Todd Michael Cox's Blog
November 11, 2014
One was that I wrote it on an ancient laptop either in my livingroom or outside on the back deck, whereas the works previous had all been written in the spaces I have reserved for writing (in this house that would be the basement which also houses my humble music studio). I often write to music, but this one was written while listening exclusively to a record called “Sleeps With Fishes” by On Fillmore. I’ve written to that record before, but usually I varied it. In this case, that was the only record I played (and the beautifully dreamy, otherworldly music on that album was very fitting for a novel about a strange childhood one less-than-magic summer long ago).
Another change with this one: I’ve been mentioning this particular novel at my readings, which is more than rare for me, it’s unheard of (normally I never discuss works in progress with anyone, ever). I didn’t say everything about it, of course, but I certainly talked more openly about it than any other.
This was also the quickest I have ever written anything. It took exactly seventeen weeks, and I can count the days I missed working on it on two hands.
In other words, it was a pretty damn good summer, as far as creative thingees go.
Sad to know it’s over this rather bitter November evening….
April 13, 2014
But not the kind of werewolf you might be used to. Cox’s monster is entirely human, cursed not by a gypsy but by biology, suffering from a disease that is completely organic and disturbingly real.
“I made a list of everything that’s normally included in a werewolf story,” Cox says. “And then I deliberately avoided all of them. This helped give the story the kind of grit and realism I knew it needed. This isn’t a story set in some dark English castle. There are no moors, and no gypsy curses. And there are certainly no romantic teenagers running around wasting time making googly-eyes at each other. This is my attempt to write seriously about this kind of affliction and, more importantly, how that affliction affects the people around the man who has it.”
The way the story is told is different, as well. Says Cox:
“In many ways there is a story going on in 'Beast' that could be told in a much more conventional way, but that story is in the background. I am interested in turning the camera just slightly off-center, and focusing on what would normally be off-stage in another story. I get bored with the focus always being the heart of the action. When a person is killed by a monster, let’s say, I always think of their family. The fact that a monster killed their loved one would, really, be secondary to the simple fact of their loss. It’s that background story I find more interesting, the one going on at the outskirts of the main action… or what would more conventionally be seen as the main action.”
With "Beast," another writer might have focused on entirely different characters, and tell an entirely more conventional story. Cox chose to keep that conventional story in the background, and let it come in and out of focus in the reader’s mind.
The result is a novel of realism and pathos, a character portrait focusing on those who love the unfortunately inflicted soul, with a depth and grit and realism not usually seen in this genre.
November 18, 2013
More info coming soon.
August 12, 2013
June 12, 2013
October 9, 2012
Of Books and Blacktop
Once, long ago (though not long enough) I worked for an asphalt company. I was, technically speaking, a Quality Control Technician… or, less technically, a lab tech. For a short while they tried to get us to call ourselves asphaltic technicians but there was no way in hell that was going to stick, so lab techs we remained. Sometimes we were called lab rats, usually by the rough and macho men who ran the plants and loaders and looked down at what they saw as our strange, easy, and (to them) pointless duties. We were the intellectuals, the college guys, and they never missed a chance to berate us for not being like them. It was a good job.
My duty was simple, on the surface: I was to take samples of hot mix asphalt from the beds of freshly-loaded dump trucks and perform various tests on them in an aging eighteen-wheeler trailer that had long ago been converted to a basic, functional field lab. What these tests were doesn’t matter… it hardly mattered then. The work was easy and the pay was decent. Me and my fellow lab rats (each working at one of our company’s various asphalt plants) spent our days in air conditioning, sitting at a desk for more than half of it while samples cooled or dried, and thinking often of the poor souls who had to spend their days out on the highways under the heat of evil summer suns, raking and compacting the hot mix into our state’s mostly forgettable roads and highways.
Yes, it was a good job. With winters off, mustn’t forget that. Where else could you make forty-grand a year and only work for eight months? I felt like a low-paid public official.
But the money wasn’t the best benefit of the work. The best part was the free time. While all those tests were running or waiting to be run we had next-to-nothing to do. Some chose to make themselves busy with cleaning or cards, or helping out the plant men. Others chose to talk on the phone with girlfriends, plotting weekend trysts.
Me… I chose to read.
When I think back on those times it is more often than not the books that come to mind… likewise, when I think of certain books I think of first encountering them during moments purloined from my work duties, and in many ways it was that escape from the mundane work that made the books all the sweeter.
I first read Edward Abbey in a lab in Franklin, Wisconsin. It was his collected journals, Confessions of a Barbarian, and they made an irreversible impression on me. It was the quality of the mind these journal entries revealed that struck me, and the quality of the heart which that mind often fought against.
I was struck by entries like this:
Love of Heaven slanders earth: be true to the earth.
For this world that we have made, none of us is bad enough. But for the world that made us, we are not good enough.
Paradise: Any thunderstorms in Paradise? Any buzzards? Cactus? Flash floods? Any violence, mountains, sand dunes, scorpions? No? Then keep it.
And this one, which reminded me of the environment I had found myself in… the job, the coworkers, the bosses:
Why should I put up with the second-rate? Why tolerate bores? Why give even courteous attention to all these dull pigheaded swine who stifle me with their banalities, crush me under their heavy passive benevolence, smother me with courtesy and kindness and empty goodwill. Yeah! Good swill to all men!
Yes, Ed Abby was a cantankerous sumbitch, but a complicated one… not as much the misanthrope as he might at first seem. He disliked People with a capitol P, but loved with ferocity those closest to him. As we all should. What good does it do me to claim love for all of humanity, to cry for a thousand earthquake victims in some far away land? What good does it do them? Human beings are not an endangered species… not even a particularly loveable one. Ah, but my friends and family are indeed (in the general scheme of things) rare and small in number, and being so, are therefore all the more precious.
The Confessions led me to Abbey’s novels, of course. I read The Monkey Wrench Gang in many labs throughout Southeast Wisconsin, wasting whole afternoons absorbed in the antics of that little rag-tag crew. On one rainy morning, when our job had been canceled and I was left alone at the plant-site, I put this book down and looked out the window at the giant front-end loader sitting a hundred feet or so away. That Cat looked pathetic as it waited in the gray drizzle, and I started wondering if I should experiment on the beast… if not doing actual damage, then at least go over there, crawl around it, investigate how it was put together in case the need might arise later to take it apart. I stayed inside and kept reading that day, but a week or so later I struck up a conversation with its driver as he did some routine maintenance. I asked him how you changed the oil, what these wires and hoses here were for, and other pointed questions… I asked so many questions, in fact, that he finally looked at me with furrowed brow and wondered why I wanted to know all this.
Might come in handy during the wars, I said. Then I walked away.
It was Abbey who made me look at my work environment in a different way, who opened my eyes to a more skewed but clearer vision. I began to see a quarry not as a simple extraction of rock but as a gaping wound in the earth, a desecration. I began to really look at roads and highways, and take stock of what they offered. I decided I liked best the discomfort of a gravel road, the jolting raggedness of a forgotten dirt path. I looked at my upper management and saw useless faces, people without true souls, hamsters on a wheel they didn’t even realize they were on. The endless lust for more hours, more overtime, more money struck me as a horror-show, a travesty of the living condition, a mockery of what it means to be human. I began to look for ways out, for more time, for a way to only need what I truly, honestly, needed. I didn’t want to be like those people. I wanted desperately to avoid the traps they had so willingly fallen into.
Unable to get out right away, I decided to take advantage of this damn job. The money, as I said, was good, and the free time (coupled with being left alone to exist under the radar) was priceless. I went to work every day with a backpack full of reading material.
Tom Robbins was mostly devoured in a secret napping place behind the furnace in our Waukesha lab, which was a permanent building and not a trailer. Another Roadside Attraction changed my life. The ending uplifted me in a way only one or two other works have, but I felt none of them quite so physically. When I came to the last line (“Let Amanda be your pinecone”) I was overcome with a sort of shudder, like that felt when a piece of music hits a certain high crescendo. Release, and the sweet realization of greater possibilities…these are what I felt. Later I would try to give one of my own novels, Dizzlemuck, the same sort of ending, but you can’t try for that kind of thing, and you can’t force it… it must come naturally, organically, a gift given from wherever it is stories come from.
I finally got around to reading Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter during the first few weeks of a super-easy night job in Richfield, Wisconsin. I was given this job because I had just gotten over a back injury sustained at work, and my boss was taking it easy on me. I loved this job, one test a night (meaning, an hour and a half of real work), only me and the two plant guys around, and neither of them ever once knocking on my trailer door. I had hours and hours to sit and read, all the while receiving twenty-four bucks an hour. I would put my feet up and read without distraction. The copy of Lonely Hunter I was reading was one that had been in my life since I was ten, left in a bedroom by an older sibling who’d been required to read it for high-school. I had always wanted to read this book and here I was, finally getting into it twenty-some years later. I had first been attracted to the physical feel of the little trade paperback (its weight in my hands, the texture of its pages, to say nothing of the smell of the thing), but as I got more and more involved in that little southern town and the strange people who inhabited it, I found myself lost in its world. A wonderful book. McCullers had a strange touch with words… not poetic but not quite straight-forward, either. I never once felt she had lost control of that work, it retained to the end the precise command of image and scene it had had on the first few pages. This is not an easy thing to accomplish: many writers seem to get bullied by their own works, finally finishing novels in a headlong rush, like they were running downhill and trying not to fall. It’s a weakness I myself struggle with, to varying degrees of success.
On some days, when I hated my job more than usual, I chose to bring books I knew might be offensive, or at the most confusing. But Christ, even Hemingway confused those people. “Why are you reading that?” someone asked me when they saw my copy of Ernest’s Complete Short Stories.
Why not? was my answer. But the most offensive answer I ever gave was in response to the question: Do you read a lot?
To which I replied: Not as much as I should.
Which was offensive to them because it implied that one should read much and often, and was spoken to people who never read at all. Yes, that’s right, you heard correctly: no one I knew in the paving business ever read. Anything. Ever. At all. They saw no point in it, saw no importance to the act. To these people (the salt of the earth, the common man, the good old blue-collar American) reading was something they made you do in school.
The paper, yes. Magazines, maybe. But books? Never.
Aside from the aforementioned Abbey, and other assorted works by people like Hunter Thompson, I also brought the following offensive works: field guides to birds and herps (yes, field guides were considered quite odd by these people… why would anyone want to learn anything?) and, perhaps most offensive of all, Dave Foreman’s Confessions of an Eco-Warrior.
Foreman was one of the founders of the original Earth First! (Rednecks for Wilderness), and although I’m sure he had amazing stories to tell, his Confessions were not confessions at all but more of a defense of the fine art of monkey-wrenching. The very title alone could have gotten you arrested back in those 9/11 days, to say nothing of loudly proclaiming your admiration for blowing up dams and bridges. However, much to my chagrin, no one even noticed I was reading the book… or chose to ignore it, if they did notice. I was ignored often in those days, people apparently deciding it best to pretend they hadn’t heard my smart-assed comments. Better for them to ignore than to acknowledge, but it was frustrating as hell for me. And I said some ridiculous things to folks back then, including some highly obnoxious statements to upper-management which, when I think back on them, make me cringe. But shit, I couldn’t get a rise out of anyone back then. I made it perfectly clear that I hated this job, this industry, and the whole goddamn company, and that I would only follow the rules I thought deserved to be followed… and I was rewarded for it with raises and reviews that were so ridiculous in their praise for me I could only conclude the whole company had gone insane. I couldn’t get fired from the damn place, not even when I wanted to… and not even when I tried my hardest.
Hell, I even started my lab on fire. Twice. In one week. And a month later I was given one of the highest raises of our little department.
The asphalt industry is mad, quite mad. The people in it (hard-working and mostly-honest folk of simple pleasures) are ignorant and viciously insane. Think about this the next time you see a road-crew out there in the blazing heat of some god-awful August afternoon. Those people are crazy… but not half as much as the loonies in Management.
But, like I said, it was a good job. I was overpaid and underworked, and had so much free time it was almost like not working at all. Imagine getting paid for a nine hour day in which you really only did two hours of actual, honest work. Imagine never seeing your boss. Imagine being left alone to do whatever you wanted, pretty much whenever you wanted, then going home to count your unearned dollars.
I know now what it feels like to be a Senator or Congressman. With one difference, of course, and a big one:
Senators and Congressmen don’t read like I read. If they did, the world would be a better place, and there might be hope for our beautiful blue and green planet after all.
Imagine your Congressman/woman reading Ed Abbey. Or Vonnegut. Or Hunter Thompson!
Imagine your Senators reading avante-garde fiction. Or Tom Robbins. Or anything other than newspapers and the latest ever-changing platforms of their various political parties (they must be told what to think, of course)… to say nothing of the latest checks from their big-money donors (they must be paid to think it, otherwise what’s the point?).
That’s a world I’d like to live in… and perhaps then there would be politicians I’d actually feel good voting for.
More reading, less roads. Yes, indeed, that might be my main point. What I and my coworkers did back then does not matter in the long run, the paving of roads (certainly the making of roads) is not a noble pursuit, and not at all a healthy one. It is a small, insignificant action, merely an adult’s version of playing with toys and mud. There are far more important things men and women should be doing, there is grave work that needs to be done out there, and to waste your life in long days and drudgery making roads smooth and beautiful is to squander the human potential. There are dreams to be dreamt, thoughts to think, worlds of fiction to inhabit and compare to our own… and then changes to be made to this world, or ideals to fight for, realities to struggle against or conserve.
More reading, less roads. Yes! Stick that on your bumper-sticker, baby.
October 2, 2012
I grew up on the outskirts of a small town in northern Wisconsin. When I think about the places I could have grown up I shudder and feel physically sick, and any feeling of good-time fun I may have been having goes right out the window.
Imagine, for instance, growing up in the heart of an American city, surrounded by nothing but asphalt and concrete and noise… to say nothing of the people, endless herds of the damn things, everywhere you look. And crime, such a reality in your day-to-day existence the local news doesn’t even cover much of it anymore, unless it’s really bad. And the lights, second only to the people in terms of a city’s worst features. Those lights might help some to alleviate that crime, yes, and keep the rapes down, but in the city you can never see the nighttime sky… and that is unacceptable.
Growing up in good old Oconto, Wisconsin, population 4500, I was in possession of the nighttime sky every night, whenever I wanted. All I had to do was go out to the backyard and look up at that great blossoming explosion of stars and planets and galaxies that seemed to swirl around and practically engulf me as I stood there. City lights mask all that, and it’s unfair. I mean, it’s unfair to all those kids who will never look up and see anything beyond the tips of skyscrapers… or maybe, at most, the brightest objects up there, like Jupiter and the moon, weak and pathetic ambassadors for the real thing, which is so immense and beautiful it will break the heart of the coldest engineer alive.
When I went outside on warm summer evenings and gazed heavenward, I was made aware of my place in the Universe… which was no place, of course. I was insignificant. We are insignificant. We are small and fragile and useless to the whole Shebang.
But city kids will never have this realization, and it’s this basic fact, I believe, that leads to all that crime. There arises the opposite mentality in the city, a great egotistical bent that swells and swells throughout a young hoodlum’s life until he becomes absolutely certain that he not only can take whatever he wants, regardless of who owns it, but that he also deserves to take it. He is better than everyone else and goddamnit the Universe better just start showing some appreciation.
Chicago is a city rife with political corruption. Likewise New York and D.C. Oconto has its own corruption, I’m sure, but it’s not the same… and anyway, Oconto has the sky, and the sky trumps all.