Let’s Talk about My New Book, Part Two

Camarillo State Hospital

One of the women’s dorms in the Camarillo State Hospital. From the CSUCI archives.

The university where I work used to be a psychiatric hospital. In my new novel, Dead Extra, I delved into the history of the hospital a bit. I spent a lot of time digging through the hospital archives at CSUCI, listening to oral histories, studying pictures, and reading memoirs from patients and employees. My favorite of these is They Call Them Camisoles. The memoir was published in 1940 and details the involuntary hold that the author, Wilma Wilson, endured in 1939. Wilson was committed for alcoholism. These alcoholism commitments in the ’30s and ’40s were often questionable. Wilson did drink too much. She admitted as much herself. Sometimes, her antics embarrassed her mother. This is what really landed her at Camarillo State Hospital: embarrassing her mother.

I know there were times in my life when my mom wished she could send me away for getting drunk and embarrassing her. I’m glad she never did.

For Wilson, the hospitalization was not about therapy. It was really about free labor. She went to the hospital, worked as an unpaid maid for the duration of her stay, had her stay extended at one point for dubious reasons, and wrote a book about it when she got out.

Both before and after her release, Wilson worked in movies. Actually, she mostly worked as a waitress, but she occasionally found herself in the background of B movies.

In 1943, an army private visited Wilson’s home wanting something that Wilson wasn’t willing to give him. He turned violent. She fled her house and screamed for help. The neighbors heard her, but didn’t come to her aid. According to the neighbor who was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, this was because Wilson was drunk. The army private murdered her.

While doing some research on Chester Himes years ago, I came across his account of meeting with his editor, Marcel Duhamel. Duhamel asked Himes to write a crime novel. Himes said he didn’t know how. Duhamel told him, essentially, to start with a body and try to figure out what happened to it (I fictionalize this exchange in my short story “The Five-Cornered Square” in The Metaphysical Ukulele). When I read this, I knew I had to take Duhamel’s advice.

I started with the basics of Wilma Wilson’s murder. In honor of Wilson, I named the murder victim in my novel Wilma (her last name in the book is Greene). She’s also a Hollywood extra who mostly waits tables. She also does a stint at the Camarillo State Hospital and writes a book about it. The similarities pretty much end there.

I’m not giving away anything when I tell you that, in Dead Extra, the army private does not kill Wilma. There are no army private’s in the book. And I want to be clear that the character of Wilma Greene is not supposed to be Wilma Wilson. Wilma Greene is entirely fictional with the exception of the few things I point out in the previous paragraph. Still, she wouldn’t exist if Wilson hadn’t inspired her.

ME Review in Los Angeles Review of Books

ME HoshinoAt the beginning of the summer, I read the bizarre and amazing Japanese novel ME. I reviewed it for Los Angeles Review of Books. The review ran last week. You can check it out here.

I have to add that comment sections usually bum me out. I put all this time and thought into writing something. I revise it myself, hunt down a publisher–which isn’t always easy–and work with an editor who seeks further revisions. All of this care goes into what I say.

On top of that, I’ve published hundreds of stories, articles, reviews, and essays over the past 27 years. And I have a doctorate in literature. These are no small things. Still, anybody can log in and have the last word on my work.

With that said, I sure do love the comment at the end of the ME review. I’ll take comments like that all day.


Summer Book Tour


I’m heading out on a book tour to celebrate the release of my new short story collection, The Metaphysical Ukulele. As the chalk outline of a corpse in the picture above suggests, it’s gonna be killer.

Here are the dates:

May 23: Greenlight Books, Brooklyn, NY 7:30 PM

May 24: Inkwood Books, Haddonfield, NJ 7:00 PM

May 25: Newtonville Books, Newton, MA, 7:00 PM

June 3: Magers and Quinn, Minneapolis, MN 7:00 PM

June 15, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA, 7:00 PM

June 16: Powell’s, Portland, OR 7:30 PM

June 21: Warwick’s Books, La Jolla, CA, 7:30 PM

June 23: Book Soup, West Hollywood, CA 7:00 PM

June 29: City Lights Books, San Francisco, CA 7:00 PM

Come out and see me. It’ll be fun!


My new book, The Metaphysical Ukulele, will be released this week. I’ll be doing a handful of readings all over to promote it. The first one is this Thursday, May 5, on the campus of CSU Channel Islands. It’s free and open to the public. There’ll even be free food. Unfortunately, you have to pay $6 to park on campus. I’ll be reading with my colleague, Sofia Samatar, who also has a new book out. It’ll be fun! Here’s a poster.

Sean Sofia Poster

There will be more readings coming up: some East Coast ones at the end of May, and Midwest and West Coast ones in June. I’ll post the complete tour schedule next week.

Saturday Night at the Harbor

My brother-in-law Felinor had a heart transplant last January.  When he got out of the hospital, he came to live with Felizon and me.  We were his primary caretakers.  I spent more time in 2013 with Felinor than I did with anyone else, and vice versa for him.

He didn’t make it a full year on his new heart.  He passed away on Christmas Eve, 2013, at the age of 46.

Felinor was a junior.  His father, Felinor Sr., passed away on November 10, 2013.  It was  a tough year.

As I was picking through the last few possessions Felinor left behind, I remembered a story I wrote about going to Hawaii in 2000.  It was the first time I’d gone to the state, met Felizon’s dad (Felinor Sr.) and her brother (Felinor Jr.).  The story is part of my collection Glue and Ink Rebellion.  In honor of the two Felinor’s who I won’t get to spend time with in 2014, here’s my old story as it ran in the book.  The illustrations come from Felinor Jr.’s sketch book.

Felinor_Oahu Sketch001

Saturday Night at the Harbor

I went to Hawaii, which is strange for someone of my economic class, especially considering that I’m neither part of the armed forces nor a member of the merchant marines. Before going, Hawaii occupied a vague recollection in my mind of an un-air-conditioned Florida junior high school classroom where the underpaid teacher had snuck outside for a fifteen-minute smoke break in the middle of class. Two redneck kids fought in the back of the classroom. They woke me up and kept me up, so I sketched pictures of waves from Surfer magazine, pictures of guys like Gerry Lopez dropping in on the pipe while riding twin fin, Lightning Bolt boards.

I waded through those junior high days reading comics in Gifted English class, learning about Columbus’s discovery of America and the fairly recent American victory in Vietnam, and trying not to get involved in the myriad daily fights, (mostly between the north Merritt Island trailer park kids and the central Merritt Island ghetto kids, but often spilling over into the more easily defined categories of black versus white, which made it more dangerous for me, seeing as how my skin was more or less one of those colors). I’d also learned to surf during my seventh grade year, and I dreamed of spending the upcoming summer surfing, all the while knowing that I’d spend that summer working construction. Concrete classroom walls seemed to sweat and the laminate desktops swelled and cracked in the heat, and I thought of Hawaii, where every girl looked like the models in an OP ad, where every surfer got a chance to slip into an overhead barrel. Where someday I’d land.

Eighteen years out of the seventh grade, I still dreamed of spending summers surfing, still knew that rent was a precarious sum to generate monthly without at least the occasional day of construction labor in the Florida sun (master’s degree be damned). I was a part-time community college English teacher who could barely muster up the energy to pass out comic books to my students, who felt like I was giving the college too much for their money if I actually taught, and I was well below the tax bracket of people who summer in the Pacific Islands (though I was seated comfortably in the tax bracket of people who qualify for food stamps). For more or less five years, my girlfriend Felizon put up with my daydreaming passivity until, finally, she put up enough money for both of us to go back to her hometown on the North Shore of Oahu.

Felizon and I spent ten days exploring her home state of Hawaii. I finally met her father, who filled me with endless stories of a life laboring for the sugar cane plantation, of a long lost civil engineering degree from a university in Manila, of cock fights in Mill Camp, of raising five children, and of his struggles saturated in forty years of heavy drinking. He also let me drive his hot rod Pontiac Grand Prix. Of course, he was my kind of guy. Felizon’s parents fed us more Filipino food than we could possibly digest and more stories of Filipino culture than we could possibly learn. In times away from her childhood home in Paalaa Kai, Felizon took me around to the Hawaiian microcosms of the Philippines, Korea, Japan, and China. We took pictures of Japanese tourists taking pictures of King Kamehameha’s statue. We wandered through botanical gardens and hiked up to a waterfall under the light of the full moon. We made friends with a six-year-old girl with leukemia. We snacked on all kinds of local foods: kal bi, manapua, poi, kalua pork, lomilomi salmon, and dinadaraan. We listened to a Tongan master drummer and watched Tahitian girls dance. We tried to avoid everything typically mainland American, especially the tourists, and got frustrated when we couldn’t.

But this isn’t a vacation story. I have a point.

We spent our first, second-to-last, and last night in Hawaii hanging out at the harbor in Hale’iwa with Felizon’s brother, Felinor, and his friends. The first night, when Felinor told me that he and his friends hung out at the harbor and drank juice, I guessed that he was using “juice” as a euphemism. He wasn’t. They really did hang out in the parking lot of Hale’iwa Boat Harbor, drinking Hawaiian Sun Orange Lilikoi or Strawberry Passion fruit juice, staring across the calm harbor waters and out to the ocean, “talking story.”

The first night when I hung out at the harbor, I really enjoyed myself and couldn’t fully understand why. The slow pace was just right for my travel-fatigued state of mind, the ocean had a soothing glassiness, and Felinor and his friends told pretty entertaining stories. At first they were somewhat guarded towards me (except Roy, but we’ll get to him later). Maybe it was because I was a “haole” from the mainland (and haoles from the mainland tend to be loud, obnoxious bastards), maybe it was because I had been dating one of their friends’ kid sister for five years without giving her even an engagement ring (which I gathered is a bad thing in the eyes of a local boy). Probably it was a combination of both. Either way, I didn’t let it bother me. I listened to their stories and joined in when it seemed necessary and didn’t worry too much about winning them over. I left looking forward to meeting up with them again.

The second-to-last night, Felizon and Felinor wandered out of earshot to catch up on personal matters. Roy and I stayed in our seats and talked story. Roy is an easy guy to get along with. He’s a native Hawaiian right down to the blood in his veins, and he has a humble confidence that makes him a friend right away. He told me a bit about his love life and a bit about the waves during the winter and a bit about growing up with Felinor, then he stopped in the middle of one sentence and said, “Do you hear that?” I listened. A four wheel drive truck turned out of the gravel harbor parking lot. Faint traces of reggae filtered over from Hale’iwa Joe’s; the voices of kids partying at the other end of the harbor drifted over. Other than that, I heard nothing. Roy said, “I think there’s waves.”

I figured that he was pulling my leg, even though he didn’t really seem like the leg pulling type. We kept talking. Ten minutes later, I heard it. There were waves. At midnight, I left the harbor with plans to meet Roy at six a.m. for a surf session.

Though I surf often, I’m not a surfer. I’m nothing like Jeff Spicoli or like the blonde, arrogant, in-crowd stereotype. I never have been. I rarely hot dog or ride a short board. I generally paddle out where the waves are a little smaller but at least they’re less crowded. By the same token, although I’m not a surfer, surfing is very important to me. When I surf, I tend to forget my problems, but when I’m done surfing, I tend to understand my problems better. It’s like hypnotherapy, I guess, only surfing is really fucking fun.

Surfing with Roy helped me in this way. The waves weren’t the monsters that the North Shore is famous for. On my way to meet up with Roy that morning, I’d noticed that Waimea Bay was flat. The Pipeline was flat. Five guys fought for every ripple at Sunset Beach. But none of that mattered to me. Roy and I carried longboards across the street from his house and surfed clean, waist-high waves. We were the only ones out. Set waves rolled in every five or ten minutes. At first, we caught a bunch of waves. One other surfer paddled out. We made another friend. A sea turtle fed off the reef that we surfed above. Rain clouds cast long morning shadows across the Waianae Mountain Range all the way down to Kaena Point. A couple of times, Roy caught me staring at the mountains and kidded me. Hell, I’m from Florida. All I get to see when I look back at the shore there is pink condominiums blocking out the sunset. Roy surfed in the classic longboard style of his father and grandfather. He coolly strolled back and forth on his ten-foot longboard, staying right atop the redwood stringer, calling out the ghosts of Duke Kahanamoku and his gang. I rode his twelve-foot longboard. It forced me to give up my lingering short board tendencies, to swing big bottom turns and run feet up to the nose. I adapted quickly.

When I left the water, I came to understand something about the harbor, about Hawaii, about haoles, about cultures lost and cultures gained.

Felinor_Oahu Sketch002 My hometown is a shell of what it used to be. The Merritt Island culture of my childhood is gone, stripped away and replaced by Chili’s, Office Depot, and Wal-Mart Supercenter. The last bit of wetlands on Merritt Island has recently been dredged up to make way for a BJ’s Wholesale Outlet. The loss of this hometown is a major theme of my first novel.

My heritage is a shell of what it used to be. Although I know I’m of some kind of European descent, I don’t know what part of Europe I descend from. Sean is an Irish name, but that doesn’t make me Irish. For all I know, Carswell is just something some guy on Ellis Island made up. I know my family didn’t come over on the Mayflower. I know I’m not indigenous to Florida. The constant sunburn and burgeoning skin cancer proves that. Locals in Hawaii make no distinctions between the heritage of white people. White people are all haoles. As far as I could tell, the only distinction is whether or not you’re a fucking haole. A fucking haole is a white person who has benefited enough off of the American Wal-Mart Supercenter economy to be able to afford to vacation in Hawaii, but spends his whole time bitching about the lack of bagels and Starbucks (though there are plenty of both in Hawaii). I probably despise fucking haoles more than most. My years of building houses for fucking haoles (combined with my loss of culture and heritage) has led to a personal class grudge that’s probably deeper than the one carried by most local Hawaiians.

The local boys at the harbor, though, made distinctions between every Asian and Pacific Island ethnicity. They knew the stereotypes for Koreans, Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, and so on. A lot of these distinctions are a throwback from the early sugar cane plantation days, when the fucking haole landowners separated laborers according to their ethnicity, then encouraged disputes between the different ethnicities. A lot of these distinctions come from the natural desire of people to hang on to their heritage, to maintain the good parts of their traditional culture and blend that with modern life on Hawaii. This is most apparent in the local pidgin dialect. All the guys out at the harbor spoke pidgin. Felizon’s parents and extended family all spoke heavy pidgin. Felizon spoke it again after one night at the harbor.

When I first heard the Hawaiian-style pidgin, it sounded simple to me. When Felizon took time to point out the words I didn’t know, and I realized that pidgin borrowed from Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, and all the other cultures that made up the plantation labor force, I respected it. Rather than sticking to the forced language of their boss (or their conqueror, depending on how radical you want to get here), the local working class made their own common language. It may seem like a tiny victory, but its cultural significance is as important as any other successful labor uprising. Take, for example, the phrase “talking story.” When the guys hang out at the harbor, they talk story. When the same kind of guys hang out on the mainland and do the same thing, they bullshit. Bullshitting, shooting the shit, or whatever, suggests that your time spent talking about the important fragments of your life amounts to the same value as the feces of a farm animal. It’s a term I never really thought about before, and though it doesn’t have great significance, it does subtly demean the act of sharing experiences. To talk story (though it may be syntactically awkward) suggests that your idle hours of conversation are actually more than that. Your fragments of life are important, and the stories you tell represent the traditions of your heritage, and the good parts of these traditions adapt to the modern world.

 Felinor_Oahu Sketch004

So my last night in Hawaii, we all went back to the harbor. Felinor grilled mullet stuffed with tomato, ginger, and garlic. We ate that with steamed rice and local-style macaroni-and-potato salad. Roy and I talked a lot about our session. We didn’t brag. We knew the waist-high waves were too small for most North Shore surfers. I knew I was no Gerry Lopez, would never be and couldn’t even surf the same breaks on the same day as him, but I didn’t care. Seventh grade Surfer magazine fantasies didn’t mean much to me anymore. I’d rather surf with Roy any day.

A soft, misty rain started to fall. It was nothing to pack up and go home about. Just enough to get us wet and make us pull our chairs under a tree. We drank juice and talked story. I looked across the glassy waters of the harbor half a world away from where I was born, and I felt at home. Then, I looked over at Felizon, a local girl once again in her slippas and Matsumoto’s Shave Ice t-shirt. I listened to her talk in her now-fully-returned pidgin accent, and, though I had to try a little harder to understand what she was saying, I felt like she was speaking my language.

You Have Found Other People

Other People MastheadWithout a doubt, my favorite podcast–literary or otherwise–is Other People. I’m not just saying that because I’m the subject of today’s show.

Other People is run by a guy named Brad Listi.  He’s the author of Attention. Deficit. Disorder. and one of the founders of a literary web site called The Nervous Breakdown.  He’s also a great interviewer.  I don’t say things like that lightly.  I ran a punk rock magazine for years, and I read punk rock fanzines for even longer.  I’ve become very picky about what interviews I’ll read or listen to.  They can get so dry sometimes: the same old questions, the same perfunctory answers.

There seems to be two ways to avoid this type of interview.  You can either research the hell out of the person you plan to interview, talk to people you know in common, and dig out the embarrassing or personal or insightful things that you discovered.  Todd Taylor has mastered this approach in his Razorcake interviews.  (Check out this Duane Peters one, if you doubt me.)

The other way to avoid a dry interview is to come in with no expectations, really listen to your subject, and build off her responses in an organic way.  This is tough.  It requires you to have a rich, interesting conversation with a total stranger, to take this stressful situation and make it seem totally relaxed.  Brad Listi tends to do this (over the phone, which, believe me, is even tougher).

I’ve been listening to Other People for a while now.  It’s clear to me that Brad doesn’t typically read the books of the authors he interviews ahead of time.  I’m okay with that.  I usually haven’t heard about the authors, either.  I like the process of discovery that occurs.  I also like that he takes writers out of their element.  He forces writers to discuss what he wants to discuss, not what they want to.

While that’s great if you’re the listener, it’s a little tougher if you’re being interviewed.  Brad interviewed me.  He somehow got me talking way too much about my carpentry days.  At several points in the interview, I was thinking to myself, can’t we talk about my novel now?  Still, if the interview with me is anything like his typical interviews, it should be enjoyable.

You can listen to it by clicking the picture at the top of this post or by clicking this link here.

My Next Reading

The next event I’m doing will be at a cool bookstore in Eagle Rock (Los Angeles), right around the corner from my old neighborhood of Highland Park. I’m teaming up with artist and Razorcake contributor Kiyoshi Nakazawa to do something a little different.  We’re going to play some surrealist games before the reading starts.  It’ll be a little more interactive and a little more fun than your typical reading.

Here’s all the particulars that you need to know.  The event kicks off at 7:00 PM on Friday, July 12.  The Pop Hop is located at 5002 York Blvd., Los Angeles, CA.   You can click on the poster for a link to the complete event description on The Pop Hop’s web site.

I hope to see you there.


Summer Reading

Foggy Ventura 2

It seems like a lot of people are coming out with summer reading lists these days.  I never put these together myself, in part because I’m a lit professor and I tell people what to read all spring and fall.  Still, I love summer reading lists.  Occasionally, I’ll get good recommendations.  Often, I’ll have the opportunity to rant and rave at the selections that I think are terrible.  The ranting and raving is usually done when I’m by myself.  It’s still fun.

I last month, I stumbled across the perfect summer reading list in the Arizona Daily Sun.  Nothing to rant and rave about.  It’s just a few good recommendations.  I’m particularly partial to the first book on the list.  Here’s a link to the article:

“Planting Seeds for Summer Reads”