touched his shoulder, and Jeffers sat up. “Pop?” His heart kicked in his chest.

The old man snored on. He reached again for his flashlight, and shone the beam over his shoulder, and back through the trees. A shadow passed, dark and uncertain. And then, stillness. An odd stench in the air.

“Pop, wake up.” Jeffers took hold of his rifle. “Wake up, Pop. There’s something out there.”

“Huh?” The old man sat up, stupid from sleep and whiskey, his eyes wide and hair gone wild. “What is it, boy?” He grabbed at his own flashlight and waved the beam about.

“Might be your friend, the Moose. Might just be a coon.”

The old man was up and at his rifle. “Ain’t no friend of mine, that one.” He took a few short steps and stopped, listening to the woods. The snap of a branch some yards away. “Get up, boy. That ain’t no coon.”

“Maybe a bear.” Jeffers rolled off his mat and trailed his father. The beams of their lights pierced the woods. The shadow crossed ahead, rising up through the trees.

“Damn. That sure as hell weren’t no bear.” The old man pushed forward with his rifle held ready.

Jeffers stepped into his father’s tracks, the air around them rank and wild. Beside the trail, the world seemed to fall away.

Another crack of wood, this one to their left. Jeffers swung around and caught the beast in his light, huge antlers and nostrils flared, standing like a man....

...You know how it ends for the moose...or do you?
Nicholas Deitch's "Ghost Moose of Clary Cafe" is one of thirteen strange tales told in Hurricanes & Swan Songs: A Strange Anthology, a Santa Barbara Literary Journal Production.

Want to hear how it ends? Nick will be reading May 7th at Chaucer's Books in Santa Barbara, 7-8 p.m., along with Max Talley and Dennis Russell. Join us for more of the moose, and oh yes, cake!

Hurricanes & Swan Songs also available at Amazon here.

Nicholas Deitch is a writer, teacher, architect, and activist. Originally from Los Angeles, California, he now lives in Ventura, with his wife, Diana. He is an annual participant at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. He has been published in the London literary journal, Litro, and is currently writing his first novel, Death and Life in the City of Dreams, a story about a dying city and those who struggle to save it. 

Grace Rachow is an artist, a dog lover, and the director of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. She has worked as an editor, writer, and freight handler. Her photographs grace the cover and the insides of Hurricanes & Swan Songs.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Join us for Festivities! Two readings for Hurricanes & Swan Songs

In celebration of Hurricanes & Swan Songs, an anthology we published on April 1, 2019, please join us for two readings in Santa Barbara in May!

May 7th, 7-8 p.m. reading at Chaucer's Books
May 12, 3-4 p.m. reading at the Book Den

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Scotch and the Queen of Cups: Cartomancy with Stephen T. Vessels

An Interview by Silver Webb

Stephen & Rougette, lest you doubt

They say you can tell a lot about a person by their choice of cocktail, and Stephen is very definite on this topic. 

“I only drink scotch.”

He also wears a fedora, smokes American Spirits, and sports a rakish goatee. I imagine he is actually Ernest Hemingway, somehow spit forward in the time stream and now driven to write lyric, dark stories that are “a mashup of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror.” 

Sitting down to a pub list of 30+ kinds of scotch, I test the beverage prospects. 

“So, will there be mitigating factors?” I ask.

“Such as?” he inquires.

“Water? Bubbles?” Don’t people order scotch and tonic? 

“One does not put impurities in the water of life,” he says with the calm of an emperor about to give a thumbs-down in the Colosseum.

I’m pretty sure that means even ice cubes aren’t a thing for a scotch connoisseur. We settle on a Balvenie that is twenty-one years old. Old enough to know what it’s doing, I suppose, old enough to be legal in a bar. It’s a delight to drink something so smooth and deadly; a good combination to start an interview. To counter, or perhaps augment, the beverage, I pull out my tarot deck. To his credit, Stephen’s eyes only bulge a little as I ask him to pick a card. 

I suppose by now he must realize I don’t believe in boring interviews. But I do have a reason for the tarot. Stephen’s novel, Door of Tireless Pursuit, is based on a tarot game called Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls, designed by Matthew Lowes. A group of writers that Stephen met in Eugene, Oregon, have banded together, each taking a turn writing a novel based on this tarot, novels like Littlest Death, The End of All Things, and Benediction Denied. Stephen’s first contribution to this series came out in October 2017. 

But as Stephen flips a card now, it seems this conversation will be led by the Queen of cups. A regal figure gazing thoughtfully into the waters of the psyche, expressing herself clearly and deeply. The first portent of the evening. The second involves a python, but more on that later. 

I actually saw Stephen speaking, not too long ago, at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, where he acts as a mentor and manuscript consultant to attendees. It’s his manner to encourage other writers as much as possible, and he told the audience, when asked about the value of conferences, “They have been critical for me. I recommend them strongly. They can be terribly expensive, so you have to moderate how much of that you do. I don’t go looking for the big break, the connection I’m going to make that will solve all my problems. I go as a perpetual student. And all the people there (ThrillerFest or Worldcon) who have succeeded don’t have to tell people why they’re there. By and large, writers who write about horrible things are very decent, kind-hearted, generous, open people. I have found that to be almost universally the case. Everything that has happened to me has happened because of the friendships I’ve made in the writing community. So I encourage you to go out and make those friendships as broadly as you can. You’ll want to get published so that everyone else will feel like they can go out and get published.”

Personally, I find the feedback, if not the encouragement and company of other writers to be crucial to writing. And Stephen agrees, “The breaks for me, as I see them, have been the people I’ve connected with. Squirreling myself away with my work for a long time was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made. Being out in a community of writers, the writers in my life, those were my big breaks. Without that, this book [The Door of Tireless Pursuit] wouldn’t exist. The first big break I got was getting work published in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Having something like that happen doesn’t mean you’re jumping into wild success immediately. But it’s very important for writers to get published. Not necessarily a Big 5 publisher, but just having a hard copy you can hold onto is the finalization of a very hard, long process.”

The short story he published in Ellery Queen was one of twelve he wrote that were eventually gathered and published in the 2016 anthology The Mountain and the Vortex. He published two books in two years, in fact. My take on the appeal of his prose is that he is playing with symbols and meanings based in myth and the subconscious, but he doesn’t hit you over the head with it. You are somehow left with the subtle feeling that the author designed each story with the intention of guiding you toward a realization or at least leaving you with a meaningful question. I ask him if this is intentional construction or something that flows out without consideration. 

“It’s a little hard to talk about this because it’s amorphous for me. I have done a fair amount of reading of Jung, Campbell, the usual suspects. If I’m applying a symbol, rather than trying to call up a specific reference for a reader, it’s more like I’m diving down into the mulch of symbology and semiotics and following my intuition and my ear. Because I’m not allied with a specific delineation of forces and forms. So I’m sort of getting them to dance with each other.”

But I’m not quite certain I believe him, so I go in for a second pass, “In your short stories, a common theme is that a character goes on a physical journey, either down into a subterranean space, or into the woods. These are classic mythological tropes for entering the subconscious. Was that intentional?”

He only cracks half way. “Yeah, I would say yes. Although again, I’m not a respecter of categories or delineations. I do have a sense that we’re connected in ways that we don’t recognize, whether it’s electrically or etherical or due to how our cultures have evolved out of organic and pre-organic circumstances. I ferret around inside myself and I see something like what I want and then I keep looking at it differently until it becomes something unique in a specific way that gets me in my gut.”

Stephen’s gut is not leading him astray. But American Spirits may well be. He steps out for a smoke, and I look at my notes, wondering how to better lure out the raconteur. I ponder that he is a Wood Goat in the Chinese zodiac and a Cancer in the European. These two things together might suggest that he is intensely loyal and likable, with deep emotions. I pick my own tarot card and up pops Virtue. Virtue, indeed. This means, definitively, it is time for another round of scotch. This time a thirteen-year-old Craigellachie. I do wonder where Stephen has gotten to. It seems he might be smoking three or four cigarettes for the time he’s been gone…perhaps an entire cigar. Just as the scotch arrives in a pretty tulip glass, I look up and see Stephen waving from the door of the patio with what looks like an anaconda over his shoulders. I do my level best not to shriek. There is definitely something hissy and deadly wrapped around his neck. Its little black tongue is flicking at me. Apparently “cigarette break” is a euphemism for cavorting with snakes. I slither into the shadows of the booth and get a head start on the second round. 

“A very friendly snake,” he says on his return, smiling like he’s met Arthur Miller. I resist the urge to spritz him with antibacterial spray. Possibly the fumes from the scotch will have the same effect anyway.

As portents go, snakes range from terror to temptation, and occasionally divination…think of a priestess holding snakes above her in a temple. Snakes are also escape artists and known to slip the skin. To wit, if you learn anything from this interview about Stephen, let it be that he should not be left alone too long, lest he run off to join the circus.  

The Craigellachie is a pleasant little ball of flame in my throat, and I skip straight past all of the interview questions that look rather mundane now. Here’s a good one: “Hungry, wandering ghosts show up in at least two of your stories. Why is that?”

He ponders his glass. “I hadn’t intended to drift off into cosmology, but I do have a sense that there is a non-corporeal aspect to being that extends beyond physical death. That has been supported for me by experiences I’ve had. That doesn’t mean that I have any idea what that reality is like. I have the same reaction to a uniformly blissful or transportive notion of an afterlife as I do to notions that reality isn’t that simple. I like to play with the supernatural. I’ve never been happy or satisfied with depictions of the afterlife that have been given to me by science or religion. I notice holes in reasoning sometimes, and I figure since none of the existing answers seem to gel for me, I may as well make them up myself. I like dealing with the unknown and running smack up against it, because it has this sense of expanding the scope of experience.”

So when I ask him who his literary influences are, I’m expecting an arcane list of philosophy books. I’m betting on the Esperanto Bible, Sergei Bulgakov’s Sorrows, and The Lost Codex of St. Angus. Instead, I hear “Little Women, Nancy Drew, Middlemarch, and Treasure Island.” He amends quickly with a more adult list: Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others. But he circles around with “I think it’s significant to me that I still remember Little Women. Why? I guess the passion. Jo and the professor. And her sister dying, which still gets me. Who gets to say these things aren’t real? They’re real to me.”

I understand this well. The characters I write are very real to me. They keep me company. Sometimes they are better company than the nonfictional people in my life. I mention this to Stephen, and he replies, “Jun’ichirō Tanazaki said that his characters came to life and he had to write their stories so they would leave him the hell alone. And it does feel like that sometimes. I don’t feel like I’m writing about hypothetical characters, and there comes a point where what I think should happen becomes less important to me than what’s true for them.”

You might think from hearing him speak that Stephen has been writing continuously his whole life. But in fact, although he first wanted to write when he was a young boy, it was not until his mid-fifties that he started to have publication success, and he admits, “I fell fallow for periods. I had some misconceptions. Probably the biggest one was that I had to pass through some kind of membrane of learning and experience in order to write, which is utter nonsense. I was waiting for the planets to align. It took me a long time to disabuse myself of the notion that inspiration had some special moment where the words would come to me. If there’s a break in your writing where you lose your facility, it takes a few weeks to get it back. That should be said to every writer: It takes about two weeks to get back in the groove and thirty days to form a habit. Now it’s true for me that I need to be creating something every day.”

That daily work ethic is coming to fruition. He is writing two novels that will be published in the coming year, one of which will be a second installment in the Labyrinth of Souls. 

The interview seems to be winding down. While there’s time, shall I tell you all his secrets? Very well. Stephen is passionate about classical music (see Arsentiy Kharitonov’s site masterpiecefinder.com, to which Stephen contributes) and a talented artist (this volume is generously peppered with his drawings). He also writes his manuscripts by hand and texts by slowly booping at the screen with one finger. A Luddite, he says. Stephen may be gregarious with a booming voice that fills the room, but so too is he ruminative, introspective. I suspect the man at home writing is very different than the man holding court in the pub. But most good writers are this way. To slip the veil, journey to the feral, broken places of the psyche, and bring back stories to the page is not always the task of the happy. Although, if you are a happy and prolific writer, brava to you. Perhaps you’ll come buy us a scotch? There’s a really nice snake here, I’m told.

"Scotch and the Queen of Cups: Cartomancy with Stephen T. Vessels" was first published in Volume 2 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available on Amazon here. 

Stephen has also recently had a short story published in Hurricanes & Swan Songs: A Strange Anthology, available on Amazon here.