August 31, 2011

Tags: Rhode Island Hospital, beach, John Lennon, Quonnie, death, Brown University, yellow fin tuna, poisoning

Earlier this month, I spent a happy week with family and cousins at Quonnie beach in Rhode Island. Lots of John Sandford, “left, right, center,” and tossing Bocce balls with my now-famous west coast spin that blew away the New Yawkers.

Mid-week, my wife and I went to Providence to check out the art museums and visit the campus at Brown, my alma mater. We were looking forward to lobster and steamed clams for dinner, so we decided on a light lunch. I had a yellow fin tuna burger with aioli sauce. Pretty good for a city where—when I was an undergrad—you could never get a good cup of coffee.

Ten minutes later, I turned bright red, had trouble breathing, couldn’t focus, had serious pain in my back, neck and chest. I wondered if I were having a heart attack. I thought of John Lennon, and he wasn’t singing—he was coining a famous line: “Death happens when you’re making other plans.”

My wife got me to the Rhode Island Hospital’s ER in under fifteen minutes, but by then my blood pressure had plummeted, my kidneys were failing, and I was dehydrated. When the ER technicians saw me coming, my feet never touched the floor. Within minutes I was in a critical care unit and being treated—they didn’t care who I was or whether I had insurance or not. Quite simply, they saw a man who was dying and responded by saving his life. Thank you, Rhode Island Hospital.

It turns out I was a victim of scombroid toxicity, a rare form of poisoning that comes from dark meat fish—most commonly, tuna—that has not been handled properly during storage or processing. In my case, the yellow fin tuna came from Vietnam. I haven’t yet learned about inspection procedures other than the restaurant manager saying “we buy from the finest seafood supplier on the East coast.”


I’ve never reviewed a hospital before, but Rhode Island Hospital gets five-plus stars.

—Karl Alexander


July 21, 2011

Tags: ebooks, love stories, thrillers

As you probably know, as of April, 2011, was selling more ebooks than print books—a publishing revolution that is barely five years old.

What you may not know is that traditional publishers take a larger percentage of profits from ebooks than they do from print books—for much less effort and expense. (more…)


April 20, 2011

Tags: pigs, commercials, film, video, shoots, production, wrap

In the film biz, producers are terrified of not “making the day” which means getting every setup and shot done for that day. Usually, schedules are totally unrealistic because the producer has convinced his investors or boss that he can bring the project in (feature, TV show, industrial, commercial, short, whatever) for a ridiculously low budget. So, at the end of a twelve or fourteen-hour day—or a seventy-five-hour week—there’s always shots or scenes left over.

Sweating bullets, but undaunted, a producer will push the leftovers to the end of the schedule or add them on so-called “light” days or if he has creative balls, merely cut that stuff out of the script. If worse comes to worse, and the job wraps with unfinished work, the producer will add pickup days. If the shoot is non-union, he’ll bargain with the crew to give him a half-day rate, and if his boss has gone ahead and approved a full rate, he’ll pocket the difference.

After decades as a lighting director, I’d never worked on a shoot that didn’t officially wrap until—for lack of a better name—the pig shoot.

In southern California, about two months before elections, advertising agencies are busy making political commercials—usually talking heads or a glib politician at a desk with two flags behind him and a potted plant in the corner, the shoot usually a piece of cake.

The pig shoot was a commercial urging voters to vote against a proposition that would eliminate pork barrel spending. The scenario: a dozen politicians and a pig are a conference table, the politicians, congratulating each other. One pulls scissors from his briefcase, grins shamefully at the camera and cuts a few hairs off the pig’s tail. Voilà. Pork barrel spending has been eliminated.

Alan, the producer, wanted to bring the pig shoot in for next to nothing. He low-balled rates and equipment rentals; he got a free-be on the camera. He saved more by not hiring SAG actors. He didn’t pay for permits or a location fee. He arranged to shoot the commercial on a Sunday in the offices of the ad agency where he worked. Okay, said the building manager, as long as you’re done in twelve hours. In film talk, that’s “taillights at six, everybody.”

Six o’clock Sunday morning, a farmer pulls into the parking structure with a thousand-pound hog in a small trailer. Lying, the AD tells the farmer they’ll probably shoot the pig in an hour, two hours, tops.

We show up at seven, and the building manager lets us inside. We go up to the third floor and set up—not a big deal since all the shots are inside the conference room. An hour later, the actors are rehearsing their lines for Jeffery, the director-slash-DP, who is lucky to be working but lets everyone know the only reason he’s doing the job is that it’s on Sunday.

An hour later, we start shooting. Jeffery spends most of the day getting “artsy” shots of the actors even though there’s less than a page of dialogue. In the afternoon, the PAs put down plastic in the aisles, and the grips build a ramp and platform for the pig so he can stand at the conference table eye-level with the actors.

Around five-thirty, whispers: shouldn't we be shooting the pig? Where’s the pig? The pig is the “MacGuffin.” How come Jeffery didn’t shoot the pig first?

Finally, Jeffery is satisfied with his coverage. The AD starts shouting, “Okay, okay, we’re good, let’s bring in the pig! We only got a half-hour left!”

A PA scurries down to the parking structure, wakes up the farmer, and soon, the hog is in the elevator. Meanwhile, Jeffery has the dolly grip park the camera next to the ramp so he can start with an over-the-shoulder shot of the pig at the conference table.

Everybody clears the aisle so they won’t spook the pig. The beast waddles up the hallway toward the conference room. Jeffery is ecstatic, and Alan is relieved, no doubt dreaming of a CLIO. Finally, the enormous hog is on set, and the AD is helping the farmer lead him up the ramp.

Suddenly, the hog lets go. After being in a trailer for over twelve hours, he can’t hold his bowels any longer. Or maybe he got stage fright. Either way, he craps all over the ramp, the platform, the camera, the assistant cameraman, the dolly grip, and, of course, Jeffery’s designer jeans.

For those of you who’ve never been in pig country, there is no worse smell on earth than pig manure. In comparison, skunk spray is almost a delicate perfume.

Everyone runs from the room, gagging and throwing up—all except Jeffery who yells for paper towels and PAs to clean up after the pig.

At the end of the hallway, in her office, the building manager looks up and grimaces. “What’s that smell?” She comes out. “What’s that awful smell?!”

Alan approaches her with a hang-dog grin, but all she sees is a thousand-pound hog crapping as he trots down the hallway, chased by a red-faced farmer. “What’s a pig doing in my building?” the manager shouts. “Nobody said anything about a pig!” She holds a hankie over her nose. “I want everybody out of here! Now!”

Alan tried to reason with her, but when she started to call the police, he had no choice but to help the crew bail from the building as fast as possible, and if you ever want proof of life after death, call “wrap” on a film set.

I don’t know how long it took to clean up after the pig or air out the building. I do know that Alan was fired the next day.

A week later, I heard that they tried to shoot the pig against a green screen in Alan’s garage and paste him into wide shots of the conference table, but that Jeffery’s angles were too weird for it to work.

I will say one thing for Alan, though. Bless his heart, he made sure that everybody got paid, including the pig.

Karl Alexander


April 5, 2011

Tags: ebooks, publishing, homeless persons, bookstores

I was leaving Home Depot yesterday and saw a homeless person reading a Kindle. Not a throw-away rag, a newspaper, a magazine or book. A Kindle.

For me, it was a “Hemingway moment,” my slang for brief existential events that give me pause for whatever reason. In this case, I finally realized in my heart that the digital revolution in publishing has bulldozed from top to bottom without slowing down. I heard last week—old news now—that Amazon is selling more ebooks than mass-market paperbacks. If this isn’t true, I’m sure it will be soon.

Novels and stories morphing into bytes on the Internet isn’t good or bad news for writers. People still like to read good (and bad) books whether on paper or a screen. It’s sad, however, that bookstores will inevitably decline in number or transmogrify into chrome and plastic places resembling video rental stores. When I go in a bookstore and browse, I get a sense of magic and relaxation, even in a chain.

Any thoughts?

Tomorrow, I’m going back to Home Depot, find that homeless dude and ask him what he’s reading.

Karl Alexander


August 27, 2009

Tags: divorce, domestic relations, film business, custody battle, relationships

Most of my male friends are divorced, and in every case, the divorce left them much poorer than before. They moved from large upscale homes with pools and spas to one-bedroom apartments. Their late-model BMWs transmogrified into old Toyota Corollas. They worked longer hours or took second jobs in order to make alimony and/or child support payments. They were lucky if they saw their children every other weekend.

Except for Kevin Williamson. (The names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.) He started out as a lighting technician, ultimately became a director of photography. Along the way, he met Sara, a producer who worked for a company that made low-budget infomercials. Kevin and Sara fell in love, moved into a fixer-upper near the Hollywood freeway, soon were married. On the weekends, they worked on their house together, went to movies and plays, did parties, had friends over, and every so often would take as long a vacation as the “biz” allowed—usually not more than a day or two. Those were rose-colored times.

Then Sara got an idea for a TV show. She pitched it to a network, and they gave her a deal for a pilot. (It was almost that simple.) Being a shrewd businesswoman, Sara retained a sizeable stake in her TV show, and within a year, her show had been picked up by the network and was number #1 in the ratings week after week. Sara’s production company grew from a dozen employees to almost a hundred. Meanwhile, Kevin continued working for his own clients, though by now Sara had become the major breadwinner. They moved to a newer, much nicer home in the hills.

Sara decided that she wanted kids. A few years later, the happy couple had three. They also had a ranch in Colorado and a bigger house in town. They built a weekend starter castle in La Jolla with a killer view of the Pacific. Her TV show had become “the golden goose that keeps on giving,” and besides financing their dream lifestyle, the show spawned spin-offs, TV movies and a few features.

Along the way, Kevin didn’t change much. Of course, he bought a BMW and started wearing designer jeans and sunglasses, but in L.A., this doesn’t mean one has changed. He watched the same TV shows, listened to heavy metal, kept the same friends, drank beer after work, and to this day, still smokes dope. Yes, he did “clean up” nicely for the requisite dinner parties and industry events as “Mr. Sara,” but he never talked about those times.

Sara, however, did change. Motherhood brought out the best in her. Not only was she running a successful company, she was raising three beautiful, perfect children. How can you go wrong when you take them to a baby gym at eighteen months? How can you make a bad decision when your show picks up the tab for all decisions?

Almost a decade passed. Sara’s children were fast approaching adolescence and her star was still rising, yet—much like a wayward teenager—Kevin was becoming a problem. Sara had grown weary of his small-time clients, his “ordinary” career that seemed flat-lined. In fact, she claimed that if it wasn’t for her reputation, he wouldn’t have any clients at all. Most of all, she objected to his smoking weed. Rightly so, she pointed out that it was illegal and a bad influence on the kids. She hounded him; she isolated him from his own family; her criticisms blossomed mercilessly. His clothes were wrong, his toothpaste was wrong; his opinions were shallow and moronic. Of course, she knew that by hanging onto his one bad habit, Kevin was psychologically hanging onto his identity. That didn’t matter.

One day, Kevin came home early. Sara greeted him outside their McMansion, and she wasn’t happy. Had he left the toilet seat up again or had she found a roach somewhere? We’ll never know. Academic, I suppose. This time when she started yelling at him, he nailed her with a clean left hook to the jaw and dropped her on the front lawn in front of God and everyone. Her priorities straight, Sara had the locks changed before going to Urgent Care.

The divorce was unique in that Sara was blind to her own arrogance. She was determined to prove that Kevin was a bad father not worthy of custody or normal visitation, so her attorneys trotted out his drug use and other faults. In a final attempt at character assassination, they produced tax returns which showed that Sara made fifty-five times more money a year than Kevin. I’m not sure if this makes him a scumbag, but Kevin’s attorneys took the tax returns and ran with them. Surely, if Sara makes that much more than Kevin, they claimed, then isn’t he entitled to half? At that time, Sara was worth 100 million.

Now Kevin owns his own business outright. He is a philanthropist and supports green causes. He dates and beds beautiful women, though most of them don’t stick around unless they have psychological problems. He travels to wherever he wants, whenever. He buys real estate and remodels homes. Though he’s heterosexual, his taste is pretty good. He sees his children occasionally, and—yes—he still smokes dope.

To my knowledge, Kevin has never been in a street fight or stepped in a ring. Yet one punch made him a wealthy man. However, if I were him, I’d rather climb in the ring with George Foreman than go ten-plus years with Sara.

For the record, Kevin and I don’t talk much anymore. I don’t call him often because I don’t approve of how he earned his money. He doesn’t call me because I don’t have any.


May 13, 2009

Tags: writing, laptops, computers, rewriting, reprints, editors, editing, "Time After Time", movies, Warner Bros.

Recently, my editor gave me a January, 2010 pub date for the reprint of my first novel, Time After Time , the basis for the Warner Bros movie starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. I think more as a courtesy than anything else, he asked if I wanted to make changes in the original edition. “Sure,” I replied without hesitation, “Get rid of the dedication to my ex-wife.”

Other than that, I wondered, why bother? The book did well; people still talk about the movie; everybody’s looking forward to the sequel coming out in the fall…. Then I had second thoughts. Do I want Time After Time published as a historical oddity? Or do I want readers to appreciate a classic story honed for a new century? I would never presume to rewrite another writer, but I don’t have a problem with myself. If I can’t improve my craft, then it’s time to buy a rocking chair and take that fly tying course. Moreover, we have a new generation of readers, many who weren’t even born when the book was first published. Therefore, why not? Like their parents, they deserve the best that I can do. So my editor sent me an enlarged Xerox of the book, and I dove back in for the first time in thirty years.

Good Lord, who wrote this?

Granted, I was trying for a quasi-Victorian prose style because my characters were time-travelers from 1893, but Good Lord, who wrote this! What seemed vivid and profound in 1979 came off as overwritten and sometimes embarrassing in 2009. I cut sixty pages out of the original. Yet that’s not really the point—I trust any veteran of the literary trenches would do the same if given the opportunity. The point is, the month I spent hunched over the ms. with pencils, ruler and eraser were drudgery from another lifetime, and I longed for my keyboard, screen, and the book in electronic form. No such luck. Time After Time had been written in longhand, then pecked out on an IBM Selectric. If the book had been in my laptop, I’m thinking that the edit would have taken half the time. Okay. Thank God for computers…?

Not necessarily. Yes, computers definitely make editing easier, but I’m not sure that they make the creative process—writing—any easier. Computers save time, but the Muse doesn’t wear a watch.

All of those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed grad students in MFA programs might disagree, not realizing that opening up their laptops in Starbucks doesn’t necessarily make them writers. Regardless, I suspect that the computer—the economy, notwithstanding—is the reason more people are writing these days. Pencil and paper is more painful, but it’s cheaper.

At any rate, if your editor ever gives you a shot at rewriting a reprint, take it—laptop or not.

Karl Alexander

ARNOLD: he can run to Sacramento, but can he hide forever?

January 27, 2009

Tags: California, governor, Arnold, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Gold's gym, World gym, weightlifting, bodybuilding, book deals

The gropenator has been a professional politician for more than five years. He remains “movie-star” popular and has successfully avoided both scandal and character assassination in an era of tabloid journalism. Is that a miracle, or what? I think not. Unlike most politicians, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t deny any of his checkered past—or so it seems. With astonishing wit and humor, he apparently tells it like it was and leaves the media hyenas holding the proverbial bag. They’ve never gotten a story—except an old story which is worse than no story at all.

So these days—despite his failed policies, a golden state with no gold left, and marrying a Kennedy—Arnold is still the naturalized citizen of the century, an all-around good guy. Yet nothing may be forever….

Before franchised gyms homogenized physical fitness, the original Gold’s gym in Venice, California was Mecca for serious bodybuilders. In 1968, my brother, the artist William Tunberg, was pushing iron there with Frank Zane, George Butler, Zabo and other bodybuilders when Arnold walked in, fresh from Austria. While he stood apart from the regulars—the big, new kid on the block—he quickly became one of them by his very presence. He was always at the gym. When he wasn’t training, he was learning the ways of his adopted country. In our entrepreneurial spirit, he started a bricklaying business with Franco Columbu, another immigrant and serious bodybuilder. Was Arnold responsible for the ’71 Sylmar earthquake? No, but he sure as hell sold a lot of bricks in its aftermath. Along with “the chemist,” Frank Zane, Arnold also became an amateur pharmacist, experimenting with vitamin supplements, amino acids, growth hormones and steroids—whatever he believed would give him an edge in competitions. Much of this time was chronicled in George Butler’s excellent documentary, “Pumping Iron.” Yet above all, in those days, Arnold was a world-class Casanova. Ask any girl who ever walked through the doors of Gold’s gym or happened by the Astroturf stage at Muscle Beach. If sexual harassment had been in vogue then, Schwarzenegger would still be doing time.

While Arnold was particularly fond of thoroughbred American women, he still preferred German cars. He convinced my “buy American” brother to trade in his Pontiac for a new BMW. Of course, that was in 1968. In this century, Arnold drives a modified Hummer and dreams of building hydrogen stations on Interstate 5 which may not be as easy as winning all those Mr. Universe titles.

When Joe Gold opened World gym in 1977, Arnold and the regulars moved down to the new place on Abbot Kinney. Yet some things never change. If you hadn’t guessed, what do serious bodybuilders do between sets? They talk. Most of the regulars had known more about Arnold than his girl friends, business partners or anyone else for a long time. When he was off winning competitions or shooting movies, someone always had a new “Arnold story”—even after he’d launched his political career and said “Hasta la vista, baby” to the bodybuilding world.

The morning after Arnold was first elected governor, the regulars were at World gym, watching him on the TVs, telling Arnold jokes, sharing Arnold memories, lewd, crude and otherwise. George Butler walked in, saw all the familiar faces, waited for the clank of barbells and talk to subside, then announced in a loud voice, “Man! Look at all the book deals in here!”

Day Jobs: How I ended up in a prison cell with Robert Stack

January 21, 2009

Tags: Robert Stack, day job, writers, screenwriters, prison, "Unsolved Mysteries", Karl Alexander

When my grandmother found out I wanted to be a writer, she chuckled and said, “Welcome to the unemployment line.” I was stunned—not so much by the thought that most writers are unemployed, but by the sardonic humor coming from a seventy-five-year-old Unity minister in Central Point, Oregon. Alas, Nana was right.

Most of us have day jobs to help us cross that wasteland between advances and royalty checks, and we usually think of them as temporary. Thankfully, they usually are, but more often than not, those day jobs become “careers.” There are mornings after the espresso has kicked in and the laptop waits that I realize I am two people: a free-lance writer and a free-lance lighting director.

I spent seven seasons lighting Robert Stack for “Unsolved Mysteries.” We became friends and usually agreed on the state of the world, except he was no fan of Fidel Castro, and I was. So I never told him about my novel, Papa & Fidel. But he did learn of the other ones and thought it perfectly natural that a writer would be moonlighting as a regular person, though there was nothing normal about what we did.

One of “Unsolved’s” standard locations was the Wayside Honor Rancho in Castaic, California, a maximum security facility that we used for prison stories. On an icy winter morning, we were shooting deep inside a cellblock, glad not to be out in the cold wind. I was fine-tuning a lighting setup when suddenly we heard shouts and glass breaking from a nearby assembly room. Apparently, some black and Hispanic inmates had gotten into it, and now they were smashing the windows and frisbeeing jagged pieces of glass at each other. The melee spread; within minutes, a riot had started. Prison guards rushed onto our set, ordered everybody to stop what they were doing and run. In the confusion, some of us weren’t fast enough, and I found myself locked in a solitary confinement cell for my own protection along with Bob Stack and a guard named Zachary. A bunk, a metal toilet, a caged-in bare bulb in the ceiling, no windows. At first, we were silent, listening for telltale sounds through the door but heard only an occasional muffle. Obviously, the cell had been built with isolation in mind.

Grinning, Stack chuckled at the irony of being “outside on the inside” and started in with a repertoire of prison jokes that soon had Zachary and me roaring with laughter. A true renaissance man, Stack had stories and jokes for every occasion—even prison riots. And when he finally got tired of standing in the small space, he sat on the toilet as if it were a lounge chair, admired it, said it wasn’t so bad compared to places he had stayed in the former British colonies. I leaned against the wall, and Zachary took the bunk. Another silence. Then we started talking amicably, casually. You know, the usual: sports, politics, traffic on the 405, the “business.” For perhaps the first time in its history, there was no fear or anger, no tension in that cell. Small, unique experiences in my life that occur out of time I call Hemingway moments. This was one of those.

Eventually we got around to our favorite pastimes. Stack regaled us with stories of his marksmanship competitions. He was a world-class shooter who had won matches all over the world. In particular, he loved beating Russians, Brits, Bulgarians and Frenchmen, but never explained why. I suppose it had to do with being a member of the “greatest generation.” Then, Stack asked Zachary what he liked to do with his free time. “Lift weights,” the guard said shyly. Stack laughed appreciatively, for Zachary looked like an action figure in uniform, and joked, “Oh, really?! I never would’ve known!” Pushing iron is one of my regimens, too, so Zachary and me shared gym stories, exercise routines and “the burn,” Stack listening the whole time as if we were discussing the virtues of, say, an Anschutz competition rifle or an excellent meal in Paris or an unrivalled cognac anywhere.

Three hours later, the guards let us out. They had stopped the riot, and the inmates were in lockdown. The three of us didn’t say goodbye—we just went our separate ways, Zachary going off with the guards, Stack and I heading for the prison reception area under escort. After lunch, we finished the day’s work outside instead of inside, and when we were done, Stack went back inside to say goodbye to the prison staff. Twenty minutes later as I was wrapping my meters and kit, Stack came up to me, a devilish grin on his face. “Zachary wanted me to give this to you,” he said. From behind his back, he handed me a well-worn leather weight belt with “L.A. COUNTY JAIL” stenciled on the back. I was astonished. “Nice man, huh?” said Stack. “See you next time, Karl.” We shook hands. He got in his limo, and the driver took off.

Selected Works

science fiction
H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper through time again—only Jack has transmogrified into a beautiful woman.
H. G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper through time. “Imagine!”
- L.A. Times.
The Cuban revolution through the eyes and actions of Papa Hemingway and Fidel Castro. "A damn good book."
- L.A. Times
Sara Scott, private eye, discovers that her husband’s murderer is the California state comptroller.
gothic horror
A movie star on location in Transylvania transmogrifies into the worst of her fears. "Very much worth reading."
- Publisher's Weekly