Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Prism Book Alliance Interviews Alan Chin

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Prism Book Alliance recently interviewed me, focusing on my new novel, First Exposure. I’d like to share part of that interview here. You can read the entire interview at: http://www.prismbookalliance.com/2014/08/alan-chin-talks-first-exposure-interview/

Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m happy to get a chance to chat with you. Welcome to PBA. J What’s going on in your corner of the world today?

Thank you for having me. My corner of the world, Palm Springs, is having a typical summer, meaning, sunny weather with daytime highs in the 110-115 degrees range, and nighttime lows in the mid 90s. Summers are a productive time for my writing because I spend oodles of time indoors with the A/C cranked up, working on my stories.  Herman (my husband) and I take long walks, but only before sunrise and after sun set. It’s simply too hot to do anything else but swim in the pool during the day.

In a nutshell, what would you say First Exposure is about? I personally think this is a toughie, so we’ll get it out of the way first. :D

The reason this question is tough is because there are several themes interwoven into the plot.

I see it, principally, as a story about the loyalty of family and friendship. That is Skylar’s main reason for wanting to leave the navy, to spend more time with his family, and the thing that helps him down that path are the supportive friends he makes along the way. He never turns his back on them, and their benefit is the motivation for every action he takes.

Secondly, it is about following your dream, whatever that may be, and no matter how many people—even the ones you most love—want to keep you from doing that. This is a topic I’m infinitely familiar with.

Lastly, it is a story of overcoming ignorant hate, homophobia, and how animosity worms its way into people’s lives, and the damage it causes everyone. It also makes a strong point that when it comes to violence, the red-neck SOB with the big mouth is every bit as guilty as the person swinging the baseball bat.

What was the spark, the kernel that gave you the idea for First Exposure, for Skylar, Ezra, etc.?

Back in the 70’s I was a young petty officer in the US navy, stationed in Kingsville, Texas. My squadron trained jet pilots, and for years I worked on the flight line at night as an aircraft mechanic. That gave me tons of free time during the day and there wasn’t much to do in Kingsville, so I took a job at a gay-owned florist delivering flowers. This was long before I came out. The two florists taught me how to make flower arrangements and I loved the creativity of doing that. But, of course, a navy town is full of gossips and it wasn’t long before I became the target of homophobia just like Skylar does. So you see, this story is loosely based on my personal experience. And the characters Skylar and Ezra, are both facets of me while I was serving my country. This, more than any other story I’ve published, reveals who I was as a person in my twenties.

There’s a certain moment when Ezra cements himself as a man to be reckoned with, finally, in his own eyes. (It’s not the one you’re thinking of ;) ) I don’t want to spoil anything, but when you were writing Ezra, getting deeper into the story, how was that experience, how did it feel? He feels very important to me.

The point that Ezra became more than a character to me was that conversation with Skylar about the stars and space travel, when he said Stephen Hawking was the sexiest man alive. That was early on, and it both surprised and delighted me. I just have to love someone who believes that. After that, I wanted to keep delving deeper and know more about what made him tick. I wanted him to take over this story, to make it his. By the end, I felt a very close bond with him. Because of his side-story with his dad, he did so much to help me express my feelings about my own father.

Now Skylar. He has one of the most well written inner dialogues I’ve read. He’s wonderfully complex and yet wants the simple things in life that a lot of us desire. What about him surprised you when he revealed it about himself as you were writing?

He constantly astonished me. I had planned to base him on me, but he took on a personality of his own. What surprised me most was when he agreed to do the photo shoot. My outline had a different scenario.  It was at that point that I realized how deeply he loved Ezra, that he would agree to something so totally against his nature because he didn’t want to disappoint this friend he had come to love.

I don’t want to get too specific and give anything away, but the connection between Skylar and Ezra goes through stages and felt very natural to me. How much of yourself or what specific traits of your own are in both of these guys?

I’ve fallen in love several times with men who I knew were interested, but I also knew nothing could ever come of it because of circumstances. So this pattern, this low-flame relationship the keeps building against all odds, is something I’m very familiar with. That made this bromance relatively easy to write.

Hunter is fantastic, Miguel and Hollister simply made me happy when they were on the page, Mrs Collins is fantastic.  It feels like you really enjoy writing characters of all ages. Do you utilize supporting characters as a way of challenging yourself, your writing, by way of exploring them?

When I was reviewing gay fiction, I read tons M/M stories that had two well-developed characters, and everyone else seemed like stick figures. It always made the stories seem phony to me. I believe writing in-depth, secondary characters is what helps to bring a story alive, make it real. So yes, I try to make every character complex, make every one interesting. It is a challenging, time-consuming task, but it can really pay off.

A lot of different types of relationships and issues are explored in this story: father/son, friends, spouses, longtime companions, enemies, loyalty, insecurities, growth. What scene surprised you as you were writing it? If it’s something you can at least hint at without spoiling, of course. :D

I think the most surprising scene was when Skylar first entered the flower shop. It was during that scene when Hollister, Miguel and Sosumi solidified in my head. There are times when a writer sits back, amazed at what’s pouring up from that black hole of creativity, and can’t believe how good it is. That scene was one of those times for me. I found it very funny, and I’ve always struggled with humor, but it came so easy with those characters. They really tickled me, and at the same time, punched all my buttons. I had the same reaction when Skylar first entered the gay bar.

This is probably an obvious question with an obvious answer, but I’m asking anyway. J Are there people in your family who have served in the military?  How has that influenced, not just what you write, but how you write?

As I said above, I spent four years in the US Navy, and this story and characters are loosely based on me and people I knew. Also, my father spent two hitches in the Marines. I do enjoy writing military stories because it generally involves environments heavily weighted to men, and few women. Not that I don’t care for women, but when I do write a character such as Rosa, she stands out like a bright light surrounded by a sea of men. It adds more weight to my female characters.

Do you use outlines, or do you write scenes and then put them together like a puzzle?

I always start with a high-level outline, and pretty much know where the story will end up. As the story develops, I work on the manuscript and the detailed outline, because as the story takes life, it begins to branch out in new, unthought-of directions. This story took me two years to write. During that time, many new ideas came to me while writing. You have to go with where the story wants to take you.

Did you ever live in the Northwest? If so, do you have a favorite place you like to recommend for those who plan on traveling there?  I have family in Oregon and I love it out there. Powell’s Books in Portland is a must.

Actually, no, I’ve never spent time in the Northwest. I place the story there because Everett, WA, is home base for the USS Abraham Lincoln, the ship where G.W. Bush made his historic victory speech.  I really wanted to include that speech to set the timeframe and mood of the story. Thank goodness for Google. It saved me a long drive.

Skylar and Ezra are fantastic names and fit both of these characters. How do you pick names for your characters? Any interesting stories about that process? J

Almost all of the names used in this story came from people I knew on base during that time of my military career. Skylar was the name of the first man, a fellow sailor, I believe I fell in love with during the time I worked at the flower shop. I say “I believe” because that was long ago and It’s hard for me to remember how deeply my feeling went back then. Nothing ever happened between us, but we were great friends and I’ve always regretted that nothing did happen. I still think of him, often. lol

Any fun or favorite line or passage that were edited out of First Exposure that you’d like to share? I have to think Miguel may have had more to say. ;)

I did a lot of cutting, but I don’t save copies of those older versions. So no, nothing comes to mind that I can share.

Ok, here are some fun, general questions. We can even be fancy dancy and call it the lightening round. J

Last book that really made you laugh: Christopher Isherwood diaries 1960-1969. Love his writing and he is very funny when he puts his mind to it. I find that I’m reading more non-fiction these days.

Recent book that you’ve been recommending to your friends because it’s just that good: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. This book is a great modern western. It has everything, but mostly I just love McCarthy’s style of writing, which is to show everything and tell nothing. He’s poetic and brilliant.

Five characters, one each from five different books, with whom you’d love to share a meal and bend their ears:
Holly Golightly, from Breakfast At Tiffany’s (nobody creates better characters than Capote)
Sally Bowles, from Goodbye to Berlin
Sal Mineo, from Sal Mineo, A Biography
Christopher Isherwood, from The Sixties Diaries
Hassan Kadam, from The Hundred-Foot Journey (but only if he cooks dinner)

Ok, a few that aren’t at all book related.

Favorite dessert of alllllll time: Fresh fruit, which I have every morning and after dinner. I don’t have a sweet tooth, so I’m not overly fond of cakes and pies and chocolate candy.

Music or movies or tv, name a guilty pleasure: I love classical music, mostly opera, although I hate being labeled an opera queen. Herman and I enjoy streaming lots of movies, mostly dramas. The only thing we watch on network tv is tennis matches. One guilty pleasure I still love is playing tennis.

Ice skating or roller skating: I used to rollerblade in my younger days. The only thing I do with ice is chill the martinis.

Place you most want to travel to next: Herman and I travel four to six months every year. We’ve visited over fifty countries over the last twenty years. We plan to spend December through February in Thailand, Nepal and India. Next spring, Herman and I are traveling to South America for the first time. I’m very excited that we plan to spend several weeks in Peru and Argentina.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Principle or Ego?

In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini placed a fatwa (death sentence and bounty on his head) on Salman Rushdie for the crime of having written a novel called The Satanic Verses, which Khomeini called: “against Islam, the Prophet, and the Quran.”

So began the extraordinary story of how Rushdie was forced underground, stealthily moving from hiding place to hiding place, for thirteen years. During that time of hiding, he lived under the alias name of Joseph Anton. Rushdie recently wrote a memoir of that experience, called Joseph Anton, where he describes living under the threat of murder for over a decade.

The book tells of holding his family life together; working on other novels; falling in and out of love; the ever-present fear and despair; the sometimes grim, sometimes comic realities of always living with armed policemen; dealing with not-so-understanding governments, publishers, and fellow writers. Most importantly, it is about finding the courage to fight back. And somewhere along the path, he loses himself and finds himself again.

Rushdie describes this journey as one of the crucial battles, in our time, for freedom of speech.

I found this memoir a fascinating experience. As I read, I grew to respect Rushdie as a writer, a man of principle, and a man of courage. Still, all the way through this book I kept wondering how much of his fight was courage and principle, and how much was pure ego.

He repeatedly pointed out that there were steps available to him that would have lifted the fatwa, but of course, that would have meant a full apology to the followers of Islam. This he refused to do.

Rushdie often came off as an unlikeable character in these pages. And he often seemed that he put his career—his celebrity status—above his own safety and the safety of his family and protectors. In my mind, the separate forces of principle and vanity often fought each other, battling in the background on nearly every page, until they were indistinguishable.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not making harsh judgments. Placed in the same circumstances, I’m not sure I would act any differently. I’m merely pointing out that that battle of ego was, for this reader, one of the most interesting aspects of the book. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What I've Learned about Happiness

Are you happy? I mean genuinely happy on a consistent basis. Do you whistle or sing when you walk down the street? Do you enjoy interacting with your fellow workers? Do you wake up excited to face the day?
If not, when will you be happy?

 Many people tell themselves, "I’ll be happy when...

• My health improves
• My relationship improves
• The economy improves
• I get a new this or that
• I get my career on track
• I move to a better location
• I get a raise
• I lose 30 pounds
• I retire

Many people seem to have a list, which ends up being a wall between them and happiness. The truth is that none of these things will make you happy. They can certainly put you in a better position to find happiness, but happiness is a feeling that comes from the experiences in life and our attitude about them. Happiness comes from within, and has little to do with all those things happening outside of you. The old saying is that happiness is a state of mind, and that saying has been around a long time simply because it’s true. Sometimes we feel content, sometimes not, but happiness is around you every day — it’s just that sometimes we have to look closer for it. It won’t come from the things you seek, but rather from the attitude you have about this journey called life.

Happiness is up to you, here and now. You can choose to wait for better days, or you can decide to look for the joy, the opportunities, the smiles, and the good in every moment. You get to choose.

One more note on finding happyness: 
A man once said to the Buddha, "I want Happiness."
The Buddha said, "First remove the 'I', for that is ego. Then remove 'want', because that is desire, which is a child of ego. See, now you are left with only happiness. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Writing Tip: Elements of a Romantic Comedy

For the past three weeks I’ve been trying to finish everything on my plate so I can focus on a new screenplay that my script-writing partner and I have begun. I’m almost there. And because the script we are writing is a romantic comedy, one of the things I’ve been doing in my spare time is researching what makes romantic comedies different from other types of stories. And although I’m focused on screenwriting, the principles apply to novels and short stories as well. 

So far I’ve found six distinguishing elements that separate romantic comedy from the rest of the field. They are:

1) The main character (Hero) must pursue some sexual or romantic interest. This sounds like a no-brainer, but a writer could decide to have the love interest be someone other than the hero. However, as with all successful stories, the most important character is the hero, with whom the reader or audience most strongly identifies with, and in romantic comedies it must be this character who is pursuing (or being pursued by) some compelling romantic desire. That’s what makes it a romantic comedy – the hero must desperately try to win (or win back) the affections of another character. 

2) The hero must pursue an additional goal. Simultaneously chasing two or more goals (often goals at odds with each other) adds complexity and originality to the story, and also accelerates the pacing.

3) The characters are desperate to achieve their goals, and fight apposing conflicts with tenacity. They should never think they, or the situation, is funny. It must be deadly serious to them. Strangely enough, the comedy grows out of the hero’s pain and loss. The plots of the most successful comedies deal with cheating spouses, disease, physical abuse, humiliation, unemployment, suicide and death. The humor arises from the way the hero overreacts to these situations. 

4) Although most romantic comedies almost never show actual sex, they are sexy. There is always lots of flirting, and the hero must confront his/her sexual desire. If the hero and love interest do slip into bed together, the audience must see everything leading up to that hot embrace before the bedroom door shuts in our face. 

5) The plot resolves around a deception. For instance, the hero is pretending to be someone he’s not (Mrs. Doubtfire, Tootsie, The Birdcage), or is lying to his beloved about his feelings or intentions in order to pursue the relationship. Dishonesty is a necessary element to increase the conflict and humor, and also to force the hero to confront his/her inner conflicts and deceptions. Only by facing the truth about themselves are they able to arc into someone better.

6) It must have a happy ending, or if the hero doesn’t get the boy, the reader feels that the resolution is the most appropriate or satisfying ending for the hero.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Prism Book Alliance Reviews First Exposure by Alan Chin

Tuesdays are the days I showcase my own work on this blog. Today I’d like to share a review of my latest novel, First Exposure.

Publisher: Bold Strokes Publishing

Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

Straight, married Petty Officer Second Class Skyler Thompson battles homophobia from his navy buddies, the military, and his wife when he takes a job creating flower arrangements at a gay-owned florist. But rather than yield to pressure and quit, he refuses to give up the joy of creating beautiful arrangements, battling homophobia for artistic expression. His dream is to leave the navy and open his own florist shop.

Ezra Dumphy—his shipmates call him Dumpy because of his obesity—is a gay sailor who likes to dress in drag. He is shunned by his shipmates, tragically lonely, and uses drugs to cope with his solitude. What he wants more than anything is someone to share his life with.

Can these two men, opposites in every way, help each other achieve their dreams?

My View:
“Life, friendship, love, was a crapshoot.”
After just two chapters into this book, I had bought into this story, to Ezra and Skylar, to their lives, to this author’s writing.

On the surface of things, it may appear like these are trope-worn characters with trope-worn backgrounds, but this is not the case. Chin has given these people lives through their struggles and the crutches with which they try to deal with those struggles. He’s given to them talents and the joy they feel when they get lost in them. The level of emotional honesty is unavoidable, it’s so real.

Ezra and Skylar share a connection, though through different media. The result is a door that opens practically on its own.

To him, art was somehow sacred, the way you gaze up at a night sky and wonder if you’re standing on an electron that revolves around a proton in a series of infinite universes, and suddenly your mind expands and you experience your reality in a new and more significant light.

Anyone who has ever gotten lost while looking at a photograph or watching a playing musician or reading a passage in a poem, or anything of the like, will understand that feeling. There’s no turning back from it, either.


Fleeting joy.

Deep pain.



Wispy hope.


Unexpected chances.

This writer has a healthy comfort level with language and knows how to use it. It’s such an interesting juxtaposition, his use of what I can only call celebratory prose in writing about difficult things taking place in complicated, uneasy lives. The styles aren’t all similar but I got the same feeling from his writing as I do when reading Harper Fox or Edmond Manning. The words the words the words.

There are a few cases of what feels like overindulgence in that language, but when it’s this enjoyable, I let it go like a two-day old bagel.

At some point during all of this, I realized I wouldn’t be able to ever forget these characters. Beautiful, sweet, carrying their burdens, frightened, hopeful and working to survive. Again, it’s the writing. It brings inspiration and darkness to life.

“Flowers are more delicate, more ethereal than the plants they emerge from, and they have scent, which is amorphous. They are the bridge between the physical and the formless, body and spirit. Flowers are a metamorphosis of the plant in the same way spiritual awakening is to a human.”

Hollister, one of the supporting characters and co-owner of the flower shop with his partner Miguel, says this to Skylar as they work on creating some arrangements for an event. This is one of many, many turns in this story for multiple characters. I have to say, as well, that in this kind of story, I almost don’t like to use the term “supporting”, as if they aren’t important all on their own. Believe me, every character in this book is meant to be there.

Unpredictable characters making unpredictable choices. I like that I didn’t always agree with those choices or that they didn’t always feel right for the characters. Whenever that happened, it forced me to reexamine my understanding of them. How great is that? Highly involved reading is the name of the game here. Love it.
There are all types of relationships explored in this story: friendship, co-workers, married couples, child/parent, long-time companions, lovers, and all of them feel very real. Real means emotional, relatable, they made me think, stayed with me, and I couldn’t wait to get back to reading about them each day.

“Honey, did you ever have a kite pull you right off the ground when you were a kid? If so, then you know the thrill I get when I work with flowers.”

There’s a nostalgic feel to this book. I’m not even sure how I can “prove” that, except that it does. Maybe it’s the overall style of the storytelling Chin has. I think that’s what it is. I want more.

This is not an easy read given the wide array of tangled, difficult subjects examined and experiences revealed. Despite all of that, I felt peaceful when I was finished. Looking back at everything that happened, everything these characters put themselves through, I never would have predicted peace being my final reaction. Just like the story itself, it was unpredictable.

This is a novel that, frankly, defies categorization. It left me utterly satisfied. It’s very personal. And that last scene? I still can’t find the words to adequately describe how it made me feel, all of these days later. I do know that I want more of Ezra’s story.
I could not recommend this book more even if ‘more’ meant… more. Read it.

Buy Links

I would like to thank the publisher for providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.