Thursday, July 31, 2014

Developing A Sense of Humor: 9 Questions With Stand-Up Comedian Slade Ham

Slade Ham

By Sean Tuohy

There are few stand-up comics that have the ability to grab you with one joke and keep you interested. Sometimes it takes some time to develop the right rhythm with the audience, and rarely does it happen with one punch line. That is unless you’re comedian Slade Ham.

I was lucky enough to discover Ham's work one night and his on-stage personality and delivery grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. Recently, the Texas-based comic has been working as a radio DJ and podcast host in addition to spilling jokes on stage.

I chatted with Slade about his career in comedy, his first experience on stage, and the worst whiskey he’s ever had.

Sean Tuohy: What made you become a comic?

Slade Ham: It’s funny, because the things that made me want to be a comic aren’t the same things that still make me want to be a comic. I’ll answer this question the same way in the past: I was a rock DJ on the radio in my hometown, and a huge fan of stand-up throughout the 1990s, and I thought that my clever (in my mind anyway) quips on the air were somehow on par with the people I watched on A&E’s “Evening at the Improv.” It was the natural progression for a delusional 23-year-old.

The reality is that you don’t know anything in your early 20s. You just don’t. The truth was that I had already dropped out of college, moved to Dallas, failed at basic survival, moved home, was in the early stages of a bad relationship, and was scraping by as a bartender. Stand-up really was just one more attempt to find something I was good at. And of course there was the allure of being the center of attention, the guy on stage. What keeps me doing stand-up is that I feel like at 38, I have some pretty solid opinions about some things. I know who I am. I have stuff to say and the stage gives me a platform. At 23, I had nothing to say, even if I didn’t know that at the time. I just needed to feel like I was working toward something.

ST: What was your first time on stage like? Good, bad, or awful?

SH: It was a train wreck. I mean, people laughed, but civilians don’t always know better. Regular people laugh at “that’s what she said” jokes and “The Big Bang Theory.” I don’t say that to be condescending, but non-comedians have an underdeveloped sense of comedy. They think in one step. So to a room full of people in my hometown, people with very little exposure to mainstream stand-up, I definitely did well.

I was also paraphrasing bits from George Carlin and others in those first few weeks. I didn’t know any better. I corrected that really quickly though and I started sucking with my own material instead of someone else’s. No one is good their first time. You are good compared to having never done it before, but no one is good compared to the standard any pro would consider baseline.

ST: How long did it take you to develop your own voice as a comic?

SH: The adage is that it takes seven years. I think it was closer to 10 for me, but there were gaps in my schedule that delayed things. The thing is that your opinions and values change as you get older, so your voice has to as well. The whole concept of “voice” on stage is funny to me—it’s really about being authentic and being able to present what you have to say as honestly as possible. Once you learn to do that, all the other stuff falls into place. You don’t have to worry about whether you write a story or a one liner, or whether the tone of a bit “fits” your voice. You just start to write as “you.” Not only does it solve all those other problems but it simplifies your actual writing process as well. Some days I still feel like I’m working on that, but for the most part I figured out—really, really figured out—who I was on stage around the 10-year mark.

ST: Which stand-up comics influenced you?

SH: I was influenced very heavily by Carlin in the early stages. Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Cosby remain my Holy Trinity of stand-ups. Pryor and Cosby, particularly in regard to storytelling, have turned out to be bigger influences than Carlin though.

ST: You are also a radio host and podcast host of The Whiskey Brothers. Do you approach these platforms differently from stand-up comedy?

SH: They really are such different mediums. When you are on the radio by yourself there is no instant gratification. It’s literally playing to an empty room. No feedback, no laughter, no interaction. Maybe the phone rings, maybe it doesn’t. It’s just you and the microphone. I really don’t know why anyone does it, honestly. I did it initially because at least in the 1990s there was a bit of a rockstar quality to the DJ. It’s what you did if you had no musical talent but still wanted to go to concerts and feel important.

With the podcast (and with "The Outlaw Dave Show"), it’s a group environment. There is interplay and improvisation and you are actually creating something with your peers. It’s a totally different environment than being on stage by yourself. And of course you have to maintain the control. You’re operating on a clock, there are breaks to think about, levels to watch, and a ton of other things to distract you from simply being funny.

ST: Some comics write whole jokes down while others just keep it all in their head. What is your creative process when coming up with a joke?

SH: I used to have a long writing process. I would write every new joke out verbatim. I would use way too many words. I would over think it ridiculously. Now, I do so much of it on stage. I trust myself to throw a loose idea out in the middle of a show and see what happens. I always bring one good punch line with me and if things don’t work, that’s my out. You can always follow it with something old and proven to redeem yourself. It’s the thing the drum into your head in defensive driving classes. Always leave yourself an out. I’m gonna brake check this asshole who’s tailgating me, but if he gets all road ragey I’m going to make sure I have some space to get out of the situation. Not that defensive driving course offer that level of aggressive driving technique, but they do teach you to leave an out. New jokes are sort of that dangerous.

Most of the really good lines in some of my stories have just happened on stage though. You really are in a different mindset during a show—much more free, much more creative, very much the same way that people are in hypnosis shows. There is no over thinking it. It’s live fire, funny or die. I have a huge respect for the guys that can just sit down with a notepad and write “jokes.” I am fascinated by that. I realize that that seems like a racecar driver not knowing how to drive a stick shift, but I really do suck at it.

ST: You are a well-known whiskey drinker. What is your least favorite whiskey to drink?

SH: I was given a bottle of something called Yukon Gold for the podcast once. It’s the only bottle I’ve ever given back to a fan. It tasted like feet and sadness.

ST: I have to ask, did the Asian woman at Dunkin' Donuts ever dial the other "1"?

SH: Haha, that’s such an old bit but such a very true story. Kudos for knowing some of my old stuff that well. I’ve told the stage version of it so many times that I’ve forgotten what parts are true and which ones aren’t. What is true is that I was very much chased by my ex that night and I went to the Dunkin’ Donuts with the very sincere hope that a cop would be there. I remember laughing about that to myself even as her headlights raced toward me in the rearview mirror.

And she very much burst through the door and started throwing anything she could get her hands on—salt shakers, napkin holders, and then eventually one of those big drink machines got shoved off a counter and shattered the plate glass window. The only other person there was that poor little Chinese woman. It was two in the morning and I know I’m putting words in her mouth in the joke. As far as I actually remember, she just stood there as everything broke and watched. And I’m certain she pressed the “9” and both “1s” the second we left.

ST: What is one random fact about yourself?

SH: I take a toy Yoda with me everywhere I go and shoot pictures of him like one of those roaming gnomes. He’s been in something close to 15 countries with me since I got him last October, and I guard him as closely as I do my passport. There is a photo album with him on my Facebook and Flickr, and it’s gotten so bad that people no longer care what I’m doing; they just want to see Yoda in cool places.

To learn more about Slade Ham, check out his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @sladeham.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Water Works: 10 Photos To Cool You Off This Summer

Haven't spent enough time at the beach, lake, or any other preferred body of water this summer? Don't worry, Writer's Bone photo essayist Cristina Cianci's latest post is the perfect cure-all for the summertime blues. Feel free to share your own water photos by tweeting us @WritersBone.

By Cristina Cianci

I grew up 20 minutes from the ocean. You can find me on the beach winter, spring, summer, and fall (in the appropriate seasonal wear of course). Nothing beats a quiet beach interrupted by the dulcet sound of waves spilling over the sand. I even have an alarm clock that makes that noise.

I have to get back to my beach towel and brightly colored cocktail, but enjoy my favorite water photos (seagulls and soothing waves not included):

1. A lagoon in my friend's backyard in Florida.

2. The Atlantic Ocean. This was taken during my first trip to the state of New Hampshire! It's also the farthest north I've been in the U.S. Check those off the list!

3. The Hudson River from my new neighborhood in New York City.

4. My pool at my family's home in New Jersey on a sunny day.

5. Lago di Caldaro in Italian Alps.

6. Magical September sun beams on the Venetian canals.

7. Post winter waves in New Jersey.

8. My cousin fully enjoying herself in Lago di Resia, Italy.

9. Post Friday night cocktail with views of lower Manhattan.

10. My favorite home away from home, our summer escape in Wildwood Crest, N.J. It has held many memories and secrets for the past 25 years, and will hold many more during the next 25. 

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Loving the Music of Language: 9 Questions With Novelist Peter Heller

Peter Heller

By Daniel Ford

I can’t tell you how many times I picked up Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars while frequenting bookstores in New York City. I may have read the entire book in aisles and walking around stores figuring out if I had enough money in my account to buy it (I didn’t).

I wasn’t the only one who fell hard for Heller’s post-apocalyptic story that centered around a man, his dog, and an airplane. It was a New York Times best-seller, the 2012 iTunes novel of the year, and an Atlantic Monthly best book of 2012.

Not bad for a first novel.

Heller took a timeout from promoting his new book The Painter to talk to me about loving the music of language, his early influences, and who he bases his characters on.

Daniel Ford: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?

Peter Heller: My father read to me every night before bed. Started when I was very small. I remember him reading e.e. cummings poems to me when I was six, “Buffalo Bill’s defunct…!” He was a writer and loved words and from that time it was all I wanted to do. When I was eleven, my school librarian handed me In Our Time, that beautiful collection of Ernest Hemingway stories, mostly about Nick Adams in Upper Michigan. My jaw dropped. I wanted to do that.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?

PH: I write in a coffee shop. Music or no, it doesn’t matter. Something about the hubbub hones my focus. I write fiction starting with the first line. I just love the music of the language, and I let that music carry me into the story. I don’t plot much. I want to be as surprised as the reader, and I know that if I am thrilled, shocked, surprised, she will be, too.

DF: The Dog Stars put you on the map as a writer and was on a ton of best of lists in 2012. How did you go about publishing it and how did it feel to experience that kind of positive reaction for your first novel?

PH: I wrote the book in a white heat in seven months. My agent was bowled over and sold it in a week to Jenny Jackson at Knopf, who is the most wonderful editor. I was blown away by the response. First from the people at Knopf, then from Random House reps who travel the country to booksellers, then from the booksellers and readers. It hit a chord that people responded to in a very powerful way. I was amazed and kind of awed, deeply humbled, and grateful.

DF: The literary landscape is saturated, and in a sense always has been, with apocalyptic stories. During your writing process, what decisions did you make to ensure that The Dog Stars stood out?

PH: I didn’t! I just listened to Hig’s voice and wrote it as fast as I could. About three pages in, I realized, “Holy crap, I’m writing a post-apocalyptic novel. I don’t want to write a post-apocalyptic novel!” For one, I didn’t, as a first time novelist, want to be compared to Cormac McCarthy and The Road. But I could see that my character Hig had a certain joy of life and a sense of humor an that this was a different project, so I persisted.

DF: Your most recent novel, The Painter, is a genre switch, but also focuses on a character trying to survive and overcome the events surrounding him. What was the inspiration for the novel and was the writing process different the second time around?

PH: The process was similar to The Dog Stars. I began with a first line and let it rip. Soon it became apparent that the character narrating the story sounded a lot like my painter friend Jim Wagner. A lot. He has a similar backstory: he is a famous artist from Taos, he shot a guy in a bar, etc. And my character looked and sounded like the real Jim. So I had to call him up and ask permission. He is a huge hearted generous soul like the fictional Jim Stegner, so he laughed and said, “Keep going!” I had to thin a bit more in structuring this book; thought about what might happen next. But only in the broadest terms. The rest, as in The Dog Stars, was about letting the character tell his story, following the music of the language.

DF: Given the nature of The Dog Stars and The Painter, the readers spend a lot of time with your main characters. How much of yourself, or those you interact with on a daily basis, do you put into each character? How do you go about developing your character once you have him or her in your mind?

PH: Hig spoke and I listened and wrote. I suppose he is a lot like me. Except that he can cook! Jim Stegner, as I said, is wholly based on my artist friend Jim Wagner. It’s interesting to experiment with characters who are very similar to real people, characters who are composites, and characters who are wholly invented.

DF: Now that you have two well-received novels under your belt, what’s next?

PH: I’m beginning the third. Once you begin making it all up, there’s no going back.

DF: What advice do you give to up-and-coming writers?

PH: Write a certain amount of words every day, and once you hit that mark, continue a bit until you can stop in the middle of an exciting scene or thought. That way, you can’t wait to get up in the morning and begin again.

DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

PH: I learned to catch trout by hand a few summers ago. A kid in Paonia, Colorado who is a master tracker taught me how. I’d always thought it was a myth.

To learn more about Peter Heller, check out his official website or like his Facebook page.

Episode 36: What Have Daniel and Sean Been Doing All Summer?

Sean Tuohy and Daniel Ford are reunited and it feels so good (It actually feels sweaty, awkward, and insecure…).

The guys talk about their summer reading lists, Sean’s anger toward the new “Mad Max” movie, Comic-Con and superhero burnout, and their appearance in Jacqueline Druga’s new novel.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Life Alchemist: How Zilla Rocca Cooked Up His Noir Hop Recipe

Zilla Rocca

Guest post by Zilla Rocca

Rick Rubin summed it up for me in an interview last year:

"When you’re a fan from the outside of something, you can embrace it in a different way than when you’re a fan from the inside. Run-D.M.C. could be sort of gangstery in their own way, pre-gangster rap, because they were suburban kids. Kurtis Blow, who was from Harlem and really around gangsters, he didn’t want to be a gangster. He wanted to look above it and wear leather boots and be more like a rock star. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were really inner-city, hard-life guys, and they wanted to be from outer space.”

I grew up during the South Philly mafia wars of the 1980s and 1990s, where people's houses were blown up from nail bombs in the mailbox. This kid I went to grade school with was called into the principal's office to find out his mafia father was gunned down. My best friend's wife is the daughter of a capo who just got out of jail after a 14-year stretch. I've been inside mafia bars. I've delivered pizza to mafia houses. I played sports with guys who are now high ranking officials. My mother's first house had issues with property value because a  former mob boss delayed a riverside development near our house—he tried extorting the developer for $1 million and the developer went to the FBI. It took another 10 years for that development to happen.

It was just an accepted part of growing up, but I didn't want to be in it. Most guys in South Philly were in heaven when “The Sopranos” was on the air because it resembled parts of our lives. Same with “Goodfellas,” “A Bronx Tale,” etc. But I'm not Italian, so that wasn't a badge of honor. It's fun to visit those guys on a television screen, but you don't want to live next door to them or work for them. They had no integrity or character. They were also incredibly stupid—none of them finished high school. Like Posdnous said, they were animals surviving with animal behavior. I was never like that.

When I first started writing raps, it was on some super-lyrical shit in 1997 because that was the style—Wu-Tang, Killarmy, Canibus, Big Pun, Black Thought. Even back then, there was a group of all white South Philly rappers named Nostra who wanted to be mafia guys. I thought they were clowns (I just found their stuff on Philaflava). By my early 20s, I was into crazy abstract shit like Camp Lo, Aesop Rock, El-P, and doseone. My mid-20s, I had more stories to tell about women. I was really into Slum Village, Q-Tip, and Ghostface. My late 20s, I start pinpointing what I really liked and left everything behind: nightlife, good booze, the way certain words sound, and stories about crime.

Zilla Rocca

The way I write is a combination of things: most of them start out with notes and phrases I keep on the notepad in my phone. I get those phrases from anywhere—comic books, something I hear an old lady say at the market, a lyric from a different genre, a hardboiled crime book I'm reading. So I weave those in with some personal experiences, but I stray away from being 100 percent open about my life on purpose ("Success is Invisible" off “Neo Noir” is probably the most honest and concise I've been in a while). It's more about quick snapshots of my life mixed in with phrases and notes blended with shit that sounds good.

I edit a lot. I barely do drugs. I work a day job. I'm engaged. I go to the gym. I practice Buddhism. My life is pretty balanced. But there's times when it's not balanced, and there were many years when it was completely out of whack. Once I started focusing on things I always enjoyed though, it started manifesting itself. Last night, I was at two speakeasies then had a steak dinner at an English pub. My fiancée bought me Bulleit rye for Christmas. A dude in New York City at my last show brought four books for me to borrow, and all of them are about detectives, noir, and tough guy writers from the 1930s. This stuff wasn't happening to me in 2008 because I was obstructing and compartmentalizing my creativity: "I make beats for this guy over here that sound like this, then I do weird one-offs for me that get leaked by themselves, then my main album has to have this producer only on it" and so on.

I really connected with John Lennon, because he would write stuff like "I Am the Walrus" and "Come Together," which are lyrically thrilling. Then he would write beautiful and simple songs like "Julia," "Oh Yoko," and "Jealous Guy." Tom Waits is the same to me. What Waits always does, and what John figured out later, is not compartmentalize his stuff like "My love songs go over here, and my drawings go over there, and my short stories stay under the bed, and my love for kazoos stays hidden forever." He puts them all together because they're all him. I try to do that, so my personal stuff mixes with slang mixes with stories from other people mixes with a Daredevil comic mixes with an old phrase my grandmother used to say. The common thread is my enjoyment from all of them. After becoming fans and friends of Billy Woods, Curly Castro and I decided to start putting more sports references in our songs because that's a big part of our lives that we kept out on purpose.

I love Action Bronson because his entire career is based solely off of things that make him laugh, smile, or want to eat. He only follows his joy, whether it's a baseball player from the 1990s he used to worship, or a pair of sneakers he always wanted, or doing something foul to a prostitute. He blends it all together all of the time. He's never obstructed. He raps over "November Rain." He tells crime stories that go nowhere but sound intoxicating. He lusts for roasted elk. He's so open to the world, and what he attracts fulfills his interests because he only pursues his interests. He can't write a hook and he's famous with a major label record deal because he shares with you all of things that make him giddy.

I try to do the same thing because that's the most honest way to write.

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Table of Contents: Galactic Girl Power and 50 Shades of Learning

More coffee and inspiration needed.

This is the debut of a new Writer’s Bone series that collects stories from around the Internet that will inspire you to keep writing and reading.

By Daniel Ford

Galactic Girl Power

Thor is set to become a woman, the new Captain America will be black, and Nicole Perlman made history by becoming the first woman to write a Marvel movie (this summer’s soon-to-be blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Think you’ve got problems trying to make it as a writer? Try being a female screenwriter interested in science fiction. Perlman recently spoke to Time about the hurdles she had to leap over to be taken seriously and how women can write “guy movies” just as well (if not better) than the fellas.

50 Shades of Learning

Texts I received from Stephanie Schaefer last week:

Sixty-year-old women on train are watching “50 Shades of Grey” trailer and making noises…#awkward

This movie looks like a piece of shit. I mean even worse than I thought.

All of this is surprising considering the source material won a Pulitzer and is being taught in classrooms around the U.S.

Wait, that’s not right…

However repugnant it may seem, trashy novels do have a place in the culture. At least people are reading and buying books.

If nothing else, writers aiming for the National Book Award can learn a few things from the God-awfulness of books like 50 Shades of Grey.

My favorite piece of advice from Roy Peter Clark’s recent Poynter post? This:

“The key to writing good sex (good anything) is original language.” 

Self-Publishing for the Win

If NPR says that some self-published authors are raking in the dough, then it must be true.

A controversial report states that “self-published writers earn more money overall from e-books than authors who have been signed by the big five publishing houses.”

While that study might be flawed, we’ve interviewed several self-published authors who are making a living from their work (I’m looking at you Jacqueline Druga). But as multiple guests have pointed out, you need a plan off attack and the discipline to execute it. There are more channels out there for aspiring authors than ever before, but do your homework before deciding on which path is right for you.

Chase quality writing and powerful storytelling, not dollars.

These Are Some Good Writers, Eh

Mary Ann Gwinn, book editor for The Seattle Times, rounds up several Canadian authors you should be reading. I’m intrigued by her Alistair MacLeod recommendations. Perhaps it’s my French-Canadian blood talking, but I can’t resist a story about fishermen. Or dysfunctional families.

I also picked up Alice Munro’s Dear Life recently and have been waiting for the right to crack its spine. Maybe after I read the 567,897 books in my queue…

Book Hoarders

I didn’t click on this Los Angeles Times article because I have a problem or anything…

According to Hector Tobar, there’s a word for people who buy books and don’t read them. It sounds pretty badass! If it weren’t for crippling loneliness and obsessive-compulsive behavior, I would totally sign up to be one of these people.

Unfortunately, I actually read most of the books I buy. Okay, 50 percent of them. Fine, 25 percent.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Badass Writer of the Week: George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin

By Sean Tuohy

He's portly. He wears glasses. The man can wear the hell out of a vest. He plays Dungeons & Dragons in his free time.

George R.R. Martin is nobody's geek grandpa. He's a complete and utter badass.

Who else creates vivid fantasy worlds that he quickly filled with characters that you fall in love with and then kills them off in the most bloody gruesome way he can think of.

Martin is responsible for this:

Was that not the most brutal death imaginable for someone named Ned?

Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series was already popular, but the critically acclaimed HBO series brought the novels and their author to a higher level in the zeitgeist.

So you might expect someone that's killing off beloved characters the same way you brush your teeth in the morning to be covered in tattoos, causing Twitter outrage on a daily basis, and driving a Harley at 100 mph without a helmet (Not that any of our other Badass Writers of the Week fit that description or anything...). However, Martin is still the down to earth nerd he started out as.

You know what else makes him a badass? He doesn't give a White Walker about whether or not he lives long enough to finish his novels. He's writing this series as much for him as he is for his readers and is doing it at his own pace. Check out Martin's reaction to an interviewer when he's asked about whether he's worried about dying before he finishes or not:

He's not just giving humanity the finger; he's flipping off the Grim Reaper. We feel pretty confident that Martin is going to live long enough to end A Song of Fire and Ice with a comet smacking into Westeros and incinerating every single last character.

In that spirit, let's joyously watch some people get brutally murdered and appreciate the true badass genius of George R.R. Martin.

For more literary badassery, check out our Badass Writers of the Week page.