The Townhouse of Ideas

Author Interview: Steven Brust– Part One

Steven Brust is a fantasy author who I interviewed one time, but I just found out that the website the interview was on is gone now, so I’ve decided it’s time to post the interview here!

You may remember the name of Steven Brust from my article I wrote on this site about writers who’ve been an influence on me… In the meantime, let’s let Wikipedia help introduce you to the man:

Steven Karl Zoltán Brust (born November 23, 1955) is an American fantasy and science fiction author of Hungarian descent. He is best known for his series of novels about the assassin Vlad Taltos, one of a disdained minority group of humans living on a world called Dragaera. His recent novels also include The Incrementalists (2013) and its sequel The Skill of Our Hands (2017), with co-author Skyler White.

As a drummer and singer-songwriter, Brust has recorded one solo album and two albums as a member of Cats Laughing. Brust also co-wrote songs on two albums recorded in the mid-1990s by the band Boiled in Lead.

Okay, so that’s some stuff you know now, if you didn’t before! So let’s jump into my interview with Steven Brust, who had apparently been recently talking to me, before the interview started, about how he watched the TV show Firefly

Park Cooper: So: how are ya? Aside from enjoying Firefly?

Steven Brust: Doing well; getting work done.

PC: Vlad/Jhereg work?

SB: Yeah, a new Vlad novel.

PC: When you think of the series, do you think “the Vlad series” or “Vlad’s books” or “Jhereg” collectively or what? The Shelf Monster? The Big Long Thing?

SB: I think I’ve been calling them Vlad novels. What is it you look for in deciding whom to interview?

PC: Heh. I’m a big fan, read all the books, and Brokedown Palace, and…

SB: (nod ) Do you like to have a prepared list of questions, or do you enjoy just making it up on the fly?

PC: I’d even say you’re an influence, though my book is silly/funny.

SB: That’s very flattering; thanks.

PC: Well funny being more of the reason for being– Vlad is damn funny.

I do enjoy making it up on the fly, one thing leading into another, but I have a few things in the back of my mind this evening…  but I’m happy to throw them out if we get into talking about other things…

SB: Cool. What was one of the really fun experiences you’ve had doing an interview?

PC: One interesting thing was a young woman I was interviewing about comics– I consciously didn’t want to nudge her into having to talk about sexism in comics and darned if she didn’t go there all by herself with zero help from me…

SB: (nodnod) So, then, you have a strong background in comics?

PC: I do. My wife and I wrote them before we got more strongly into prose. I still do, a little.

Now, are you aware that you’re currently interviewing me? Because it’s fun and funny and all, but if you’re not aware, I’m happy to inform you of it.

SB: Hee hee

PC: I just don’t want you to feel that I don’t care about you and your answers…

Yeah I let it go for a while, but I thought I’d mention it.

SB: I wondered how long I could get away with it.

PC: As long as you like. I’m truly honored to be interviewed by you. But if you wondered how long before I noticed– pretty much right away.

SB: Okay, fair enough.

PC: I thought it might be part of you getting comfortable…

So, how’s your health? I ask because I care.

SB: Well, let’s see: given that I smoke like a chimney and don’t exercise, my health is remarkably good.  Although I’ve just today taken some steps to be able to get back to doing some exercise.

PC: Oh yes? That sounds good! Hope it stays remarkably good and/or improves. Minnesota agreeing with you?

SB: It’s good to be back around family. I like that.

PC: Excellent. And the latest book going well?  Er, the currently-written one that is?

SB: You mean Spiked?

PC: Whichever one is currently being written.  I have a vested interest in Vlad novels, though, I admit… but we can talk about whatever books you like…

SB: Er. The question is ambiguous. Let’s see. The current Vlad novel is on chapter 2, and going a bit faster than I expect at this stage. But I’ve just finished (and sold) a novel called Spiked, co-written with Austin writer Skyler White. I’m more excited about it than anything I’ve done in years.

PC: Why so, SB?

SB: First of all, the process was just amazing. Working with Skyler–I haven’t had so much fun writing since Freedom & Necessity with Emma, and The Gypsy with Megan Lindholm. And I just love the book. I can’t stop reading it. The concept is (in my prejudiced opinion) Totally Fucking Cool. And, I don’t know, it just feels right. I love reading it.

PC: Wowee.

SB: Of course, I’ve been in this business long enough to know that how much I like a book has little to do with how much the readers will like it. But I also know that the only thing I can control is how much I like it (to the extent I can even control that), so there’s no point in worrying about how it’ll be received.

PC: Some readers I’ve seen were shirty about Tiassa. I read it, and liked it.

SB: Shirty?

PC: Well, let’s try: snotty.

SB: Ah. Well, the last several Vlad books have irritated some number of fans. So I thought I’d do one that irritated them all.

PC: Really? Hmm. Tiassa was the loudest grumbling I’ve heard. Maybe the only, I can’t remember for sure.

SB: The serious side of that is: I honestly can’t worry about that or I’ll start writing crap. I have to write the book I want to read. If I start guessing what others will like, chances are I’ll write something no one will like.

PC: Is it about him and Cawti? Or him and “go back to town dammit!” or what?

Hey, I’m not scared. I’m not about to tell you how to write your books or your characters—I wouldn’t want anyone trying to tell me… You do what you wanna do.

SB: As Vlad changes and grows, some people are going to stay with me, some are not, and some new people are going to come along. That’s just how it works. But I have to do stuff that excites me, or else go back to honest work. And I’m too old to go back to honest work.

PC: Me, I’m excited. Like for example to see if his weapon’s gonna start speaking up to him one of these days.

SB: It is not impossible that will happen. 🙂

PC: (nod)

SB: I will say, the one I’m writing now is definitely moving the story arc forward. Vlad has come up with something that he thinks will get him out of trouble with the Jhereg. When all is said and done, things will be different. I’m curious myself about whether it’ll work.

an illustration of a black flyin' lizard-lookin' thing on an orange background. Pretty fitting, for stock art...

PC: I tell my wife Barb about Vlad’s saga… to her he’s like yet another old friend who updates with long status updates now and then. She was introduced to him as “Lizard Boy.” As in “So then Lizard Boy gets a great idea– he finds ANOTHER flyin’ lizard!!” She knows that his name is really Vlad, but I didn’t have time to stop and teach her everyone’s proper name when I first started burbling about the series.

SB: Lizard Boy. I like that. Mr. Hoover will like that.

PC: She knows Vlad’s name, and yours. But Cawti is “Lizard Boy’s Wife” (now “Lizard Boy’s First Wife…”), Kragar is Lizard Boy’s Right Hand Guy, Lady Teldra is The Nice Lady In The Dagger.

SB: Heehee.

PC: And yeah, I suspected Vlad was gonna Come Up With Something like that pretty soon.  I saw signs in Tiassa.

SB: This one feels a bit like writing Taltos. I’m throwing a bunch of balls in the air, and I won’t know until I get to the end if I can juggle them all, or if they’ll just bounce right off the page. The tension is fun.

PC: You big on movies?

SB: Not really. I’m a horrible snob with movies and TV.

PC: Yay, snob! Ooh that’s another question– do you play music when you write? I know how musical you are, but that doesn’t mean you listen to it while you write.

SB: Never. If there’s music on, I have to listen to it, and I can’t write.

PC: Yeah Barb’s the same way. Heard anything good lately? Or watched anything?  Know of ANYTHING good lately that wasn’t novels?

SB: I like to have voices in the background when I write. So I’ll usually have some movie or TV show that isn’t good enough to demand attention, but not bad enough to make me crazy.

As for stuff I actually like, I’ve been into Burn Notice lately. And I enjoy House. I liked The West Wing. Firefly, of course.

PC: Yay West Wing.

SB: But I can’t write with those on; they demand attention. Usually something with horses is good to write to.

PC: Mm, good observation.

SB: Oh, I saw the pilot of Hell On Wheels and I was impressed as hell.

PC: Okay. Don’t think I’m crazy, but… how shall I word this… How much push does Vlad give you? Do you write him and he says “I’ll just go do that, then,” or does he ever try to say to you “I don’t want to do that, I want to do/say THIS”? Because he seems like the type who would totally wanna do it his way. Or are you of like minds on stuff?  Or is it totally nothing like I’m describing?

SB: Most of the time, I put him into a situation and he obliges me by telling me what he’s doing. Occasionally he’ll kick back and say, “No fucking WAY am I doing that.” When that happens, I usually listen.

PC: YES. TELLING YOU WHAT HE’S DOING. (super rapid nodding) Can you remember a particular time/the last time?  I am so curious. My wife and I have long conversations about characters being tight-lipped about what they think they’re gonna do next or otherwise etc.

NEXT TIME: Part Two of the three-part Steven Brust interview!

The Townhouse of Ideas


Okay, so the third thing I thought I might write about here is my influences. Barb’s written at least one where she talked about Shirley Jackson (and, I imagine, Jane Eyre, because boy is that an influence on her, too), so I thought I might do the same.

So let’s talk about Roger Zelazny.

Number one influence, Nine Princes in Amber. And its next two sequels, and to a lesser extent the two books after that, and to a rather lesser extent the 5 books in the series after those. So that means talking about the main character of the first 5 books, Corwin of Amber.

That means talking about Dick Powell in the film Murder, My Sweet, because I’m entirely convinced that– among other things– Corwin of Amber is basically Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in the film Murder, My Sweet. The two characters even have a scene where the guy:

–wakes up after having been drugged and

–has to use a metal strut from the bed and knock out one of the guys keeping him there against his will, and

–get his head (enough) together, and

–get his pants on, and

–go to the room of the head doctor-like guy who’s been in charge of actually keeping him there, and then he

–holds that guy at gunpoint, and

–smashes that guy’s hand when he reaches for a button that would sound an alarm//call for help, and then he

–interrogates him, and then

–he forces him to hand over some money so he can get away.

That scene I just described happens in Murder, My Sweet, and it’s also the start of Nine Princes in Amber. The exact same sequence of events that I just said, in every respect, no exceptions (just some additions.)

So Corwin of Amber is Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, but with superhuman strength and stamina and really good with a sword. And he’s a bit musical, too, because he’s Dick Powell, and Dick Powell was also Dick Diamond (as opposed to Sam Spade, get it?), the Singing Detective.

And Corwin had better be a detective, because he’s got to solve the mystery of what happened to his father, because the Nine Princes story is also basically Hamlet, which is why they all live in a castle and Corwin wears black so damn much and talks to someone who is allegedly his father’s ghost, but that’s not the point right now (although you’ll be hearing about me writing a character who is Hamlet at a point in the future, so I guess I might as well foreshadow this now).

But what– as my wife’s vampire character Johannes Fassbinder might say– does this mean? What it means is that the character voice of Corwin of Amber has been very influential on me. Very. I first read Nine Princes in high school and I tell you, fellows and gals and compatriots, I could hardly get enough.

See the thing about making Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe is that everyone already knew Dick Powell as a funny guy, a song-and-dance guy, and they didn’t believe that he could be a serious private detective, and they wanted to prove him wrong. But he did it– enough, anyway. Yes, Dick Powell is HILARIOUS as Philip Marlowe. As Dick (Richard) Diamond, the Singing Detective, he just quipped his way through almost every situation. He quipped at least as much as Peter Parker’s Spider-Man. And unlike in The Thin Man, Powell’s character usually hadn’t been drinking, so it gave you the feeling that this was a guy who’s seen Some Stuff, and that his main way of coping with it was to sarcastically quip his way through life.

a dark street, with car lights streaming by, captured with a very slow shutter speed

Except every 6 or 7 episodes, Richard Diamond got seriously mad and stopped being funny, and he got downright scary in his terrible wrath against the doers of evil. I’ve seen Peter Parker as Spider-Man pull that same trick sometimes, and it works just as well. When Smilin’ Spidey ain’t smilin’ anymore, then boy howdy, is a guy with the proportionate strength and speed of a spider someone you do NOT want comin’ for you.

But yeah, I also approve of Elliot Gould’s performance as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, because he’s much the same way. “It’s okay by me,” he says, until he finally loses his temper at the guy who’s behind everything, and boy, is Smilin’ Phil not smilin’ anymore. It makes for a very powerful ending.

(Zelazny’s other guys are often similar in the most important respects, such as the noir crime novel The Dead Man’s Brother.)

It seems obvious to me that Steven Brust’s memorable character Vlad Taltos (whom my wife knows as “Lizard Boy,” much to Steven Brust’s amusement), from his Jhereg fantasy series, is also rather influenced by Corwin of Amber//Roger Z. Vlad is a guy who’s not bad with a sword or dagger who’s NOT superhumanly strong nor tough, and he makes up for it by being smart and fast (when he’s at the top of his game, which unfortunately for him is not every day of every year). And yes, I’m influenced by Brust, too—who I think I also started reading in high school—the first Jhereg book came out in 83, after all, so it had some years to be around (and to start getting sequels) before I found it.

(Lupin the Third, from Japanese manga and anime, also reminds me a little of this type of guy, but the comparison slowly veers toward the shoulder of the road if you push it, so I won’t push it– just thought I’d mention it in passing. Still, specifically, Lupin’s The Castle of Cagliostro was rather influential; even though it was rather after high school that I discovered it, it was still before I started writing in earnest. Lupin gets determined to rescue a somewhat innocent young woman that he first met years ago when he was starting out and she was a little girl, so it’s nice that he stops being a gal-chasing lech for 90 mins of his damn life. He clearly makes a choice— “I met this girl when she was a child, so y’know what? I think it’d be fun for me to play the pure and noble knight in shining armor that she needs me to be—just this once, just for her,” and that’s just how he plays the whole adventure.)

So, yeah. A certain take on masculinity that is not overbearingly so, a guy who’s arguably sort of sensitive, not too proud nor snooty, a guy with genuine wit– sometimes a bit much wit, in that his mouth can get him in trouble sometimes– That’s Richard Diamond and Dick Powell’s Marlowe and Corwin of Amber and Vlad Taltos and kinda Spider-Man and I gotta tell you, my male protagonists have a lot in common with that vibe as well. It isn’t often that my wife will come to me and say “read this, is this how a guy thinks?” because she has a perfectly good awareness of how guys think, and it’s not often that I read a speech she’s written for one of her male characters and I say “this is great but let me edit it, I wanna guy it up a little extra,” but each has happened at least once, and when I try my hand, the guy in question comes out, let us suffice by saying, notably influenced by Zelazny’s hard-boiled sword-slinger nice-guy-at-heart sort of dude. That version of masculinity is absolutely one I can relate to. That “hey man I’m just trying to get along with everyone, I’m not here to cause any trouble, it’s all okay with me” 95% of the time except that when trouble comes, bad trouble, unfair, cruel, evil trouble, that special 5% of the time that– all right, let’s face it, it comes pretty often in fiction, because it is the purpose of fiction to be dramatic– then that internal lever gets thrown and they stop smiling and start demonstrating to the cruel and the unfair that maybe they shouldn’t have picked a fight with this particular guy after all.

So, yeah, Dick Powell and Roger Zelazny. Definitely influences.

But this sounds like it’s telling you about the kind of characters I write, not about my writing style—which of course isn’t necessarily a betrayal of the title “Influences,” but it’s not the point I meant to get at. So: my writing style:

–is funny, witty, except when things turn serious, at which point the previous funny and witty stuff gets thrown into sharp contrast

–alternates between being fairly fast-moving most of the time, but with characters pausing to figure out how they feel about what’s happening a small percent of the time—only when that internal struggle is as vital and intense as what’s happening externally

–alternates between being casual (that is, the characters talking to each other—and you, if it’s first-person narration—in a casual, relaxed way) and the characters starting to speak formally—when things get tense, and/or when the situation turns emotionally cold, like someone’s really crossed a line

–I like to explore how the characters I write are capable of changing things around them—specifically, how they’re careful about doing that because it might make things worse.

I could go on, but when I think about going on, the line between “how I write” and “characterization” threatens to blur more. Still… noir (and before that, pulp) and the hard-boiled, and how that eventually started translating into the fantasy and sci-fi (and superhero) genres… yeah, those are my influences, and I think it’s definitely affected me and Barb’s brand for Wicker Man Studios: “Relationship dramas in spooky worlds.”

The Townhouse of Ideas

That’s Entertainment: Park and Barb on Films

Okay, time to find out what Barb and I have been doing for entertainment and to try to relax lately– In general, we like streaming old movies.

–Maigret Sets a Trap: First, we lost our wi-fi connection. So, we watched a blu-ray we own of a movie we hadn’t seen in a while: Maigret Sets a Trap from 1958 with Jean Gabin as French detective Maigret. In fact, he’s the Chief Inspector of all of France’s Quai des Orfèvres– a bit like their Scotland Yard. A serial killer is stalking women in Paris, and Maigret must put a stop to it. A brilliant and exciting film with the excellent Jean Gabin (who used to have a relationship with Marlene Dietrich). And around the time the blu-ray was over, the wi-fi was back!

–Down Three Dark Streets: 1954, with Broderick Crawford and Ruth Roman. An FBI man’s partner is killed in the line of duty– but which of the three cases that he was working on at the time was it that got him killed? Written by a husband-wife team called The Gordons, this film really satisfied, with a great last line that suggested everything you need to know to extrapolate what life is going to be like for the two lead characters after the movie’s done. And Mr. Gordon really was an FBI man for a few years! In fact, J. Edgar Hoover wanted to block this film at first (until we calmed him down) because he was afraid we’d give away all the FBI’s secret crime-solving techniques to criminals!

–Blueprint for Murder: This film from 1953 can get a little slow… but when a movie or show is a little slow, Park and Barb just crank up the speed it’s playing at! At 1.3 speed, Blueprint for Murder was definitely good enough. It certainly had the benefit of starring Joseph Cotton, who did his best to help keep it interesting. There’s a poisoner on the loose– is it who we think it is, and can we catch the poisoner before a little boy is poisoned? One of the best parts of the film, though, was that the very young boy seemed to wear a suit at almost all times– just-home from school, hanging around the house, right before bed, wearin’ a suit, almost all the time! When he was about to go to bed I riffed “go get your sleep-suit on, honey” and Barb totally cracked up at the running joke.

–The Badlanders: In this 1958 film, Alan Ladd found a rich vein of gold, but then he got framed and sent to prison before he got a chance to explain to anyone what he’d found. Now he’s back to steal what he never got a chance to properly report that he’d found in the first place, and Ernest Borgnine’s gonna help him. I was delighted to find that this was basically a very very loose adaptation of the 1949 novel The Asphalt Jungle that they’d already made a movie of… heck, it’s a heist movie, let’s do it again! Although Alan Ladd helps get this movie going, the real action is the relationship between Ernest Borgnine and Katy Jurado… they really kinda seem like they’re in love! And then I looked the film up online… they WERE in love! Reader, they fell in love on the set for real and then got married in real life! It didn’t last, sadly, but what a nice story otherwise… And at 1.3, it’s not too bad a movie, either… it feels like it’s the same village as The Magnificent Seven– and this time, Katy Jurado and the villagers get to save the heroes from the bad guys…

–The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (released internationally as The Pirates! Band of Misfits): This time we went all the way back to 2012, with a 3D stop-motion animated swashbuckler comedy film produced by the British studio Aardman Animations (who also did the previous Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit). This film has Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain, David Tennant as Charles Darwin, and Martin Freeman as his now-usual role of “pleasant white guy who quietly helps the main character.” There’s also a very small cameo from Lenny Henry (another pirate), Brian Blessed as the Pirate King, Salma Hayek as a hot pirate gal, and Al Roker (another pirate). The movie is darn funny, and it’s our favorite Hugh Grant role. If you are not a Hugh Grant fan, this will win you over anyway. It’s like the man was made to do adorable animated voice-over work. And the animation! This isn’t cell animation nor computer animation, this is stop-motion 3D stuff! It’s amazing!

Another T-Rex statue. This one is-- I think maybe-- the same one that inspired the T-Rex statue in the video game Fallout: New Vegas. But hey, y'know, Valley of Gwangi.

–The Valley of Gwangi: And speaking of stop-motion animation– it’s 1969, and it’s time for Ray Harryhausen to make another movie. Yes, it’s The Valley of Gwangi, about a very isolated Mexican valley where prehistoric animals still exist. We find a tiny horse and are going to show him in a circus– and then we realize there’s more to that valley where Adorable Tiny Horse came from, and we could capture a T-Rex. And we do. And we bring him back to show to an audience. TURNS OUT THAT WASN’T A GREAT IDEA. When you think of great actors of the era, you never think “Oh! James Franciscus!” And yet he’s actually likeable enough here, and (like Alan Ladd working hard to help us get to the part where Ernest Borgnine meets Katy Jurado) James Franciscus does his best to help us get to the dinos. At 1.3 speed, The Valley Of Gwangi really is a pleasant way to spend (part of) a Sunday evening.

–That Darn Cat: Okay first of all, there’s the fact that actress Grayson Hall is the kidnap victim in this 1965 film… Grayson Hall– in her role as Dr. Julia Hoffman– was one of the best things about the great gothic soap opera TV show phenomenon DARK SHADOWS. BUT FIRST, she was the kidnapped bank teller//hostage in That Darn Cat! And second, it’s got Hayley Mills! I could listen to her pretend to be an American (ha ha just kidding, she sounds British as heck) all day! But third off all, That Darn Cat was ALSO written by The Gordons who wrote the FBI thriller Down Three Dark Streets! So rest assured that this movie about the FBI trailing a cat on his nightly adventures– because captive Grayson Hall put her wristwatch on him as a new collar and re-released him and we’re hoping he’ll lead us back to her– really is how the FBI might do such a thing! Once again viewing at 1.3 speed, this goofy little movie made me laugh repeatedly. With both Roddy McDowall and Elsa Lanchester living in separate houses on the same block as Hayley Mills, it’s got to be one of the most British neighborhoods in America…

I’ll close this blog post with a word about Darryl Hughes. Barb and I knew Darryl Hughes from back in the days when we were first getting Barb’s comic (with artist Ryan Howe) GUN STREET GIRL going. These days, sort of like us, Darryl does prose writing, too, not just comics and graphic novels. For example, he’s got a scary/suspenseful coming-of-age werewolf horror-mystery-thriller called “The LookyLoo” at

Darryl also recently reviewed our graphic novel HUNGRY GHOSTS!

“Written like an Akira Kurosawa samurai epic by husband-and-wife writing team Barb Lien-Cooper and Park Cooper, with haunting imagery by artist Jeremy Dumouchel that mines the depths of Stephen King’s creepiest tales, HUNGRY GHOSTS is sweeping in the breadth of its storytelling about a fallen samurai’s quest for redemption through war-ravaged 15th century Japan, all the while fueling the horrors of your next nightmare with its dark, brooding artwork!”  

–Darryl Hughes, author of “The LookyLoo”

The Townhouse of Ideas


Okay, it’s my turn to do one of these… Barb suggested that I write about what I call TAGCRAFT.

What, you might very naturally ask, is tagcraft? Well, it’s about the writerly art and science of doing the tags.

Ah yes, the tags, you say, nodding, reaching for a phone book to call me a team of mental health experts.

Yeah, I say, taking the phone book away from you. “Tags” are the term I came up with to describe the stuff that’s happening in prose fiction that isn’t the dialogue, the descriptions, nor the narration as such. (I invented the term after saying “Wait, they carried this back-and-forth dialogue too long, the reader’s gonna lose track of who’s saying what– they need to tag the spoken words more ofren with who said them.”) It’s stuff that counts as narration, but it’s not what we normally think of as narration. What we normally think of as narration is:

The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t help but feel there was something fishy about Thorvaldson’s story, in spite of my gut telling me I was right when I’d first had him figured for a very honest guy. Could he be covering up for someone? Or could he be wrong? Like, his cheap watch had stopped, and it wasn’t really 2 o’clock when he’d seen the blonde at all? No, he would’ve mentioned something like that, if he was really honest. Liars usually try to push the lie, but Thorvaldson had seemed very casual about everything, like he had nothing to prove.

See? Like that, in a big block. But there’s a more subtle kind of narration, the kind that mortars the little stones of dialogue in place. Let’s see, I just made up that stuff with Thorvaldson off the top of my head, but let’s go to Hammett’s The Thin Man— no, tell you what, better go with something I know is in the public domain, just entered a year or two ago, The Great Gatsby:

A subdued impassioned murmur was audible in the room beyond, and Miss Baker leaned forward unashamed, trying to hear. The murmur trembled on the verge of coherence, sank down, mounted excitedly, and then ceased altogether.

“This Mr. Gatsby you spoke of is my neighbour—” I began.

“Don’t talk. I want to hear what happens.”

“Is something happening?” I inquired innocently.

“You mean to say you don’t know?” said Miss Baker, honestly surprised. “I thought everybody knew.”

“I don’t.”

“Why—” she said hesitantly. “Tom’s got some woman in New York.”

“Got some woman?” I repeated blankly.

Miss Baker nodded.

“She might have the decency not to telephone him at dinner time. Don’t you think?”

Almost before I had grasped her meaning there was the flutter of a dress and the crunch of leather boots, and Tom and Daisy were back at the table.

“It couldn’t be helped!” cried Daisy with tense gaiety.

She sat down, glanced searchingly at Miss Baker and then at me, and continued: “I looked outdoors for a minute, and it’s very romantic outdoors. There’s a bird on the lawn that I think must be a nightingale come over on the Cunard or White Star Line. He’s singing away—” Her voice sang: “It’s romantic, isn’t it, Tom?”

“Very romantic,” he said, and then miserably to me: “If it’s light enough after dinner, I want to take you down to the stables.”

The telephone rang inside, startlingly, and as Daisy shook her head decisively at Tom the subject of the stables, in fact all subjects, vanished into air.

It’s no Hammett, I admit, but look at that stuff. You know how a teenager would write that stuff? Like this:

“This Mr. Gatsby you spoke of is my neighbour—” I said.

“Don’t talk. I want to hear what happens.”

“Is something happening?” I asked.

“You mean to say you don’t know? I thought everybody knew,” said Miss Baker. 

“I don’t.”

“Why, Tom’s got some woman in New York.”

“Got some woman?” I said.

Miss Baker nodded.

Now go back up and look at the difference. It’s not like a screenplay, but it fills in stuff for you. “My neighbour—” I began. I inquired innocently. Honestly surprised. She said hesitantly. I repeated blankly. It shows you how to read it, how to hear it in your head. And that’s just in that early part. I call those tags, because they’re attached to the dialogue, innocuously fluttering in the breeze, except there is no breeze, so you don’t notice them nor think about them half the time. But they’re important, those tags. It takes good work for you to not notice them. Sometimes, as with said Miss Baker, honestly surprised, the tag comes in the middle of the line. And there’s an art and science (which, again, I call tagcraft) to how you can drop all tags in an intense conversation between two people– you can’t pull it with a third person there, or the reader has no idea who’s speaking, it has to be two people taking turns– the art and science is how long you can pull the lack of tags off and just let the dialogue greyhounds run down the track by themselves.

And look at all the adverbs! Excitedly, innocently, blankly, searchingly— anybody who goes by most people’s writerly advice on the internet in the 21st century would have F. Scott Fitzgerald taken out behind the barn and shot. 

Look, “never use adverbs” is Stan Hates Green Covers. One day, someone at Marvel Comics (I think it was Jim Steranko?) wanted to do a mostly-green cover, but they were told “Stan hates green covers.” So the artist went to Stan and showed him what he wanted to do, and Stan loved it. “That’s great!” said Stan. “Really makes it stand out!”

“Um, they told me you hate green covers.”

“Yeah? Oh, well, yeah, I told them that because they were doing it wrong, and it was an eyesore, and it was easier to get ’em to stop by just telling ‘em I hated green covers than to sit ‘em down and give a long explanation why what they were doing wasn’t working. But THIS that you’re doing HERE is great, go do it!”

It’s certainly possible to overuse adverbs, trying to think of a clever alternative to SAID every time. So yeah, don’t do that. But look at Ol’ F. Scott up there. As long as you don’t do it more than him, you’ll be okay– IF you know what you’re doing.

Adverbs are not a crime, fellows and girls and other compatriots. Ol’ F. Scott puts ’em on every page he feels like it, and based on the above, he apparently thinks they’re necessary on almost every page.

When I started editing for my wife Barbara, she’d get in such a cat-pounding-away-at-keyboard-meme frenzy, she was turning prose out at such speed that she just let me worry about the tagcraft for her, because she could go even faster that way, because her strong suit is pure dialogue (and plot, but that’s a whole other story). When she saw my tagcraft, she approved, and we just entered into full symbiosis from there. So I’ve had at least a million words of practice, I’ve lost count, probably two by now, especially tagcrafting my own prose, let alone the stuff that comes straight from her. Tags matter. 


“Well, since you asked,” he said, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”

Okay, now, look at this. Look what you can do:

“Well, since you asked,” he said drunkenly, slurring his words a bit on “since” and “asked–” –they became “shinsh” and “ashked–” “–I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”

“Well,” he said, very slowly and quietly, “since you asked, I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”

“Well, since you asked,” he snarled, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”

“Well, since you asked,” he chuckled, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”

“Well, since you asked,” he said, his hands twitching, his eyes darting about the room for a blunt instrument, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”

“Well, since you asked,” he sighed, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”

See what I mean? Tags matter–and I constantly see people who tagcraft like amateurs, and so I weep with joy when I see someone who’s mastered the art of doing them right yet keeping them from stealing attention from the rest of the prose, or better yet someone who knows how to make the tags as good as the rest of it.

So give a thought to your tags, when you write, and don’t be afraid of an adverb now and then. Treat them kindly and gently, and they’ll treat you accordingly.



One time Barb got a little obsessed with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Barb answered some online student essay questions.

MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT: The following Literary Corner involves big ol’ spoilers for the plot of the book and the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.


What Really Walks Alone in Hill House?

by Barb Lien-Cooper

MANY SPOILERS AHEAD (You Have Been Warned)

I’ve read the novel The Haunting of Hill House five times.

The first time, as a teenager, I was frightened by the book, but I also felt conned, not by the author, but by the house itself. When I got to the last page, I said: “Poor Eleanor has been duped by Hill House.”


Park and Barb riff the film NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS

Okay so some time ago, a guy on a blog who was trying to write a blog post for every episode of the old TV show DARK SHADOWS… well, he also did a post for each of the two DARK SHADOWS movies. Well, he asked people for help commenting on the film NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. Well, Barb and I riffed the WHOLE MOVIE (in an email. Not out loud. It was only out loud at our house). But the guy who ran the blog, he only used like a third of our riffs, so…



Halloween-time is one of our favorite holidays. Barb likes to watch lots of horror movies, more and more as we approach Halloween. This month we started out having trouble finding good things to watch, but then we started doing better and better.



Barb Halloween Update: 10-20-2022

I’m listening to Howling Wolf right now, as sometimes, you just need the toughest electric blues possible.


Barb Update: The Missives of October

First, before anything: we’ve got a new book out!

Song to the Siren is a prose novel about:

–scares, drugs, and rock and roll

–true love, madness, and the supernatural

–childhood… and surviving long enough to get out of childhood…