Sunday, July 12, 2020

Applauding My Critics, Part 1: Tess Ailshire

It's a shame that the word "critic" is so identified with the word "criticize." It's more accurate to relate it to "critique," an art form in which the writer uses observations both positive and negative to report what they witnessed. As a veteran of thirty-plus years of critiquing in the world of theater, opera and literature, I am more equipped than most to handle whatever reviews come my way.

Still, many of today's reader reviews can be childish and lame, as if the author has failed if they didn't anticipate the exact thing the reader wanted to read. One particular assassin gave me one star out of five and reported, "I didn't read it." For some reason, a lot of this came from the Goodreads site, so I have made a habit of avoiding it. Recently, I went back there for a different reason and stumbled upon a lovely, insightful review for my best-seller, The Popcorn Girl. I then discovered that the reviewer had decided to read several of my books and had given each the same kind of beautifully observed, well-written critiques.

I have been fortunate to enjoy a handful of reviewers, some of them writers themselves, who have followed my career in this fashion, leaving beautifully crafted critiques in their wake. And so, I thought it was time that I expressed my gratitude. That recently discovered reviewer is a Virginia resident named Tess Ailshire, and these are her reviews You can find my books on my Amazon author page.

The Popcorn Girl (five stars)

A joy of a story, but a story that is not joyous. The characters are flawed, complex, multi-faceted, and unexpected. One feels there is so much more to these people and their lives, which makes them very real.

I'm not generally a fan of books where one has to know which character is narrating a chapter, but this works.

It made me want to read other Vaughn books.

Gabriella's Voice (four stars)

I've become a fan of Vaughn since I read Popcorn Girl without knowing the first thing of his writing style, his peccadilloes, or his themes. Vaughn has a knack for description that reflects a love of words and an awareness of the universe -- perfect similes that leave cliches choking on dust and gasping. He then goes on to wrap a silken scarf around most of the most hideous of human traits, revealing it only slowly, making the reader realize life is not all apple pie and ice cream, but not thwocking him over the head with truth either.

That said, Gabriella's Voice was not my favorite.

In this story, I felt I was being hit over the head with the similes. It seemed descriptions were overdone. Do I really need half a page to describe a foggy ferry crossing? What I normally like about Vaughn seemed too much in this novel.

Perhaps I understand enough Italian that I don't need *every* lyric to hold a parenthetic translation; it seemed to interrupt the flow of the paragraph, as if the narrator were stuttering. The sense of the paragraphs could easily have remained using only the English or only the Italian.

The Monkey Tribe (five stars)

This is the fourth Michael J. Vaughn book I've read in the last four to six months (The Popcorn Girl; a Painting Called Sylvia; Gabriella's Voice). Vaughn again shows his mastery of mindfulness - of describing both scenery and emotion vividly and without cliche. He again tackles the character who is different, and slowly reveals to the reader that character's passions and failings.

This novel, like Gabriella's Voice, shows a deep understanding of music as a natural part of the human experience, and explores the theme of giving as a way of receiving. Like A Painting Called Sylvia, it explores chaos in human experience, but in a controlled manner. Like The Popcorn Girl, it shows a character who is so much more than a surface.

Vaughn can keep writing. I'll keep reading as long as he does.

A Painting Called Sylvia (five stars)

I think I'm about to become a huge fan of Michael J. Vaughn. I read "The Popcorn Girl" because "the owner of an atheist bookstore" in the description intrigued me, and found I truly loved the work.

So I picked up this volume when it was available for free on Amazon. This one was even better, I think. I was more able to relate to these people - a couple with a teenage daughter, an artist, a few others - than in "The Popcorn Girl".

Both works I've read seem to me to be paintings of emotions, rather than words on a page. Not too much on the logic or concrete details, but a complex image of the character's thoughts and feelings. I found myself marveling at how complete a seemingly minor observation seemed to render the character.

The Girl in the Flaming Dress (five stars)

Like so many of the Vaughn novels I've read, the style is lighthearted and action-filled, with descriptions so far from cliche that I often stop, consider, and even read them aloud. That is a mark, I believe, of a good writer.

I like the fact that it's often a complete surprise to find out where his novels end up. The characters reveal themselves more and more as the novel goes on, and the endings may or may not be what you expect. I was amused to see the popcorn girl included.

This one hasn't the depth of Gabriella's Voice, nor the complexity of The Popcorn Girl, but is no less an enjoyable read.

Mascot (five stars)

I'm a big fan of Vaughn's writing style. The present-tense prose evokes an importance that might not work in past tense, and Vaughn has a knack for describing scenery and ambiance in a decidedly original and evocative manner. Vaughn's characters are decidedly human and absolutely unique. I find difficulty in predicting the ending of a story, much less the plot line that gets us to that ending.

Mascot does it again. Complex characters whose timelines show them different from what we originally see, with enough left unsaid that the reader has no choice but to be involved and to look beyond the words on the page.

Mascot is another that does not end at all as I expected, nor as I would have wished it to. That makes it no less a picture of life.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Climies: A Handmaid's Tale Meets Climate Change

By Naomi Bolton,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty-three novels, including the award-winning The Popcorn Girl and his latest, Climies. He is also a professional painter and drummer, the latter with the San Jose rock band ECRB. Vaughn's novels have won prizes in the San Francisco, New England and Hollywood book festivals. He is a regular competitions judge for Writer's Digest. Vaughn is also a widely published poet and opera critic. He graduated from San Jose State with a journalism degree and a classical voice minor. He was born in Brunswick, Maine, and spent much of his childhood shuttling around the country, courtesy of his father Harold's career as a pilot with the US Navy. As our author of the day, Vaughn tells us all about his latest book, Climies.

Please give us a short introduction to what Climies is about.

A young man, mysteriously deprived of his memory, ventures into the world to discover that the sea levels have risen 500 feet. He finds a small mountain community that has adapted exceedingly well to the situation and settles in as a born leader.

What inspired you to write a Handmaid's Tale meets climate change type of story?

I began writing by placing a character (Russell) in a situation (a garden labyrinth) and literally writing my way out. When he came out to a rooftop beach to discover a town underneath the water, I knew that I was going to write a speculative novel about climate change. It was an excellent way to tap into my subconscious and find out what I really wanted to write about.

Tell us more about Russell Peppers. What makes him tick?

Despite his amnesia, he is a very capable young man. One of the running jokes is how he keeps discovering things that his body knows how to do, like playing a guitar, riding a jetski, and playing basketball (and unintentionally hustling his opponents while he's at it).

What inspired you to set this story in the survivor community of Skyline?

It's based on Skyline Drive, a road that follows the tops of the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Jose to San Francisco. It's an area I know well. It was also morbidly fun placing so much of the Bay Area under water. At one point they're sailing past what looks like a long metal fence, and it's actually the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. Many of the survivors are actually tech workers from Silicon Valley; their ingenuity allows them to create a surprising kind of utopia, and also to cope with the weather, which fluctuates between hard snows and 120-degree days.

Give us three "Good to Know" facts about you.

I am also a professional fine arts painter. I play drums and sing in a classic rock band, ECRB. I worked for thirty years as an arts journalist, and have interviewed celebrities including Ray Bradbury, Molly Ringwald and Barry Manilow.

Your novel poses the question "what could happen if we don't pay attention or believe in climate change"? Why did you find this an important topic to explore?

It could be THE topic. I am afraid we're already on the road to some level of sea rise and extreme climates. It was important to me to devise a plausible worst-case scenario, both politically and environmentally. I have always done a lot of reading on the topic, and I have a colleague, Jeff Goodell, who writes amazing books and articles on the subject for Rolling Stone. You have to be careful with issues-oriented novels, however. No one likes to be preached at. You have to stick to the story and be true to the characters. Some of the more surprising characters are Patriots, the extremist climate deniers who call their rivals "climies." A pack of them ride into town, and the results are not always predictable.

Do any of your characters take off on their own tangent and refuse to do what you had planned for them?

Ha! Constantly. Russell's love interest is Shandhra Basu, a beautiful Indian-American (literally the daughter of a rocket scientist) who is always dragging Russell off into one bit of trouble or another. I always say, When you reach a point where you're asking not "What should I have Shandhra do next" but "What would Shandhra do next?" you have created a real live person, right there on the page.

When working on a novel, how do you immerse yourself in the main characters' lives?

I think you have to do it your whole life, really. You have to pursue lots of different experiences so you can apply them to characters later. There is much room, however, for empathy and imagination. This is especially helpful when your timeline is circa 2050!
Additionally, I think it's greatly helpful to read good non-fiction. And also, San Jose is a beautifully diverse place. I am surrounded by so many cultures. The Indian presence here is very strong.

Is there an underlying message you wish to relay about basic human nature in this book?

I think there is a way to be a hard-nosed scientific realist and yet retain some optimism for humanity. Perhaps the key is humor. This book sounds dystopian, but there are many funny scenes and situations.

In this book you’re dealing with so many difficult themes – as a writer, do you feel a sense of responsibility? If so, how do you deal with this?

Venturing into my first speculative book, I did feel a lot of responsibility. And I did back up the searise with a plausible worst-case scenario. But obviously this is only one vision of what could happen. I actually believe we will find our way out of this. But as The Handmaid's Tale served as a warning against theocracy, perhaps a good climate nightmare will provide us with some extra incentive.

When working on a new book, what is the first thing you do?

I have a "brewing period" where I let various ideas drift in. My current book had to wait a little longer as we sat through the early stages of the pandemic.

Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?

I write three drafts, in this thing called a spiral notebook, before it goes into a computer. I write completely at coffeehouses.

What are you working on right now?

In 2018, I served as the officiant at two weddings. It was such a remarkable experience that I'm using the settings as the background for the novel. One of them took place in Malibu, in John Larroquette's old house.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

I post many peripheral works at I have a good author page at (Michael J. Vaughn). And they can check in at my Facebook page, which is also under Michael J. Vaughn.
A final note: an underlying message to Climies is that scientific issues should never be politicized. I never could have dreamed how powerfully that point would be made by our viral situation.
Michael J. Vaughn - A World Where Sea Levels Have Risen 500 Feet
FEATURED AUTHOR - Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty-three novels, including the award-winning The Popcorn Girl and his latest, Climies. He is also a professional painter and drummer, the latter with the San Jose rock band ECRB. Vaughn's novels have won prizes in the San Francisco, New England and Hollywood book festivals. He is a regular competitions judge for Writer's Digest. Vaughn is also a widely published poet and opera critic. He graduated from San Jose State with a journalism degree and a… Read more