Thursday, October 23, 2014

Author Interview: R.A. McCandless

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with (via Facebook) and interview author R.A. McCandless, author of Tears of Heaven published by Wild Child Publishing. Our discussion was as follows (give or take the occasional typo).


Was there a certain book that got you into Science Fiction and Fantasy? Could you describe it, and why it connected with you so strongly?

Tolkien’s The Hobbit was given to me as a gift and really opened the castle gates of fantasy to me.  Suddenly, there was a whole world of swords, magic and fantastical creatures to meet.  Immediately after I finished, I took all the money I had and biked down to the bookstore to buy everything else Tolkien had written.  I had no idea I was getting the seminal fantasy series: The Lord of the Rings.

I’m compelled by any world where dragons can make an appearance.  They don’t have to show up, but the idea that they can?  Please and thank you.  I also like any world where a woman is as strong or stronger that most of the men around.  Personally, I prefer a woman who can go toe-to-toe and sword-to-sword with anyone else.  So my preferred genre is fantasy, but I’ll take urban fantasy, science fiction and even historic fiction off the shelves for those reasons.

I have a similar story. The Hobbit was a childhood favorite. 

It and LOTR remain in my top ten despite numerous excellent authors over the years.

They both have a lot to offer, even after all these years. There's a reason he's the first name people think of in Fantasy.

. . . . .

What is your work about? Would you care to describe it? 

Telling a good story well and hitting some epic high note moments.  It’s hard to not to get carried away from the reality of, say, a sword fight or a battle scene, and into the unrealistic.  Keeping the physics of actions and reactions on target is something I really strive for and enjoy.  This is especially enjoyable when readers catch the effort that went into making a fight scene exciting, but still within the realm of the real.  I have to say that my favorite is when a reader comes to me and says, “You bastard, I can’t believe you killed this character.  He was my favorite.”  They really aren’t mad at me, but it means that I connected with them through that character, and I achieved a realism of life between their mind and the book with that character.  That’s magic right there.

Haha I've heard that a writer's job is to  make the reader go through things they'd never willingly choose to go through on their own. 

Or things they can't go through.  It's really tricky to get on the back of a dragon and go for a ride these days, what with all those damned knights riding off to slay them all the time.

But there's JK Rowling, writing about Harry Potter and his friends climbing on board a dragon in the underground vaults of Gringotts, riding a dragon to freedom.  Wow

That was a good one! 

Yeah, amazing ride!

Such a great scene.

Iconic really, if you think about it.  If you talk fantasy, you think about dragons, but how many fantasy novels actually have dragons in them?  That's not a slam on authors or fantasy as a genre.  Too much, and we'd get tired of "another dragon in another fantasy book".  Rowling did a good job of showing us dragons in her fantasy, but not overselling the creatures.

She did, very much so. One of her greatest triumphs, I think.

. . . . .

In the piece you're currently working on, are there any real-world issues that you're exploring? Would you care to describe it/them?

I’ve been writing (hopefully) strong female characters for a couple of decades now.  I didn’t set out to do so.  There was no conscious effort to make my work specifically male or female.  My very first, very immature story was about my group of friends.  Because I was, have been and always will be interested in fantasy, it was in a fantasy setting.  Everyone carried swords, everyone was heroic with their swords, and that was essentially that.  It was a story meant for my friends, and I thought highly of all of them, regardless of their gender.

HELL BECOMES HER is the follow up to my debut release TEARS OF HEAVEN and follows the further adventures of Del, a strong female protagonist, who faces demons, both real and inner.  This time around, she gets to face some classic bad guys, while at the same time confronting what it means to be both a woman and a mother.  Challenges that face any parent on a daily basis, even one that isn’t fighting supernatural forces.

Sounds really interesting!

I guarantee enjoyment!

So you'd say that the fact you write strong female characters is more a natural extension of your views than an intentional statement?

It’s 50/50.  I didn’t look around and start writing female characters because I wanted to take a stand on feminist issues.  I don’t know how, but my parents raised me to believe that everyone was equal, or at least deserving of equal treatment.  At the same time, I recognize that women around the world are not treated equally, and I am a feminist.  I think everyone should be.  Portraying women as something other than a pretty damsel in distress adds to the conversation.  That doesn’t mean I denigrate men to raise up women.  That’s also the wrong message to send.

I agree. The way I write women now is in response to weaknesses in the way I wrote them ten years ago as much as anything. I hope I've reached a similar point.

It's a process.  I think originally I felt that if women were physically stronger, that would be enough.  But that's just a superficial view.

By that I mean, that's how I wrote them.  Simply physically stronger.  That's overly simplistic.

. . . . .

In your opinion, is fiction useful in society? Does fiction reading benefit the reader? If so, in what ways? What benefits, if any, have you encountered from reading fiction?

Fiction and fantasy are really reflections of our world, only better.  Even dark fiction or dystopias tend to hand us heroes that rise up above the blackness and are able to make choices that sort out the good guys from the bad guys—they can decipher good and evil, right from wrong.  That’s not always true in our own world, and so it’s quite a relief to sit back and be transported to place where considerations over extremism, and Ebola and politics aren’t realities.  Or, if they are realities, they’re going to be handled, in one way or another, by the characters.

We also learn the most from stories, as examples of how to behave, or how we want to behave.  When confronted with similar situations, while we can’t use magic, and probably shouldn’t use violence, we still look to our heroes for a means for how to act.  How would Kvothe or Aragorn, or Katniss, or Dumbledore deal with this particular scenario.  Fantasy and fiction provide us with multiple perspectives for dealing with the realities of our own day-to-day lives.

That's a really unique perspective! I agree, though. Even a story that demonstrates the complexities of the issue eventually allow the character to be decisive, to do what they are sure is right. Which is an opportunity that we don't often get in this world.

Exactly.  And there can even be an exploration of bad choices too, although there is something to the idea that at the end of the day your hero, even an anti-hero, still needs to be somewhat relatable, or you'll lose your audience.

. . . . .

What responsibilities, if any, would you say a writer of speculative fiction has to their readers, and to society? 

Beyond telling a good, realistic story with compelling, relateable characters, none.  It's not our job to change the world, it's not our job to right all the world's wrongs, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles. We can be part of the discussion, and we certainly should be, but we're only one voice, one thread in an enormous social tapestry.  Fiction and fantasy are first and foremost about a good story well told.

. . . . .

What is your opinion about fiction's ability to change the world? Does it have such an ability? Or do you feel that's an overstatement of its power?

Star Trek.  It’s a perfect example of how fiction writers go about trying to solve actual, real world problems, not just through technological or philosophical advances, but viewing the whole history of humanity, extrapolating from our past, through our present and attempting predict our future.  Star Trek wasn’t alone in seeing some of the writing on the wall, but it’s a great example of how fiction writers can view problems, or see potential improvements years or decades into the future and present them as science fact.

Even if the result is a far-fetched or impossible outcome, that doesn’t remove the potential for inspiration on many levels.  If you ask astronomers, physicists, rocket scientists, etc. what inspired them, you often get back some science fiction show or writer that caught their imagination and prompted them to pursue a career in that particular field.  In return, the science that is developed, inspires new writers, and inspiration and change spin outward in an often beautiful spiral.

Yes! I actually recently heard of this story Nichelle Nichols (who plays Uhura in the original series), often tells...

I think they all have a story like that.  It's wonderful.  I'm sure there are actors from other, less well-known sci fi shows of the era who also have similar stories.  I can't imagine it not being that way.

Very true. I think fiction can often be on the forefront of those kinds of things, because it's far enough removed.

Exactly.  It's always based on a concept that is current, but solves a problem, sometimes just for the show itself, but extrapolated out, a problem that exists in our real world as well.

. . . . .

Is there a trend in the public's perception of fiction that you have noticed? A general opinion the public has toward fiction, and speculative fiction in particular? If so, what?

The internet and indie publishing has allowed access to stories on a scale that we’ve never seen before, let alone imagined.  In some ways this has been very good for storytelling in general (although it’s also had its bad/dark side).  I like to listen to fantasy/fiction podcasts when I go running, and that was something that didn’t even exists five or ten years ago.  Now, you can get them for free, and they’re wonderful, imaginative, innovative and amazing.

The storytelling is more intimate, too.  Even epic series like “The Wheel of Time” or “The Kingkiller Chronicles” tend to be about the characters, and are driven more by internal choices rather than externally by the plot (or the plot’s needs).  Even if the story is a sweeping epic, like “The Song of Ice and Fire” readers know a lot more about the characters and their relationships than in previous generations of fiction, even going back to Professor Tolkien and Lord of the Rings.  That’s likely borne out by fans and writers who loved these works, but wanted to know more about their favorites.  It’s wonderful to see that attention to detail, that realism in fiction and fantasy.


Again, I want to express my thanks to McCandless for taking the time to give these fantastic answers.

You can find McCandless's first book here:

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: The Equalizer

Let me start off by saying that I've never seen the show that The Equalizer is based on. I'm completely ignorant about it. So I can't speak for how well this movie does as an adaptation.

Basically, what I can speak for, is my experience in the theater watching the movie. And to tell the truth? I had nearly as much fun watching this as I did watching Guardians, which I didn't expect to say this year, let alone so soon.

Note that it's a very different kind of entertainment. The Equalizer is rated R, and the action scenes seem determined to earn that rating. But I was grinning like an idiot for the entire last third of the movie, and I walked out at the credits with that dumb grin still on my face.

When I first saw trailers for The Equalizer, I thought what most people probably think: Ok, a typical Denzel-led Action Thriller. But that's all right. I like typical Denzel Action Thrillers. So I'd probably enjoy this.

Then, a day or two before going, I learned that the director, Antoine Fuqua, last worked with Denzel on Training Day, the Ethan Hawke Suspense Drama about the new cop who's shown the ins and outs by the corrupt veteran. Hearing that Fuqua and Denzel reunited for this project got me a little excited. I was prepared for this to be a good movie, a prime example of what a popcorn flick should be.

I still wasn't prepared for how awesome this movie is. It's harsh, brutal, and no-nonsense. The plot is solid at its worst points, and managed to pleasantly surprise me more than once. It avoids typical cliche, for the most part.

I've never seen Denzel give a less than awesome performance, but even so, this is one of his better ones. The role has enough meat on its bones for him to perform. One might expect a typical "retired bad*** gets pulled back into violence" role. What is delivered is a deep, layered, dynamic character that outshines most characters of the type. Fuqua, in an interview on AMC Movie Talk, says that we don't truly meet McCall (Denzel's character) until we see that first fight scene (the one from the trailers). And it's true, in a way. There is a dichotomy between who McCall is at the start of the film, and who he once was. Denzel makes you believe that this man has put away his past, and as it slowly resurfaces throughout the movie, his performance evolves to reflect McCall awakening.

We don't get to see that awakening for a good time, however. This is a slow-burning movie that takes its time establishing the characters and making you care, before the action commences. I applaud the decision to invest more than half an hour into establishing the characters. Unlike many action movies, the characters feel like people, and not just a checklist of necessary pieces in a script.

Chloe Grace Moretz plays a teenage prostitute who's trying to escape the life. She befriends McCall, but when she is brutally beaten and left in a hospital, it is the catalyst for McCall's ultimate return to violence.  In my opinion, Moretz has had a career arc similar in a way to Kirsten Dunst. She had a celebrated performance in her childhood (Hit Girl, to Dunst's Claudia), and seemed to coast on the spotlight that provided. In several other movies Moretz has been in, I have found her to be nothing special for the most part, giving acceptable if slightly lazy performances. But there's nothing lazy about her performance in this movie. Battered and broken by the world, jittery from a possible addiction, clinging to that one last strand of hope, her performance is by and large inspired. And while her character as a whole could be a cliche, it's executed with skill and care, and given the individuality needed to transcend the role.

Marton Csokas has been in a dozen pieces I've seen, but I didn't realize it until I looked at his IMDB. He's a wonderful character actor. He relishes his role as "Teddy", the Russian mob man and the main villain in The Equalizer. The writing for his character may be the major weak point in the movie; for the first two thirds, he's simply a typical, sadistic sociopath of a villain, who commits violent acts "For the Evulz" (more on that here: It's only in the last third that we really get a sense for who this character is, and by then, it's almost too late. Csokas, however, manages to sell this character to the viewer in a way that many couldn't.

The other problem that I had in the film was the inconsistent shooting. Most of the camera work was very good. It's obvious from the opening scene of the movie that the cinematographer knows how to frame a shot. But there were a few bits that seemed artsy for the sake of being artsy. For instance, one shot flips over Csokas to show off all of his character's tattoos (tattoos are a status symbol in the Russian mob, I've heard, so maybe someone who knows more about that would get useful information out of the shot). But it ends upside down, and fades to a rightside-up shot of the city. I don't have a problem with the director experimenting with style. But this shot was so weird and so out of nowhere that it pulled me out of the movie a little.

The shooting in action scenes is also inconsistent. Some of the shots are wonderful, making masterpieces of the blood and brutality put on display (I told you, this movie earns its R). My brother and I especially liked a slow-mo view of different elements in the room, showing the character assessing danger and forming a plan in a way reminiscent of Peter Parker's Spider-Sense. But then others use shaky-cam, or cut away far too quickly, so that it's hard to get a feel of what's actually happening. There aren't many of these, thankfully, but one is too many, in my opinion.

The action scenes provide possibly the second greatest strength in the movie--the sound effects. There wasn't one fight scene that didn't have a sound that made me flinch and wince. Whether its a man getting his head slammed into a glass table or a sharp object skewering, the sounds are gruesome, visceral, powerful, and effective. They add another layer to the movie. This goes all the way down to something as simple as raindrops or footsteps. Captured beautifully.

The writing is very good, and managed to surprise me by misleading and outsmarting me. The characters are well-established and consistent, the dialogue at once feels both realistic and streamlined, the plot is clear and well-thought-out, and it all leads to a fantastic ending that left me grinning like a madman.

Trying to compare The Equalizer to the other movies I've watched lately is like comparing apples to a blood-splattered nailgun. Is this better than Guardians? No, probably not. Is it as good? Possibly.

I think it's more accurate to compare this movie to the original Taken. Both are smart, modern Action Thrillers with real darkness and awesome heroes. But, while Taken maintains the frantic pace you expect of a thriller much more than The Equalizer does, I think that The Equalizer may be the better film, because it makes the viewer care about the characters.

The Equalizer gets an 8.5 out of 10. A few stylistic choices (and one under-developed villain) hold it back from being a 9. If you're up for a Thriller with surprising heart (and surprising gore), The Equalizer will leave you happy.


SPOILERS/random observations

My brother said that McCall is a combination of PsycheMonk, and Batman. I just feel like he's a slightly less psychotic version of The Punisher.

I'm really, really glad that they didn't bring Chloe Grace Moretz character back in order to either kill her or kidnap her to up the stakes. I much preferred that they took his fellow employees hostage. Very smart writing, and very satisfying for a conclusion.

The mob eforcer, "Teddy", kills a prostitute, one of Moretz's character's only friends, and the only person who could positively identify McCall as being involved. He knows all of this when he kills her. He also kills her in broad daylight, with open windows, an open door, where anyone looking in could see. It establishes him as a psychopath, but I think it goes a bit overboard.

The scene near the end at the restaurant, when McCall and Teddy meet openly? It gave me chills, it was so good.

In the ending, we get to see what my brother called Home Alone (to which I responded, Home Alone was only Home Alone because for some reason a 12 year old had read The Art of War); and that I called "Looking through the killer's eyes in a Slasher flick". McCall is an alpha predator, and he chews up and spits out the mobster enforcers sent after him.

My brother pointed out another issue with the movie: After the climax, McCall traces the men who had been hunting him back to the head of the mob family, invades the fortress that is the mobster head's residence, kills his guards, and then, after a brief discussion, kills the boss and walks out. We only see the tail end of that, which  was a bit unsatisfying. But there wasn't an easy alternative. The only other choices were to 1) Cut that out and deal with it in a sequel (leading to the problem in Taken 2, which is basically Taken all over again), or 2) Run the movie even longer than its already longer than usual 130 minutes. But I ultimately agreed that I would have happily sat through another 20 minutes to watch all the steps in between killing Csokas's character in the climax and taking down the mob head. Heck, I would have sat through another 20 minutes just to have another 20 minutes of movie!