Tuesday, May 31, 2016

commencement speech - May 30, 2016

The Cate School graduating class of 2016 was kind enough to ask me to speak at their commencement this past weekend. Below is the transcript of my remarks (and if I can get my hands on a tape, I'll post that, too):

Mr. Williams, trustees, guests, colleagues, and you, class of 2016, thank you for asking me to speak to you today. It is, as someone just wrote me in an email, a truly inconvenient honor.
When I was growing up in New York City, I went to an all boy’s Catholic school on the upper east side – admittedly -- in a slender red-brick building with a chapel tucked inside and a church across the street. It wasn’t a big school. Twenty students per class, all in ties and blazers. Except on Wednesdays, there’d always be one or two kids who would show up in their Knickerbocker Greys.
Specifically, this referred to a pair of grey flannel pants -- peg legged, with a silk stripe down the side seam -- and a matching long-sleeve button-down, with cuffs and collar and chevrons and stars and what have you. Tucked tie. Shiny black shoes. Polished belt buckle. Sometimes a garrison cap.
Pretty spiffy look for an eight-year-old, but I wouldn’t say the rest of us were particularly envious. I think the general consensus was that it was a little weird, coming to school like this, mostly because we didn’t really know what the Knickerbocker Greys were for. Training these kids to be young officers presumably. Something between that and a citified version of the Boy Scouts, which meant what? Merit badges for flagging a cab? Or dealing with the caterer?
So the other thing you need to know about me is that I wasn’t a very social kid. All my report cards had some line in there about how “Brooks should be encouraged to play more with the other children.” It’s not like I had no friends. I just didn’t do the play-date thing. I liked to keep it between the lines, if you know what I mean. Go to school, have my fun. Come home. Do my homework. Bite to eat, then settle down in front of Rangers game, maybe with a little piece chocolate, an orange, drawing pad.  Who has a problem with this?
But my parents read the report cards and so every so often I’d get pressured into going over to someone’s house. It was like my version of paying taxes.
So this kid named Brooke Mitchell invites me over this one time, and I liked Brooke. Nice smile. Straight part. He looked like a little Ken Berry, for those who might remember. So we set it up for a Saturday afternoon. My mother dropped me off around lunchtime. And Brooke’s mother is there. Very gracious, lovely woman. Nice little beehive. We sit right down for lunch, and Brooke comes out, and he’s wearing his Knickerbocker Greys. Which I think is a little weird, but okay. I figure he must have gone this morning, and he just got back. Fine. He’ll change after lunch, we’ll get out the Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, and I can be outta here by three. 
But so we’re eating, and they’re being very kind. You know: “We’re so glad you could come. Brooke was so excited could make it.” And I’ve got my little tuna sandwich, sliced apple. Everything’s fine. But then Mrs. Mitchell says, “So we forgot when we asked you, but Brooke has the Knickerbocker Grays this afternoon. We were thinking maybe you could just go along with him.”
And my first thought is, you know, ‘No...And that this exactly why I don’t do this sort of thing, this bait-and-switch baloney you people pull.’ But what am I going to do? They’re being very nice. I’m eating their food, so I say, “Okay, sure.”
And I don’t remember how we got there -- cab, bus – but right after lunch we head down to 66th and Madison, the Armory, which is this giant fortress-like building that takes up half a block, no windows. And you know how when you’ve kind of been picturing something in your head that you know nothing about, and then you finally get to see it, and you think, “Wow, this is completely not what I thought it was going to be”… Well, this was pretty much exactly like what I thought it was going to be.
We go in, and it’s this enormous, open space like a track gym, except I think there might have been some kind of artificial hill in the middle, made out of Styrofoam or asbestos or something. (It was the ‘70s.) But everywhere else there are these regiments of little boys, marching around in formation, divided up by age, or excuse me, “rank” – little troop of five-years-old-here, nine-year-olds over there, all the way up to fourteen or so, and they’re the cool ones, because they’ve got the visored hats and actual swords with sheaths, which are pretty cool, I gotta admit.
But again, I am not feeling one angstrom of envy or authentic interest. This is all, as far as I’m concerned, an absolute freak show, and I’m just working on the speech I’m going to give my mother when I get home, about the fact that this is buying three months at least of leave-me-the-hell-alone; like, I should be good through the end of playoffs.
But then it gets worse. Mrs. Mitchell leaves us there; she’ll come pick us up when it’s over. So it’s just me and Brooke, but now Brooke turns to me like (shrug) “So…I think I gotta go now. I’ve got to go march with my troop. See ya.”
 So he goes off, in his twerpy little uniform, and I’m left there with all the newbies, and the reason you know we’re newbies is because we’re standing there in our alligator shirts and blue jeans, or the khaki shorts with the metal hooks on them.
So we all get led over into this alcove, and they stand us in formation, and then this man marches up in front of us, and he’s in the adult version of a Knickerbocker Grey. He’s the ‘Colonel’ or something, and for all intents and purposes, he is George C Scott. He’s got the buzz cut and the attitude, the riding crop, and he goes into this spiel: “Gentlemen,  I’d like to welcome you to our august institution, dating back 150 years, yadayadayada – “ I’m not really listening. I’m beside myself. “And I want to thank you for the interest you’ve expressed in coming out here today.”
(And I’m thinking, waitTime-out signal: “I had absolutely no interest…”)
And he says, “But let me not assume. If you are here because you’d like to join the Knickerbocker Greys, please step forward.”
And so every other kid around me takes a step forward. “Yes, sir!”
And the colonel says, “Good. So everyone.”
At this point, I think I just went blank. Or I actually think my life may have flashed before my eyes, only not my life leading up to that moment; my life afterwards. Like I think I saw myself on Porkchop Hill, taking twelve slugs in the chest in slo-mo, all because of this freakin’ play-date my teachers for some reason wanted me to go on.
So I don’t really know what happened after that. This is where my memory fails me, but my educated guess would be that about three seconds after the Colonel was done talking, I raised my hand to ask where the bathroom was. Then I went and spent the next hour-and-a-half hiding out in a toilet stall. That seems like the soundest approach under the circumstances.
But I also have to confess that, in addition to not know what actually happened next, I also don’t really know why I wanted to tell you this story this morning -- or this semi story. And I still don’t. But I guess one of the things that strikes me about it -- I think the reason I find it kind of entertaining, but also so deeply distressing -- is just how firm my sense was back then of what I was willing to do, and what I was not willing to do. Right there at the age of eight or nine, I seemed to have had a pretty clear picture of who I was.
So maybe that’s what I want to talk to you about…
…Because right now, you’re a pretty primed group, and you’re about to take a giant step out into a world charged with purpose – you are, and the world is, spurred by some very real problems that need addressing, but also by an extraordinary amount of progress that’s been made in relatively short space of time, I’m not sure you’re aware how quickly, on certain significant social issues.
And there can be no question that a lot of that progress has derived its energy from -- but also focused a lot of energy on -- this idea of identity. In fact, it almost begins to feel like maybe that should be our collective purpose now, to encourage and to celebrate the ultimate realization of ourselves as individuals. Maybe that’s how we advance not just as a society, but as a species. This is actually not such a new idea, but we seem more determined now than at any time I can recall to establish the specific terms according to which we recognize and affirm our own particular identities.  I’m talking about race, of course, and gender, and gender identity, and sexual orientation, and political orientation, and nationality, and class, and religion, and culture, and cultural legacy, language, food preference, medical conditions…The list goes on, and doesn’t even include those secondary indicators such as: What do we ‘like’? What do we share? What do we purchase? What do we click? Because that’s the other thing to keep in mind: the fact that these choices we’re making, or the identities we’re confirming, are (a lot of them) being etched into a tablet that cannot be erased. For the first time ever, there shall be no forgetting our answers – only, god-willing in certain cases, ignoring them.
The point is, as active and engaged members of the 21st century, we are helpless not to see ourselves reflected in these terms, and therefore helpless – or almost helpless -- not to conclude that this is who we are.
And I’m certainly not here to try to blow up the project on that account, or tell you not to participate. On the contrary, I see the good and the sense of empowerment that comes from being able to name and to claim the various aspects of your identity. I see the value of recognizing how others perceive you, and I believe that as an engine of social change, your voices must be heard on these subjects, as a way to influence attitudes, and to influence policy as well -- public policy, private policy, education policies, the law and social justice. For all of these causes, it is vital that you stand, that you identify, clarify, and testify.
So what is my concern? Because I definitely seem to have one…
I guess it’s this:  that by the same token as the world needs you to do these thing in order to keep changing in all the positive ways it has begun to,  I just want to make sure you give yourself that same opportunity.
The concern, you see -- and I don’t address this exclusively just to you. I address it to you (the audience) and to myself , the boy we all left in the bathroom at the Knickerbocker Greys --  the concern  is that in the process of identifying ourselves according to this increasingly particular, insistent, and politically charged set of markers and indicators, we risk doing to ourselves precisely what it is that we  want to stop others from doing to us: that is, limiting us. We risk treating ourselves, and those around us, as maybe only being capable of seeing the world in this way. Or that way. From that angle. Through that lens.  Because of who they are. Or who we are.
The concern is that these newly burnished and robust senses of identity become almost like suits of armor: they help protect us, sure, and they empower us, and they embolden us in a lot of important ways. But if we’re not careful, they might trap us, too.
Why is this my concern? Because no matter how articulate, how forceful, or how magnificent the identity you claim for yourself may be, I say it still underestimates you.  Vastly.
So let me give you a couple reasons why I believe this and then I’ll leave.
Reason #1:  I write. Fiction. And anyone who writes fiction is -- whether they admit it or not -- constitutionally opposed to the idea there are places they can’t go, feelings they can’t imagine, scenes they can’t enter, or perspectives they can’t occupy. We don’t buy that. Quite the contrary, the fiction writer of a certain stripe – or any artist of that same stripe -- operates on an alternate premise: that the whole universe and all history, and everything that’s ever happened, and every feeling anyone has ever had, is available to you – of course it is -- and the only thing standing between you and that exhaustive record of human, animal, and even botanical experience is…yourself. If you can somehow manage to get that grandstanding piece of crud out of the way, tell it to be quiet and go sit in the corner – or better, just get out of the office completely, go – well, then, all the world and everything in it is only too happy to come in and fill the vacuum.
Do I really believe this? 100%. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Take it from John Keats, take it Virginia Woolf. Take it from William Shakespeare, or Miles Davis, or Jacqueline Du Pres. Take it from Stef Curry. What do all of their favorite and most brilliant moments on earth have in common?
They weren’t there.
Reason #2: I teach. You. Like all these people sitting here to my right.
You ever ask yourself what they’re doing here?  Is it because they love their various fields of study? To an extent, but if that’s what they were most interested in -- the scholarship -- then presumably they’d be teaching it at the university level, right? They got the PhD’s, a lot of them.
So why are they here?…other than the salad bar.
I’d suggest they’re here because what really excites them -- even more than history or biology, Japanese, statistics, or poetry -- is change. That’s what gets them up in the morning, is the opportunity to participate in human transformation. And they’ve figured out that there’s no better fix for that particular addiction than being around you all at this stage of your life.  That’s why they’re here, and to your credit, you justify that choice – not every day, let’s not get crazy – but season-in, season-out, you do; and you know that’s true, because you know who you were when you got here, and you know who you are now.
But so it would be really weird to think that -- after all the effort that we’ve put in here together, to turn you from that person into this person -- that our hope looking forward would be for you to go finish the job. Right?  Go lock it down. Figure out exactly who you really are once and for all --
No. Again, you might as well be trapped inside toilet stall waiting for the play-date to end (and I promise that’s the last time I’ll go there).
I submit to you that the hope looking forward is the same as it’s been since you got here. We want you to go out and keep changing, keep adjusting, and revising; only you have to do it on your own initiative now, and under your own guidance with the tools we hope we’ve given you. But please keep surprising yourself, keep challenging yourself, let yourself fail, let yourself miss, let yourself be dumb, and wrong. That’s how you grow.
In fact, I would submit to you that that is our even higher hope: that you treat this process – of ongoing transformation -- as one of constant expansion and inclusion.  
And what the heck, might as well say it while we’re on the subject . No one’s going to hold you to it, seeing as only a handful of humans have ever pulled this one off, but it’s still worth stating for the record that the very highest hope that we or anyone could have for you (this being the utmost aspiration of the human spirit) would be that you transcend that barrier entirely – and I’m still talking about your ‘identity’ here. Move beyond the mindset that can only view the world in terms of category, differentiation, subdivision and opposition. Look at the word “universe.” Consider the possibility that maybe that’s right -- maybe everything really is, at essence, just one thing…
…And identify with that.
You have your assignment, class of 2016. Go in peace. Clearly, and happily, you will be in our thoughts, and in each other’s thoughts, for a long time to come.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

ASMODEUS excerpt #3 - Orabas

Similar thoughts had dogged him the whole way there, which had been a full night's journey over the Fences and then the Southern Ridges. As thrilling as the speed and the height should have been, and as awe-inspiring as anyone would have found the view – lit by a magnificent full moon above and the shimmering lakes below, like carved mirrors scattered across the land – Orabas's thoughts had been more about revenge and turning tables. Should he wait until after he had found the shamir to make his move? Let Modo have the gem, then journey north and steal it back? Or should he take his chances now, at the soonest opportunity?
Even as he pondered his option, he had been aware that Modo was listening. Indeed, from the moment their eyes had met, Orabas felt as if a kind of silvery fog had entered his mind and was creeping through, invading and enveloping every corner and crevice. That was how they'd navigated, in fact. Orabas wasn't steering the dragon so much as thinking where they should go. The dragon understood.
By the time they came upon the Ord and followed it down to Monpel, the fog had entered him so deeply, he felt as though there was nothing he could feel or think to which the dragon was not privy, and that included any plots he might be hatching. Modo was not concerned. Try, was his reply (for the communication ran both ways, still). So much as flex a single muscle in defiance of my will, and I will slough you off, let you drop from here. Orabas had no doubt of it, and that long before Orabas even hit the ground, Modo would have turned around and be headed back to find his family – the born, the bearing, and the unborn. Modo knew about that as well.
But strangely Orabas did not resent him. On the contrary, as dawn arrived and they set down beside their cave, a kind of intimacy had been established between them. They were kin, in a way – as keepers of the jewel. They were like soldiers on opposite sides of the trench, opposed in color and purpose, but victims of the very same spell.
Sleep, came the silent lullaby, and Orabas closed his eyes. Sleep, said the dragon, even as he slept. The word was like a blanket covering over all of Orabas’s best intentions, their two minds much too intertwined to accommodate the thought of taking up that boulder. Killing Modo would have been like carving a tumor from his own brain...

ASMODEUS excerpt #2 - Margret

So in she'd go and spend the whole day filling her bowl – that was how she thought of it, and of herself. Whatever there was to taste, she would; whatever there was to touch, she would. Or smell, or hear or understand. Again, she spent most of her time in the library, going from book to book, or jar to jar. She discovered that if she took the jars into the music room and simply put them to her ear, she could hear stories as clearly as if she were reading them to herself. She heard them all, and often if she was so inspired she'd go straight to the dressing room and find whatever she needed – the gown, the tunic, the turban or the suits of armor. She would take up the bows and swords and stand before the mirrors, and the mirrors would reply with villains and muses and nemeses, courtiers, paramours, challengers and fiends. And it wasn't long before she realized the mirrors were not mirrors at all, but frames and thresholds leading into deeper tunnels, dungeons and catacombs. All she had to do was step through and she could slay knaves, dance Orientales, escape dark dungeons. She could be all things: a queen, a maiden, she could be king, scientist, alchemist. Each garment set off another world, another past and future, filled with her in its guise. She could conclude the war; dress the wound; finish out the sentence; remove the head or have her head removed; she could starve or gorge, fly (as she already knew how to do); but swim the deepest oceans too; command, obey, chisel, play, pray, betray; everything a human could, or any beast had ever done, she could do.
Or almost everything.
No wonder, then, that every day should end with sheer exhaustion. Finally she would be so tired she'd lose all track of where she was. How could she know, with all these doors and halls and little corridors she followed? She'd try retracing her steps back on through the picture frames or mirror frames and jars, but sometimes she would simply lie down where she was, right there on the rug or in the nearest chair, and that was fine. That worked too, because no matter where she fell asleep, she always woke up back in her bed again, and in her room, where there would be a new light coming in, a new blanket, and new flowers on the bureau, waiting to greet her.
And he'd have done that too.

ASMODEUS excerpt #1 - Modo

His golden eyes flicked open, blinked, and narrowed to a squint as he finally lifted up his great, horned head. He shrugged the veil of wings. He uncoiled from his most precious gem and lumbered upward, following the airborne trail up through the high tunnel to the opening just beside the cataract.
Only his muzzle appeared at first, shining like tar in the slanting sunlight, but even that merest of appearances stirred notice among the hovering hawks and vultures: Look. Be warned and wary. The master had awakened.
His head slid further out, taking in the day. The clouds had lifted. The sky was polished glass, but the familiar whisper was still there, coming from below. Down on the near shore of the inlet was a scuttled boat. Again his eyes narrowed, trying to figure from the tides just how long ago the wreck had occurred, and whether its victims were still on premise. He hoped not. Men had their place, but it wasn’t here.
…He crawled further out onto the ledge and extended his neck toward the curtain of water, which was fuller today than usual, gushing down from the mountains after all that rain. He helped himself to several gulps. He let the bracing cold beat on his head a while, then shook free with a glistening, majestic explosion, lifted his wings and leapt. He glided most of the way down, turning three wide circles in the crux of the fjord, his great spanned shadow dashing along the cliff-side, flicking across the cataract, then across the blue surface below, around and up and around again three times before finally re-meeting him, claw to claw, on the strand beside the boat...

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Star Pine Books

This week marks two or three fun unveilings. The first is of my own imprint, Star Pine Books.

The primary and founding purpose of Star Pine is to re-release former titles of mine under my own aegis, both to ensure that my work is readily and perennially available – as any self-respecting author’s work should be in 2016 – and available in a way redounds to my own, and more importantly to my children’s, financial benefit. Ditto.

The first of the older titles I am releasing – my tent-pole, as ’t’were -- is The Chess Garden. More specific, descriptive and critical information about The Chess Garden can be found pretty easily from your present perch. For this space here, let it simply be said that I’m very pleased with the StarPine edition, in no small part because its cover features the artwork of Renaissance man and former Commendabi Leaguer Ethan Barretto, who started sending me drawings even before he knew of my intentions. The interior design is more simple and readable than it has ever been. Also and for what it’s worth (about 5 bucks), the new release has facilitated the first ever digital offering of the title. Given its particular age and the remarkable modesty of its former spokespeople, The Chess Garden has never (except to outright thieves) been available on Kindle, i-pad, i-phone, etc. Now it is.

But on the principle that one should never throw a party without party favors, I have – for this inaugural gala to which you have unwittingly invited yourself  – decided to offer a second, never-before-seen title as well, about which I am no less excited.

Asmodeus: The Legendof Margr├ęt and the Dragon. 

My preference, of course, is to let books speak for themselves, but I know how these things work, and I don't expect to be doing a whole lot of marketing, knowing me. So, for those Totos among you who can’t seem to resist chewing on the pant-leg of the charlatan behind the curtain, you are welcome to peruse the posts immediately below to learn the two back-stories – one personal, one historical -- that provided for the conception and creation of Asmodeus.

But before getting to that, one or two last words about the Star Pine venture, just to be clear.
I certainly wouldn't want for my new shingle to be construed as some sort of GBCW directed at traditional literary publishing, which I continue to believe has matchless virtues, the benefits of which I’d be thrilled to enjoy at the next available opportunity. However, inasmuch as not everything I write is going to appeal to even my favorite gatekeepers, there exists the possibility that other new books may follow in the wake of Asmodeus, to take their place on Star Pine, snuggling in alongside the older titles to enjoy their company, their shade, and their warmth. It is in that modest, but also admittedly vain, spirit that I proceed.

And of course when it comes to those older titles, I understand that as free, sinister, and independent citizens of the 21st century, you are at liberty to go find other, cheaper avenues by which you may avail yourself of the same material. I cannot stop you. I don’t even much begrudge you. We writers have been living with the menace of free distributors for longer than most of our creative kin – DAMN YOU, LIBRARIANS! But if some pang of conscience should move you to want for your enjoyment, or potential enjoyment, of these efforts to reflect back upon their ostensible source, and maybe even provide him the means to offer more in the future, please consider Start Pine Books to be a kind of Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, from me to you. My children's tummies, and my children's children's tummies, thank you.

ASMODEUS backstory #1 - the personal

Asmodeus is not, in fact, brand spanking new. The thing proper started about six or seven years ago when my son received, for his birthday, a dragon encyclopedia from either his maternal grandmother or his aunt. These claims are now in dispute and not mutually exclusive, but the book itself was an inarguably non-narrative, but very descriptive, charted, and illustrated faux-leather compendium of all the different kinds of dragons there are, with all their traits, personalities, breath weapons, lair preferences, favorite treasures and so forth.

I never really went through a dragon phase as a boy. I definitely thought they were cool, but not so cool that I ever sought them out or established any real expertise. This encyclopedia – which became my and my son’s bedtime reading for three or four months there – was my first official dip in the pond of dragon geekdom. I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was pleasantly surprised by the solemnity and complexity of thinking that had gone into the subject, and I was, as usual, drawn to the organic and ongoing quality of inquiry it represented. Like Atlantis, say, or mermaids, or what-the-heck-let’s-just-admit-it John the Baptist, dragonology is a field to which people from all over the world have been contributing their own imaginations, innovation, inspirations, and maybe even memories for literally thousands of years, and they’re still going strong. Obviously. Dragons are a still-evolving legend, which is a very appealing thing to a person such as myself.

CUT TO one day in parking lot at Vons. This would have been maybe two months into Theo’s and my crash course. My wife had gone into the market to buy some milk and bread, leaving me in the car with the children, who were then six and four. And not that they’re not perfectly behaved under all circumstances, but just to fend the possibility that being trapped in the backseat of a hot car in the Vons parking lot might make them a little fidgety, I turned around and started telling them a story about a dragon, now that I knew a little something; I laid what we in the trade call a brief “inciting incident” on them, which, looking back on it now, strikes me as having been breathtakingly unoriginal – but maybe not in such a bad way. Mythically so. When my wife returned to the car with the milk and the bread, Theo and I did look at each other and seem to agree: enough of this encyclopedia crap. Let’s find out what happens next.

So we did, and so began Asmodeus, which developed and evolved the way most works of fiction probably should, with the author – or in this case, co-authors – awakening each day with the question, “I wonder what’s going to happen next?” and using at least part of that day (and most often the final, darkest part) to figure out the answer. A pleasing delivery as these things go – mid-wifed, if I can say that without sounding obscene, by my son’s interest, which went well beyond the mere listening. He did, on several occasions, presume to enter my sacred writing space, the shed, to confer with me and share with me some of the ideas he’d been having about how the story was going. And I can say, having worked with a number of storytellers and collaborators in my day, he was pretty sharp. A very canny balance of intuition and craftiness.  I highly recommend him to anyone out there who might need an adult in the room.

(Speaking of which, the question arises, rightly: who – or whom – exactly is this book for? Well, um, er, that’s the problem, see…or the beauty part. Though this is a story about a dragon and a maiden on the cusp of womanhood, and though my seven-year-old son was very much in on its development, Asmodeus is not exactly YA, but not really adult either – which strikes me as being a spot-on description of the American electorate at the moment, so not that bad a demographic. In any case, there is a sophistication to the language, the themes, and the content, that would definitely recommend that a chaperone be present for any reader under the age of, say 12. But who(m) the book is really for, I think, is the graduate of those good old  YA dragon/fantasy tales – someone who liked that sort of thing quite a lot when it was age-appropriate, misses it, and has a hankering to return to the guilty pleasure, but would maybe like to see what happens if someone pushed the envelope a little. That's who it's for, and admit it, you are legion.)

I think the whole thing got writ in about a year and a half, which isn’t bad for me. What happened then, once the first draft was finished, enters us upon chapters of the story that I frankly find irritating and so won’t share, but through no fault of its own, the project wound up being shelved for a bit. These things happen. Then a little less than a year ago, my son found himself without a book to read at bedtime. We brought down Asmodeus to see how it was holding up. We treated it as a read-aloud for however long it took – two or three weeks – in the course of which I encountered no good reason not to share the thing, and a lot of good reasons to…

What those reasons are, I’ll keep to myself, except for maybe this. Despite that almost comically “resonant” opening chapter, Asmodeus was borne and fueled by one crucial and not quite so orthodox perspective, at least to judge by the more popular dragon portrayals we’ve been treated to in recent years – and that is that the dragon is a clearly superior being to the human. Not a pet. Not a friend. Not a weapon, or a minion, or a menace or a beast, but – evolutionarily speaking – a being possessed of several attributes that clearly place it above the human. In terms of its longevity, its concomitant sense of perspective, its flight and fire-breathing faculties, even its intelligence, there is a definite touch of divinity about the dragon, but a divinity marked by one apparent blind spot that may account for its endangerment and/or apparent extinction. Asmodeus is, among other things, an exploration of that blind spot, dedicated to the premise that the dragon, properly understood, is no supporting player, prop, or special effect, but should be treated as the magnetic and complex central charisma of its own drama. If my collaborator and I had not sensed this from the get-go, and all the rich and nutritious possibilities that this idea proffered, trust me, the whole undertaking would have dissolved as mere fancy in less than a week. It did not. It became a book, which you are hereby invited to read and judge for yourself.

ASMODEUS backstory #2 - the historical

So, although our process was happily guided by the simplest of daily prompts – so what happens next? – it bears mentioning (but again, only to those who refuse to sit back and just enjoy the show) that Asmodeus takes much of its basic scaffolding from an existing, but lesser known, legend.

Among the most famous of dragon legends involves St. George, of course – the English crusader who Christianized the city of Silene by slaying the local dragon and parading its carcass through the streets. That’s one version anyway. 

There is another saint, however, whose story can be found in that same collection of Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden legend, and her name was Margaret. Set near Antioch on cusp of the 4th century CE, Margaret's is the tale of a young shepherdess who catches the eye of the local pagan governor, despite the fact – as he subsequently discovers -- that she is a Christian. When she spurns him, he persecutes her for her faith. She stands firm, however, and at one point during her captivity, calls out for the devil to reveal himself to her. Enter the dragon, as they say. You can read for yourself what ensues, but it’s good stuff, and features my favorite tag in the whole collection, that the entry you’ve been reading “is apocryphal, and all agree to consider it a groundless fable.” Oh.

In any event, if one were to look at Jacobus’s account, and then read Asmodeus, one would see that the latter is really just an updated, transposed, and elaborate inversion of the former, re-set in what seems to be the year 1917 of a slightly alternate universe, in a land that answers to certain descriptions of Finland, and in which the pagan characters and the Christian characters have for whatever reason switched hats. As will happen in the course of time.

But enough. These are just the bones of what is offered.  Where the flesh comes from, and the blood, I have no intention of sharing here or even pretending to know, since I’m all too aware that the most delicious helpings of both will be coming from you, dear reader, not me.

Now get the hell off my pant leg.