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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 39
When the Ghosts Overrun Hollywood: A Conversation with Mark London Williams, author of GhostDance: Showdown at Carthay Circle

The Last Tycoon
From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Michael Tolkin, novelists and fiction writers find themselves as fascinated by filmmaking and film culture as the film industry itself. And why wouldn't they be? Those who make Faustian pacts with studios more manipulative than Mephistopheles must lead lives that perpetually teeter into the illusions they proffer to audiences. Danger Boy

It's no wonder, then, that remarkable works examining this DeBordian landscape and its populace of neurotic starlets and sham artists appear regularly in science fiction and fantasy, sometimes in a limited capacity (as in Philip K. Dick's Clans of the Alphane Moon), and sometimes at the forefront (such as Terry Bisson's Voyage to the Red Planet and Connie Willis's Remake). While many of these works share an interest a place so alien as Hollywood, few genuinely grasp how strange it can be, and how utterly odd such a landscape appears to those who only consume its fare.

Writer and journalist Mark London Williams gets it, though. The author of the Danger Boy young adult series, at the beginning of the century he took a break from the imperiling his teen protagonist Eli Sands to write GhostDance: Showdown at Carthay Circle, a "horror historical" featuring parading skeleton mariachis, ghosts and demons roaming the Hollywood streets as the town prepares for the opening of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Leon Trotsky, in hiding from Stalin's hit squads, writing Western screenplays.

Acerbic and funny (I got to meet him over lunch at a Korean restaurant in Austin during the World Fantasy Convention in 2006), and, being "in the business," incredibly busy, he took time out to talk with me about the ebook release of GhostDance, its genesis, and how it fits with his Eli Sands's world. Leon Trotsky

Thanks for joining me, Mark. Can you start by talking a little about yourself?
Hmm... that's a tough one. Which "self" would readers be most interested in? I'm a single dad living in L.A. (though raised in Northern California, so I have a Yin/Yang view, and experience of, California), with growing sons and graying temples. Perhaps we're not supposed to cop to the latter in the media biz, here in America? When I'm not writing -- or wrestling -- with prose, or teaching it, I'm also a journalist. I've been writing about the intersection of technology and showbiz for awhile, and currently write about visual FX and the media biz for Below the Line. I occasionally get to throw on a tux and cover the Oscars, too... And in my earlier life, I was a playwright. I would write plays about never-could-happen subjects like climate change... back in the 80s.

Tell us about the genesis of GhostDance: Showdown at Carthay Circle.
One is tempted to start referencing films like Casablanca, and Bogart's line, "That was so long ago, I don't remember." But actually, the genesis was back in the 90s, with eventual editor -- and good pal -- Rick Klaw. It was during those halcyon Mojo Press days, and I think we were planning a full-length version of GhostDance then. I'm not sure if I originally thought of Charlie Matter as a period comic book piece -- a wannabe superhero who winds up making things worse, despite his intentions -- but it finally wound up as the novella that originally ran at Revolution SF, in the early 00s. By then my marriage had busted up, so I probably had a different view of the viability of life in L.A., and Hollywood, myself. GhostDance: Showdown at Carthay Circle

But of course time marches on, and I can appreciate my earlier grim humor now as well -- not just the "grim!"

The piece, meanwhile, kind of resided quietly in digital space, until its re-discovery and re-launch from the Fast Foreword! imprint, which is looking do to shorts, in eBook formats.

You're known for the Danger Boy books (which, by the way, are incredibly enjoyable). How did writing a character like Wolf Bob differ from writing about Eli Sands? What creative gears did you have to shift in writing something for a more mature audience.
Thanks for the kind words!... Actually, the genesis of GhostDance started right before I originally sold Danger Boy (to the also late Tricycle Press -- what is it about shuttered publishers!?). So the original gear shift back then was realizing I couldn't have characters swearing all the time, jumping into bed (or trying to), etc. But my sons were also young, and I will always love Danger Boy for having allowed me to write a growing boy character in parallel to their own lives...

I had to ratchet down the spooky violence, too. There's a scene in the first Danger Boy book, Ancient Fire, where Eli and his companion Thea are in the catacombs under ancient Alexandria. It's dark, and they actually "crunch" through the bones -- the rib cages -- of mummies left scattered about. My original editors thought I needed to tone that down (though much of it was restored in the later Candlewick editions...!).

The story seems to be a mélange of influences in both film and print. For example, the parade of the Fredrico Fellini dead seems like Fredrico Fellini at his most morbid, while Wolf Bob's meeting with Charlie seems like a great Joe Lansdale bit. And having Trotsky write screenplays seems a great Howard Waldrop nod. What other elements, conscious or not, went in to telling this story?
It was everything, including of course Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, which is still a favorite book, and all the old and "new" movies I saw growing up. And by "new," I mean those 70s films that were in fact new when I was a teen. I somehow thought Hollywood would always keep making movies like that -- ones that mattered -- but then by the time I actually moved to L.A., it was the 80s.

I'd read a little of Joe's stuff when I started this, but have read a lot more since, but his writing grabbed me from the first, so the influences are entirely possible. I appreciate the comparison! Waldrop, eh? Hmm... do I need some giant chickens, or are the animated character costumes enough? Barnstormers

Trotsky was serendipitous -- finding out he was still alive when the story was set. And since everyone is trying to get into Hollywood, why not?

What proved the most fascinating piece of research? What made you go "oh, wow" as you cracked open books of film history and culture as you were writing?
Actually, it's those rare moments where I'm physically in a place I'm writing about that really strike me, or at least trying to physically embody the space. With the third Danger Boy book, Trails of Bones, Eli was out with Lewis and Clark, and I still remember pacing around a room one afternoon trying to block out the scene where the Corps of Discovery is embarking from a small wooden dock, in the rain, with everyone slipping in the mud.

For GhostDance, I visited the site of the Carthay Circle theater, which actually isn't in Hollywood, but closer to L.A.'s "Miracle Mile" neighborhood. The theater itself has long been razed, but I walked around, looking at the low slung office building that's there now, imagining what it must have been like, and imagining what kind of haunted parade route would unfold from there into the heart of Hollywood... And I still think of GhostDance, and those old glitzy premieres at the now ghostly-theater, when I cross Wilshire and head down that street…


Doug Potter provided the illustrations for GhostDance. Tell me about working with him.
Doug's terrific. But I'm reminded it's been way too long since I've been out to Austin! We swap emails a lot, and have collaborated on a corporate gig (where I wrote cartoons for a health industry company, and he did the drawings!), and are currently working on a comic book together -- Barnstormers. It's about 1930s movie monsters who find themselves unemployed during the Depression, and form a barnstorming baseball team to make ends meet. Eagle-eyed readers might remember that Barnstormers was also the baseball-themed videogame world that Eli Sands liked to play in, when he wasn't time traveling, in the Danger Boy books.

GhostDance originally appeared at Revolution SF. Did you need to make any changes as you transitioned into e-book?
We didn't, other than some proofing, dedications, etc. But it did remind me of those discussions Rick and I had about expanding it into a full-length, and this whole process of the novella's re-emergence has sparked all that in me again.

What's next on the horizon for you?
Suddenly, things are busy! There's that comic project with Doug. But I'm also revising my finished zombie book, for youngish readers, and we'll be out with that soon. And we're trying to release the never-issued Danger Boy finale, Fortune's Fool. It got caught up in some publishing politics when my series editor left, and the publishing biz wound up being hit in the economic downturn... and I still get emails from original readers, mostly college-aged now, asking when it's finally gonna be out!

If it's not out before 2021, my sci-fi time travel will suddenly be set "in the past," in the manner of Jules Verne!

And there's also staying open to where GhostDance leads... as mentioned, the idea of expanding it has been re-sparked, but so has the idea of writing more for the ostensible grown-ups, with some genre work I'd put aside for awhile.

And did I mention I have a script I need to finish? Seriously. It is Hollywood, after all.

Copyright © 2013 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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