Coronawriters: When Considering Script Notes, Do Not Be Haphazard

“Take no enterprise in hand at haphazard, or without regard to the principles governing its proper execution”

– Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, Book Four) 

Yes, I’ve been cracking open ye olde Meditations back up because some advice from the grandfather and grandmaster of Stoic philosophy would certainly not go amiss right now, when uncertainty is the order of the day and the mainstream world media — especially its malignant ‘social’ offshoot — is doing absolutely zero to counter the mood with some sense of sobriety or perspective.

But the above quote popped out for me, during my now once again regular re-read of the embattled Ancient Roman emperor’s diary to self, for reasons that have very little to do with the essential self-care we need all the more urgently at this moment in time.

No, the reminder to do nothing at ‘haphazard’ reached me on a more professional — or rather, vocational — level, as I felt it very much got to the heart of an important lesson I have learned about writing narrative stories — be they in prose or script format — over the past couple of years.

Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 15.18.56

Marcus Aurelius via Batman, or vice versa: Daily meditation with the Meditations, with journal entries jotted into the Bat-book

It’s not a glamorous fact of the writing life, and neither is it bound up to the ‘tortured artist’ archetype in any way. In fact, in a lot of ways what I’m about to talk about swerves directly into the opposite camp, and perhaps the times we are living in call for precisely the kind of habits that evoke a degree of control and agency over the traditionally — notoriously — chaotic process of making up stories from scratch.

I’m talking about finding the rationale that lies behind either your plot mechanism, or the choices your characters make, in the interest of improving them for the benefit of subsequent drafts.

Now ‘character’ and ‘plot’ are almost always inextricably bound together, or at least they should be. What should we call this? I’m struggling to think of a more bite-sized term for it right now. Is it as broad as ‘rewriting’ or ‘editing’? Is it just ‘tweaking’, or does that teensy word not quite do it? Maybe I’ll arrive to the correct term or neulogism, maybe not. The point is that the process I’m describing often takes on a similar trajectory: that of working away at issues, problems and unwanted lacunae through the process of writing itself.

For me, it’s important that this does not happen before a complete draft is well and truly finished. An imperfect draft, sure. But a complete one. That allows me to see the big picture — such as it is — and make a clear and rational assessment of what needs to be fixed.

That’s why the Marcus Aurelius quote resonated with me. Sending off that draft without having polished it up, or even stopping half-way through to tweak at something that I nervously, pre-emptively assume is gonna be a problem later on, would indeed by a haphazard way of going about it. A script, novel or short story often has a lot of stuff going on inside it. Even the most minimalist of stories and narrative situations need to be informed by subtext, by nested considerations that move things forward, that plant seeds in the reader/viewer’s mind before hopefully being taken to full term in the most felicitous way possible.

But beyond the disciplinarian ‘good sense’ of not rushing things and giving them their due before assuming they’re ready so that you can focus and/or indulge in something else, the Meditations quote also got at something I legitimately find pleasurable about this stage of the writing process.

Just like certain filmmakers live by the dictum that ‘directing is the price you pay for going into the editing room later’, I find the greatest pleasure in cutting underneath the draft I’ve just written (over and above the more obvious, superficial ‘cuts’ that are also inevitably made) and figuring out why something doesn’t work, and how it could work better.

I think the ‘fun’ of this process has a lot to do with a sense of regaining control over the work. Now that the draft’s done, there’s far less of that Dark Night of the Soul feeling descending, and the associated ‘staring at the blank page’ jitters that either accompany it or are triggered by it. I can finally bring the full extent of my rational and analytical mind to bear: the same mind that I’ve chiseled into a decent-enough shape through my academic training and working as a film reviewer for over 15 years.

So finally, a touch of the familiar, the graspable and the tangible appears through the haze of uncertainty that otherwise characterises the writing process. It’s an uncertainty that is conducive to both chaos and play, to be sure, so that it can be fun in its own way. But regaining a sense of control is also affirming and energising.

This brings me to the latter part of the Aurelius aphorism, the bit about ‘the principles governing its proper execution’. Because the process of making something better through this kind of reworking would be hollowed out if it didn’t consider the in-depth internal logic of whatever problem you’re facing.

My most immediate experience of this process had to do with responding to a script note that called for a pivotal event in the story to occur much, much earlier than it does in the script as-is. My producer and I both agreed that we should think of a way to take this criticism on board and implement it productively, without compromising the integrity of the script as a whole.

So I got to thinking about how this action would alter some of the characters’ actions throughout the script as-is. I went back to the quasi-literal drawing board, writing out the logical trajectory of these change in long-hand. The end goal of this was to have a clear, bullet-pointed battle plan for what needs to be done. The changes that need to be implemented so as to make this note work. And it did happen, eventually.

But before I could get there, I spent a few pages writing out the characters’ motivations for taking this particular action, in this particular order, to accommodate the changes in line with a new chronology. This also led me to reconsider some taken-for-granted aspects of the characters in question. I thought I knew them. Turns out I didn’t get a chance to know them all that well, before.

In working out a logic that would justify the alterations suggested by the note, new things clicked into place. No, that one character doesn’t have to be as passive as they appear. They do have a desire, it’s just submerged so deeply it’s barley visible. And we need to think of ways to make that pop out. And so on.

In short, the process got me thinking about the ‘principles governing the proper execution’ of this character, and a couple of others who orbit around them and are influenced by their actions. It felt both rational, and organic. Like a clear understanding of something that lives and breathes, and which may yet surprise you in positive ways if you lay down a good environment in which it can thrive.

Chaos is often the order of the day because we aren’t born with a map at birth and cannot see into the future, which is why good stories are built in a way that respects certain internal harmonies that promote coherence. Focusing on the elements of the craft in this way has helped me find a ballast in these times. There’s a baseline for who we are no matter what happens around us, and that internal coherence is crucial to maintain because of what’s coming at us all the time, pandemic or not.

PS: Keeping me sane and out of the maddening rigmarole of the frenzied news cycle are great reads such as this, and this, as well as the ‘Coronavirus Newsroom’ set up in the Members’ Area of the Rune Soup portal. 

Quarantine Prayers and Offerings

Prayers 

Just like many other freelancers the world over, the economic fallout of the covid-19 epidemic has left me scrambling for work that would ensure my livelihood in the coming months. Scrambling is something out tribe is accustomed to, of course, and I’ve often been in this situation before and have emerged (relatively) unscathed.

But of course, these are extraordinary times, during which some old clients will scram any prospective ones suddenly find themselves denuded of any lust for adventurous new collaborations.

Trolic Freelancing

Freelancing in marginally less trying times, with thought bubble lamp for added effect

To this end, I would like to invite anyone who does retain a sense of adventure during these trying times to consider taking on my services as a freelance writer with experience in various fields — journalism, content writing and scriptwriting being the main three, though I’d be more than happy to work on anything you’ve got going as long as it’s in English and the deadlines are humane.

Neither is there any need to simply take my own word for it, however: do take a look at what some kindly but exacting professionals had to say about my work in various fields by popping over to the ‘Services‘ section of this very site.

***

Offerings

Though it’s hardly the Netflix back (and front) catalogue, some of my own work could very easily keep you company while you’re social distancing away at home.

Novel: Two

TWO_TeodorReljic

My debut novel started life as a piece of flash fiction, tumbled into larger and more mottled being thanks to the steady encouragement of Merlin Publishers’ Chris Gruppetta and was released into the little slice of world that would have it at the beautiful Cafe Wignacourt in Rabat, my Maltese town-crush.

Very much a debut novel in spirit, tone and theme, it is a labour of equal parts love and pain: deeply autobiographical and largely told from the POV of a young child, for gods’ sake. Does it get any more debut novel-y than that?!

You can find out more about it here. Those of you in Malta and Gozo can currently avail themselves of a 25% discount from Merlin Publishers — a covid-solidarity move that applies to all of their books. Do also check out Awguri, Giovanni Bonello, featuring a vampire-tinged historical fiction tale that was a blast to write, and which dovetails nicely into our next item… 

Short Film: Camilla

camilla

Literary film adaptation and vampires are just about two of my favourite things, so it was an honour and a pleasure to be able to adapt Clare Azzopardi’s ‘Camilla’ into a short film, together with Stephanie Sant (who co-wrote and directed) and under the ever-intrepid auspices of producer Martin Bonnici (Shadeena Entertainment). The film was made possible thanks to a competitive fund awarded to us by the National Book Council, whose sterling work can, I hope, continue unabated after all this mess is over.

Meanwhile, please feel free to enjoy our 21-minute slice of Mediterranean Gothic, cross-generational romantic intrigue and sexual discovery, all wrapped up in a coming-of-age story featuring a wide-eyed but hardly bushy-tailed protagonist, brought to entrancing life by Steffi Thake, working under the austere shadow cast by the inimitable Irene Christ.

Catching A Break… Or Not

We can’t manage to catch a break in Malta, can we? It’s been at least since last November that some kind of mental stability or continuity — the latter being a repeated slogan in the party leadership campaign that was to crown the November madness — was the norm in both public and private life.

I was actually on a break of sorts when that first crisis hit. High on the freshly released fumes of success generated by our being awarded the inaugural Malta Book Council feature film fund for our feature film adaptation of Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi, I decided to go for an early, modest version of a writerly fantasy and booked a ‘writing retreat’ at the sister island of Gozo in off-season.

It was a no-brainer, at least in theory. I chose to stay at the notoriously quiet village of Gharb, with a pipe-shaft view from my typing window and grossly over-pixelated landscape printouts hanging by the bed. So, no distractions there. The breakfasts were also nice and energising — full English, with a dollop of French sweets and Gozitan cheeselets on the side — and having paid in full for room and board meant that I was internally pressured to get cracking on the reams of research and story development that needed to be done.

Sriep Gozo Process

But the trip also coincided with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, so I could forget all about isolation and silence, in the broadest sense of the word. How could I resist checking my phone when the political status quo of the island was being dismantled right before our eyes? Not least when the project itself hardly offered a neat cutoff point: my research dealt with political violence and corruption in 1980s Malta, and if anything was to be salvaged from the distraction it was that the resonances between then and now ensured that our film will be laced with an enduring, if unfortunate, relevance.

With the fallout came the protests, and an unprecedented political crisis culminating in the resignation of then prime minister Joseph Muscat and the election of Robert Abela in his stead, with a reshuffled cabinet following suit. As alluded to above, ‘continuity’ was the watchword, and Abela — to the cynical chuckles of many — quickly declared that ‘normality’ has been restored to the island.

The onset of the global covid-19 pandemic makes short work of precisely that kind of rhetoric. We have seen how it’s served to symbolically unseat the likes of Donald Trump, whose bluff and bluster collapses ‘like a flan in a cupboard’ when faced with a threat both invisible and undeniable. Though I would caution against declaring that ‘the Trump presidency is over‘ so categorically — the orange oaf has survived a record amount of scandals — watching him scramble for some political purchase while playing the same old xenophobic tunes is just farcical at this point.

But it’s not just limited to politicians. The sight of suddenly quarantined celebrity actors deciding to make use of their newly housebound condition to splice together a group singalong of John Lennon’s Imagine — “Imagine there’s no people” is hardly the thing you want to hear while a murderous pandemic continues to spread on a murderous rampage of the elderly and otherwise vulnerable — also points to the tone-deaf nature of another privileged class.

The cluelessness of the global rich is hardly news — Best Picture winner Parasite all but rendered it into an archetype, and these elites are actually nice — but a pandemic has away of making it all come out like a particularly eye-grabbing Lovecraftian bas relief.

So yes, we’re still very much not getting a break right now: not from the bone-headed stupidity of the global hegemony, not from the callousness and stupidity of those at the top. But we’re joined in this worldwide, and while the imposition to enforce ‘social distancing’ certainly lends fuel to the fire of certain xenophobic tendencies informed by the idea of the infectious and corrupting nature of otherness, we’re also getting to see limits of our status quo.

A status quo within which, as a self-employed freelance writer, I am likely doomed to remain on the fringes of, for better or worse.

(Here’s the bit where ask anyone who’s reading this to consider making use of my services as a journalist, content writer or scriptwriter during these trying times, as existing clients start to bail and any prospective ones suddenly be).

Perhaps some would call the largely worldwide self-quarantine a break of some sorts, though of course it’s not that, not by a long stretch. But it’s certainly a break in the aggressive sense, a rupture of the old routines we’re now scrambling to become accustomed to, with varying degrees of success, and each in their own way.

I’ll try to keep chasing the resonances. Even if they’re not all pleasant ones. Because in times like these, some kind of internal coherence is what we need more than anything else.

 

 

 

You have not been ‘good to her’! | Konrad Mizzi Gets His Knives Out

Perhaps the true emotional climax of Rian Johnson’s rollicking, wildly entertaining and fiercely intelligent murder mystery Knives Out (2019) comes midway through its final act, after Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the beleaguered nurse to the recently deceased (and filthy rich) crime novelist Harlan Thrombey, is all but forced to apologetically prostrate herself in front of his sneering, sniveling and money-grubbing heirs.

A South American migrant whose mother is undocumented – that the Thrombey heirs and in-laws consistently getting her nationality wrong during police interrogations is one of the film’s best running gags; some say she’s from Ecuador, others from Paraguay – she does her best to placate the spoiled brood after a plot-important (and therefore spoilery) development flips the power dynamic between her and her erstwhile employers, edging the proverbial knives out of the rich family’s sheathes and placing the perennially good-hearted Marta in a thoroughly uncomfortable position.

Keen to show that she has no intention of offending or otherwise discomfiting the Thrombeys in light of this new development, Marta insists on pointing out how the family has been “good to [her]” by giving her employment and at least ostensibly making her feel part of the privileged Thrombey fold while she took care of their patriarch in his dotage.

The family takes this as a given, never for a second considering that there could have been any ‘decent’ alternative way for all of this to pan out. Being a migrant, her inherent abjection and lack of agency is the default setting she’s expected to operate under. Though nominally valued, the work she does for the family is not nearly enough to grant her anything resembling full personhood, and anything that crosses the line of that rigidly defined master and servant relationship is to be apologised for profusely, or else.

KO_04703.dng

Keeping up with the Thrombeys: After Harlan Thrombey (centre) is found dead in an apparent suicide, the rest of his family decend into a not-so-petty extended squabble over the spoils

It is at this point that Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) – Johnson’s wonderfully conceived riposte to the Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot archetype, gleefully brought to life by a relaxed and game post-Bond Craig – crosses a line of his own. Lifting the veil of cold calculated deductive reasoning that has so far been his modus operandi (and that of his literary and filmic antecedents in the detective genre), he interrupts Marta by giving in to a bubbling ethical indignation:

“Excuse me. You have not been good to her. You have all treated her like shit […] You’re a pack of bloody vultures at the feast, but you’re not getting bailed out, not this time.”

We can make much out of Blanc being something of a ‘white knight’ in this situation, also pointing out that most migrants out there do not in fact have such figures bursting through to speak out in their favour when things get really tough. But within the context of the film, Blanc’s outburst serves as a welcome bit of catharsis. How much of this misguided, undeserved and disingenuous shit are we going to take, and for how long?

Disgraced former tourism and energy minister Konrad Mizzi recently evoked something of a similar reaction in local quarters after posting an incendiary Facebook post following a literally incendiary event in Marsa.

Screenshot 2020-01-09 at 12.03.47

“You fled your country. We saved you from drowning. We gave you shelter in our home. We dressed you, fed you. But now learn to respect us, our culture, our religion and the Maltese population,” Konrad Mizzi wrote on Facebook on January 8th, 2019, in the wake of a fire engulfing the Marsa Open Centre, which led to the arrest of 20 people.

Like the Thrombeys, Mizzi betrays no qualms at lumping all migrants in the same basket, with an added sting of political convenience handy to local politicians – particularly ones given the chop in the wake of shady financial dealings, who are now perhaps hoping that a new party leader will allow them to once again rise in the party ranks, previous sins washed clean as they are buoyed back into the public discourse by this recent appeal to far-right sentiment.

Mizzi does indeed expect all migrants to merely shut up and take any indignity thrown at them, except perhaps when they open their mouths to intone just how “good to them” we’ve been for allowing them the privilege of taking shelter on our island.

Never mind that the true source of the fire has yet to be determined, and never mind that this rush to condemn sits uncomfortably when compared to Mizzi’s own post-Panama political trajectory, during which we were all expected to let the legalisms that have exonerated him to speak for themselves.

Never mind that, even if the fires at the Marsa open centre are proven to have been deliberately started by migrants housed there, Mizzi’s diabolically moralistic generalisation cannot even begin to hold water: it assumes that all of the migrants there would have been in full agreement with any criminal action taking place.

And in this particular case, the notion that the migrants at the open centre should be grateful to us for ‘housing’ them is also off base: by its very definition, the open centre largely serves as a transitional space in which migrants are made to wait while their paperwork is processed and before they are given the go-ahead to either stay in the country or move elsewhere.

But apart from being an obvious and cheap attempt at garnering public support from literally the most toxic of national sources, Mizzi’s attitude is also redolent of the kind of ‘logic’ and ‘common sense’ which underpins some of the same toxicity within the migration debate. ‘We will charitably do our bit to welcome third country nationals into the country, but if they dare express anything other than adulation of even consider making minor legal infringements – infringements that we’d easily forgive among ‘our own’ – the only thing they should look forward to is swift deportation’.

KNIVES OUT Ana de Armas

Ana de Armas is Marta Cabrera in Knives Out (2019)

It is a logic that is accurately, meticulously and painfully articulated in Knives Out. In an early scene – or rather, early confessional flashback – Marta is brought in as an unwitting ‘exhibit A’ of the ‘good migrant’ by Richard (Don Johnson), as a tangible closing salvo to a family debate on Donald Trump’s heinous migration border policy (Ol’ 45 is not explicitly mentioned by name, but the correlation is impossible not to make). Conceding that ‘putting children in cages’ is a bad thing, Richard clings to legalisms:

“But I blame the parents […] for breaking the law. You’re going to hate hearing this but it’s true, America is for Americans.”

It’s at this point that Richard commands a vigilant and nervous Marta to come over, as if a walking, (barely) talking illustration of his point. Making a point to wave his polished-off cake plate at the trembling girl, to be taken away later, Richard carries on,

“Marta, your family came from Uruguay but you did it right, she did it legally, I’m saying. You work hard, and you’ll earn your share from the ground up just like dad and all of us did – Marta I bet you agree with me.”

Never mind Richard obliviousness to both Marta’s own true country of origin (something the audience itself never becomes privy to either, to be fair); the fact that Richard is also ignorant of her family’s legal status is of course the deeper cut. Once that truth is revealed – by one of the supposedly more ‘woke’ members of the Thrombey family – the information gives way to blackmail, not help from this monied and influential family. Truly, they have not been, and will insist on never being, good to her.

Many arguments in favour of existing, status quo migration policies accuse the ‘other side’ of sentimentality or misdirected compassion, of refusing to consider the rational underpinnings behind arguments like ‘America is for Americans’, ‘illegal immigrants are simply breaking the law’.

But pronouncements like Mizzi’s own are also an act of obfuscation, apart from being a vulgar attempt to piggyback on racist undercurrents in an attempt to salvage some form of political capital. In framing migration policy as little more than an act of charity, Mizzi conveniently dodges the responsibility of rigour that is crucial if one is to honestly engage with issues of such complexity.

It’s a smoke-and-mirrors exercise made possible through the mechanisms of privilege – Mizzi’s own monied background, his history as a politician which, however chequered, still garners active support from a vocal contingent of Labour supporters – and it’s also the main obstacle that Benoit Blanc faces as he attempts to crack the case he’s now facing.

Because while Marta’s part in Johnson’s serpentine plot is hardly as simple as her otherwise diminished social standing would suggest, the Thrombey’s arsenal of cash and influence goes a long way towards making the case as juicy and complex as possible, as an eleventh-hour reappearance of an absent Thrombey scion makes clear as the film transitions from the second act to its third.

KNIVES OUT Daniel Craig

Somewhere over gravity’s rainbow: Daniel Craig is Benoit Blanc

Blanc uses the title of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow to describe his working method to Marta – a famously impenetrable tome that neither of them have read, but whose title Blanc is partial to because,

“It describes the path of a projectile, determined by natural law. Voila, my method. I observe the facts without biases of the head or heart, I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet.”

Mizzi and other politicians of his ilk are in the business of putting themselves precisely in the path of the projectile, blocking a thorough examination of the truth by opening the floodgates to angry, misguided sections of the electorate who will offer them their support in the wake of such toxic battle cries.

It is a self-serving move masquerading as a beacon of wider social concern, and it precisely encapsulates the paradox of figures like Konrad Mizzi: well-oiled businessmen brought into the fold of an ascendant Labour Party and asked to deploy their technocratic skills in the interest of securing continued victory.

It’s a paradox that also came undone in the wake of a murder – that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose mysteries have been unravelled somewhat, but not in their entirety.

Camilla & Castillo | Engaging with Clare Azzopardi

To say that my adoptive home country is going through some turbulent stuff right now would be the understatement of an already-overstated century, but that doesn’t mean that wallowing in the chaotic morass is in any way productive or desirable… addictive as it may be.

Irreconcilable paradoxes and hastily grasped-at truths and half-truths are often the hallmark of great fiction, for the very reason that they tend to bug and scare us most of the time. This is where writers (and artists of every ilk) can actually step in to do some undeniable Good Work that affects Society at Large. By giving these ambiguities a thorough airing, they can allow us to point at our condition and feel truly ‘seen’.

Clare Azzopardi‘s latest novel Castillo is many things, but at its root is a desire to express the ever-relevant – and now, sadly, even topical – helplessness we feel when faced with endemic corruption and apparently sanctified violence. Amanda Barbara seeks out her estranged mother following the death of the father who raised her, only to learn that the matriarch was errant as well as absent: almost off-hand, she confesses to committing two murders a couple of decades ago and feels not a little bit of guilt about her actions.

Castillo by Clare Azzopardi

The real twist in the tale in many ways is the involvement of Cathy ‘K.’ Penza, also recently deceased and by all accounts the ‘cool aunt’ figure for Amanda… not least thanks to her side-career as the celebrated writer behind the ‘Castillo’ crime novels, extracts from which Azzopardi regales us with in interspersed chapters that deftly and joyfully display a masterful grasp of cross-genre pastiche.

It’s not just because of the novels-within-a-novel device – though this may be the most explicit manifestation of this strand of Azzopardi’s many talents – but with Castillo, Clare Azzopardi once again proves herself as one of the most engaging and full-rounded authors in the local sphere.

A novel about gender, motherhood, the reverberating and unresolved echoes of political violence past, Castillo always remains very much a detective novel through and through, albeit one with a ‘twist’, relegating the conventional cloak-and-dagger and noir trappings to the embedded fictional detective, but leaving plenty of work for Amanda to do.

This, to my mind, is the true strength of Azzopardi’s novel: never once does she drop the ball, never once does she forget to do the necessary TLC that ensures this aesthetic cohesion that makes the novel such a solidly held-together experience. The ‘Castillo’ chapters aren’t just a clever garnish, they are firmly rooted to it all. The spectre of violence made manifest. If journalism is the first draft of history, the detective is its first archaeologist, digging up bones marked with streaks of fresh flesh.

Here’s hoping Castillo is translated thick, wide and fast.

***

Some shameless self-promotion now, though not unrelated to the author under discussion. Last year, we’ve had the privilege of adapting a short story by Clare Azzopardi into a short film, and we brought in a landmark work by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to help along.

Camilla_Poster_004

Camilla‘ was co-written by its director Stephanie Sant and myself, produced by Martin Bonnici of Shadeena Entertainment and made possible thanks to the National Book Council (Malta), after it won its Short Film Contest in 2018. The source material is taken from Azzopardi’s award-winning, female-centered anthology Kulhadd Halla Isem Warajh, and in adapting the story I did a bit of archaeology of my own, calling up Laura from Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ to serve as an audience stand-in and ultimately, protagonist, in the interest of keeping the enigma at the root of the titular character intact.

Both roles were played with sensitivity, grace and quiet potency by Steffi Thake and Irene Christ, and I couldn’t be happier with the end result.

‘Camilla’ is now free for all to see on YouTube, and I hope you enjoy it.

Literary Homes Away From Home | TIFA & Malta Book Festival

The life of the freelance writer can be nasty, brutish and long… at least it certainly feels that way as the deadline trenches continue to spew up new nasties and your trusted friends and allies get lost on the way, or are thrown into their own mix of churny nastiness.

All of this is to say that I haven’t quite been able to keep this blog up and updated as often as I’d wished (a perennial excuse/complaint by those of my ilk), which this time was particularly regretful given the awesome stuff that lies ahead.

Namely…

The Toronto International Festival of Authors 

Thanks to the kind collaboration/collusion between Merlin Publishers and the Consulate General of the Republic of Malta, I was able to say “yes” to the kind offer by the organisers behind the Toronto International Festival of Authors, a truly prestigious literary event that this year will feature guests like Angela Davis, John Irving, Adam Foulds, Adam Gopnik, Emma Donoghue and a plethora of intimidating-sounding others for what will be its 40th anniversary edition.

It still feels a little bit unreal to me, and I’m sure it’ll remain so right until we actually land in the beautiful-seeming city after what will be my first trip outside of Europe.

The grounding factor are of course the events I will be participating in, which are the following:

Reading & Conversation: Karen McBride, Teodor Reljić and Drew Hayden Taylor

TIFA author event.png

Saturday, October 26, 2019 – 4:00 PM
Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre

These three authors examine the hidden secrets with which we live, in family life and in our hometowns. Karen McBride presents her first novel, Crow Winter. She is an Algonquin Anishinaabe writer from the Timiskaming First Nation in the territory that is now Quebec. Drew Hayden Taylor presents Chasing Painted Horses. He is a playwright, short story writer, novelist, journalist, activist for Indigenous rights and TV scriptwriter. Teodor Relijić presents Two. He is a writer of fiction, a freelance feature writer, and culture editor and film critic at MaltaToday. The conversation will be moderated by Wendy O’Brien. Hosted by Tunchai Redvers.

***

Europe On Tour: Reading & Reception

Sunday, October 27, 2019 – 7:00 PM
Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre

No passport needed to meet, hear and learn from the European Union’s leaders in contemporary literature at this special event. For the second year running, the Festival is thrilled to present this rare chance to hear acclaimed works recited live in the languages in which they were originally written and in the authors’ own voices.

Spotlighted countries include Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. This event is presented in conjunction with the European Union National Institutes for Culture. Written English translations will be available. Readings will be followed by a licensed reception and the event will be hosted by Laetitia Delemarre.

Featured authors include:

Kai Aareleid (Burning Cities),

Esad Babačić (Every Child is Beautiful When Born),

Helena Janeczek (The Girl with the Leica),

Frido Mann,

Wilfried N’Sondé (Concrete Flowers),

Inês Pedrosa (Still I Miss You),

Rein Raud (The Death of a Perfect Sentence),

Teodor Reljić (Two),

Teresa Solana (The First Prehistoric Serial Killer),

Benedek Totth (Dead Heat),

and Gabriela Ybarra (The Dinner Guest).

***

Authors on Tour at Union Station – Day 3

Monday, October 28, 2019 – 12 PM – 2 PM

The Toronto International Festival of Authors has partnered with Toronto’s Union Station once again to bring spirited author readings to Toronto’s busiest commuter interchange.
Hosted by Antanas Sileika, the events will spotlight a select lineup of authors, as well as a “Books On Tour” Library of favourite Festival titles of the past 40 years, which passersby are welcome to take home with them free of charge. Each author will present from their latest book on the topic of “travel” or “journeys” and interact with the audience. The event will take place in the West Wing of Union Station, immediately off the Great Hall at street level.

Next… 

The Malta Book Festival  

MBF2019_Poster-banners-1920x583_EN

A beloved event that is only growing from strength to strength with each passing year (much like Malta Comic Con, whose second day I’ll be attending pretty much after my Toronto-via-Rome plane back home lands on the Luqa gravel), this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival is especially exciting for me.

Its chosen theme of speculative fiction is obviously close to my heart, and it is for this reason that its organising body, the National Book Council, kindly allowed me to pitch a couple of names into the ring of their then-burgeoning programme.

Happily, this resulted in both Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Kali Wallace to be selected for participation in a few events at the festival, both of whom I’ve met and made friends with at Cons in the Scarborough and Helsinki, respectively. They round out a set of international guests which also include Dave Rudden and none other than Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. My contributions to the Malta Book Festival, which runs from November 6-10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, will be the following:

Kali Wallace at the National Book Festival 

I will be interviewing Kali Wallace on November 7th at 18:00 about her already-prolific and eclectic range of novels, which span from horror to sci-fi, YA to middle-grade to adult fiction, and the latest of which has just been optioned for a big-budget film adaptation.

Kali wallace

Official event description:

U.S. author Kali Wallace will be talking to Teodor Reljić about her already prolific output, which includes the Young Adult cult favourites ‘Shallow Graves’, ‘The Memory Trees’ and ‘City of Islands’. Their talk will touch upon the dynamics of genre fiction and publishing, the difference between writing for young adults and adults, the legacy of space-horror thrillers such the ‘Alien’ franchise and their influence on her most recent work and debut novel for adults, ‘Salvation Day’. Because it is only right, a portion of the conversation will also be dedicated to a consideration of both interlocutors’ undeniably adorable fluffy cats.

Official Facebook Event

***

Literary Speed Dating

Prior to that, I will also be participating in the inaugural edition of the Literary Speed Dating event, which according to the National Book Council, “will take place at the Authors’ Hub, a space specifically designated for one-to-one meetings during the Malta Book Festival.

“The idea behind this initiative is to get individuals from the public to meet you as an exhibitor/participant/important stakeholder in the book industry at the Malta Book Festival, in a setting which is more private than the usual ‘from behind the counter at the stand in a festival attended by thousands”.

My own slot will be on Wednesday, 6 November from 17:30 to 18:30, right before the Festival’s annual conference, which will this year feature Loranne Vella, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Kali Wallace and Dave Rudden in a discussion of the ‘strange new worlds’ propsed by sci-fi and fantasy fiction, as moderated by author and translator Mark Anthony Fenech.

Okay, time to strap in, literally and metaphorically. Hope to meet a bunch of you in the flesh! 

A Nostalgia Trigger From the Grotty Floating Hovel: Slipknot’s We Are Not Your Kind

So Slipknot have released a new album and it’s a winner, beating even Ed Sheeran in the charts and delivering a slice of post-nu-metal that satisfies this nostalgic punter on so, so many levels.

But beyond the simple enjoyment of tucking into the fresh material of a band with whom you’ve intermittently come of age, is the refreshingly optimistic realisation that something previously thought irrelevant can be good again; that the adage of ‘has-been’ is something our culture has been getting wrong all these years.

slipknot

Neither is it an entirely alien feeling, either: I’ve personally been very glad to fall in love with The Pale Emperor, another latter-day release by a supposed has-been who was a musical guiding star for me even before Slipknot took over in the late nineties.

I still remember popping in a bootleg cassette of Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals and thrilling to the wash of immersive-yet-subversive sounds; the photocopied wrap-around cover not being cut entirely right, so that the album read ‘Mechanical Anima’ in what felt like an apposite error: the pained screams of a mechanised soul, the ghost in the machine aching to express itself in mournful, trickster anger.

But we’ve seen this elsewhere too. The Cure, by all accounts, knocking it out of the park at Glastonbury (wish I’d been there for that one). Actors we thought washed up at the movies returning to shine on the smaller screen, reaping the benefits of the kind of long-form storytelling afforded by the TV Renaissance to character actors whose creases accommodate stories of nuance and depth.

stranger things

Weaponised nostalgia: Netflix’s Stranger Things

I’m convinced that this isn’t just the Stranger Things impulse: it’s not just about the indulgence in nostalgia for its own sake. For one, this surely the historical time-frames we’re dealing with here are too compressed, too recent to offer the kind of generational time-hop necessitated by the kind of the thing the Stranger Things does?

Granted, twenty years is a sizeable amount of time. It used to be a lifetime, not all that long ago. But just like we’re getting re-assessments of The Matrix and American Beauty (Brian Raftery’s Best. Movie. Year. Ever. offers an excellent analysis of the cinematic mainstream in that low-key magical year of 1999), this is more about taking stock than sinking in the warm bath of cultural nostalgia.

Maybe it has something to do with the way distribution models have changed. Both American Beauty’s Alan Ball and The Matrix’s Wachowski siblings, with varying degrees of success, have managed to find a foothold in the realm of TV. And with MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity.

Yes, social media is hardly ever a good thing. It’s too image-obsessed. It’s too fragmented and fickle. Far too easily beholden to manipulating and manipulateable algorithms to ease our minds into believing that our enjoyment of pop culture is not an expression of some folksy universality. Instead, it’s just us bending the knee to our corporate overlords yet again.

And yet, and yet. Being part of an ever-shifting stream means the ‘has-been’ is an obsolete term. When the hegemonic order is dispersed — again, when MTV is no longer the arbiter — age really does become just a number.

With MTV no longer being the benchmark of what’s cool and popular, maybe musicians not being beholden to their cycles also serves as an opportunity

A number, much like Slipknot’s own members styled themselves, at first. Now of course, their masks and costumes have evolved into something eminently Instagrammable, but that’s a rich discussion to be had on another day.

I’m no music critic and I actually can’t claim to have heard Slipknot all that much beyond their blistering sophomore effort Iowa (2001), but there’s certainly something to be said about how We Are Not Your Kind has burrowed its hooks in me pretty deep.

It comes down to that well-calculated blend of the familiar and the new. In this case, experience doesn’t communicate exhaustion, but depth and maturity. Like a friend you haven’t seen for a while returning from an exciting year of adventuring across countries, continents and galaxies, eager to recount their experience over refreshments in safe and comfortable surroundings.

slipknot iowa

The nine Iowans comprising Slipknot’s classic line-up wouldn’t be all that familiar with dingy arcades on Mediterranean beaches, but We Are Not Your Kind’s opener ‘Insert Coin’ certainly evokes that for me: these oil-caked, fry-up-stinking hovels are the kind of places we’d get some shade in while dipping in and out of the sea during those carefree summers.

One of these summers was that of 1999, where we’d scratch together pocket-money to get our hands on the band’s scene-changing, self-titled debut album. In a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world this would be a talisman of contemporary metal soon to be joined by the likes of Soulfly’s ‘Back to the Primitive’ and Fear Factory’s ‘Digimortal’, whose cuts we would still get to enjoy in grotty one-room nightclub venues, now closed, and whose single-row metallic pissoirs I remember with markedly diminished affection.

As an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own

Because while the angst inherent in Slipknot’s repertoire has something of the universal about it, neither should it be all that surprising that the sun-kissed Mediterranean isle I hail from is partial to a bit of metal.

Many of the bands that serve as mainstays of this scene rehearse in badly-lit, terribly under-oxygenated garages located in the depressed industrial town of Marsa and the mushrooming suburb of Birkirkara… as an overbuilt, overcrowded and overpolluted floating hovel, Malta provides plenty of atmospheric angst of its own.

It’s an angst that certainly finds cathartic release in We Are Not Your Kind’s hit single ‘Unsainted’, whose blasphemous undertones speak to Malta’s only-recent de facto liberation from Catholic theocracy while admittedly also existing as tropey metal mainstays. The song is a distillation of just the kind of anthemic perfection that launched Slipknot into the mainstream; boasting a killer chorus limned by jagged but thumping surrounding verses, like an speed-injected Cadbury Creme Egg framed by a Marmite-marinated crown of thorns.

For me, it’s a reminder of the energetic core that’s the true appeal of metal music. The magnetic pull that can’t be denied; that others will find in other genres, but that nothing else really replaces for me even now, when my own tastes have evolved beyond what I’d used to listen to twenty years ago. Yes, I’ll tell myself that I only really listen to the likes of Opeth and Tool anymore, but when songs Korn’s ‘Blind’, or Fear Factory’s ‘Replica’, or Slipknot’s ‘Wait and Bleed’ and indeed ‘Unsainted’ pop back up on the horizon I can’t help but run towards them.

snapshot-1

But neither should we diminish the importance of evolution and maturity; the adding of something new to the mix. The washed-up actor whose career finds a new lease of life on Netflix or HBO should use their hard-won scars and creases to their advantage, not cover them up. Otherwise, that’s how we end up in Stranger Things territory (please accept by continued and non-flattering references to this show as mere shorthand, I actually enjoy it quite a bit).

Thankfully, We Are Not Your Kind does manage to achieve that elusive blend of the old and new. It distills Slipknot back into their essence, but like truly seasoned artists, they still manage to slide in a reminder that they’re aging gracefully.

‘Spiders’ is a kooky Mike Patton-like number that still manages to be true to the ‘Knot’s Halloween-horror roots, while ‘My Pain’ cranks up both the atmospherics and melancholy. But this isn’t a mellowing out so much as a deepening of the musical landscape they’ve created. More than anything, Slipknot feel even more ‘cinematic’ now, wedded to their inspired imagery in more ways than one. More John Carpenter than Cannibal Corpse, and all the better for it.

IMG_20190412_112552

And perhaps this is why We Are Not Your Kind resonates with me so much right at this moment. While it’s hard to resist the nostalgia and romance that their debut evokes for me (see above), and I’m in a place where I’d rather fight for the hovel that is Malta to become a little bit less so; to salvage what is left of its green spaces, and for local bands to be able to practice in more than just grotty garages.

More than anything, though, the sonic architecture makes for a perfect writing accompanyment. It pummels at me to write and create works with uncompromising verve and energy, while offering that break of atmospheric concentration that’s also necessary to the process.

In short, it is a perfect soundscape of horror, which can take many forms, and whose protean variety I am continuing to find utterly thrilling.

Plus, “Horror will never die” says John Carpenter himself… another supposed has-been whose musical career offers a dignified middle-finger to that very notion.

Central Link Project: A Quick and Dirty Resistance Guide

The Central Link Project is only the latest assault on Malta’s natural environment, heritage and collective memory. Animated by a destructive populist zeal, its main aim is to further entrench the idea that private cars are the only way to get around in this tiny, overbuilt and over-polluted island.

The salt in the wound is the attitude of a government which, instead of at least acknowledging people’s concerns about the project, mocks them in tones that can only be described as ‘passive aggressive Kim Jong-Un’.

Thankfully, a steady momentum of resistance is building up in opposition to this additional bulldozing blow to the few pockets of greenery we have left. As ever, success is never a guarantee. It may not even be a possibility. But at the very least, those who care a smidge for how future generations will perceive us can at least take comfort in the knowledge that something WAS done when push came to shove.

Direct action

‘For Our Trees’ Protest – July 28th

I’ve expressed my reservations about some of the strategic choices proposed for this particular protest, but that certainly doesn’t mean I won’t be attending, nor that I’m not glad that something is actually happening to demonstrate on-the-ground resistance. Exact time and venue to be announced.

Fundraiser for Court Appeal

Together with the Bicycle Advocacy Group and a number of other environmental NGOs, Moviment Graffitti have come through with a sensitive, pin-sharp and serious approach to the matter. They aim to raise €20,000 to cover the necessary legal costs. Click here for donation options.

Further Reading

First, the sober stuff…

‘Will Malta End Up With More of Fewer Trees?’

Tim Diacono (Lovin Malta) cuts through government spin (never more vile than what appeared on ONE.com.mt) and the understandable-but-sometimes-deafening outrage to get at the ominous truth behind the promises of the Central Link Project.

‘A recipe for traffic induced disaster’

The MaltaToday editorial leader from last Sunday is sober but unequivocal in its condemnation for the project:

“Meanwhile, road-widening in various areas of Malta has already resulted in the permanent loss of around 40,000sq.m of agricultural land in various areas. But in this case, a staggering 19,000sq.m will be taken up by the new bypass, and other roads feeding it.”

[…]

“And yet, the new infrastructure is not primarily meant to accommodate bus lanes, but only cars. Even bike lanes have come as an afterthought, with the proposed lanes failing short of a real network which makes it possible for cyclists to travel uninterruptedly along the new route.”

[…]

“Clearly, the regulatory authorities are not doing their job properly. Equally clearly, the Transport Ministry is motivated by short-term strategies that will only exacerbate existing problems in the near future. This is a recipe for disaster.”

‘Cutting down trees to widen roads is not just wrong. It is evil’

With characteristic verve, wit and a dependably healthy dollop of righteous anger, Raphael Vassallo also steps in to condemn the project in no uncertain terms:

“I rather suspect that they will look back at us today, and conclude that we must truly have been an evil bunch of criminally delinquent monsters, to have wilfully embarked on a course of action that we knew would make their own lives hell.”

Then, some satirical respite…

Finally, The satirical pen of Karl Stennienibarra of Bis-Serjeta’ is also worth noting here since, like the best satire often does, his perspective lifts the lid on the underlying absurdities of the thing in a way that rational discourse never could.

Morbidly obese Maltese man expands stomach to allow more food to pass through

…I wonder what this article could possibly be allegorising about?

“Dr Grixti stressed that for every burger, pizza and cake that Mr Cutajar will shove down his newly widened oesophagus, he will also eat one piece of broccoli.

“Before the operation, concerned friends of Mr Cutajar pointed that 549 hairs would need to be shaved as part of the procedure. However, Dr Grixti dismissed their worries in an emoji-filled Facebook post.”

People in Malta must evolve to breathe dust & fumes, says Muscat

“Muscat said the government had considered the possibility of subsidising oxygen masks, but had deemed the idea too unrealistic.”

“Instead, we need people to be self-sufficient and evolve lungs that can filter out excess progress powder. In the words of Charles Darwin: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, boutique hotels, directly follows.”

The quality of my lies is improving, says Muscat

“For example, instead of telling you all the truth – that Malta can’t be a one-car-per-person country anymore and that we desperately need to reduce car use, which would lose me both votes and corporate donors – I feed you a load of bullshit about road widening, while impressing you with big numbers, half-truths and far-off hypotheticals that may or may not become reality,” [Muscat] said to applause.

Easter Gothic | BILA, Camilla, Inheritance

Easter is approaching on this once-aggressively Catholic island, which is only marginally less so nowadays, as this snap I took a couple of days back gloriously, dramatically illustrates:

gudja

Easter of course also means spring in full swing, and the twisty turny weather that it brings with it has left me feeling a bit ‘off’ on a few days here and there, where drowsiness becomes the order of the day and where you feel abandoned to the mercy of the uncontrollable climate-gods and their whims — they are in you, controlling your moods and there’s not much you can do about it. Both humbling and annoying in equal measure, but I also know it’s nowhere near the deluge that is the summer-swelter juggernaut, for which I am subconsciously preparing with no small amount of trepidation.

But come rain on shine, my penchant for the cooling moods of Gothic melodrama will remain unquelled, and it’s not just the above photo that stands as proof of this. Recently, the punk-metal band BILA (no, they’re not all that sure about their genre-configuration either — I asked) got me on board to participate in the music video for their song ‘Belliegha’, in which I was tasked to play a folk monster by the video’s director, Franco Rizzo.

The no-budget, three-day shoot ended up blossoming into a glorious display of pulpy goodness, and it was about as fun to shoot as it is to look at, I reckon. You can check out the whole thing here. For those of you on the island and keen to hear more, BILA will be performing at Rock the South on April 14.

The Belliegha’s aesthetic certainly lies on the (deliberately) crummier side of what I’ve just been talking about, but we also had a chance to once again showcase our more elegant attempt at the Mediterranean Gothic during past couple of weeks, as the National Book Council invited co-writer/director, producer Martin Bonnici and myself to speak about our short film ‘Camilla’ at the Campus Book Festival.

camilla campus book fest

Flanked by Martin Bonnici (left) and Stephanie Sant (right) at the Campus Book Festival, University of Malta, March 29, 2019. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

The event was focused on adaptation, translation and subtitling, and to this end we were thankfully joined by Dr Giselle Spiteri Miggiani from the translation department, and someone with tangible experience of subtitling for television and cinema.

Despite having premiered back in November, it feels as though ‘Camilla’s journey into the world is only just beginning. Some encouraging feedback and an overall sense of enduring satisfaction with the work as a whole — bolstered by the memory of just how smooth a project it was to put together — leaves me with a decidedly un-Gothy optimism about its future.

But true to the spirit of fertility, resurrection and renewal that also characterises this season and its many associated festivals, there’s another bun in the oven that appears to be just about ready for consumption.

inheritance

After some five-odd years of rumination, regurgitation and tinkering, the fifth draft of a horror feature I’ve been working on under the auspices of the aforementioned Martin Bonnici appears to be production-ready.

Of course any number of things can happen in the run up to finally getting this thing filmed, but I can’t help but let out an extended sigh of relief at finally finishing a draft of ‘Inheritance’ that’s about as smooth as I’d like it to be — with the required suspension of disbelief being dialed down to a minimum, the dialogue as lived-in as it’s ever been, and the narrative beats aligned to both character motivation and the story’s thematic underbelly.

I’ll have to keep mum on details for the time being, not least because a jinx at this stage of the film’s evolution would be particularly heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that the project marks the fulfilment of a vow made back in 2014, on national media. A vow to make the Maltese cinematic space just that little bit punkier and weirder.

This all feels like good juju, since summer is approaching. And carving out a pretty alcove of darkness feels like just the thing. Take it away, Banshees…

banshees

ENCORE – Issue 16 | Editorial

So, the sixteenth issue of ENCORE Magazine, which I have been editing since it’s eleventh edition, should soon be out and about in its designated pigeon-boxes across Malta and Gozo, after having debuted last Sunday – nestled as it was in between the pages of the Malta Independent during a particularly torrential day.

Below is the text for my editorial for this issue, which covers the period of March-May 2019. Being a quarterly magazine, the trope of the seasons is difficult to wriggle out of when writing these things, I’ve realised. But then again, why even bother? In the end, what is more enveloping than the climate? We Maltese Islands-dwellers learnt this the hard way last weekend, and the world will have to lean into its realities even harder once climate change truly hits a stride…

But in the meantime! 

Here’s the editorial.

52793124_382139919253161_595208074097065984_o

An apposite atmosphere of fresh beginnings wafts over this edition of Encore Magazine, and I for one could not be more glad at the aura of promise that this brings about for the Maltese cultural scene at large. We delve into not one, but two, art spaces in Valletta: MUZA and Valletta Contemporary — showcases of the visual arts whose legacy, angling and approach may be different, but which nonetheless stand as a testament of both an active visual arts scene with no small modicum of both public support and enthusiastic private patronage.
The two entities, both in their early stages, could also be seen as craning up (chin held firmly up) as the smoke of Valletta’s tenure as European Capital of Culture begins to clear.
But it is not just cultural initiatives that are rising from the ashes of the busy and hectic year that was 2018. Even the island’s most prominent public cultural body looks forward to some refreshing changes, as is evident from our interview with Mary-Ann Cauchi, the new Director of Strategy at Arts Council Malta, who outlines her vision of a holistic and democratic approach to public funding and support for local artists.
But neither are we forgetting about the roots of the matter — that is, the education of budding artists, now given a boost thanks to the additional availability of so-called VET subjects. A student fills us in on the revealing progress of pursuing an educational path less taken, and that allows for flexibility and uncertainty: such a necessary component of any honestly-undertaken creative endeavour.
Speaking of generational developments and creative flexibility, we also delve into the perception of nudity and sexuality in the Maltese visual and theatrical arts; in what can serve as an addendum to our consideration on the evolving attitude towards censorship in a previous issue. And in another further gentle jolt to preconceptions, the latest edition of our Encounter running feature pits a tattooist against a filigree artist, in a conversation that shines an interesting light on the blurry fault lines between ‘art’ and ‘cosmetics’.
This is, of course, all counterbalanced by insights into the exciting events that lie ahead during the Spring of 2019, reminding us once again of the truly refreshing pleasures of new beginnings.

Enjoy.

Teodor Reljić

As ever, I would like to thank Encore Magazine director Ruben Zahra, proofreader Tricia Dawn Williams and the team at Kuluri (Reuben Spiteri and Daniel Borg) for helping put together this challenging (read: post-Christmas) edition of the magazine. Thanks also go to our many contributors. The magazine can also be viewed online