Friday, December 9, 2016

Dreams of Bunker Hill and John Lennon

Do you have writing tics? Words you over-use, things every single last character in a book does, moves you love to make . . .? Do you edit them out or embrace them?

by Paul D. Marks

Since we pretty much had this same question last August (you can see my responses here: Writing Tics: The ‘Comfort Food’ of Writing, and I don’t think I have much new to add, I’ll let that answer stand. Instead I thought I’d talk about a couple of things close to me: John Lennon and Bunker Hill. Both in the context of writing or at least my writing. I usually try to stick to pretty close to the week’s question, so I hope nobody minds.

John Lennon

Yesterday, December 8th, was the 36th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination. As I’d mentioned here last time, my first paid writing assignment was for a piece about him on the one-year anniversary of his death for one of the LA papers. I’m not going to comment so much here about the tragedy of his death, but about how he and his three partners in crime inspired me to want to be a writer.

Before I wanted to be a prose writer, The Beatles inspired me to want to be a song writer and rock star. (I don’t think I was alone in this…) When my brothers and I were kids we cut out cardboard “electric” guitars and sang along to records. When I got a little older I wanted a real guitar and eventually got one and then focused on the bass. (Hey, it was good enough for Paul McCartney.) And I was in some bands in high school. (See the very professional card we had made up for one of those bands.)

Then, one day I was talking to a counselor and he asked me something like what I wanted to be. I said “I want to be the Beatles.” I didn’t mean it literally, but I did mean that I wanted to be the best in my field. Hey, dream big, shoot for the stars, right? But I knew that I didn’t have the talent to really make it in rock. Of course, you say, neither do a lot of the people who have made it…but that’s another story. So where to then?

Besides rock ‘n’ roll, I’ve always loved movies. And that was something I thought I might actually be able to succeed at in the writing arena. So I gave it a shot. And did have some success as a rewriter/script doctor, though frustrated by the lack of screen credits. And worked at that for many years. But there’s something exasperating about Hollywood and that is, among other things, too many chefs spoiling the stew. Too many people at too many different levels giving input on screenplays and not necessarily making them better – ask me about it some time. So at some point I decided to try my hand at prose writing. I’d always done it to some extent but not as a primary form of writing. Though, even when I went to USC grad school in cinema I took an advanced story writing class from T. Coraghessan Boyle. So my interests always lay there too.

I learned a lot from him and his class, but I also learned a lot about writing and structure from screenwriting. So I started writing short stories and even a novel. And I placed that novel with a major publisher. Boy, was I excited! And guess what it was about – a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood. And aside from a little murder thrown in for fun pretty much everything in it was true. All the absurdities and farce. It was a satire. So everything’s humming along fine and then the whole editorial staff at the publisher gets let go…and my novel gets swept out the door with them. And because a lot of the humor in it was topical it would have needed a rewrite before sending it out again. Something I didn’t have the time or maybe the desire to do then. So back to the drawing board, though one day I might bring it out of retirement and polish it up and give it another shot.

But eventually I did start placing short stories here and there and returned to novels. And though I’m still striving to get where I want to be, I’m having fun and getting some recognition and getting to do what I want. Sometimes I bitch that things aren’t always what I’d like them to be, but overall I know I have it pretty good.

So the Beatles inspired me to want to do something creative and not have a 9-5 job, something that would have strangled me and did on the rare occasions when I had to do it. And whenever I hear a Beatles song it brings back memories of my early days as a writer and writing that John Lennon article where I found I had a voice and things I wanted to share. And I feel like I owe the Beatles for that creative inspiration that got me started on this path. Would life have been easier if I didn’t have this need to write? Probably. But it would also be a hell of a lot less interesting.

How about you? What has your journey been like?


Bunker Hill – Los Angeles
(not that ‘other’ one on the East Coast near where the shot heard round the world happened)

My story Ghosts of Bunker Hill is now out in the current/December issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It’s a little bit different; I think you might enjoy it.

That said, Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with glorious Victorian mansions and other cool buildings. If you’re into film noir you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. Many times. Lots of film noirs – as well as movies in other genres – were shot there (Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly, The Brasher Doubloon, Backfire, the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, and many others).

But in the late 60s it was all torn down and redeveloped. They even flattened the hills and demolished or moved many of the gorgeous Victorian houses (as you’ll see in the story). If you’ve been to the Music Center you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. It’s where John Fante lived when he wrote Ask the Dust (and other books like Dreams from Bunker Hill), which is largely set there. But it got run down after WWI and became housing for poor people and the Powers That Be wanted to build up downtown, so off with its head, so to speak.

I love the old Bunker Hill and was lucky enough to explore it with a friend before it was totally razed. We did our own little archaeological expedition of several of the houses and I even “borrowed” the top of a newel post from the long and winding interior stairway in one of those houses (see pic). A true relic of L.A.’s past. It’s a prized possession.

So Bunker Hill and its ghosts were the inspiration for the story. It’s a fascinating place and I’m hooked on it. I’ll be writing more about it at SleuthSayers (, the other blog I write for, on Tuesday, December 20th, if you’re into it too.


And now for the usual BSP:

Also, I’ll be interviewed on Writer’s Block Radio on December 15th at 7pm PST. Hope you can check it out. Find it here: 

And I have a couple of appearances in January.

Cerritos Library, where I’ll be moderating a panel:
Saturday, January 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA  90703

Santa Clarita: The Old Town Newhall Library
Saturday, January 14, 2017, from 10:00 AM-3:00 PM.
24500 Main St, Santa Clarita, CA  91321


Art Taylor said...

I wondered when someone was going to point out that we'd had this question before (I was the one who asked it back in the summer)--but very much enjoyed you going off-topic. Great post overall--and congrats again on the story! (I still haven't read, but will soon! Semester's nearly done...) :-)

Unknown said...

Isn't music amazing the way it pulls you back?? First record I remember is my folks bringing home a brand new St. Pepper's LP. These days new work coming out by new artsts continue to set moments to music. There's a song I play whenever I lose faith in my writing, which reminds me of my strengths and goals.
I love that Pink Wedge biz card :) and getting a glimpse into your journey and inspirations.

GBPool said...

Oh that long and winding road. Mine started with Patrick McGoohan in Secret Agent and was followed with him in The Prisoner. I liked intrigue. I took a year off from college and applied to the FBI. By the time J. Edgar got back to me with a job offer, I had taken a job as a private detective just to catch the bad guys and then went back for my degree. My dad's life as a pilot in the Air Force led me to write three spy novels. They weren't being snatched by agents, so my husband said, "You used to be a private detective. Why don't you write detective novels?" And I did. Oh, my character Johnny Casino's birthday is March 19... so is Patrick McGoohan's.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Art. And 3 demerits for not having read it ;-) . And good luck getting through the end of the semester.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, RM. And glad you enjoyed the Pink Wedge card. Every time I look at it I crack up. That’s a great memory, too, about Sgt. Pepper. One of our current dogs is named Pepper, but on her official papers it’s Sgt. Pepper. I wonder what she was named after… I’d be curious what song it is you play when you lose faith in your writing?

Paul D. Marks said...

That’s a great story, Gayle. And definitely a lond and winding road. It sure sounds exciting and I’m sure gives you a lot to write about. That’s funny, too, that Johnny C. and Patrick McGoohan have the same birthday. It’s really interesting to see where our “stuff” comes from.

M.M. Gornell said...

As always, an enjoyable post, Paul. And as always started me thinking... Not sure where my journey started--more and more think on another planet somewhere...

On Gayle's comment, I can still hear "Secret Agent" man theme in my ear and see Patrick McGoohan in my mind's eye. Ground breaking series I thought.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Madeline. Another planet, hmm. That should make for its own interesting blog ;-) .

And I remember the Secret Agent song much better than the series, though I did like that too.

Unknown said...

Paul, it is "Metropolis" by Wintersleep - I saw them live locally last month, small venue, really loud, and I swear he looked right at me as he sang this song!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, RM. I'm not familiar with it, but I'll give it a listen. And maybe he was singing it to you, that would be very cool.

Unknown said...