Monday, January 25, 2016

Podcast: The Once & Future Podcast interview

Today, I am a guest on Episode 108 of The Once & Future Podcast. Host Anton Strout gets me to open up about a lot of things, from my time in Hollywood, to my time as an editor, to the recent passing of David Bowie, to the Muppets, Star Trek, Babylon 5, and the fantastic effect of playing Spider-Man 2 video game. And of course we talk a lot about the Thrones & Bones series. Please, check it out!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Reflections from the Road: Randolph School

Friday, I raced the weather to go to Huntsville and give two talks on writing to about eighty 7th graders at Randolph School. I visited Randolph last year as well and it was fun to return. Although the then-impending weather meant the school had an early dismissal and I was in a hurry to get out of there. So after the second talk, I quickly signed copies of Nightborn, then leapt in my car and raced to beat the snow and make it home. The snow started coming down when I was minutes out of Huntsville, but I got ahead of it. It turned to rain and didn't snow again until I reached home.

Meanwhile, Saturday was a great day. My son and I went to meet two 5th grade fans from Vestavia Hills Elementary Central at Starbucks who wanted to have hot chocolate with the author. We talked about the books, and we played two games of Charioteers (from Nightborn). Fun!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Something Happened on the Day He Died...

Something happened on the day he died....

"Oh," said my wife. "David Bowie died."

I had just just stepped out of the shower. I was putting in my contact lenses, still wearing a towel.

"What?" I said.

"'David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer.'" She read the words from her iPhone.

It wasn't possible. He doesn't have cancer. I raced to look at her screen.

"His son just confirmed it on Twitter."

It was true. Two days after his 25th studio album and his 69th birthday...

Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama, can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now

I turned my face away when the tears started. Walked out of the room when they came thick and heavy.

In 1983, I wore a Van Halen symbol on a necklace. I drank Jack Daniels from the bottle. I thought David Lee Roth was the epitome of cool. Together with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they defined my musical existence. And music defined my everything.  When "Let's Dance" debuted on MTV, I was aghast. I couldn't stand the skinny little fag (Those were my words, I'm very ashamed to say.  Yes, I was that guy, but read on...) singing about putting on red shoes and dancing. An upright bass was no instrument for a rock band. 

Let's dance,
For fear your grace should fall
Let's dance,
For fear tonight is all

Then in college, a girl introduced me to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was an entirely different musical experience, a hard rock concept album far more in keeping with who I was then. I couldn't reconcile it with the Bowie I'd seen on MTV. Then, while sorting through a roommate's albums, I found the two collections, Changes One and Changes Two. From my first glimpse of the jacket I was intrigued. They looked like photos of two entirely different men. As I listened to both, I couldn't understand how one person could have such a varied range of musical styles...

Changes Two, in particular, wormed its way into my brainpan. To this day, that's my favorite image of the artist, the one I think of first when I think of Bowie. And it was on Changes Two that I discovered the song "Ashes to Ashes." Oh my god, that's when I fell in the rabbit hole and never came out. 

Do you remember a guy that's been
In such an early song
I've heard a rumour from Ground Control
Oh no, don't say it's true

College was a period of rapid change for me. There were a lot of influences at work, from the literature I was reading, from college professors and the philosophies they were introducing me to, from Star Trek: The Next Generation's philosophy of diversity and tolerance, from my classmates. I went from joking that the theater building was the one building on campus I'd never set foot in to spending an entire fifth year at school to take every single acting class required for a major. (I didn't major in theater, because I didn't take the history of theater classes required, but I took every actual "acting" acting course that a major would have required.) 

David Bowie, and his scifi ambisexual ambiguity, was the hook that snared my imagination and dragged me from out of my particular Deep South mentality and reeled me kicking and screaming into the light. (My South isn't Deep anymore and is full of wonderful people. It was full of wonderful people even when it was. That's why I said "particular.") Along that journey, I fell into the Talking Heads, the Cure, the Smiths. My horizons were being broadened in every direction, from a multitude of influences (not the least from cinema), but the Lady Stardust was certainly a primary one. And his bold words, his modus operandi, his lifelong challenge to himself and to us to "turn and face the strange"... His whole life, his whole career, was a series of leaps from the point of success into the unknown. He abandoned the Ziggy Stardust persona at the height of its popularity. He ditched the Diamond Dogs set at the start of the tour to become the Thin White Duke. He ran away from America and Britain to live a stripped down existence he deemed necessary to reinvent himself with Brian Eno in Berlin. While other artists were content to repeat the formula of their success over and over again for decades, he viewed the triumph of any one avenue of his creativity as a trap that was anathema to his next endeavor. He cast off personas, musical styles, artistic influences like a snake shedding skins and dove headfirst into unknown waters time and time again. That philosophy of change, not just its assumed inevitability but its vital necessity, was a profound contrast to a mindset mired in conservative dogmas about the unchanging nature of the world but also a challenge to a young man coming to grips with his own desire to be a creative individual.

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I'm going through

Labyrinth debuted during all this as well. I dragged my father to it when I was home from school one summer. I remember telling him, "David Bowie was an actor even before he was a musician. So this is David Bowie the actor we're seeing. Not David Bowie the musician." And then, of course, the film begins with "Underground" over the opening credits. Oh well, this is David Bowie the actor and David Bowie the musician. But... David Bowie and Muppets! George Lucas producing and Jim Henson co-writing directing! I'm still unpacking how seminal that film was in the context of my own love of fantasy narrative. 

But down in the underground
You'll find someone true

In Chicago, I co-wrote and co-directed small, black box comedies in a tiny theater in a crack neighborhood. After rehearsals, when we walked to the L late night, you'd see people lined up to buy their junk through a little window in a reinforced door. We'd stare at them and they'd stare at us. There was a record store near my house. They had a poster on the wall. Bowie. Soul. Period. The guy at the record store who was my taste-advisor was huge on Bowie. But only his two funk and soul albums, Young Americans and Station to Station. It blew my mind that here were two people, both hugely into Bowie, but two completely different Bowies.

Ain't there one damn song that can make me
Break down and cry?

Sometimes I wasn't ready to go where he was leading. I bought Outside but didn't listen to it more than once for years. Black Tie, White Noise was a disappointment. (I love both albums now). Even understanding that a man who was "chameleon, comedian, corinthian, and caricature" would never repeat himself, I still dug my heels in and wanted him to do that thing he did before again. It was a few more years before I realized it wasn't about whether I liked the latest David Bowie or not. It was about my willingness to let him take me by the hand and guide me to the next horizon.

1997's Earthling knocked me for yet another loop. He was 50 years old (50!) and releasing possibly
the best thing he'd ever done. And it was so new. His 50th Birthday Bash Celebration Concert at Madison Square Garden, in which he performed his songs alongside a host of famous rockstars, wasn't a nostalgic look down memory lane. It was a challenge. A vital declaration that he was still forging head through cutting edge territories years ahead of the rest of us. "I have no idea where I'm going from here," Bowie said, "but I promise I won't bore you."

Reality came out around the time I got married. A Reality Tour is probably the best of all his live albums, my favorite line-up of musicians applying his new sounds to old songs. "China Girl," never one of my favorites, is astounding with Mike Garson on piano and Gail Ann Dorsey on bass. Their rendition of "Under Pressure" is not to be missed.

Bowie vanished for ten years after that. He reappeared on his birthday last year with The Next Day, as challenging and original an album as any in his career. 68 years old and putting out music that challenges and confronts still. That's it for me. That's the central tenant of a life lived in Bowie. My friend John Picacio said it when he said this morning, "He's one of those artists that makes me look at my own work and say, 'Have I pushed this far enough?' His music and his choices made me realize that the loneliness and uncertainty of change and challenge isn't called fear. It's called home."

Last year, while I was a guest at a convention outside Chicago, my very good friend Stephenson and I got to slip away to visit David Bowie Is, a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a profound experience for both of us, I a lifelong fan and he a relative newbie. What we both took from it was the man's incredible discipline and dedication, the drive behind his drive. The relentless push for excellence. I'm so grateful for that day. I've written about it elsewhere, but it was a powerful day for me.

And then there's Blackstar. His 25th studio album, released on his 69th birthday. As enigmatic as anything he's ever done. Utterly different from the other 24. Yet quintessentially him.

And then two days later, he's gone.

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd

Three friends and my mother have called me today to see if I'm okay. Others have emailed, posted on my Facebook page. 

My first though, honestly, was for his family. It feels self-indulgent for me to grieve when actual people lost an actual father, husband, friend... I never met David Bowie. In contrast to Robyn Hitchcock, who I've seen perform somewhere between thirty-five and forty times and who I've even published in anthologies, I've never seen Bowie live. But along with Hitchcock, Batman, Star Trek, Michael Moorcock, Tolkien, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, he's one of a handful of primary influences. Certainly the central musical influence, but also the guiding light when it comes to understand what it means to be an artist and live a creative life. I see his fingerprint on everything I do. 

There's also a sly understanding that Bowie has orchestrated the circumstances of his passing as masterfully as anything he's ever done. We all wondered yesterday at the meaning of the lyrics of the songs on Blackstar, at the dead spaceman and hospital room imagery of the videos for "Blackstar" and "Lazarus." Now our interpretations of his final offering are radically different from what they were yesterday. A second layer of meaning has been superimposed over the first and we see how it has been there all along. Our narratives are full of stories of mega-celebrities and super famous rock icons who pull stunts with their deaths. Bowie's actually done it. He kept the news of his failing health out of the press. He gave us what was always intended as his final album. He knew how we've view it before and after he left. "I can't give everything away", the final track on the final album, is absolutely intended as his last word.

I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal sons
The blackout's hearts with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
I can't give everything
I can't give everything

I tried to explain to my young daughter that a musician I greatly admired had passed. I think she thought I said "magician."

"I know why he died," she proclaimed. "He did too many tricks, and in too many of his tricks he fell down."

Yes, actually. That's a good summation. 69 is actually pretty old for a rockstar that indulged in as many different illicit passions as he did. And "magician" is as good a monicker for what the Starman was as any other. But while the Man Who Fell to Earth has fallen for the last time, still in his passing he challenges us again. In an era when the highest grossing film of all time in North America could be said to be a remake of its 1977 predecessor, and so much of our entertainment is geared towards giving us exactly what we already know we enjoy, the Blackstar directs us to throw away our safety nets, to leave our comfort zones and seek our inspirations in unknown, even frightening, new horizons.  I may never had met David Robert Jones in the flesh, but in every other sense, he touched me. He took a prejudiced, mis-and-uninformed young southern boy and lead him to a wider, fuller, richer, multicolored, exciting, diverse world even as he helped that same boy find his artistic voice and footing. He is the epitome of artist. Chameleon, comedian, corinthian, and caricature, indeed. Creators everywhere take heed. No, everyone take heed. David Bowie is gone, but that doesn't mean we get to rest easy. He's thrown the gauntlet down...and he's still inspiring...

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Round Up of the Round Ups!

Over the holidays, Frostborn and Nightborn popped up on several Best of the Year lists, while Skyborn got some love as well.

Frostborn makes the" My Favorite Books of 2015" on Stainless Steel Droppings: "Anders expertly weaves mythological detail with contemporary styling to create an intriguing world that he populates with characters that should appeal to young female and male readers…as well as those of us who remain young at heart....The entire time I was reading Frostborn I was thinking about how much fun this book would be to read aloud."

It also makes the Reading Hedgehog's "Best 2015 Reads of All." They say: "(4/5 strawberries) The best new Middle Grade fantasy adventure I've read in a long time. It feels like a fairy tale straight out of Norse mythology."

Aleksandra's Corner listed Nightborn at #7 on the Top 10 of 2015: Best Books I've Read in 2015!
Aleksandra's Corner also lists Skyborn as #9 on the Top 10 of 2015: Top 10+ Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2016!

Rita Allen, of the Shelbyville-Bedford County Library (Tennessee), has an article in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette in which she suggests, "For middle grade readers, I would suggest Lou Anders' "Frostborn," about a boy who would rather play the game "Thrones and Bones," than work on the family farm. Then, he meets a mythical beast and goes on an adventure that changes everything."

And the Librarian of Snark reviews Nightborn saying, "the characters are immensely relatable, the
action is non-stop, and the pacing is excellent."

Board Game Geek created an official page for the Thrones & Bones boardgames. This thrills me no end!

SF Signal calls Justin Gerard's cover for Skyborn "utterly stunning."

Frostborn is reviewed is from T-Bird Times, from Harmony Middle School (Overland Park, KS): "Immediately after reading this book, I wanted to read the next one. Fantasy and action is a mix that can keep people reading for hours, especially if the story is as creative as this one. Lou Anders was able to create a land full of people who were different from humans in the real world, but still had relatable problems that could pull readers closer to them. Thrones and Bones discusses real problems in the world such as bullying and making your own choices, but it was written in a way that could make sense to kids of many ages. This book is definitely a good read for anyone looking for fantasy or adventure books that they can relate to."

And finally the Alabama Book Festival is linking to my blog summation of last year's event on their homepage.