Coffee With Hannah & Helena – Episode IV: A New (Hope We Don’t Get Sued)

Coffee with Hannah and Helena
Welcome to the first official edition of Coffee with Hannah and Helena! Grab a mug or a cup or a stein or a glass or a hollowed out skull with your favorite beverage and get comfortable. One of the things Helena and I like to talk about is the projects we’re working on—whether it’s a nascent idea or something that’s more solidly formed. It’s always enjoyable to talk about writing with other authors and get advice, whatever the stage of creation. We (read: Helena) also have a habit of playing a game we like to call Pop Culture Confusion (I just made up that title, roll with it). This essentially involves mixing up pop culture icons and the films/shows/etc in which they appear. We also like to speculate on who we would pick to cast characters in our stories when they one day make it to the silver screen. You can see how Pop Culture Confusion can make casting tricky. Today, we’ll be talking about CHUK – the serial novel in progress by Jessica B. Bell, dark alter ego of your favourite dilettante, Helena Hann-Basquiat (for more about Jessica, CLICKETH THOU HERE…EST)

Bayou Bonhomme Primer:

CHUK is a gothic horror mystery that takes place in the fictional Bayou Bonhomme, Louisiana, home of the legend of Remy LeVert, a swamp monster that to most is about as real as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But there are those in Bayou Bonhomme that know for a fact that there is something old and evil that lives in the bayou, and they shudder in terror. There are others still that worship it as some sort of god, and do its bidding, which includes the occasional human sacrifice.
Chief of police Oscar Blanchette has lived with the knowledge of Remy LeVert’s true nature — call it C’thuN’Chuk, or Chuk for short — for the past fifteen years. Something terrible happened in the summer of ’98. A bunch of children went missing and turned up horribly mutilated, if they turned up at all. Was this the work of the otherworldly creature that lived in the bayou, or was there a human agent at work. One thing’s for sure – there are monsters in the Bayou — and some of them walk on two legs just like you or I. The story opens in current day, and another child has gone missing. Oscar fears it’s beginning all over again.
Leroy Angell runs a BBQ shack, boasting the Best BBQ in Louisiana, and it certainly is popular. Downright addictive, even. Leroy and Oscar share in old secrets, and while Leroy might not exactly be the most scrupulous of individuals, he is, for the most part, on the side of the angels.
The same cannot be said for Olivia Hereford, who stems from the two oldest, richest, and most powerful families in Bayou Bonhomme, the Herefords and the Bergerons, and who is secretly the head of The Faithful, the religious group that has worshipped C’thuN’Chuk for a hundred years or more. She is, quite simply, evil.
Then there’s Marla Bergeron — Oscar’s deputy, who he cares about like a daughter. Her allegiance is divided, having been raised in the traditions of her family, but after someone she cares about ends up dead, she begins to question her place in life, and if anything is ever truly ordained by Fate.

Soundtrack for CHUK:

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  About a year ago, Hannah and I were chatting, and I pitched her the idea of an ongoing story — completely unrealized or plotted at the time — set in the Louisiana bayou, where there lived an actual swamp monster. The idea was that it was just going to be an over the top, Tales from the Crypt-esque story about a BBQ Shack where the owner was cooking up strange meat that he got from this creature. It was really just a grotesque “the secret’s in the sauce” gag at first. Hannah, where did you think the story was going to go?

Hannah:

 Hannah Sears  Well, I certainly didn’t think it would go as long or become as big a world as it has–and that’s no slight against Jessica’s writing chops, if anything it’s my fault for underestimating. I wasn’t sure how far you could take a BBQ Shop of Horrors without just rehashing jokes about “It’s an old family recipe–that there’s part of the old family!” But as the story simmered and more spices were added, and Helena mentioned that the real monsters in the Bayou weren’t the ones you expected, I knew it was going to be good. Twisted, warped characters are a forte of Jessica’s.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  I honestly think a lot of that had to do with not taking it seriously. I had a trilogy of novels in my head that just refused to come out properly, and I just wanted something different to get the creative juices flowing. Next thing you know, I’ve created an entire mystery, shady characters, a Lovecraftian mythology going back thousands of years, and of course C’thuN’chuk herself..

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Not to mention Monsterotica is all the rage these days.

 Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  That was completely unintentional… the tentacle porn bit just seemed to fit.

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I’m sure there’s a niche for that too, but I’d go to a movie store outside your neighborhood before asking. But speaking of Chuk, if you could pick anyone to be the voice, who would it be?

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Oh, are we doing fantasy voice casting? Oh, this is always fun. Well, you know, I almost want the voice to be sort of androgynous — Tilda Swinton? That guy from that ’90s band BUSH? Whats his name? Gavin Stefani?

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I’m not a Tilda Swinton fan (it’s probably latent jealousy from the fact that she was in a film with the Hiddles**) but she would be stellar.

(** This guy)

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  She was in a film with Loki?

(Interlude — Of course, we’re talking about the film Only Lovers Left Alive, a film by the amazing Jim Jaramusch, which looks fantastic.)

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Yeah, it was after she attacked Narnia–world destroyers get on well together. (I totally missed the Gavin Rossdale/Gwen Stefani moment, that one was over my head.)

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  She was the only watchable part of Constantine. If they make a movie of Sandman, I’d cast Tilda Swinton in every role. One actor to rule them all…

Would I cast her as a Bowie-esque Lucifer? Would I cast her as the androgynous Desire? Would I cast her as the zany Delirium? Would I cast her as sweet but sombre Death? The answer to all of the above is a resounding YES!

 Hannah:

Hannah Sears  She looks like Voldemort. Was Constantine a stop on Bill & Ted’s most excellent adventure?
 If you’re casting rulers, who would play the chilling Olivia Hereford?

 Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat Unfortunately, no one can tell you WHAT Constantine is. You just have to see it for yourself. (TAKE THE BLUE PILL HANNAH! SAVE YOURSELF!)

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Oh THERE’s the Advil Liquigel I dropped on the floor this morning. Cheers!

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  So who would I cast for Olivia? Sadly, the actresses I’d want for Olivia are dead. Olivia is, in my mind, a younger, evil Jessica Tandy — a refined Southern Belle with a vicious side. Bette Davis would have been perfect, too. But now? Hmmm… Who would you cast?

Hannah:

 Hannah Sears  This may be completely off base but I could see Sally Field–she’s got that spitfire quality that I could see translating into the Matriarch, but both your picks were blondes. I almost want to say Michelle Pfeiffer as well, but I feel like she’s a little bit of a cliche choice.

 Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Michelle Pfeiffer is a favourite, but yeah, you don’t want to type-cast her. I definitely think there needs to be a sexiness to Olivia that I don’t see in Sally Fields.

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  True, which is why I started thinking Michelle–she’s got that slinky quality that could lend itself to the creepiness.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  I could see Famke Janssen as well — a young(er) actress could handle younger Olivia, and with makeup could play older Olivia. But then, Hemlock Grove. Don’t even get me started on how that show has taken a giant nose dive with the second season. Hell, right up until the last two minutes, I was still hooked.
Hey, what about Judi Densch as the voice of CHUK! (Worst casting ever…)

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I never actually knew the name of the actress that played Jean Grey — Google is getting a lot of action this morning–DAME JUDY DENSCH. Show some respect!

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  I was actually already chastising myself for that, thanks. I’ll go borrow Jessica’s scourge. What do you think of Billy Bob Thornton for Leroy? I know he’s a little old, but I loved his performance in Puss In Boots.

 Hannah:

Hannah Sears  But it makes me see Puss in Boots and he’s so cute in his little hat. I still think the real question is who voices Chuk.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Didn’t we already answer this with the catch-all answer? Tilda Swinton. She’s like the default answer. If you’re asked to solve for X in a mathematical equation, the answer is Tilda Swinton. Why’d the chicken cross the road? Tilda Swinton. What’s the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything? 42 (Okay, that one’s not Tilda Swinton, but you don’t mess with Douglas Adams, darling.) But, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Who is: Tilda Swinton?

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Of course.

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I’ll take Who’s Going to Voice Chuk for $300.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Ah, yes, the voice. Cummerbund Bandersnatch, of course. Or Robin Williams (kidding.)

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Are you prepared for Chuk to periodically shout KHAN? (I know he doesn’t shout his own name in the film. Semantics.)

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  My only non-negotiable in the casting (other than the obvious Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Robert Pattinson, Shia LaBeouf prohibitions) is no True Blood castaways, and that guy who played Gambit in one of the X-Men movies… you know… John Carter.

Hannah:

 Hannah Sears  You leave Taylor Kitsch alone or we’ll be having words! Angry words, that is.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Yeah, but GAMBIT. Need I say more?

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I’ll just have him in the starring role of every single one of my movies. He’ll be the Depp to my Burton. Hey, I swore off X-men when they killed everyone and then they weren’t really dead. It was like LOST but less confusing and less pointless shirtless dudes.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  In the comics, apparently Charles Xavier is dead. Again. “For real this time, we swear”

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  How George RR Martin of them.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Do you know how many times Jean Grey has died and come back? More than Jesus. Too much.

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Technically he only did that once, so it’s not hard to beat.
Well, that’s all the time we have for today, thank you all for joining us–we hope you didn’t scald yourself snorting any hot beverages out of your nose, Helena and I are not responsible for injuries incurred from reading our posts. As Helena mentioned in our introductory post, we want this to be a conversation with more than the two of us, so I hope you’ll join in our discussion.

When you write characters, do you start with images in your mind, or do they develop over time? Do you create Pinterest boards or slideshows or inspiration boards etc with photos and things that inspire characters ? Do you start with the way a character looks at all or do you build from the inside out? 

I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I’m not not quite sure

Chuck Close said that “Inspiration is for amateurs” but I’d like to disagree. I can see how inspiration can easily become just another excuse, or a crutch, but I find it helpful rather than harmful.

I find two things inspire me easily. One is photography–whether I’m taking photos or just looking at them, there’s something about looking at interesting or intriguing pictures that kickstarts something in me. It’s the beginning of my first real winter here as a new New Englander and I can’t even handle how gorgeous freshly fallen snow is in a city like Boston. It makes me feel. I took a long walk in the snow (my first snow here!) and took pictures until my phone died. I’d left my headphones at a friend’s place so it was just me and that peculiar silence that snow settles on a city. 

Image

Image

Image

As hinted above, I’m rarely without my headphones. I spend a lot of time listening to music. It always gets my brain moving–even if I’m just thinking or remembering or, hell, crying. In case anyone else is in an inspiration desert (not that deserts can’t be inspiring but…cut me some slack here), I’m going to post my current “playlist” as it were. 

Bastille – (Technically the whole Bad Blood Album) Pompeii

Bastille – Flaws

Bastille – Daniel in the Den

The Ballroom Thieves – Wait for the Water

The Ballroom Thieves – Delia

The Ballroom Thieves – Save Me

Joshua James – Crash This Train

All Good Things – Invincible 

Twin Forks – Back To You

Greg Laswell – Comes and Goes (in Waves)

Snow Patrol – This Isn’t Everything You Are

 

*Disclaimer I have not watched most of the videos linked here so apologies if (a) the quality isn’t great or (b) there’s anything inappropriate

Our tragedy tod…

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

William Faulkner, Nobel Prize acceptance speech

On Reading as a Writer

Fifty Shades of Grey has become one of the most talked about, most discussed books lately. It is the fastest selling paperback of all time and surpassed even Harry Potter. The series that has outsold Harry Potter was written as Twilight erotica, online FanFiction.  You read that right. Now, I’ve read the Twilight series. I’ve seen the movies, I even went to a few midnight premiers. So this is not a post about bashing Twilight or even Fifty Shades, especially since I refuse to read the latter. Everyone has a right to read whatever they want to read, be it smut or otherwise. That said, I read that e-readers such as the Kindle and Nook have made reading books like Fifty Shades more accessible, since you can read them in anonymity. I find that fascinating. If you are so ashamed to be seen reading something, how can you fully enjoy reading it?

I have always been a self proclaimed nerd as far as books are concerned. I love the fantasy genre and I grew up reading books about talking animals and dragons. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t the “cool” thing to do. Especially since I was reading on a 12th grade level when I was only ten. I’ve read other genres as I’ve gotten older, from romance to crime to mystery to classic literature. But I always come back to my first love: fantasy. You could definitely qualify Twilight as fantasy, although I personally would not. It’s Young Adult Literature and Romance that just has some mythical creatures thrown in. Re-reading the books this summer made me compare them to another series I’ve been hooked on this year: A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin, possibly better known as the Game of Thrones books.

My older sister got me into these books, as she often has in the past. She would read fantasy books, realize they were inappropriate for me, and then refuse to let me read them until she deemed me old enough to not be permanently damaged by the content. I actually watched the first season of the show on HBO before I read any of the books and that was it. I couldn’t wait to read the book and to buy myself the box set. I read the whole series and then immediately went back to the beginning and read them again. I re-read books all the time, half of my books are falling apart or expanded to twice their size. Usually, I wait a few months. But I absolutely could not  put these down. I actually have to make myself read other things because I want to go back and read them again.

What is it about these books? Yes, there are dragons. There are knights, princesses, and a gigantic war for a single throne. There are also weird mythical demon creatures threatening to take over the land and some very funny weather patterns. So, what sets this series apart? I have never read or watched such vivid characters before in my life. After finishing the first book, I wanted to immediately get my computer and begin what would, of course, be my best written work to date, a story full of complexity and life. I also wanted to delete everything I’ve ever written, curl up in a ball and cry, and then find a new dream career path. If you are not a writer, perhaps you cannot understand the mixture of awe and utter despair that a truly great book brings. But I think this can be applied to almost any aspect of life: you see something that is both inspiring and crippling all at once. Whether you’re a runner and you watch someone win the IronMan or even  watching a collegue succeed in the business world .

That brief moment of “I want to do this! I want to create something that makes other people feel like I do!” is followed hard on the heels by “I can’t.” Teddy Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Simple words, but they carry so much weight. I think, perhaps, that this quote can be too simplified. Comparison, if it drives us to excel, if it gives us ambition can be good—but we must recognize that there will always be someone better, stronger, faster, richer, etc. Perhaps, in that case, comparison should be “inspiration.” Inspiration is that moment of awe and comparison is what creates that black hole of despair that sucks us in when we tell ourselves we can’t.

If we could just manage to catch inspiration in our hands, to hold it gently so as to not crush its fragile wings and let the flutter-flutter of creativity breathe, then we would not be so overwhelmed by the desire to be on top. If you truly love what you do, that crushing disappointment, the overwhelming pressure will ease. It must, because even if you throw out every story you’ve written, trash every idea you’ve begun, the next day you will find yourself scribbling on post it notes, or taking notes on your phone. A stranger in the airport will become a character dying to star in your next story, something someone says will become a line of dialogue that you will jot down and save for a time when it just fits.

There is something, as a writer or an artist, that you to which you simply must become reconciled. There is nothing truly new. There isn’t. Everything is based on something, inspired by something. So don’t be afraid to borrow, to imitate, to adjust and to tweak. Storylines will follow certain formulas, no matter how many twists you throw into them. Characters will be inspired and derived from other characters, or from real people. No one ever said that was wrong. So be inspired, but don’t let yourself be crushed. Maybe I will never be able to write anything like George R.R. Martin, but maybe I can learn from the things I like in his work and from the things I don’t. I read another blog where a writer mentioned starting a reader’s journal. As she read things, she would jot down descriptions or dialogue or details that she liked, themes, settings, anything that caught her attention.

Most writers have heard that the best way to become better writers is to read, and I believe that is true. But we have to be careful not to get so lost in the reading that we lose any desire to write because we cannot measure up to the impossible standards we have set for ourselves. Besides the complexity of Martin’s books, the thing that pulls me in every time is the depth of the characters and especially, how utterly flawed every single one is. There are no heroes in this book—the noble, selfless people are the first to die. It may be fantasy, but it is full of such reality and such truth. That is what makes good writing. Even if it takes place in outerspace or in Narnia or Middle Earth or Westeros, if the people are real and the problems are real—that is the making of a great story. So read what you want to read and write what you want to write, but don’t let comparison kill your joy, and don’t let it smother that spark of inspiration that really great books can bring.