Win a copy of ‘Inside Joss’ Dollhouse’!

Entertainment, Writing

Joss Whedon doesn’t have the best luck with television shows (or with Fox *shakes fist*), but he does have an amazing track record with fans. Even though Dollhouse only lasted two seasons, there was enough leftover fanatic fervour to inspire an anthology of fan-written essays.

Smart Pop Books gave fans (like me!) a chance to submit essays on the series as part of a contest and then published the result in Inside Joss’ Dollhouse.

Enticed by the thought of Whedonverse alum and prolific TV writer Jane Espenson reading and editing my work, I wrote an essay titled “Goliath is People! How Dollhouse Took Distrust to a Whole New Level” and – huzzah! – it got chosen.

The book is available to buy here, but if you’d like to win a copy, just answer this question and email it to me (zalina @ zalinaalvi.com) by 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10, then I’ll randomly choose a winner from the pool:

What is the name of the (evil) corporation that turns people into dolls in Dollhouse? AND what play does the name come from? (There’s actually a whole essay on the subject of the company’s name in the book!)

Please include your full name and mailing address. Oh, and partial answers will NOT be accepted.

Thanks, and good luck!

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“Books, that paper memory of mankind.”

Culture, Writing

“Books, that paper memory of mankind.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Sometimes when I’m at a loss for words, or stuck for some kind of inspiration, or just when I’m being willfully distracted from some tedious task, I walk over to my bookshelves and idly peruse them – running my fingers across the spines, pulling one out a bit by the top corner, then pushing it back in, making sure they’re lined up nicely and randomly pulling one or two down to read the first page, or maybe the last.

Sometimes I even get a whiff of its scent and I stick my nose in before quickly shutting it close, lest I waste what I assume must be a limited amount of that precious aroma; good books smell like time past, and what can smell better than our own pasts, eroded down to encapsulated moments void of any unattractive context?

If I’m lucky, I’ll remember when and where I read that book, or even that page. You know how Ashton Kutcher’s character in The Butterfly Effect was able to time travel by reading his old journals? It’s kind of like that.

When I pick up my copy of Anne of Green Gables, I remember exactly when and where I was when I got it. I was 10, and I bought it – with money my mother gave me, of course – at a Scholastic book sale in the school library. According to the front cover, it cost $3.25 Cdn. It also still has the red Clifford the Big Red Dog stamp on the inside cover.

It wasn’t the first novel I ever bought, though. The first one was called Mad, Mad Monday by Herma Silverstein; it was about a teenage girl who conjures up the ghost of a dead jock named Monday when her loves spell goes awry. It says “Zalina Alvi Grade 2 Mkay Room 6.” I love imagining my seven-year-old self reading that book – almost as much as I love seeing my sister’s name crossed out and replaced with mine on the front cover of R.L. Stine’s Beach House. The tagline on the back reads “Swim. Sunbathe. Die.” Good times.

The nostalgia-sentiment tag team will get you every time.

So, when I say I hope that e-books don’t replace ink-and-paper books, you’ll know that my opinion is not devoid of sentiment. I’d wager that at least 50% of all arguments against e-books are fueled by nostalgia and sentiment.

Back in October 2009, Roger Ebert wrote a loving blog post about his life surrounded by books (and a general inability to get rid of ANYTHING that I feel borders on Hoarders-worthy). I appreciate his affection for what the physicality of three-dimensional, real-life books add to a life and a sense of home. The way he describes his books and his memories of procuring them makes me think of someone leaving breadcrumbs throughout their life, or – care for a more modern metaphor, Mr. Ebert? – like a save point in a video game.

On the day he linked to that blog post on Twitter, he went on to tweet a wide assortment of almost paradoxical scenarios that very clearly – and cleverly – demonstrate his disdain for e-books and his affection for traditional books. If you check his Twitter feed, you can find all of them by scrolling down to Aug. 14, but here are a couple of really good ones:

I got this H. P. Lovecraft e-book remaindered for $1. It’s had a sorta peculiar mortuary smell to this day.

We only met in the first place because she spotted the cover of the e-book I was reading across the aisle on the train.

My mom’s boss gave me this e-book of “The Swiss Family Robinson” when I was 7. Ostrich riding!

They express exactly why books have so much value for those who love them. I would hate to live in a world where I couldn’t lend a lovingly dog-eared book to a friend, or hand it down to my kids. Books add life and personality to a room. They give your eyes a place to wander, reflect and daydream. I still remember my grade 3 teacher giving me a copy of The Callendar Papers by Cynthia Voigt because she wanted to challenge me. Could that have happened in a world of e-books?

Maybe we’re just unwilling to let go.

But for all the advantages of “real” books, they are just that – advantages, not necessities. I wonder if this is just one of those inevitable transitional periods in history when technology – and her advocates – want to advance to a new medium, gadget or way of doing things, while some of us want to hang on to the things we love and the way we love doing things.

According to my Apocalyptic Science Fiction professor at York, E.M. Forster wrote his (fantastic!) sci-fi tale “The Machine Stops” (you can read the whole thing with that link) in 1909 in response to a crazy new fad called the telephone. In the story – at more than 12,000 words, perhaps “novella” is a better term? – people live underground in an all-encompassing, life-providing machine and only communicate with each other through round “plates” that “began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.” In the story, people have devolved into useless blobs who can’t stand direct contact with each other, and who never venture into the outside world.

Scary, isn’t it?

But you can’t help but think that Forster may have overreacted a bit. I liken the whole thing to how journalists mourn the demise of the print newspaper. I know that moving into an exclusively online news world isn’t just about paper vs. screens. Changing the medium changes the way the news is delivered, and the way it’s created. Forcing journalists and editors to produce stories every 10 minutes around the clock changes the game in every way – including putting a strain on the patience that good reporting requires.

But, at the same time, I can’t help but think it’s worth letting go of more traditional ways of doing things if we can save resources – paper, water, power – by putting them online. Perhaps it’s just a matter of weighing the pros and cons – and sentimentality doesn’t weigh a whole lot.

A little from column A; a little from column B.

So where do books fall into this debate? What are we really losing by replacing them by e-books that don’t require paper, trucks to distribute them or square footage to store them? We also don’t have to worry about disposing of unwanted books (a sad reality for millions of authors out there).

I think, ideally, we could have both. E-books have their uses, and there is certainly a market for them. But I hope we never stop publishing print books to keep filling our shelves. For that matter, I hope there will always be print newspapers, too.

To be fair, I think e-books could be really useful in one particular way: by replacing textbooks for grade-school kids and maybe even post-secondary school students. When I was in school, textbooks were heavy, often outdated and sometimes scarce. Wouldn’t it be better to give each kid one e-reader so they can have access to all their school books – and the ability to quickly search for what they need – without weighing down their bags or printing millions of new textbooks every time a planet is demoted to a comet? With the latest Kindle 3 at $140 US, I can’t imagine that it would be terribly financially prohibitive to replace textbooks with e-readers sometime in the near future.

I’m sure there are other downsides to e-books that I could cite, but whatever glitches or setbacks exist today could easily be fixed tomorrow. And as much as I love my print books, I may one day like to have the option of downloading a few books for the sake of convenience or to save some space and paper.

But for now, for those who would just prefer to download books and have no need or want to line their walls with pulp fiction and hundreds of Danielle Steel novels, they can have their e-readers. I’ll keep filling my bookshelves with things I can swat a fly with.

Lives of Others

Writing

“Comparison, more than reality, makes men happy or wretched.” – Thomas Fuller

I assume I’m not the only one who thinks about where I “should” be at a certain age. In a steady job by 25, married by 30, taking kids to preschool by 35, etc. etc… And I also assume I’m not the only who compares myself to other people to either a) feel better about my situation ’cause they’re even further “behind” or b) feel discouraged/motivated because they’re further “ahead” than I am. My sister recently admitted to me that she’s constantly trying to guess the ages of strangers, particularly mothers, for that exact reason.

Even though the rational part of my brain understands that this is a silly thing to do, I can’t help but indulge myself every so often. Lately, I’ve found myself Wikipedia-ing the lives of famous writers and political activists. Hey, if Jack Kerouac didn’t finish writing On the Road until he was 29, that gives me almost 5 years to catch up…

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Best known for: On the Road, finished writing it in 1951 at the age of 29, published in 1957 at 35
Zodiac sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Lowell, Massachusetts
Academic background: Had a football scholarship at Columbia University, dropped out after injury; given a posthumous Doctor of Letters from University of Massachusetts
Work history: sports reporter, construction worker, joined the marines and the navy, wrote steadily but didn’t publish until On the Road made him famous
Marriage and children: Two ex-wives (first at age 22, second at age 29), one daughter
Worth noting: Problems with depression, alchohol and drug abuse; also honorably discharged from the military for “psychiatric” problems
Death: Died at the age of 47 due to an internal hemorrhage as a result of cirrhosis caused by a lifetime of heavy drinking

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948)

Best known for: Fighting discrimination against Indians in South Africa, starting more or less in 1893 at the age of 24, and leading India to independence from 1915 to 1945 (ages 46 to 76) through nonviolent civil disobedience.
Zodiac sign: Libra
Birthplace: Gujarat, India
Academic background: Went to law school in London, England around the age of 19
Work history: Worked as a lacklustre lawyer, which is what brought him to South Africa and started his whole political activism thing
Marriage and children: Had an arranged marriage at the age of 13 to Kasturbai Makhanji (14). Had 4 sons, the first at the age of 18ish
Worth noting: Was awesome.
Death: Assassinated at the age of 79. 😦

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Best known for: Frankenstein, published in 1818 at the age of 21 (started writing it when she was 18)
Zodiac sign: Virgo
Birthplace: London, England
Academic background: No formal education, but highly educated by her father and tutors
Work history: Full-time writer
Marriage and children: Married Percy B. Shelley when she was 19, had 3 children though only 1 survived
Worth noting: Had an affair (and a baby) with Percy until his wife committed suicide, after which they got married
Death: Illness likely caused by a brain tumour at the age of 53

Nelson Mandela (1918-)

Best known for: South Africa’s first black president elected by a fully democratic election, and badass anti-apartheid activist. He was inaugurated at the age of 76.
Zodiac sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Umtata, South Africa
Academic background: Earned his B.A. though correspondence and earned his law degree from the University of London while in prison.
Work history: Had a scattered political career, spent 27 years in prison for being a badass activist
Marriage and children: Married three times, at the ages of 26, 40 and 80. Had six children.
Worth nothing: Won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 (shared with another guy) at the age of 75.
Death: Don’t be morbid.

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Best known for: Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Breakfast of Champions (1973), but he published his first novel Player Piano at the age of 30 in 1952
Zodiac sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Indianapolis, Indiana
Academic background: Studied chemistry and mechanical engineering, did graduate studies in anthropology (Cat’s Cradle was accepted as his thesis)
Work history: Served in WW2, worked as a reporter (briefly for Sports Illustrated and did PR for General Electric), managed a car dealership
Marriage and children: Married for the first time around 1945 (age 23), the second time around 1979 (age 57), raised 3 children from his first marriage, adopted 3 of his nieces and nephews after his sister died of cancer and adopted a 7th with his second wife
Worth noting: Attempted suicide in 1984
Death: Brain injuries sustained during a fall in his home at the age of 85

J.K. Rowling (1965-)

Best known for: Harry Potter series, first of which was published in 1997 at the age of 32
Zodiac sign: Leo
Birthplace: Gloucestershire, England
Academic background: BA in French and Classics. Has a bunch of honorary degrees.
Work history: Worked as a researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International, taught English in Portugal, studied for her postgraduate certificate of education while on welfare
Marriage and children: First married at the age of 27, and again at the age of 36. Has 3 kids, the first born when she was 28.
Worth noting: Suffered from depression. Came up with dementors during this time.
Death: 😦

Just a few things I thought were interesting: Both Kerouac and Vonnegut were born in 1922. Both On the Road and The Catcher in the Rye were published in 1951. Almost everyone lost family members early on in their lives, and kind of stumbled into their biggest successes. They all have different Zodiac signs.

(SOMEONE better get something out of this post, ’cause it took for-e-ver.)

Is there anything you can’t learn from TV?

Entertainment, Writing

At the risk of sounding like I’m obsessed with this show, here is another post on Ugly Betty, starting with some random oil paintings created by Betty’s on-screen boyfriend while they were broken up, which appeared in a fourth-season episode (they were later auctioned off IRL to raise funds for Save the Children).

You can see the rest here. I think you have to remember that they were created by a heartbroken ex, otherwise they’re kind of offensive.

[SERIES FINALE SPOILERS AHEAD]

The series finale aired this past Wednesday, and I have to admit I got very emotional. I don’t even watch the show regularly, but when I do, I can’t help but relate to Betty’s character – from not being conventionally pretty to trying to make it as a writer. But the final few episodes really hit close to home with Betty trying to decide between risking it all to move to London for a job that she feels is right for her and staying put in New York and playing it safe.

At one point, she worried about leaving her father alone (since her sister was also planning to move away at the same time), and she asked if it was selfish of her to leave. She got quite a bit of grief from her father who tried to convince her to stay, and I could understand her guilt for leaving him alone. She also felt like she was being naive or foolhardy for leaving a reliable job at a magazine that was estalished, where she had spent 4 years working her way up, to pursue a more interesting position at a magazine in London that was just starting.

Ultimately, though, she got her happy ending (as so often happens in TV shows). She took the riskier option, and left everything to pursue her dreams. The montage at the end of the episode shows her adapting to London life, working hard, making friends and generally being pretty happy with her decision. I think there’s a pretty clear message there. Oh, and by the end, her father gives her his blessing to go. Awww… (That was partly sarcastic.)

Sometimes when I find myself pulling meaning, guidance or relatability from entertainment – like I am right now – I feel silly for a moment. And then I realize that stories exist for a reason. Besides entertaining us, they offer truth, often universal, and almost always simultaneously mirroring and influencing our lives. Yes, even silly TV shows that are often guilty of being oversimplified and somewhat unrealistic have something to offer, depending on what you’re looking for.

And then, when I think of my silly dreams to be a writer and I worry that not only is it unattainable, but that it often feels simply unimportant, I think about how much TV shows, books and movies have made my life better, and then it doesn’t feel so silly.

I write, therefore I procrastinate.

Writing

Funnily enough, the date of my last post was also the exact day Zip sent me American Graffiti – and it has taken me the same amount of time, almost to the day, to watch it as it has to post again. I did, however, organize my closet in the interim. So, feeling thoroughly ashamed to be one of those sporadic ‘oh-I’m-too-busy-to-blog’ bloggers, I’m going to stop making notes in my organizer about all the things I want to blog about, and actually post something.

That concludes my unnecessary, somewhat random, prologue.

During the International Festival of Authors in Toronto late last month, I collected some favourite quotations from a series of Q&As with various authors compiled by Star book critic Geoff Pevere. Why? Because sometimes thinking about what being a writer is like, or what it means, instead of actually putting pen to paper (read: fingers to keyboard), is just easier.

Also, if you read all the Q&As, you may notice that I favoured the authors who tended to have disorderly habits – no one wants to read about a successful writer who is productive and never stares out a window when they should be meeting a deadline.

B.C. crime writer William Deverell:

Q: How do you get started writing? How do you avoid getting started writing?

A: In this trade there is no time clock to punch, you must exert a will of iron. Typical fall day: I leave for my writing studio promptly at 10, imbued with determination. But I can’t help notice the weather is fair, for a change it’s not raining, so perhaps a walk in the woods might invigorate the mind, and the field mushrooms are out and perhaps one should gather some for dinner. Ultimately, after a couple of hours of this hard discipline, I take my bag of mushrooms to my studio and sit down to keyboard. But first I have to turn on CBC 2 and listen to the news, and that’s followed by the Brahms second symphony, and it would be insulting to the master not to listen. And in the meantime, of course, there’s that unfinished chess game on the computer that might just sharpen the mind. (I have yet to fall prey to Internet addiction only because I have banned all phones from my studio.) Suddenly yet another hour has passed, and I sense the first tremblings of panic disorder, and finally bring up the chapter I’ve been working on, and begin to read, edit, compose – and then just as suddenly it’s 7 o’clock and I’m late for dinner and in deep s–t and I race to the house, forgetting my bag of mushrooms.

Q: What is the optimal creative atmosphere?

A: (…) Dreaming. Faulkner is said to have divorced his first wife because she could not understand that when he appeared to be staring idly out the window he was actually hard at work.

Q: Do you actually like writing?

A: I used to practise law, when all I dreamed of is what I happily do now.

Nova Scotia author Shandi Mitchell:

Q: Where do you write?

A: I have two work spaces: 1) A beautiful studio that overlooks the canal. No phone or email. This is where I am supposed to write. 2) My upstairs, 7 foot x 8 foot, ½ story office. A quarter of the room is comprised of a closet. The only place to stand up straight is under the peak. There are phones, emails, TV, husband, dog, and my only window looks onto the street, which is under construction. This is where I tend to write.

Q: Do you actually like writing?

A: I like having written. The act of writing itself can be a gruelling, soul-ripping, self-doubting, mind-crushing mountain to climb, interspersed with glorious moments of flight. But once done, I can’t wait to go again.

U.K. author Iain Pears:

Q: How do you get started writing?

A: Guilt is the best motivator; the trick is to let it build up until you feel like a total useless wretch. Then you can get down to work out of sheer self-disgust.

Q: Do you actually like writing?

A: Sometimes. Especially when I consider the alternatives.

On second thought, I don’t think my prologue was that random, after all.

Just like an episode of Touched by an Angel!

Writing

I had a visit from my teenage self a little while ago, thanks the kindred souls over at Shameless. They had a book launch for an anthology of teenage awkwardness and shamelessness with a prom theme that was oddly reminiscent of my own high school years (they showed an episode of BtVS in the background!). 

One of the highlights was a series of readings from some teenage girls who had taken part in a creative writing workshop earlier that day. From the painfully transparent rebellious tendencies of one anti-feminist girl to a nervous-looking girl whose parents came to videotape her 3-minute reading, I felt like I was watching my teenage self on stage.

There was a time when I, too, committed my soul to dollar-store notebooks – first just for the sake of writing, later with the hopes of being published and fabulous. 

I’m not sure what happened. I feel as though I’ve spent my entire post-high school career punishing myself for wanting to do anything impractical. Author? Pipe dream. I need a real job. At the very least, I should have a ‘real’ job during the day, and I can nurture my silly pursuits in my off-time. That sounds smart, doesn’t it?

But then there were these accomplished and obviously happy women – ones who worked at Shameless, others who contributed to the anthology – who had actually humoured their writing hobbies when they were young, and found a way to keep doing it into adulthood. 

Long story short, it was very motivational. Between those younger versions of myself and the women I could be if my guardian angel would get off its ass, I felt a sudden urge to be irresponsible again. You could say, I suddenly feel shameless… but that would be horribly corny. So don’t.

My Milk Ain’t Free

Writing

Trying to be a writer is hard. 

Actually, scratch that. Trying to be a paid writer is hard. Maybe it has something to do with how hard it is to be a good writer. I guess these things are all dependent on each other.

In the real world, in which I refuse to live, I suppose one would have to pay their dues by either A) writing the stuff they want for free or B) writing the stuff they don’t want to write for money (my current day job) – possibly at the same time. That is, until they garner some kind of leverage so that people pay for their writing (say, celebrity?). Unfortunately, this supposedly wonderful free society that is the Internet makes it so easy to access free writing (free everything), that a girl can’t get paid these days.

Context. I wrote a lengthy travel piece about a mule trek I did on Molokai last summer, which I’ve been shopping around.

Actually, scratch that. I bled, sweated and birthed a lengthy travel piece over many, many weeks and I have desperately been trying to get it published somewhere (and getting less picky by the day).

That being said, I know I’m not in a position to be demanding when it comes to getting published. Lords knows I’m no Les Stroud. But I can’t let go of the idea that I should be compensated for my work, beyond the ethereal joy of having people read my stuff, of course. I’m talking about financial compensation

One magazine said it wasn’t suited to their demographic, but was very helpful. One newspaper said they already had “enough Hawaii stuff.” Another newspaper said they just weren’t buying much travel writing these days, and wished me luck in getting it placed somewhere. Others have yet to respond at all. (By the way, I’m actually quite grateful and somewhat surprised I got responses at all, so I hope this doesn’t come off too bitter.)

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? No one’s buying much travel writing these days, because no one’s buying much of anything, unless it has a little apple on it

Alas, I hope I will summon the patience and maturity to stop my grumbling and accept that I may just not be in a place right now to expect money for my work. (That sounds so sad when I phrase it like that.) I will just suck it up and keep on trucking and… uh, keep my chin up and so forth…

I was reading Diablo Cody’s life story on her Wikipedia page the other day. It’s not that she’s the best writer, or a role model of mine in any sense, but her story’s a good example of what I think it takes to make a name for yourself as a writer. (The kind of name that makes money.) She started out as a blogger, and later wrote bona fide articles, a book and eventually a screenplay that got her a column in Entertainment Weekly. Blogging, eh? I can do that for a while, I guess. Although I may need a gimmick of some kind…

I guess my other option is to keep sending my writing around until someone says, “yes, your work is worth money.” I may cry if that day ever comes.

Even so, my main concern persists… who’s going to buy the cow when they’re getting the milk for free?