Travels in Berkeley

08/14/2017 at 5:14 pm (Author Updates, Telegraph Ave.)

Last week I had my Book Launch at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. What fun! I got to read sections from my novel, as well as pieces I wrote early in the process. Owen Hill at Moe’s was amazing, and I am very thankful to the people who showed up in support of me & the book.

Photos by Urmi Patel / D.M.

Prior to the Monday reading, I spent time trekking around the city with my family, and by myself. I grew up there, but now I live in L.A. I don’t get back up there as often as I like. It’s now both familiar and unfamiliar, but still just a beautiful, beautiful town.

Here are some of the “very Berkeley” sights I saw:

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All Photos by Justin McFarr

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Goodreads Giveaway

07/13/2017 at 10:31 pm (Author Updates, Publishing News)

So the book release date is mere weeks away (August 1st!). Time to give away the last of the Advanced Reading Copies I have. Would you like one? Enter the Giveaway below from Goodreads. Let me know if you’re one of the winners!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Bear Who Broke the World by Justin McFarr

The Bear Who Broke the World

by Justin McFarr

Being released August 01 2017

Giveaway ends in 13 days (July 26, 2017)

5 copies available, 111 people requesting

giveaway details »

 

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Gramma’s Moment to Shine

06/29/2017 at 11:48 pm (Author Updates, Novel Excerpts)

One of the gratifying parts of the editing process is finding ways to boil scenes and sometimes chapters down to the clear and straightforward essence of meaning and dramatic tension, which helps move the story along at a brisker pace. Now, The Bear is by no means a fast-paced, plot-driven novel in any traditional sense – it’s a slower, character-driven novel about thoughts, feelings, behavior and, ultimately, actions. With most of the scenes, or parts of scenes, that I excised from later drafts in order to bring my novel to just under 400 pages, there was a twinge of melancholy at losing them, but overall it was my sense that I was doing service to the book as a whole.

With the longish scene I cut where Gramma takes Steve and Demian to her church – during their stay in Fremont while Rose and Ken run off to Santa Cruz for a week away from the kids and their responsibilities – I felt that the stay with the grandparents was too long. My intention for the “trip to Gramma and Grampa’s” was to show a stark contrast to the unstructured, unsupervised life the boys live in Berkeley. It was also designed to give some insight into the childhood that Rose was still running away from, and provide a bit of reasoning for why her parenting style and approach to motherhood was the way it was. So with this scene cut, I felt the chapter accomplished what I wanted, without too much extraneous scene work or detours that weren’t entirely necessary.

This is a long way of saying that while I do think I made the right choice cutting out that section of the chapter, it’s a scene I still really like.

So here is that scene, in its excised entirety, which focuses on one of my favorite characters from the novel – 57-year-old Fanny Vivian Templeton Baxter, better known to Steve and Demian as “Gramma.” I hope you enjoy it.

 

From Chapter 10:

With Grampa off to work, she had plans for us. I showered and Demian told Gramma he wanted to take a bath after dinner. We had unpacked the night before, the two top drawers belonging to me and all of Demian’s clothes fitting into the bottom drawer. I was already dressed when Gramma came into our room. Demian removed his nightshirt while he decided between a striped shirt and the hand-me down “Free to Be You and Me” T-shirt that I always thought looked stupid yet he adored.

“Why, you’re barely skin and bones, dear.” We both looked up, but clearly she was talking to Demian. “You need some healthy meat on you or you’ll be able to fit pretty snugly into that drawer there before long.”

“I could fit,” Demian said, then started to climb on top of his folded clothes. She pulled him gently back, and he looked up at her with genuine surprise. “Don’t you want me to, Gramma?”

“I want you to do whatever your heart desires … within reason. But right now I want you to get dressed so we can go on a little field trip.” She removed my old shirt from Demian’s hand and dropped it into the open drawer, then helped him into the striped one. “We’re going to visit some friends of Gramma’s, down at the church. Do you remember when I took you both there? Was it last year?”

“Are there gonna be any other kids?” Demian sat on the carpet and forced his bare feet into socks that were too small for him. Gramma seemed to take notice of this, staring down at the floor until he’d tied his shoes.

“Well,” she closed the bottom drawer and then ran a few fingers through his hair, “there just might be. Some of the grandmothers are as lucky as me to have grandsons and granddaughters visiting them for the summer, and there’s a good chance they’ll tag along. Just like you boys.”

There weren’t any kids when we arrived, and when we left two hours later, we were still the only non-adults in the stuffy, airless room down in the church basement. We busied ourselves as Gramma and her friends discussed plans for a community bake sale and various other activities that the pastor’s wife read off a mounted chalkboard. Demian leafed through the hardcover picture books about Joseph and Moses and Job, while I entertained myself with a leather-bound New Testament Bible that had psalms underlined in pen all throughout the book. There were also unreadable scribbles in the small margins, some written with such fervor or haste that small holes and rips appeared in many of the pages. When my head began to hurt from the small type of the book, combined with all the marked up pages and biblical language that read like a foreign language at times, I nibbled on a few butter cookies set up on a card table and listened to the women.

They sat at a round table, all eyes on the only woman standing, Pastor Phil’s wife Sandy. She held a long pointer, like a pool stick but skinnier and with a fat, Hubba-Bubba-sized chunk of white plastic stuck to the end of it. Whenever a new topic was announced by the wrinkled, stooped-over woman with the school-like binder perched under her big Mr. Peabody glasses, Sandy whacked the blackboard, the end of it landing close to a numbered subject drawn in chalk. The sound echoed around the tiny room for a few seconds, and Demian leaned over slightly—as if he’d been asleep—the first two or three times Sandy swung her pointer against the board.

Gramma headed up the committee for a food program she said was designed for “the elderly and infirm,” and each time she used that phrase, the wrinkly woman they all referred to as The Secretary raised her thumbs up high before shaking them in her general direction. I watched my grandmother command the attention of the other women. I listened to her voice, so familiar yet with a difference in its tone. She had always been a confident, direct person—what Mom called “no-nonsense” as if it was the worst thing you could be—but surrounded by these women, her age and some much older, I was struck at how imposing and impressive she seemed. It felt strange, like I was eavesdropping on a private moment, stealing a glimpse into a world that was truly Gramma, but separate somehow.

I thought about the way I spoke around Mom and Gramma, and then the way I spoke around Demian, and around my friends at school. It was different with each of them, not just what I said but how I said it, even though I was always me. I didn’t feel like it was an act, a show I was putting on with all the people around me, but I knew that I was somehow different depending on who I was around. I tried to remember exactly how I acted around Seneca, who I was when we were together, and wondered if that was my best self, or something close to it. I didn’t necessarily think I was seeing Gramma’s “best”—I was convinced she saved that for Demian, me and Grampa—but I felt I was seeing another side of her bestness. It made me feel special that I could see her like this, that I knew a little more about her than I had known before this day.

Church Parking

photo by Justin McFarr

 

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Book Readings in August

05/16/2017 at 9:59 am (Author Updates, Publishing News, Telegraph Ave.)

I wanted to share some exciting, amazing news – Moe’s Books in Berkeley will be the official launch of The Bear on Monday, August 7. I couldn’t be happier and more grateful to have my childhood bookstore – where I spent many, many hours poring through the used book racks and salivating over the new releases – as the spot for my very first book reading and signing. I am beyond excited!

Moe's 70s by Nacio Jan Brown

(photo by Nacio Jan Brown)

And if that news wasn’t enough, I will also be having a reading – along with a Q & A session with my amazing mentor, Gina B. Nahai – in my adopted home of Los Angeles, at Book Soup along the Sunset Strip on Tuesday, August 29. Unreal!

book soup

(photo attribution Unknown)

 

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Reading is Fundamental

03/26/2017 at 4:48 pm (Author Updates, Publishing News)

From a very young age, I’ve always been someone who loved to read books, and that desire and practice continues to this day. Even with all the necessary distractions of childhood – school, chores, playing with friends, watching that rerun of The Brady Bunch or Hogan’s Heroes for the umpteenth time while I may or may not having been doing my homework in front of that boob tube – I always found time and physical space to read Beverly Cleary or the latest Guinness Book of World Records, or, as I got a little older, a Stephen King or S.E. Hinton novel. As I matured and gained a bit more education and well-earned wisdom, my pleasure reading expanded into pockets of deeper and more complex reading. For a time, in my early 20s, I consumed books; I read bestsellers, non-fiction, and classic texts in equal measure. The library and local bookstores were my second homes, as were the parks and cheap restaurants that I frequented with a book (or two) in hand.

I realize now that my 20s and 30s were my peak reading years, when I worked full-time but still had the freedom and energy (and single-minded focus) to devote myself to a 200-page, 400-page, or even 900-page book without worry that I would ever actually finish it once I began the journey with “Page 1.” Even when I had girlfriends, demanding jobs, writing projects that I gave myself strict deadlines for, and an obsessive compulsion to watch every single movie (including the foreign ones) ever made, I still found time and an urgent need to read books.

Then, in my 40s, it all changed. I had a lovely wife, three rambunctious, demanding, beautiful little boys, a house, a full-time job, and the aching desire to finish and have published all of the fiction I had been toiling over those many, many years. I still had pockets of free time, but now the landscape of how to spend that free time (even snippets of it) had changed: cell phones gave access to the Internet, where Facebook, news feeds, YouTube, and all the rest were accessible by just reaching into your pocket and tapping a few keys on the touch-screen; Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and all those multiple movie channels (HBO, Showtime, etc.) offered hours upon hours of viewing and bingeing possibilities; Kindle ushered in the digital-reading experience, and the options for what to read and how to read them became as overwhelming as everything else that fell under the banner of “entertainment content.”

Now here I am, inundated with so many choices, with less “free” time than I’ve ever had in my entire life (a life that I am blessed with and, please don’t get me wrong, most grateful for), and my reading habit has become more of a reading afterthought. I still read, but it has, quite frankly, become more of a task and less of a pleasure than it ever has before. I find it more difficult to stay engaged with longer books (and there are so many longer books being released every year), and when faced with reading for an hour before bed or watching a new episode of This Is Us or old episodes of 30 Rock, I’ll admit that the HDTV up there on the mantle invariably wins that fight against the paperback on the bedside table more times than not. It’s something I take no pride in, but after a day filled with early-mornings spent getting the kids ready for school and the rest of the day devoted to work, work, and more work, followed by helping with homework, baths, dinner and bedtime – well, frankly, I’m exhausted. And it’s much easier to turn my brain off with something visually arresting than to inhabit a world of words where my imagination and cognitive functions are forced to be activated.

So now that I am an actual author, a writer with my first novel being published this August, the reality of my situation and relationship with books and reading is suddenly more fraught than ever. I recognize the commitment that reading asks of and actually needs from its audience of one to finish a completed work of fiction or non-fiction that a writer on the other side of has spent countless hours thinking about, crafting, rewriting, editing, sending out to agents and publishers, and then promoting in the hopes of reaching interested, curious readers. I know the time I spend reading a book is infinitesimal when compared to how long it took for its construction, and the level of my attention to it can never match the desired expectations the author has for my commitment and reaction to it. As writers, we want our readers to feel the same love and admiration for our work as we gave so many, many of our conscious and unconscious hours to during its creation.

But that’s an unrealistic expectation, and an unfair burden to place on even our most “ideal” readers, much less on a person faced with a constant barrage or responsibilities and choices which wrench them from here to there and this way and that. So now that I am in the process of doing marketing prior to the release of my debut novel, these realities are inescapable, and demand from me the proper understanding and acceptance.

Now, every time that I send out an email to a stranger requesting they read and possibly review this novel by a complete unknown, I am hyper-aware that mine is just one of a multitude of requests they likely receive on a daily basis. Every time I ask a friend, fellow writer, or cohort to read my novel and to please write a blurb or online review for it (always with the sincere caveat that if they decide to accept the novel and read it, if they don’t like it or are not comfortable associating their name and reputation with it, I will not take it personally), I realize exactly what that request means for them. I am almost painfully aware of how much of their time my book demands – the time they will need to take from any number of life tasks, or from entertainment options that they are guaranteed to enjoy and unwind with – for them to read all 400 pages, and then to make the decision whether or not it merits any further energy to spend even more time writing about it. So when there is rejection of that request, or simply no response at all, I understand, empathize and try not to ever take it personally. Free choice, to say yes or no to any request or to simply ignore it outright, is one of the few things in life that still remains free. Sacrificing that “free time” to do one thing over another means constantly assessing not only time but freedom itself.

In assessing my own free time and the choices that vie for the golden ticket wristband in the seemingly endless, option-filled queue, I honestly try not to lose sight of all the supreme joy that falling into a great book affords; past experience has taught me that the promise of “my next favorite book” may lie right around the next spine. Even if a book fails to meet my preconceived expectations (based on reviews I’ve read or recommendations I’ve been given), no book read is time wasted or lost – there is always something I find to appreciate, admire, have fun with or learn from every single one of them. Again, it always comes down to time: if only I had more, that voice inside my head loudly proclaims, think of all the amazing books we would read, and how many worlds we would inhabit with every turn of the page.

Oh, if only …

Broken time

photo from The Boston Calendar

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The Fads and Obsessions of 1976

12/11/2016 at 12:04 pm (Author Updates, It was 1976, Publishing News, Telegraph Ave.)

With the completion of the design files for The Bear Who Broke The World Advance Reading Copy, it’s time for a small celebration! In January, printed copies of the ARCs will be sent to blogs and magazines for possible review, as well as to a handful of people who I hope to get blurbs from so that I can publicize those when the novel is “officially” published and available to the public in Summer 2017.

Here’s the ARC cover, which makes me insanely happy every time I see it. Hoping people are as taken with the book inside as they are intrigued by the cover.

bear-1-1

 

Because 1976 was such a memorable year for me, the fads and obsessions of childhood lost on the generations that followed, I wanted to revisit some things very particular to that specific time. A few of these get shout-outs in the novel, and others are fondly remembered from my own time as a kid. Enjoy this step back into my old memories of a Berkeley past.

 

CHUNKY BAR

So much great candy growing up – KitKat, the $100,000 Bar, Lemonheads – with most of them surviving the 70’s. Sadly, this one did not. (There is a Nestle “new” version of this, but it’s divided in sections, instead of the big block o’ chocolate that was the original.)

 

WACKY PACKS

What kid couldn’t resist this precursor to the Garbage Pail Kids stickers? As a MAD Magazine freak, I loved being able to stick these all over my school notebooks and on my dresser drawers.

 

 

COMICS & COMIX

The place to buy all the new releases and back-issues of Uncanny X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Superman, and all the rest. My personal faves in 1976 – Marvel Two-in-One and The Incredible Hulk.

comics-comix

 

BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS

battle-of-the-network-stars-5

If you remember the days when there were only 3 networks (ABC, CBS & NBC), then maybe you remember this show. Pitting the “stars” of TV against each other in Olympic-type events, this was one of my favorite shows. Howard Cosell, Lynda Carter, Gabe Kaplan, Farrah Fawcett, Ron Howard … they were all there. Most memorable from the series: Robert Conrad (of “Wild Wild West“ and “Black Sheep Squadron” fame) always trying to prove he was the best on the field, and unbeatable in every event.

 

This was fun! I’d like to make this little trip down ’76 Lane a regular feature here on the blog. Look for more memories soon.

 

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What Flies Faster than a Peregrine Falcon?

11/27/2016 at 8:57 pm (Author Updates, Publishing News)

Turns out my “vacation” from this site became a whole three months. Wow! Time knows how to fly faster than a Peregrine Falcon.

Updates are certainly in order:

  • I recently had a short story published – you can read it here: The East Bay Review
  • The Bear Who Broke The World is in the final stages of Design and will hopefully be ready by the end of December. An Advance Reader’s Copy for Bear will be ready in January – with a Summer 2017 wide release.
  • Now that Bear is finally edited, polished and almost-but-not-quite-ready for publication, I can focus more energy on extra fun content for this blog. I want to finally deliver on my promise for those book reviews – (2) separate lists of books: Those that fall under “Rose and Ken’s Bookshelf,” which are counterculture books that would have been read in the Berkeley house; and those that share sensibilities or the time-frame that Bear takes place in, but are more contemporary and recent releases.

Thanks for sticking with the site, and here’s to Monday posts from here on out.

Definitely more to come …

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Why Do Writers Need a Vacation?!

08/26/2016 at 4:19 pm (Author Updates)

A common conception is that writers spend most of their time in their heads, conversing with people who don’t actually exist and frolicking around in locations that they’ve never actually visited. I can only speak for myself, but I do enjoy wandering the terrain of my own head more than I like taking vacations to actual places and faraway locales. Imagining a trip to the Alaskan wilderness seems, quite frankly, more fun than actually freezing my butt off there.

But in order to craft deeper, more genuine, fiction, I think that a writer does need to invest a good amount of their time and energy, and (in certain circumstances) surrender to the discomfort and unpredictability of visiting a place a greater distance from their own home than the local supermarket. If a writer has an honest, all-sensory experience in an unfamiliar surrounding I do believe it will only help when it comes to their describing a vast array of (real and fictional) locations or exploits in a work of fiction.

So I did it. I abandoned my comfy chair, the perfectly set temperature of my home, and the allure of my fingers tapping onto my computer keyboard in order to venture out to an undiscovered (by me) land. I hopped on a plane and landed in Costa Rica, in the province of Guanacaste, ripe with rainforests and stunning views of … well, everything.

IMG_0374

There I set my imaginary life aside and gave myself over to a real adventure. I witnessed howler monkeys swinging from vine to vine, ziplined above canyons in the middle of a torrential downpour, dipped my feet into the gorgeous Pacific Ocean, read a book of pure pleasure fodder, and swam under a waterfall. Mostly, I enjoyed myself and lived completely in the moment.

Will this trip I took help make my future writing more vivid, descriptive or authentic? Maybe yes, maybe no. Will it add more significant meaning, balance and richness to the life I currently live? Emphatically yes.

Every writer needs a vacation. A vacation from the writing, from the routine, and from ourselves.

 

So, where should I go next?!

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photos by Justin McFarr

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You Can Take the Boy Out of Berkeley…

05/30/2016 at 11:25 pm (Author Updates)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

photo by Robert Eliason

Here’s the author on the Cal campus, away from his L.A. home but ecstatic to be back in his hometown.

This week was all about proofing, formatting, and moving forward with the first projects in the Wheeler Street Press pipeline. It’s all really starting to happen, and the more I learn about publishing, the more I find I have to learn.

Next week I’ll be back with a book review of a counter-culture classic.

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Excising the Words

05/22/2016 at 9:17 pm (Author Updates, Novel Excerpts, Telegraph Ave.)

This past week I’ve spent most of my creative-life time finishing a final edit of Bear before I send it out to a professional editor for copy/line editing and proofreading. I have a list of strong editors, and I am in the process of winnowing them down to one I’d like to send a sample five pages to in the next month or so. At this stage, and given the fact that I will not have the guidance of a big publisher’s editor prior to the book being released out into the world, I think it’s vitally important that I get a professional set of eyes on my current draft before I consider it my “final” draft. This will be my only “first published novel” and it’s up to me – and only me – to make sure it’s the very best it can possibly be; I don’t want to skip any steps that I might later regret.

As I do my best to post Bear-related topics each and every week until the release of the novel, I will be sharing reviews of books from the 60’s and early 70’s that my main character Stephen’s mother Rose and her boyfriend Ken would most likely have read prior to 1976. Look for my short reviews from Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, Charles Bukowski‘s Post Office, The Merry Christian by Terry Southern, and other counter-culture underground classics, as well as various odds and ends (including books that inspired me during the many years of writing my own book). There will also be more small character studies; edited scenes or snippets that won’t appear in the finished version; photos of Berkeley and Oakland; bits of history about the Bay Area; and details of historic events that occurred during the summer of Bear.

This week, in the spirit of all the editing and excising I’ve been doing, I’d like to share a short scene that I cut a few drafts ago. It’s part of a larger scene, where Stephen travels up to Telegraph with his buddy Trevor and Trevor’s teenage brother Art. There, they experience a very “Berkeley” moment.

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At the corner of Telegraph at Dwight Way, cars traveled fast up the one-way street, so we waited for the green light to cross. A guy in flowy pants and a t-shirt that exposed his belly swept through behind us and into the crosswalk. As he slowed his gait, the cars suddenly slowed and braked to avoid crashing right into him. Halfway through the street, the light still bright red and unwavering, he slowed his pace even more.

“Defiant asshole,” Art said, “gonna get nailed out there.”

While the other cars had stopped for the jaywalking guy with the head full of unkempt blond curls, a gray van approached him and the crosswalk with nothing but speed. Oblivious, he continued walking at his inchworm pace, still a good five feet from the sidewalk in front of him. The van’s driver blew his horn, but didn’t ease up on his speed, and I was both horrified and mesmerized at what was going to happen next.

The van barrelled through, and the guy disappeared. My body stiffened in the same way it did when I was getting a shot at the doctor’s office. I didn’t hear a sickly crunch like I thought I would, and my hands unclenched. When the back of the van passed through the crosswalk, the guy had reached the curb and was yelling up the street.

“I’m walking here,” he shouted through cupped hands. “I’ve got the right of way.”

The light finally turned green for the three of us, and we crossed together.

“Guy’s seen Midnight Cowboy ten too many times,” Art laughed, speaking loud enough for the guy in front of us to hear him. I hadn’t seen it, but I thought maybe the movie had something to do with a person who jaywalks a lot.

photo by Justin McFarr

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