Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Journey into Boyhood

I thought I'd covered this already in my various social media channels, but the question keeps coming up, and so I thought I'd drop a few lines here to answer some of the incredulous and excited queries flying my way.

Yes, that's me in Boyhood. Eleven seconds of a major-indy-Hollywood-Third Coast-Richard Linklater movie, and I've even got a speaking part. I won't give it away if you haven't seen it, because you'll be profoundly disappointed if I tell you about it beforehand. Instead, I'll tell you a little of what I remember of that night, some eight years ago.

The year was 2005 and I was one of the floor managers at BookPeople, in Austin, Texas (the largest independent book store in Texas). The store is very well thought of, and at the time, we were positioned right in the heart of the Keep Austin Weird movement. We were known for throwing very large, very hard-to-beat Harry Potter parties. This was the sixth book coming out. The last party was huge, and so the pressure was on to top ourselves. Six months of planning. We were making ourselves cheerfully crazy.

With maybe two weeks to spare, the marketing people popped into one of the strategy meetings and told us that Richard Linklater was filming some sort of documentary film wherein he is following four kids around for twelve years, chronicling their growth. Well, those kids wanted to come to OUR Midnight Book Release party, and so, can they come film our shenanigans? Like any good retailer, we said "Yes" first, and then thought, "Lord, what have we signed ourselves up for?"

My job in the midst of all this chaos was Ringmaster, which was a very polite term for "crowd control." My job was to keep the masses happy; make sure they were up-to-date on the lastest information, introduce each new act on our "main stage," remind others about the booths and carnival refreshments to be had at our home-made "Diagon Alley," and whenever necessary, fill the dead time with banter and snappy patter. In other words, my usual gig.

A small picture to give you a hint of the size
of this particular endeavor. Yeah, that's the
maze there in the lower left hand corner.
Harry Potter's birthday dawned (when the books were released each year), and we were all amped up beyond belief. Imagine five thousand people in a parking lot, many of whom will have been there since 8 a.m. waiting for the Midnight release. We had carnival booths, fire dancers, a magician, and the Alamo Draft House's Rolling Road Show set up showing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There was even a maze made out of haybales. Sorting hats. Coloring stations. My God, it was an enormous undertaking. Most of the staff was in costume. The books were in the building, but we couldn't open the boxes. Oh, and did I mention this was in the middle of July? That might be lovely weather in Merry Olde England, but in Texas, during the Summer, it's profoundly miserable.

There's one other pertinent fact I left out: a week prior, I had dislocated the middle tendon in my right hand. It required minor surgery to repair, and while it was technically no big deal--a very simple operation--I had never been under before. Never had a broken bone, or anything like that. Oh, I had my tonsils out when I was four or five, but I really don't remember any of it. So it was a little nerve-wracking, and it left me with a throbbing hand, wrapped up just like a lobster claw, and a prescription for Vicodin for the pain.

Have you ever had Vicodin? Man, that's good stuff! I wake up in the morning, my hand is throbbing and aching. I eat breakfast, take a pill, and then suddenly, I don't care about my hand anymore. It's like the volume got turned down on the whole world. Lovely drug, simply lovely. However, it turned my brain into chunky pea soup. I knew I couldn't take the pill during the party, or I'd screw it up. I had to read cue cards, answer questions, think on my feet--no, it wouldn't do. So I took a vicodin at lunch and decided to go long.

Linklater at the BookPeople Harry Potter Party.
Now, it's hours later, and the party is in full swing, and it's crowded and hot and miserable. There's a steady stream of people going to the bathroom like carpenter ants. The kids and parents are gathered around the main stage, watching the goings-on, and the whole staff is jumping through hoops. I'm making my announcements, and I'm even getting some laughs with the bit. "Attention, everyone, would whoever parked their hippogriff in the parking garage please tend to your animal. It's broken loose, and guarding an SUV right now." I had another joke about a mix-up at the broom closet. You get the idea.

Suddenly, there's cameras. And people with clipboards. And Richard Linklater. And I'm being flagged down by one of the production assistants. Now, I'm acting as a liaison to the film crew--the P.A. to the P.A. I don't remember much of what I had to do for them because they were there when things were in full-swing, and by this time, the Vicodin had long worn off and my lobster claw was throbbing like a doghouse bass.

At one point, I was making announcements and remembered distinctly that a camera was being pointed at me, so I did my best to be clever and articulate. Of course, I assumed it a camera from one of the news trucks that was covering our party. The P.A. was back, now, and they had a question for me: would it be all right if the four kids got their books first? You know, at Midnight?

My first thought was to protect the integrity of the line that had been waiting for eighteen hours, but I knew better than to try it. There was a quick conference, and sure enough, they got the clearance. By this time, I'd seen Linklater a couple of times. He and his people were running around, guerrilla-style, shooting whatever they could. It looked like fun, save for the God-awful heat.

At last, Midnight came, and I counted the crowd down and we all cheered. The band resumed, and the movie kept playing, but make no mistake, the star of the evening was that big-ass hardcover book. Well, that and the four kids being filmed. They got a shot of the kids walking up and getting their book, and then, amazingly, Linklater asked, "Can we get another one?"

Patricia Arquette reads to the kids from Harry Potter in the
movie Boyhood. Not pictured: me, off-camera, rubbing her
feet, because that never happened, no matter how many
notes you send, and singing telegrams...
"Some documentary film," I thought to myself, but sure, what the heck. The people in line were amazingly understanding that they had to wait two whole extra minutes to get their books, but they did it. The line started moving, and within ten minutes, we'd gone through all of the event books, and the crowd magically bled off. It was surreal; there were kids on the ground, twelve-fifteen at night, reading the book by flashlight. The staff was completely spent. We were all numb and kinda shell-shocked. But of course, the whole thing was a complete success. There's a ton of pictures on Flickr if you want to go check them out.

I walked up to Linklater, who was wrapping things up, and asked him if he got what he needed. We chatted very briefly, and I wished him luck with the rest of the shoot. Then I went inside and popped a Vicodin and drank a liter of water.

And that was it. I didn't give it another thought until late last year, when I got a call from someone in Richard Linklater's office, telling me that the 12 year project was finished and I'd made the cut of the movie.

I did what, now?

My mind raced back to the party, and I gave them my information, as well as how I'd like to be listed in the credits, and they sent me a check, and a S.A.G. membership application, and the next thing you know, I'm in the movie. It was really that easy. And it wasn't a documentary, after all. Whoops!

If you live in Austin, it's not THAT hard to end up in a movie. I'm surprised more of my friends aren't in them. At BookPeople, we were regularly inundated with actors and rock stars coming in to buy books. No, seriously. I helped Ted Dansen pick out mysteries for his plane ride, gave Kevin Spacey directions to the bathroom, told Carla Gugino that there were no American editions of Elmore Leonard's book Out of Sight, and had several conversations with Luke Perry. Sandra Bullock. Matthew McConaughey. That shouldn't surprise anyone, really. Austin has always been a town for Starfu--well, let's just say, if you want to cozy up to someone famous, you can do it.

They don't even have to be famous; just notorious. I spent my first Thanksgiving in Austin with a friend of mine who's father happens to be local character actor David Blackwell. All through dinner and afterward, he called me "young lad." Fun stuff. One of my co-workers actually ended up in the movie Grindhouse. She even had a speaking part. It was crazy. It's all "right place, right time" kind of stuff; it's just that, in Austin, there's a lot more right places and a lot more right times than most other cities.

I did get to attend the premiere in Austin earlier this year and I really liked the movie. I like the vast majority of Linklater's films anyway, and so this was no exception. I also met my co-star Ethan Hawke years ago at a BookPeople signing. See? Easy peasy. Starfu--I mean, ripe with opportunities.

Boyhood is still playing in art houses across the country. It's a good movie, very interesting to watch, and if you're diligent, you can spot me (oh, who am I kidding? You can't MISS me) in the movie. Please, no autographs. For all other requests, see my agent.

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Beginner's Guide for Reading Mark Finn

You may have noticed this year that I've had a few books re-issued, published, and reprinted. So far, there's five new books out there and three more on the way. You may be thinking to yourself, "But Mark, you've written so many books, I can't keep up! I might as well just go outside and play with my dog."

Don't pick up that leash yet, Sparky. Sure, modern living forces you into doing these you don't want to do, like Jury Duty, or math. I get it. So, for those of you who want to support your old buddy/school chum/lover/cellmate/personal trainer Mark Finn, but you don't have time to read brief descriptions to gauge your interest levels, here's a quick and easy guide to help you select the book that's right for you. Just click on the links below and you will be whisked to where you can make a fast, painless transaction. And if you still can't decide, you can always buy two books. I promise, I won't tell.

"I don't like all that sci-fi and fantasy stuff. Except for True Blood. And Game of Thrones. Oh! And Twilight. And of course, the Harry Potter books. And American Horror Story. But other than that, I'm not really into that weird stuff."

Newsflash: Yes, you are. And you'll love Year of the Hare. Sam Bowen is one of my most popular characters and he's a normal guy who learned magic to try and reverse a family curse that's been placed upon him. This is the first of two books that will collect all of his stories together from the Clockwork Storybook shared world of San Cibola.

"I like fantasy and sci-fi, but I'm not real familiar with it. I'm new to all of this. Also, I like romance and love stories."

If this is you, then you want to pick up Empty Hearts, my collection of short stories that all deal with love, loss, and desire in a modern-day city where magic is an everyday occurrence. These stories take place in San Cibola, as well, and are a kinder, gentler introduction to that world. Well, mostly... Expect some ghosts and some monsters mixed in with the romance and intrigue.

"I love modern fantasy, and I also think Quentin Tarantino is a hoot! And if you've got something with Elvis in it, well, that would be a personal hat trick aimed right at me!"

Say no more, Bwana! Road Trip is just what you need. Brash, violent, over the top, and best of all, it's chock-full of profanity and adult situations, just like an R-rated movie! Elvis and Cupid are on a Road Trip to South Padre Island to find Cupid's mother, Venus, who is hiding out amongst the mortals. Really, that's all you need to know. Anything else will spoil the story.

"I'm really into this geek-stuff. I love it. I have strong opinions about all sorts of things that are, in fact, completely outside of my control, like every casting decision made in Hollywood. Got anything for me, Smarty Pants?"

You betcha! The Transformation of Lawrence Croft is tailor-made for you. Follow four super geeks as they make their way to MagicCon, a three-day comic and sci-fi convention in San Cibola. What could possibly go wrong, right? Plenty, is what. It's a romp through geek culture at the intersection of magic and make-believe. And it's also the first part of a trilogy of stories starring the four Con-Dorks.

"Well, I don't know about any of that. But I am curious about this mysterious story you just sold to Vertigo. What's that all about? Can we get a hint?"

I can't really give you a hint, since the book hasn't been announced or solicited yet. However, if you want to read something that's 100% in the wheelhouse of what I wrote, let me show you The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey. This is a collection of historical weird humorous boxing stories written about real-life Golden Age boxer Tom Sharkey. These stories are very much in the tradition of Robert E. Howard's Sailor Steve Costigan stories, so if you like those, you'll probably like these, as well.

"Robert E. Howard? Now you're talking. Aren't you supposed to be some kind of Robert E. Howard expert or something like that?"

Yeah, something like that. Here's the biography of Robert E. Howard that I wrote. It's called Blood & Thunder: the Life and Art of Robert E. Howard. If you like biographies of literary people mixed with Texas history, then you'll enjoy this book. It's probably what I'm best known for, and a number of people have read it who were not fans of Howard or his writings who said they enjoyed it a great deal. It moves fast, and has a lot of information packed into it. The book was nominated for several awards when it came out. This is the updated and expanded second edition.

"Yeah, so, none of that's really working for me. Anything else you want to show me, Mister Writer Guy? Or can I go play with my dog, now?"

Boy, you're a tough nut to crack. Why don't you just head on over to my Amazon Author Page and browse the other things I've got listed there? I've got stories and essays and introductions in several books, and there's even a couple of comics for you to purchase if you want to go that route. For example, in The Apes of Wrath, I wrote an essay about the guys who play gorillas in the movies. It's a fun romp through that specialized world. And the rest of the book is really good, too! Fun Fact: Many of my books are also available as ebooks.

Granted, this isn't everything. I've got some projects in development, some stories to appear in books coming out later, and some novels in various stages of completion. If you'd like to keep up with me and you're not bored with Facebook, I've got an Author's Page you can follow. I'll keep on writing, if you keep on reading.

Monday, August 11, 2014

O Captain, My Captain: Robin Williams (1951-2014)

I watched this show religiously for Mork's antics.
Bonus: I had a thing for Pam Dawber, too.
If you were in grade school in the late seventies/early eighties and your name was Mark, and if you happened to be the class clown, then you were "Mork" until middle school.

Robin Williams was my first comedian. "Mine" in the sense that I took ownership of him. Sure, I listened to my mother's comedy albums (Kids: Google "album"): Lily Tomlin, Flip Wilson, and especially Bill Cosby. Great stuff, all, and very funny. But Robin Williams was the comedian that I discovered myself, first on Happy Days and then in Mork & Mindy. My god, he was funny. I don't know if the act holds up, but at the time, there was nothing like him to be found anywhere else.

Because of Williams' performance as Mork (and mostly any other comedy role he ever took) I learned about improvisation, the art of the ad-lib, and best of all, he re-introduced the world to Jonathan Winters.

I was fascinated by him. That stream of consciousness babble of ideas, each one spilling out on top of one another... Of course, later, I found out that was the cocaine talking, but even when he quit doing blow, he was whip smart, and his observations were sharp and funny.

Over the years, his vast movie career has been a series of ups and downs. Lord knows, I haven't liked everything he ever did (Kids: Google "Hook"), but it's only because when he was on, he was brilliant. It made the lame projects stand out in sharp relief.

Some of the movie is very good. Loved the boxing scene.
I kind of want to talk about Popeye right now. I know not everyone liked it, and it lacks, well, a lot in terms of what people were expecting to see. But as far as recreating Thimble Theater (E.C. Segar's strip in which Popeye appeared) goes, it was pretty good. For recreating the Famous Studios cartoons where Bluto is always grabbing Olive and saying, "Hey Doll, Howzabout a Kiss?" the movie was a flop. However, when I'm in the right mood, I love the movie. The art direction is brilliant, the characterizations are fantastic, and to my chagrin, I even like the songs. Mind you, if you ever ask me my favorite comic book movies, it will never be on the list. When I watch it, it's because I'm feeling nostalgic for the early 1980s.

So much of how I approached being funny was tied up in trying to figure out what made Robin Williams tick. Dropping instantly in and out of character and being able to sell a bit onstage are about as far as I got. No one put stuff together like him. His timing, along with his ability to economically cut out everything that didn't look like the joke, was his singular gift.

I was there for all of it. His HBO specials, his early critical acclaim, his later critical acclaim, his transition to elder statesman, all of it. I hated it when I didn't like a movie he was in, or the film was bad, or whatever. I wanted to like everything he did. And looking over his incredible resume, I liked way more than I didn't like, and you can't ever say that a .500 batting average is a bad thing.

Mime Jerry, from the Cult Classic Shakes the Clown.
These smaller, art house movies he did with Bobcat
Goldthwait and others are among my favorite things he
ever did. You must watch World's Greatest Dad.
In the back of our minds, I think we all knew there was something wrong; he was laughing to keep from crying. We could certainly see it in his sobering film roles, or the occasional interview where he's not climbing over the furniture. That razor sharp observational humor cut both ways, and sometimes, you'd see it nick a wrist. I've seen a lot of references to the old joke with the punchline, "But Doctor, I AM Pagliacci," and I think that's apt, and sadly, very prescient for a lot of performers, writers, and actors. Some people need the energy to thrive, and some need the energy to just keep their heads up.

I don't know about all of that, really; it's pure conjecture, and I don't know that we'll ever really know the whole story. I don't know if I want to. In the last few years, I had noticed when he had a heart attack, got divorced, and then very recently, went back to rehab. Those things were happening a little too close together, and I was actually saddened and concerned. Then this. It feels like someone just slammed the door on my childhood. I never met the man, but he's a part of my humorous DNA.

I hate that he felt he was out of options. I don't know if anyone knew how much pain he was in. All the laughter--the belly-aching, side-splitting, howling and crying laughter, and all of the cathartic tears and genuine anger, rage, and sadness, he brought out in everyone over the years, and it still wasn't enough.


Go listen to Marc Maron's very poignant eulogy and rebroadcast of his interview with Robin Williams on his WTF podcast. He really nailed down a lot of things for me, and if you're struggling to cope with this, his words may help you, too. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Thoughts About James Garner

One of the best-written TV westerns of all time.
He was one of my all-time favorite actors.

The L.A. Times wrote a cogent and, I think, really well-nuanced obituary of Garner. Dennis McLellan is clearly a fan, as he made the point several times that Garner was an amazing actor. He never looked like he was acting, and everything that came out of his mouth was natural and pitch-perfect. As I've gotten older, I have come to really appreciate the guys who don't look like they are doing anything, but they end up saying everything.

My first memories of Garner are tied directly to my grandfather, who used to watch Maverick and The Rockford Files religiously. He liked other TV westerns, like Gunsmoke, but he loved Maverick. Specifically, he loved James Garner. And who could blame him? The wise-cracking, laconic gambler who gets in over his head with the ladies and outfoxes the bad guys at every turn. What's not to like? As a child, I never understood it when Bart Maverick was in the show instead of Bret. I didn't realize they were supposed to be brothers, or why that was interesting. All I know is that when Bart was on, Pappy drank more read the paper.

Thankfully, Jim Rockford didn't have a brother. Mike Post's theme song is a permanent groove in my mental jukebox. I can't ever see a picture of Garner from the seventies without that music cuing up, an autonomic response borne out of years of conditioning. I've been rewatching The Rockford Files on Netflix these past few months--one or two a week, more or less as they were intended to be watched, and it's a joy and a treat to see Garner in action in his heyday.

My grandfather died when I was fifteen. I went to his funeral and didn't quite know how to say goodbye to the man; it was my first experience with loss on that level. I have spent years of my life picking through the memories I have of "Pappy" as I called him. I collected stories about him, from anyone who'd tell them. I don't know my grandfather personally--that is to say, he was different when he was around me--but I am pretty certain that he envisioned himself to be the kind of character that James Garner liked to play on TV. More mischievous and less anti-hero, maybe, but no less charming. He played cards, drank like a fish, had a positively caustic wit, and even pulled the occasional "heist." When he needed lumber for some project that he and his friends had cooked up, my grandfather would put on a coat and tie, grab a clipboard, and a yellow hard hat, and drive out to a construction site in a battered blue pick up truck and order some lackey to load two by fours, plywood, and anything else they might need into said truck bed. My grandfather owned a shoe store, but apparently, he was a pretty convincing actor, as well.

From the inimitable opening montage to The Rockford Files.
The show does an excellent job of deconstructing the P.I.
and then building him right back up again.
I don't know if my grandfather would have gotten along with James Garner had they met, but it doesn't matter, really. Pappy had his romantic notions, and I had mine. Because my grandfather is little more than a sketch to me, I've taken on some of his likes and dislikes over the years in an effort to bring myself closer (in head space, if not heart space) to the man. Just as my grandfather is in my style book of What Constitutes Manhood, so too is James Garner. The funny tough-guy or in some cases the tough funny guy, is a pose I could never pull off. 

But Garner is right there in my Frankenstein Monster's Version of Masculinity, alongside Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Captain Kirk, Captain America, Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Lee Marvin. Watching him over the years in movies like Support Your Local Sheriff and The Great Escape (one of my all-time favorite movies, a movie I have to compulsively watch if I stumble across it on television) only reinforced that idea of the fast-talking trickster in that mix of blistering testosterone. The eternal charming rogue. His scenes in The Great Escape with the hapless guard, Werner the Ferret are among the best scenes in the movie. The way he could put the pressure on someone, and still be so likeable, is a trait that people have been writing into his characters for decades.

I always felt a little guilty that I didn't watch 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter. I was happy that Garner was still getting work, but I just didn't want to watch him as the grumpy grandpa. I much preferred (and still do) the "I do my own stunts" James Garner, or the "I race cars on the weekends" James Garner. The guy I grew up with. Even Space Cowboys or The Notebook James Garner was preferable to that.

I never got to grow up with my grandfather. I never got to drink a beer with him, and listen to him tell me about being a tail gunner in World War II. So I take what I can get. I watch James Garner and I go right back in time to that house, with that huge-ass console television, and the smell of roast beef and scotch, and the sounds of laughter in the kitchen of my mother and grandmother talking about something else. Not this. Me and Pappy and Dad are watching The Rockford Files. They're laughing about the answering machine message. It goes over my head. But one day, I will get the joke.

Rest in Peace, James Garner. Say hi to my dad, and my grandfather, if you see them.

My Lengthy Absence and an ArmadilloCon Schedule

My apologies for the lack of regular updating. I've been grinding away at my stated goal of 500,000 words in one year, and I'm also in the middle of a work-related project that is taking all of my free time, most of my concentration, and the majority of my will and effort. Most days, it's all I can do to scoot around on Facebook for ten minutes.

I've got some larger thoughts I'd like to articulate, and I'll put them here just as soon as I can get out from under one or more of the rocks overhead.  Oh, and of course, I'm still publishing my back list via Monkeyhaus Books. If you bought one, I thank you. If you liked it, please tell someone, or throw up a quote on about it. The reviews really do help with getting eyeballs on the books. So far, I've got the following available:

Road Trip
Empty Hearts: Stories by Mark Finn

And Coming Soon:

Year of the Hare: The Sam Bowen Chronicles Volume 1

Chance of a Lifetime: The Con-Dorks Saga Volume 2
 (First time in paperback!
Thanks for your patience and also for your support! Now, here's my ArmadilloCon Schedule. As you can see, I'm going to be on a lot of faboo panels. Also note: I will have an HOUR for my reading this year. This is huge, and I fully intend to kick out the jams, as the kids like to say. It'll be a real Tour-de-Finn of new stuff, upcoming projects, and maybe, just maybe, I'll drop a chapter or two from Replacement Gorilla.

4:00 PM-5:00 PM Dealers' Room
Chiang, Denton, Finn

Hollywood vs. Everyone Else
5:00 PM-6:00 PM Room F
Finn*, Crider, Hardy, Sullivan
Comparing American film noir with other countries' productions.

True Detective
6:00 PM-7:00 PM Room D
de Orive*, Cupp, Finn, Johnson
WTF did the ending mean?

40 Years of D&D
9:00 PM-10:00 PM Room F
Benjamin*, Finn, Maresca, Marmell, Sarath, Wright
How did D&D inspire authors?

Build the Perfect Thief
11:00 AM-Noon Room E
Finn*, de Orive, Foster, Sheridan Rose, Sullivan, Wright
Thieves can make delightful characters, but what does it take to create a great thief?

Gorilla Playing Saxophone with Balloons
Noon-1:00 PM Room D
Finn*, Crider, Klaw, Johnson
Some of the strangest, craziest, weirdest stories about apes ever written.

Fannish Feud
4:00 PM-5:00 PM Conference Center
Finn*, Babcock, Eudaly, Chiang, Close, Law, McDonald, Orth, Walsh, Weisman, Wilson
The classic game show reworked for ArmadilloCon. Fans vs. Pros—which family is smarter?

Charity Auction
Sat 6:00 PM-7:00 PM Conference Center
Spend money to support GirlStart and promote math and science for girls and teens.

11:00 AM-Noon Southpark A

Writing Pulp Paced Stories
2:00 PM-3:00 PM Room F
Reisman*, Finn, Hardy, Johnson, Nevins
Writing fiction that has heft, depth and aspirations of greatness with the energy and pace of the adventure.