I met Dan a couple-few years ago at DIY Days in New York, and before I knew what was happening he was beaming high-grade hallucinogens into my heart using his laser-eyes, and then we spent the next 72 hours riding cloud dragons and fucking up corrupt politicians with robotic borer beetles and corn weevils. It’s also possible I just ate a bad salad and tripped balls in my own bedroom, but whatever. Dan’s an uber-creative, an artist and author, and he was kind enough to ingest a high-test dose of my interview nanites. Dan’s the man behind SHOOTING WAR and RED LIGHT PROPERTIES. His site: dangoldman.net. Him in the Twittertubes: @dan_goldman.
This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.
“Where It Goes”
Spencer Tyrell was already late for work at the Cinnabon when he killed that pigeon.
His ratty Adidas pumped BMX pedals all the way up the boardwalk back to his old hood, now the upscale part of T-Beach. He squinted into the salty breeze, dodging open cracks where the sun baked open the asphalt like overdone cookies, bouncing his bike up onto sidewalk of The Promenade. Once it was Tanga Beach Drive, the street he used to live on, the street where he’d snapped the shinbone of Dana’s tequila-crazed hubby with a foot of steel pipe and he carried her upstairs into his crib, where she finally was his for a little while. Their run-down apartment building was bulldozed twelve days after his landlord evicted the last tenant, but Dana bulldozed him months before the real estate developers took a lucrative opportunity to re-zone T-Beach into gated communities. Dana followed her lucrative opportunity into some silver fox’s shiny BMW sedan and he never saw her again.
Now The Promenade was closed to cars to maximize commercial foot-traffic and tourists’ spendy-spendy. He whizzed past a NO BIKES sign under a NO SKATEBOARDS sign under a ZERO TOLERANCE FOR DRUGS sign. They liked to keep it perfect out here and not the scare the straights, pushing back the local T-Beach flavor of discarded needles and bloody condoms and stray puddles of bum-diarrhea another few blocks west, out of sight. Now this place had that generic glamour of California-as-seen-on-TV, stinking of fruitsy aromatherapy and uplifting-slash-oversincere rock ballads and perfectly-manifactured bedhead, that soft-focus lip-gloss American Dream.
The Cinnabon was eight blocks down The Promenade, a nice walk on foot but by bicycle a speedy tunnel-tour through most of America’s major mall-friendly brands of clothing, consumer electronics and chain restaurants. The Cinnabon sat at the ass end of it with the rest of the cheaper shit.
His phone beeped and it was Randy again, calling to see if he’d be coming into work at all today. This time he answered it: “Randy. I’m on my way, I’m passing The Cheesecake Factory right now.”
“Okay good; Michael already told me I have to fire you if you’re not here by nine-thirty on the dot. He means it this time.”
“I’ll see you in a minute.”
“Good… I also think maybe we should talk about–”
“I just passed the Pollos Hermanos now; can we do this in person?”
He hung up on Randy. Religious, naive, fat-assed Randy. If not for her giant white badunkadunk that made it impossible to pass her behind the Cinnabon counter without goosing it with a little dick-sauce, last night probably never would’ve happened. She’d declared herself a born-again virgin before taking the assistant manager position, but Spence remembered her when she was just another blunt-rolling easy beach chick. Whether she was totally against premarital sex now or just using it as another layer of professional makeup, she still grunted like a rutting sow last night after she tripped over the pallet-jack in the delivery truck and planted that oversized fuck-pillow right into his lap with a burning after-tremor of We Both Know What Happens Next. And for the record, she was the one who wanted it up the ass, which was surely what she needed to talk to Spence about. Spence grinned about it now, sniffed his fingers and spit on the sidewalk when a pigeon landed in front of him.
There were usually clouds of them in the thoroughfare, chittering underneath the café tables to catch falling muffin crumbs — filthy fucking things — but they always took off as he wheeled closer. Then this one stupid one landed directly in front of him, bobbed its retarded head a few times, looked up at Spence’s incoming front tire with just time enough for two red-eyed blinks. He tried to weave left around it but the dummy did the same and went right under the tire. He felt the bike bounce and the bird-bones crunch through the BMX’s frame, through the rubber-grip handles, and what was once a bird was now a broken tangle of still-lit life-systems now on nerve-fire, wrapped in feathers. The sound went up into his gut and down to his fingertips slow enough that by the time his fingers squeezed the handbrakes, the pigeon was smearing blood for a good two feet under his bike’s back wheel, the smell of burnt feathers and rubber back coming up over his shoulder.
Johnny Rockets diners dropped their burgers on either side of him, gasped in several languages, mommies covered their kids’ eyes. Spence stepped off the bike and let it coast past him a few feet before it clattered to the pavement. He went back to the bird. It was alive but in shock, cooing like nothing happened. A little blonde girl screamed and hid her face in her mother’s pushed-up cleavage.
A man in a polo shirt covered his cellhone and barked: “For God’s sake, put the thing out of its misery!” Spence glared at him and stepped over the bird, sinking to a squat over the twist of splayed feathers and splintered bone. The bird’s neck and head were untouched, bobbing back and forth above its ruined body, trying to understand.
The Promenade sounds dropped away until there was just the sea and the rustle of palm trees and the pigeon’s confused, frantic blinking. Spence leaned over it, blocking out the palm trees, blocking out the sun… blanketing the bird in his cooling shadow where it would die.
It locked its red-irised eyes with his as it shook, its gold-rimmed pupils dilated all the way. Without breaking his gaze, the pigeon slowly dipped its neck down until the tip of its beak tapped the sidewalk, a tiny red bubble inflating from its nostrils to the size of a grape before popping with a tiny mist. Its mouth opened and blood began to run out, pooling around its head. Spence leaned into closer, stared deeper into the black of the pigeon’s pupil and fell in.
There was wind on the backs of his legs as the sidewalk dropped away, the sun was swallowed, the California heat snuffed out. Wrapped in a blanket of cold black, Spence was there with the bird, was the bird, was a tired lick escaping his own ruined body to fall through a burning rollercoaster of sparks and stars and scars and hurt toward a faraway point of purple fire where there was music, a soft womblike music with notes made of cubes. It was almost as if-
Sun. Trees. A hand clapped on his shoulder, dark hairs sprouting off the knuckles. The bloop-squawk of a rentacop’s radio: “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to clear the Promenade thoroughfare; we’re sending maintenance over to clean up the bird.”
Spence stood up, sweating. His phone buzzed again in his pocket. He took it out, looked at the time (9:38) and the text message (DONT BOTHER COMING IN, FIRED). Picking up his bike, he wheeled it back around past the mangled pigeon, its black pupil now a dull, empty thing.
It was gone.
Why do you tell stories?
Probably as a survival instinct; growing up, everyday life was rarely as interesting as what was playing upstairs in my head, and even when it was, my thoughts and memories would spin around up there until they broke off from the reality and started to hop around on their own. I think I started “writing” by rolling around on the living room floor with He-Man toys: jumping off from the crappy cartoon’s mythology, I’d cooked up this single ongoing narrative that advanced itself one chapter every time I picked up the toys. When I finished my epic five years later with its inevitable cosmos-shattering conclusion, I packed up the toys and gave them to my younger cousin. That was my first THE END.
By default, my skull fills up with ideas and characters, especially when there’s some kind of water involved — washing dishes, taking showers, swimming, brushing teeth, sitting by the ocean — finished scenarios drop in from Nowhere to Right Here. Without the release of writing, these worlds don’t just magically dissolve just because I’m ignoring. I spent a few years here and there where I wasn’t ass-in-chair with any real discipline, and I started getting a bit koo-koo and had to write my way back out.
My undefinable “story-place” was always my favorite and unique part of myself, the part I wanted to show to other people, maybe even have them love me for it. As I got older, storytelling became a conscious choice, then a hobby, then a discipline, then a career… but in the end, this is how I want to do with my remaining time in this body.
Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:
Have receptive and genuinely-interested Someone with whom you can verbally stumble through your ideas with. I tend to go deep inside myself while doing the actual writing and don’t talk about it with anyone until there’s lots of pages to read, but in a project’s formative stages, I lay in a dark bedroom with my brain racing and just talk my poor wife’s ears off about the new thing. She’s very patient and a great listener because she’s lived with me long enough to understand that in the process of my explaning the story to her, I’m actually connecting its dots in way I haven’t done yet in my document. Talking the pieces through is a vomit-document edit for me, and if her eyes light up by the end of my babbling, I know I’m on the right track and it’s time to start writing for real. Conversely, if she just shrugs or nods her head or starts blinking slowly, I know I’ve just lobbed a total turd at her.
What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?
All of Hollywood seems to rabid to mold every single story into the shape of Joseph Campbell’s “Heroic Journey”, and with cinema’s influence is strongly felt in modern writing, gaming and comics, it’s having a seriously laming-down effect on what is recognized as “good” in a story. Stories are supposed to free people, and this practice is limiting people’s imaginations on what they can expect from a story, where it can take them; there’s a reason so many things feel samey nowadays, with so many people are working off the same blueprint. Any undergrad Lit major can find Campbell’s structure in anything with enough Red Bull, but there are literally memos circulating between Hollywood studios, breaking it down to an actual Hero’s Journey Formula (when people say sci-fi or action movies are formulaic, this is literally that formula), where the Wise Mentor inspires the hero by page 35, etc. Even knowing that formula exists has ruined the experience of going to popcorn movies for me; sweeping music practically telegraphs the page number of the script where the Hero recites his “Crossing the 1st threshold/leaving behind the known” dialogue near the end of Act One. Eye roll.
My own tastes lean way more towards the slow-burn, delayed-gratification flavors of stories. I like my sex scenes fully-dressed with no touching but the eyes, I like my actors lumpy and real with personalities reminiscent of jerks I’ve known in my life who surprised me by doing something that earned my respect, I like giant and seemingly-disconnected tapestries of plotlines that are slowly and expertly drawn together until it’s clear there can be only one ending for everyone involved. These kinds of stories don’t compute when they’re run through the Heroic Formula… because they’re not just for young boys with daddy issues.
Don’t even get me started on heroes with fucking daddy issues.
All right, loaded question but it’s a necessary one: what’s wrong with comics today? Particularly regarding the aspect of storytelling.
Man, don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with comics. Despite the all-rumbling all-media noise of Comic-Con, the actual comics industry is still barely one unto itself. In order to make a living doing comics in the US, you’re either doing work on corporate super-heroes you don’t own (really just IP-generators for media and merchandise) or creating issue-specific “literary graphic novels” for the book trade. Occasional phenomena like The Walking Dead or Scott Pilgrim aside, there’s no large publishing apparatus in place for creator-owned work that falls in-between those two poles. If you’re dubbed “too mainstream to be indy/literary and too indy/literary to be mainstream,” your publishing options instantly narrow to maybe four publishing houses that handle material in that middle space, but only one or two of them will pay you up front for it. Otherwise, you’re a bootstrapping DIY creator, self-publishing digitally and/or in print by whatever means necessary.
Back when you could buy comic books at the drugstore/7-11/supermarket, they were firmly part of the zeitgeist; now they’re only sold in specialty stores… which means that people who don’t go out of their way to comic shops won’t find your work unless it’s adapted into another medium. Going DIY on the web can make up for that in terms of audience, but it also means you’ve got to have that second business of selling t-shirts/posters/coffee mugs to stay afloat. Digital devices with comic storefront apps like Comixology are changing that, but not to the point where the digital sales alone sustain the indy creator (yet).
Regarding the visual storytelling part of the equation, there ain’t nothing broken about comics these days… the work is cooler today than ever. Some of the smartest visual storytellers working in comics are breaking new ground right now. That’s the fishhook in my lip that keeps me coming back: watching them all cross-pollinate and mutate and metastasize like techno genres. And with comics jumping from pages to screens, there’s innovative shit popping off in every direction, whether it’s in the comic shops (like the new Love & Rockets or Casanova), in bookstore graphic novels (Alison Bechdel or One Soul or King City), in web browsers (Thrillbent and Never Mind the Bullets) or on iPad screens (Operation Ajax and Bottom of the Ninth). Creatively, comics are exploding… and I’m with all my creator friends in the hope that when the dust settles, the new disrupted marketplace serves us cartoonists creating our own thing better than what came before.
What, then, is the trick to telling a good story in a comic medium?
Letting the script and the art tango until they become a single organism. That’s what you shoot for telling stories with words and pictures: that synthesis. That’s when the room around you drops away and you enter the comic’s own reality, when you literally hear the dialogue spoken, smell the rain, feel the impact… not from descriptions alone but how your brain synthesizes the other senses.
But there’s a balance in that tango too: don’t overwrite the script. Trust the artwork to carry its half of the equation and the script the other; they have to be equal halves for the story to come alive.
What is Red Light Properties and where does it come from?
RED LIGHT PROPERTIES is my comic series about haunted real estate, rocky marriage and the joyful middle finger that says “I told you so.” It comes from living in a few haunted apartments over the years and listening to my realtor mother narrate the implosion of the South Florida real estate market under the subprime mortgage bubble, and connecting those with a family-run Miami realty office. Clairvoyant Jude Tobin, both owner and exorcist, found his niche in selling “previously-haunted” houses. But in order to bump up his abilities enough to enter the spirit world and get those ghosts to fuck off, he has to ingest heroic amounts of hallucinogens daily so his wife Cecilia can list and sell the cleaned properties. This leaves him straddling the Membrane between life and death, riding a constant drug-induced fire-house of deceased peoples’ stories and regrets that has to stand between him and his family if he has any chance of keeping the bills paid and the lights on.
RLP is rooted in that ooooogy 4am feeling when you’re in your house and you just know you’re not alone. There’s someone standing right there in the doorway watching you sleep; you can still feel them but you can’t see them with your eyes. With this series, I get to experiment with digital comics while talking about life, death, America, consciousness and the modern family in dramatic horror stories that contain nuggets of my own life: growing up in Miami, experiments with drugs, broken relationships, all swirled together into a Ben & Jerry’s flavor all my own.
What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.
An understanding of failure. So few people in life get what they really want that how they wear their failure becomes the petri dish in which their stories grow. Of course, in order to write failure, you have to know desire… but the degree to which their desires keep slipping through a character’s fingers makes them so human to me.
A great example of a strong character is Walter Berglund, the husband in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. He’s a mousy liberal intellectual who bore the burden of being the responsible son in family of alcoholic fuckups who needed him to survive. He met his wife in college, who loved his roommate and eventually warmed (or settled) for him, and he built his life around her and their kids according to his own principles. His whole existence becomes a chain of failures and opportunities to grow as Walter begins to break free of the family that doesn’t seem to respect the quiet strength of his intelligence or the anger at the core of his idea of what it is to be a Man.
Don’t get me wrong: he’s a total asshole too, pissy and judgmental and too tight-lipped to be any good at running a family of his own. But by the end of the novel, you’ve seen Walter through his own eyes and through his wife Patty’s, felt his frustrations and anger and tenderness for her, for their kids, their friends and neighbors, and his frustrations at ignorance of the the world around him that rejects intellectualism for instant gratification. I scoffed at Walter until I understood him, then I feared for him as he tore it all apart and sank, cheered for him when he seemed to figure it out again and I’m not gonna spoil anything here. He’s not even the most interesting person in the novel; it’s such a goddamn rich read, it deserves every drop of the praise it’s garnered.
Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!
Book: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Comic: Orc Stain by James Stokoe (Image Comics)
Film: Never Let Me Go
Game: Red Dead Redemption
Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?
It varies, but today it’s “chirisosu.” I read this recently on a menu in a Japanese restaurant — it’s Nihongo-phonetics for “chili sauce” — but I just can’t stop saying it. At first I proclaimed it’d be my next DJ name, now it’ll probably the name of my next pet or child.
Not to discount the versatility of “fuck”… but there’s a raw power to “cunt” that remains unmatched in American English. You probably flinched as I typed it just now, because “cunt” still upsets most people when you say it in the States. You don’t just throw it around if you want to live amongst the normals without altering your reputation. Any 12 year-old kid can drop f-bombs that he learned from playing Grand Theft Auto IV.
Living in Brazil’s opened up a whole new universe of profanity; there are apparently 200+ slang terms for “vagina” in use in Brazil (but only ~60 for “penis” which tells you much about who’s doing the cussing). Of course, I’m not outside cursing in the street with the yahoos; I’m usually upstairs in my studio writing and cursing in English.
Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)
There’s a very serious Japanese cocktail bar that I love in New York City called Angel’s Share; it’s hidden behind on unmarked door in a casual izakaya, and they make a cocktail called an “Old Oak” (cask-aged Venezuelan rum, sherry, orange bitters, one large ice cube). It’s smooth and woody and tastes like The Gilded Age. If I was still living in NYC, that would be my yay-I-just-finished-another-project celebratory drink: an Old Oak in front of their big window, looking down at the city flowing by.
What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?
I’m a believer in the inevitable post-human future, so why would I fight the robots when I could score some upgrades for my monkey-meat instead?
For starters, I want memory upgrades and external data storage, replacement HD bionic eyes with 200X zoom and wider-spectrum vision that can record/upload video. Also definitely need replacement ankles (mine are shot to shit after years of skateboarding injuries). I also want one of those neck-ports where I can download new skills like languages and martial arts. And also a DVR for my subconscious to record my dreams; I could make some serious Robo-Duckets with that feature to buy more upgrades. Robo-Santa… are you listening?
What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?
Since January, I’ve been working with a screenwriting partner to develop my comic series RED LIGHT PROPERTIES as live-action TV show, which has been a full-on education for me as well as a lot of fun, but now it’s suddenly June and I haven’t drawn any new Red Light Properties comics yet this year. But before I start producing new RLP stories, I’m going to finish remastering the first two hundred pages that I originally produced for Tor.com with an eye towards producing the hardcover print edition that everyone’s been asking for. After that, there will new RLP comics as my Scrivener binder is fit to burst with new stories of the Tobins, which will continue to be digital-first until I get a better offer. Right now the comics are published to iTunes, Kindle Fire and Comixology (and coming any minute to Nook, Kobo and Google Play).
I’ve also been serializing a non-fiction memoir about my move from New York City down to São Paulo, Brazil to take a stab at living as a “creative web node” called Toucannuí [read: toucan + ennui] that’s running on the Trip City website every Friday. It’s a blend of travel/food writing, family stories and memoir; I’m about halfway through the whole book now and it’ll be available as a physical/digital book when I’m done.
Also on my plate is my first novel, a story about a broken family that spans two contents and features an alien intelligence. It doesn’t have a title yet but I’m incredibly jazzed about it; my first love (even above comics) is writing prose, and this flower’s been threatening to bloom my entire life. More details when I can share them.
I’m also flexing my new TV/film muscles by writing screenplays and developing a handful new comics projects for other cool cat artists to draw.
Toucannui. How’s it feel to write prose? No visual? No image? What’s that transition like? Anything to do with your own geographical transitions?
Writing prose is actually my first love, and it’s always come easier for me than drawing comics. I still struggle daily to render my own scripts into artwork and being able to do that heavy lifting with just the words is a dream. I started writing short stories after my fifth-grade teacher gave me a dog-eared Bradbury paperback; making comics out of them was something I got into seriously in my mid-twenties.
As I started work on RED LIGHT PROPERTIES (it was originally commissioned by Tor.com), I moved from New York City down to São Paulo, Brazil with my wife (her native city) in search of a different kind of life. There is nothing better than living abroad to jux your compass and drop your armor, re-mold yourself to fit a different cultural shape. Over the course of my time here, some of my artist pals back in Brooklyn started an online salon called Trip City and invited me to contribute; when I sat down to write, what came out of me was a memoir of my time living in Brazil called TOUCANNUÍ. I fantasized for many years about living abroad and working for the same clients in the US no matter where my laptop was plugged in; now I’m documenting the less-shiny realities of that dream as the backdrop of a travelogue through Brazilian culture.
Being in Brazil’s been inspiring as hell, especially getting outside of the city of São Paulo (which is surprisingly conservative for a megapolis of 20 million); it’s the big and unspeakably beautiful Brazilian nature that I prefer. It’s full of history and folktales and strange fruits and animals. I’ve unearthed a few large Brazil-based stories here that I’ve got in the rock tumbler now, one of them will be my first prose novel (for which I’ll be taking a slow boat up the Amazon soon for dirty-fingernails research).
Your work is both personal and political. Should writers be less afraid of doing that? Any dangers of going too personal or too political?
Of course; writers shouldn’t be afraid of anything but chirping crickets. As an artist, it’s your function in this world to reach in and pull out the oozing, beating Truth of Things that make a story worth reading. That pulsing Truth can be pulled from the outside world or from within you, it can be disguised with frilly fictions or naked and dimpled, but I just don’t connect to stories driven by high-concept plot instead of by the desires of its characters. To me, that’s the difference between art and product.
The danger in doing political work that I’ve faced in my own experience is the work’s shelf life. I did a black-hearted day-after-tomorrow graphic novel about the War on Terror called SHOOTING WAR that came out in 2007 and took place in a 2011 where John McCain was president. It was scary then, it’s a little funny now; going from “possible future” to “alternate history” definitely dulls the teeth. I think the book will grow more relevant the further away we get from “the moment” until it stands on its own as a time capsule of our Iraq War zeitgeist.
On the other hand, doing personal work (in the emotional sense) is only dangerous when people assume that everything you write is autobiographical — it’s the default setting now in our tweet-your-breakfast-and-Instagram-your-poops digital culture. I’ve always liked my work to speak for itself… but I still get readers asking me if I really donkey-punched my lovely wife (as one of my characters did to his lover) no matter how many times I have to flick them repeatedly in the nose and yell “FICTION! FICTION!”