Roger Ebert, RIP

I can’t say that I ever spoke to Roger Ebert, but I can say I was once in the same room with him — specifically, the critics’ screening room in Chicago, where as the entertainment editor for my college newspaper I watched a terrible movie called Farewell to the King, and he and Gene Siskel were there as well, sitting, if I remember correctly, in the back of the little theater. Other critics were snarking and catcalling the screen (I mentioned it wasn’t a very good film), and either Siskel or Ebert (it was dark and I was facing the screen) told them to shut it. They shut it. After the movie was done I rode down in the elevator with him. And that was my brush with greatness, film critic style.

For all that I consider Ebert to be one of my most important writing teachers. He was my teacher in a real and practical sense — I was hired at age 22 to be a newspaper film critic, with very little direct practical experience in film criticism (not withstanding Farewell to the King, I mostly reviewed music for my college paper). I was hired in May of 1991, but wouldn’t start until September, which left me the summer to get up to speed. I did it by watching three classic movies a night (to the delight of my then-roommates), and by buying every single review book Roger Ebert had out and reading every single review in them.

He was a great teacher. He was passionate about film — not just knowledgeable about films and directors and actors, but in love with the form, in a way that came through in every review. Even when a movie was bad, you could tell that at least part of the reason Ebert was annoyed was because the film failed its medium, which could achieve amazing things. But as passionate as he was about film, he wasn’t precious about it. Ebert loved film, but what I think he loved most of all was the fact that it entertained him so. He loved being entertained, and he loved telling people, in language which was direct and to the point (he worked for the Sun-Times, the blue collar paper in town) what about the films was so entertaining. What he taught me about film criticism is that film criticism isn’t about showing off what you know about film, it was about sharing what made you love film.

I saw how much Roger Ebert loved film that summer, through his reviews and his words. By the end of the summer, I loved film too. And I wanted to do what he did: Share that love and make people excited about going to the movies, sitting there with their popcorn, waiting to be entertained in the way only film can entertain you.

I left newspaper film criticism — not entirely voluntarily — but even after I left that grind I still loved writing about film and went back to it when I could. I wrote freelance reviews for newspapers, magazines and online sites; I’ve published two books about film. Every year I make predictions about the Oscars here on the site. And I can tell you (roughly) the domestic box office of just about every studio film since 1991. All of that flows back to sitting there with Roger Ebert’s words, catching the film bug from him. There are other great film critics, of course (I also have a soft spot for Pauline Kael, which is not entirely surprising), but Ebert was the one I related to the most, and learned the most from.

In these later years and after everything that he’d been through with cancer and with losing the ability to physically speak, I read and was contemplative about the essays and pieces he put up on his Web site. Much of that had nothing to do with film criticism, but was a matter of him writing… well, whatever. Which meant it was something I could identify with to a significant degree, since that is what I do here. It would be foolish to say that Ebert losing his physical voice freed him to find his voice elsewhere. What I think may be more accurate was that losing his physical voice reminded Ebert that he still had things he wanted to say before he ran out of time to say them.

His Web essays have a sharp, bright but autumnal quality to them; the leaves were still on the trees but the colors were changing and the snap was in the air. It seemed to me Ebert wrote them with the joy of living while there is still life left. I loved these essays but they also made me sad. I knew as a reader they couldn’t last. And of course they didn’t.

I had always meant to send Ebert a copy of Old Man’s War, for no other reason than as a token of appreciation. I knew he was a science fiction geek through and through (he had a penchant for giving science fiction films an extra star if they were especially groovy in the departments of effects and atmosphere). I wanted to sign the book to him and let him know how much his work meant to me — and for him to have the experience of the book before the movie, whenever that might be. I tried getting in touch with one of his editors at the Sun-Times, who I used to freelance for in college, to get it to him, but never heard back from her. Later it would turn out he and I had the same film/tv agent, who offered to forward on the book for me. I kept meaning to send off the book. I never did. I regret it now.

Although he can’t know it now, I still think it’s worth saying: Thank you, Roger Ebert, for being my teacher and for being such a good writer, critic and observer of the world. You made a difference in my life, and it is richer for having your words in it.


Caught Up With April/May Big Ideas

If you requested an April or May Big Idea slot, please check your mail. If you have an e-mail from me offering you a date, please confirm it with me. If you do not have an e-mail, sorry, I’m booked out until June. If you have a June release, you may start querying.

Also, at some point I think I will be updating the instructions on how to query and how to send in Big Ideas, because I need to streamline that process a bit on my end. I’ll let y’all know when that happens.


Reader Request Week 2013: Get Your Requests In!

This blog is called Whatever because I write whatever I want to write about — but once a year I turn the topics over to you, the readers, for Reader Request Week. Because, hey, sometimes I don’t get around to talking about what you want me to talk about, and why should you be denied? You should not! I’m all about the giving, you see. Also, it means one week out of the year I don’t have to think about what to write on. Everyone wins!

So, tell me what you you want me to write about. It can be any topic — life, politics, children, faith, sex, music, vegetables, sustainable energy (just as examples). The only common denominator has to be your interest in me blathering on about them in type. You make the suggestions, and I pick the ones I’ll write about and post them next week, starting Monday, April 8.

That said, allow me to make a couple of suggestions:

1. Choose quality, not quantity. Which is to say, don’t unload a whole bunch topics that are really generic or overbroad, because those won’t interest me and I won’t write about them. One really excellent topic is more likely to catch my eye. As an example, don’t ask me “could you write about cats?” because that’s too general and kind of boring. Asking something like “You have three cats — how do their personalities differ and what does that mean for how you relate to them?”, on the other hand, would pique my interest. I think you can see what I’m getting at here.

2. Questions on writing will not be a priority for selection. Because, dudes, I write about writing all the time. I’m not saying you can’t ask questions about writing, or that I won’t answer some, I’m just saying that I’ll be looking for topics that aren’t about writing first, and the ones I do answer (in a nod to point one above) will be stuff that’s specific and interesting.

3. Don’t request a topic I’ve answered recently. To help you eliminate these topics, you’ll find the last five years of Reader Request Week topics below.

How to submit requests? First option: put the requests in the comment thread here, which is the easiest thing for me, and which I prefer. But if you have a reason not to want to make your request public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it). Please don’t send requests via Twitter/Facebook/Google+, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

Thanks, and I’m looking forward to your requests!

Here are those previous Reader Request Week topics:

From 2008:

Reader Request #1: Homeschooling
Reader Request #2: Technological Gifts
Reader Request #3: Sex and Video Games
Reader Request #4: Where I Am Now
Reader Request #5: Professional Jealousy
Reader Request #6: Author Relations
Reader Request #7: Fame or Lack Thereof
Reader Request #8: Politics and the Olympics
Reader Request #9: Polygamy
Reader Request #10: Meeting Authors (and Me)
Reader Request #11 Athena and Whatever
Reader Request #12: Soldiers and Support
Reader Request #13: Diminishing Returns
Reader Request #14: Quick Hits, Volume I
Reader Request #15: Quick Hits, Volume II

From 2009:

Reader Request #1: SF YA These Days
Reader Request #2: OMW and Zoe’s Tale (and Angst and Pain)
Reader Request #3: Space!
Reader Request #4: Procreation
Reader Request #5: Having Been Poor
Reader Request #6: 80s Pop Music
Reader Request #7: Writing and Babies
Reader Request #8: Twitter
Reader Request #9: Can I Be Bought?
Reader Request #10: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request #11: Wrapping Up

From 2010:

Reader Request #1: Christianity and Me
Reader Request #2: Rewriting the Constitution
Reader Request #3: How I Think
Reader Request #4: Quitting Writing
Reader Request #5: Rural Ohio, Revisited
Reader Request #6: Depression
Reader Request #7: Writery Bits
Reader Request #8: Short Bits

From 2011:

Reader Request #1: Children and Faith
Reader Request #2: The End of Whatever

Reader Request #3: Middle Ages Me

Reader Request #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade

Reader Request #5: Taking Compliments

Reader Request #6: Sociopathic Corporations

Reader Request #7: Unruly Fans

Reader Request #8: Short Bits ’11

Reader Request #9: Writery Bits ’11

From 2012:

Reader Request Week 2012 #1: Snark and Insult
Reader Request Week 2012 #2: Would I Lie to You?
Reader Request Week 2012 #3: Why I’m Glad I’m Male
Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof
Reader Request Week 2012 #5: Them Crazies What Live in the Woods
Reader Request Week 2012 #6: The Cool Kids Hanging Out
Reader Request Week 2012 #7: My Complete Lack of Shame
Reader Request Week 2012 #8: Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2012 #9: Writery Short Bits

Now: What do you want me to write about next?

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Guy Gavriel Kay

Home is where the heart is. But sometimes, when it comes to homes, there are people who seem destined to be heartbroken. Guy Gavriel Kay explains why, and the power of that peculiar condition, and how it comes to matter in his latest novel River of Stars.


Sometimes a reader’s question stops you cold. Makes you cast an eye back over your own body of work and think about it differently. This can happen with an academic paper or a thoughtful review, but it feels more immediate when it is a direct query.

“What is it with exile in your books?”

That’s what one of my publicists asked last month in the midst of an email covering all sorts of things from the need for me to write some essays for her (voila!) to new author photos (truth in advertising was hinted at), to timing the release of Advance Reading Copies of River of Stars into the blogosphere, to how many puns I am allowed to make on Twitter. (I won that one.)

She didn’t say, “Tell me about ‘exile’ in River of Stars”, which would have been fairly straightforward because it is a major theme there. (We’ll get to that.) No, she threw it out as an overarching thought across all my books.

I started to track back. (Some mild spoilers in this.) Right away, in Fionavar, we had Matt Sören exiled, and Aileron. And Torc’s father. Three in a row – in the first volume of the trilogy.

Tigana is so much about the implications and reverberations of exile, physical and spiritual. An epigraph from Dante sets it up:

                   All that you held most dear you will put by

                             and leave behind you: and this is the arrow

                             the longbow of your exile first lets fly.


                   You will come to know how bitter as salt and stone

                             is the bread of others, how hard the way that goes

                             up and down stairs that never are your own.


(You think I was going to miss a chance to quote those stunning words? That’s the John Ciardi translation of the Paradiso, by the way.)

In A Song for Arbonne the protagonist is in self-imposed exile from his homeland (very real, notwithstanding) and a woman flees that same homeland, later. In Lions of Al-Rassan, both of the male protagonists are exiled by their monarchs. The book came together for me in the research phase when I realized, from two different books, that the real figures who inspired my characters had been exiled by different kings to the same city at the same time. I don’t think anyone had ever noted it. It was a gift for me, as a storyteller.

The two Sarantium books have many characters leaving home for far away, sometimes by painful choice, sometimes under orders, one sold, one fleeing assassination. They all look at the city where they arrive through stranger’s eyes. Last Light of the Sun is anchored in the reality that an exile in that harsh northern world was utterly exposed and unprotected. One needed a framework of family and community to have a decent chance to survive. In Ysabel, the principle narrator is also a long way from home but he isn’t ‘exiled’. On the other hand, the two thousand year old love triangle at the heart of the book has three figures exiled in time, desperately far from their origins and their world.

In Under Heaven one of the female protagonists is ‘married to a far horizon’, sent into exile as a bride to a steppe tribe the empire wants pacified, and a different princess has set the plot in motion from her own marriage-into-exile. The response of poets to the sorrow of such women reverberates through Chinese literature and I wanted it in the book.

So, yes, I’ve been exploring this for a long time. The question nailed it. I owe someone a martini.

We all have our understanding of human nature and the world. Our themes as writers shift as we change as people and artists (or they should, I think). A motif might drift away, and later re-emerge to be explored differently – because we are different and the world is for us.

I find exile to be one of the most powerful ways to present and explore a character in extremis. The intensity of that. Longing for the homeland. The idea of exile also lets a novelist, if he’s done his or her homework, underscore elements of the society being evoked. Why are people exiled? What does it mean for them? For those left behind?

It also, from a technical, ‘writerly’ perspective, can set up a viewpoint for the reader: if someone is experiencing a new place (cynically, fearfully, arrogantly?), their observations and reactions become a way in for the reader who is, obviously, also ‘away from home’.

In River of Stars, my newest, the idea of political exile is a dominant one in the culture I’m shaping, drawn from harsh historical reality. As prime ministers and their followers came into and out of power around erratic emperors, the people that were ‘out’ were … well, they were way, way out during the Song Dynasty which inspired this book.

Exile could be mild – to your country estate or your home town. But it could also be, and more and more often it became, a way of killing a man (and his wife and children and extended family) without drawing blood. Exiling someone over mountains and through jungles to the steaming hot, malarial south had … predictable effects. A cycle of political revenge emerged in that dynasty (and in my novel) built around sending people to places where, as Goldfinger said to 007, ‘I expect you to die, Mr Bond.’

I don’t write novels inspired by history to offer easy parallels to our own time. That can feel lazy, or glib, or both. But I do find immense richness in seeing how the past is both startlingly similar and amazingly strange, and thereby giving myself (and the reader) something to think about in the midst of a story I hope will keep them turning pages late.

Let’s just say, as a conclusion, that I want you exiled from your own life in the world River of Stars creates. Then (extending the image) when you finish the book, you come home – with something gained from that time away.

In all the stories and studies of the mythic ‘hero’s journey’ it isn’t the adventure away that is critical, it is the coming home with treasure (of many different kinds, including wisdom), that is the key. I like books that take us away, and guide us back with something new. I try to write that way.


River of Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s tour journal. Follow him on Twitter.

Exit mobile version