From the Mind of R. S. Hill
A blog about this, that, and more...
Silence is golden. So, they say. Some deviate and claim silence is complicity. Others call it a right, a privilege, a mark of distinction among those who cannot help but vomit nonsense 24/7. Having mulled over these phases of silence ‘over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore’ (Poe is the man), I conclude that when it comes to hot button issues like school shootings, there is a time for silence and a time to speak. The time to speak is now.
Another school shooting—this one in Oxford, Michigan at a high school like any other in America—has stirred the country into more fruitless debate over gun control. Gun rights advocates shout, “Guns don’t kill, people do.” The anti-arms brigades are making the rounds slinging outrage, tears, and justifiable cries for reform. And while those conversations need to be heard for us to move on to ‘the same old, same old,’ perhaps it is time to stop avoiding a larger issue. The fact that people have the right to bear arms in America doesn’t scare me as much as what appears to be, for too many in America, the inconvenient responsibility of being a good parent.
The Oakland County lead prosecutor has a point as she seeks to hold the parents accountable for another deadly shooting. The shooter’s parents are accused of being negligent for not heeding warnings that their child was in serious crisis and for being irresponsible gun owners. In doing so they violated the golden rule all good parents commit to. ‘I am responsible for my child.’
The truth is that behind every school shooter there is usually a negligent parent. Sure, there are others responsible like bloated school districts, sketchy gun dealers, the NRA, lackadaisical educators, and out-of-touch leaders. The difference is that those culprits can, have been, and are being sued ($100 Million Lawsuit Against District), while negligent parents have walked away having to bear a great loss in most cases but never being held accountable for a disaster they could have averted.
If you have guns around your children, it’s your responsibility to secure them. If your kid uses that gun to kill, that’s your responsibility too. Simple. If my son has a car wreck and destroys property, I have to pay. If my daughter steals, breaks a window, or accidentally kills the neighbor’s pet, that’s on me. So instead of arguing endlessly about gun control when most Americans would distrust the police even more if they were the only ones with guns, let’s hold the right people accountable. When it comes to school shootings, responsibility has to start with the parents and the shooter they turned loose.
Responsible gun owners often cry, the problem lies in people not taking proper care of their guns. In addition to restrictions on assault rifles, perhaps, if there were more severe consequences for those careless gun owners whose neglect results in violent crimes committed by minors, then maybe this might happen less. Maybe not.
Jamil Khuja, a criminal defense lawyer and former assistant prosecutor in the Detroit area told Al Jazeera, that Oakland County’s message is simple. “…if you own guns, you need to lock them up and make sure your kids don’t have access to them without your knowledge.”
Fair enough. Yet the elephant in the room is that there are still too many parents who should not be parents. Period. Regardless of situation or circumstance, what your kid does is your responsibility and you have to own it and do what is best for the child. This contagious idea of parenthood being an inconvenient responsibility so many (who have kids) choose to avoid blows this parent and high school teacher’s mind.
For over fourteen years in classrooms, I have witnessed this kind of evasive negligence nearly every day. The kind of negligence I am talking about is common and sad. Too many parents don’t talk to their kids. They talk at them, over them, around, through, and down to them but not with them. The reason teachers are valuable today has little to do with academics, test scores, republican or democratic agendas. Teachers are valuable because of the emotional triage we perform on young people every day because too many have become that inconvenient responsibility.
While some kids truly need therapy and care from mental health professionals, talking to a child like they matter goes a long way towards constructing a person secure enough to withstand the serious pressures of life outside the home.
Communicating in this way is what most teachers do all day. And while some are better than others and we could certainly use more training, teachers listen to student complaints, help them work out what seem like small problems to adults, show and tell them they matter. Between lessons, after period bells, and during smartphone distractions, teachers listen to kids talk about everything from Star Wars to Kylie Jenner to the fate of Hermomine’s wand and on to why the world is so ‘F-ed up’ and ‘what is the point of existence if I can’t get into a good college.’ If you talk to your child, you know what I mean. You also know that these moments are priceless and a crucial part of raising a secure person.
Young people are frustrated with an adult world that heaps unrealistic expectations on them but doesn’t seem to care about them. They want to be heard and acknowledged. That’s what many teachers do whether their students earn Fs or As. Sure, teachers don’t do it enough, some contribute to student isolation and despair, we certainly miss too many conversations we should have, and there are serious mental and emotional situations that require professional intervention. But just remember this. While you’re solving those major adult crises like ‘when to buy or sell,’ ‘do I look fat in this,’ ‘am I ever gonna make the money I think I’m worth,’ or ‘screw your mask mandate,’ some teacher is gently talking a potential shooter down.
If you are a parent, ask yourself this question. When was the last time I talked to my kids about who they think they are or want to be, what they care about, and what they want their future to look like outside the educational goals and edicts you set in stone?
These conversations can be awkward, scary, circular, time-consuming, and inconvenient, but they go a long way toward helping young people see that despite their shortcomings and a world that appears to be burning in ‘the global warming inferno of death,’ they matter.
After enough of these conversations, when your child sees your gun unattended or knows where you keep it because you’re human too, he, she or they won’t sneak it out of the house and punish the world because you didn’t listen or acted like a dictator. They’ll leave it alone or feel secure enough in their skin to give you a nudge because you did it for them. Perhaps it is time to stop blaming the children and the guns and start punishing the guilty.
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As 2021 began with a glimmer of real hope in the form of vaccines created by science, confidence that the worst year in recent history was behind us began to percolate despite January 6th. And while America has a long way to go to lick this bug and ‘the new normal’ ain’t going anywhere, people seem cautiously hopeful as we head into the holiday season.
Despite an air of mounting confidence in the future, I still hear despair in my student’s defeated voices or my neighbor’s lack of youthful industry. For nearly a year, I had to shout at him from across the wall between our properties just to have a conversation about how resurfacing his pool ‘ain’t happening.’ I must admit, though, the pandemic was, in a way, good for me. I still feel guilty about the productivity the pandemic brought to this writer. So, here is my confession.
The coronavirus threw down (and continues to throw) many challenges that forced humanity to adapt to a more hostile landscape, become more industrious with its technology, and search for meaning in a changed world. Among those challenges lurked isolation. As friends, family, colleagues, celebrities, and politicians wondered how they were going to cope with being isolated for most of 2020, I knew exactly what I was going to do. Having pledged to write three novels in just one year’s time, I was off pace in January of 2020 when the Wuhan virus became a full-blown pandemic.
A young adult dark/fantasy novel was nearly done, and my post-apocalyptic sci-fi series was stalled near the end of book one. When our school district closed its doors and we shifted to a make-shift, online learning platform, the city and state (Tucson, Arizona) established curfews, enforced mask mandates, and social distancing went into in full effect. I found myself sequestered and glad for it.
For many writers, writer’s block is not about losing mo-jo, a lack of ideas, or some deep-seeded psychological trauma that stems from that glass chandelier that fell on my head when I was four years old. It’s about distraction. COVID 19 forced us inside our homes and ourselves. For some this was catastrophic, especially young people (my students). I feel awful for those who slid into depression and battled with anxieties over not being able to make physical contact with friends and family for such a long time. For me, and other writers, the journey into self without physical connection is a necessity. I’ve always said, if I ever go to jail, put me in solitary and leave me there. Having the time to do what writers do without distraction was just what the doctor ordered.
As time passed and the virus took its deadly toll, I sank deeper and deeper into myself and the worlds embedded in my head. While people around me were freaking out, falling into depression, juggling suicidal thoughts, mourning the dead, and, sadly, dying, I was writing. At times, I felt truly guilty about my vocational apathy, but I couldn’t stop myself. My addiction was in full swing, and I was binging night and day. Writers that I know personally or have voyeuristic associations with on social media communicated that they had trouble concentrating during so much death. One writer tweeted, “It [writing] just doesn’t seem important anymore.”
Perhaps I kept writing because what I write usually cultivates dark themes? Maybe I was just lucky to be comfortable during the pandemic and not directly affected? Could it have been my time to write? Maybe I’m a shitty person inside? And while some of you may feel I am being too hard on myself or that the mere idea that I would write about such a thing speaks to how shitty I am, the bottom line, and what kept me typing through the guilt, was that I am a writer. Good reviews or bad, high sales or abysmal, fancy cover or cheap, it is what I must do rain or shine.
At one point during this deluge of productivity that saw me actually achieve my three-novel goal (Hence the Buy Me a Coffee publishing fund below), I sat alone at night tapping away at my keyboard well after midnight because I did not have to wake up at 6 AM anymore. I imagined myself a Frankensteinian recluse. Macabre and apathic to the suffering of the world, I stole away to my lab night after night to cultivate my secret abominations while the world suffered from a kind of event we foolishly hoped had been eradicated.
I freely admit that I may suffer from what could be called survivor’s guilt, which is why I had to write this confession. Yet many people around the world, like myself, cling to the notion that the pandemic happened for a reason. Writing speculative fiction does not lend me the wherewithal to speculate as to what those reasons are, I only know that as long as the planet keeps turning, writers will keep writing.
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Video rules! As a writer, the idea that video trumps text in the modern world is one I am reluctant to acknowledge, but understand it has a ton of merit. For better or worse, we have become a videocentric culture that thrives on images 24/7. The ease of video technology has made it important for writers to not only swim in the smooth waters of text but to wade into the depths of video. I recently posted what is sort of a ‘book trailer’ for Access Universe on my YouTube channel. The idea of a book trailer has never been that appealing to me, so I decided to deliver what is essentially a sample chapter on video. With the help of some recent graduates, we did just that. If you’re a writer who is on the fence about using video, I can’t guarantee it will lead to sales, but the process was easy and a lot of fun.
One of the hardest parts of the process for me was determining what to put on video. After finally coming to the realization that chapter seven was the best chapter to really communicate the power of this novel, I selected a handful of penetrating pages, wrote it up in screenplay form and got in touch with an old, less than productive student of mine named, Austin. Austin was the typical, intelligent high school student who didn’t have time for my boring Senior English class because he had already decided he wanted to be a filmmaker. So most of our time in class was spent talking about life, great films and the few stories in class he actually read. Truly excited about my book video proposal, Austin and I bounced around a lot of ideas. When we understood that, yes, we could actually do this and do it fairly well, we also realized we were missing an important piece. We needed an actress!
Silver Rainwater, the protagonist who is lured into a lucrative online adventure game by a quirky AI called SNIS—Systematic Network Infiltration system, aka Sneeze, is a complicated, emotion, scarred and very driven character who monopolizes the breadth of the novel. Austin and I really needed to find someone who could bring Silver to life and transmit the kind of energy I felt while writing this novel to the audience. That was when Clarissa, another old student of mine—I taught her as a freshman—caught wind of what I was doing through her old drama teacher, stepped up and became Silver Rainwater. Interestingly and appropriately enough, both Silver and Clarissa are Pascua Yaqui.
We filmed the entire five-minute promo in the library at Tucson High School over the course of a few weeks. And while trying to pin down young people can be a challenge, I haven’t had so much fun in years. I got to play Dennis, the high rolling banker who set up Silver with the cash she needed to play the game. And while it was rewarding to see my words come to life on the screen again, it was even more rewarding to see two former kids of mine all grown up into positive adults with genuine hopes, dreams and loads and loads of kindness.
Please take a few minutes to watch Access Universe come to life, and then add it to your summer reading list.
is question was put to me the other day by one of my high school students. She saw my new novel on Amazon and said, "Wow, mister. How's it feel?" I struggled for the right words, then settled on, "It feels great," which is true but doesn't quite capture the essence of the feeling. When I see my book on a book store shelf, online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, etc. it makes me feel special. Not in the sense that I am better, deserving or super competent, but just special because I have accomplished something important to me. Some will say, 'with today's technology a monkey could publish a book' (and that has probably happened). And while there are certainly more titles out there, that doesn't make it any less special for me.
Seeing my novel out there on the market being judged or ignored is like giving that perfect gift to someone you care about. And when that person lights up and you know she/he likes your gift, you both feel special. I suppose to a degree it is about getting it right and the feeling that comes with knowing you got it right. Whether I sell hundreds of copies or just that one my mom bought, it feels special because I finally got it right.
The reality that our machines are becoming more human every day is extraordinary to some and unsettling to others. It seems the future of our world will greatly depend on intelligent machines. This forecast begs the question, is this good or bad? According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, AI could be “more dangerous than nukes.” Celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking, may he rest in peace, has also suggested that AI could lead to the end of humanity. A recent article in Newsweek Magazine http://www.newsweek.com/artificial-intelligence-taught-ethics-reading-books-426663; however, frames the AI dilemma as a responsibility similar to educating a child. Professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College in London, Murray Shanahan, suggested that AI can be “human-like” and “capable of empathy.” The way to achieve this is to teach advanced computers through fables, novels and other forms of literature to make ethical decisions in the same way we teach children.
Now imagine a young psychology graduate student on the cusp of breaking through the glass ceiling and becoming the first in her family to graduate college, obtain a PH. D, and gain access to the American dream. Her name is Silver Rainwater, a descendant of the Pascua Yaqui tribe in Tucson, Arizona. While struggling to complete her psychology mentor’s interactive dream catalog, embrace her complicated heritage, deal with her mother’s escalating addiction, and confront a past that haunts her relentlessly, Silver find herself in the unique position to teach a rogue artificial intelligence the difference between right and wrong and how to make ethical decisions. The relationship starts after Silver experiences a catastrophic data crash that essentially ends her graduate school career. She is invited by SNIS, Systematic Network Infiltration System (Sneeze)-- the quirky central computer at Access Universe--to play a secret online game where she earns easy money completing simple challenges. As Silver plays the game, she begins to lose sight of her priorities and eventually abandons her ethics for Jimmy Choo, Neiman Marcus, and Sax Fifth Avenue. But when a rogue player threatens Silver and a good friend ends up dead, Silver and Sneeze must work together to redefine what it means to be human in a rapidly changing, fast-paced, technology driven world.
Access Universe, a techno-psychological thriller available on Amazon May 2018, provides an entertaining and relevant glance at the responsibility we all have to use our machines responsibly and ethically so they become humane tools not weapons of moral destruction.
I am truly excited about the upcoming release of my new novel Access Universe in May 2018. And while it has taken a while to complete, two kids and more than a few gray hairs later I have to say it feels good. Access Universe is a bit of a departure from my previous novels which lean more toward supernatural mystery, horror, and dark urban fantasy. The techno psychological thriller will be released on Amazon (ebook & paperback) and Smashwords (ebook). What I like most about this novel is that it successfully frames the present as an important opportunity for human beings to begin to lay a solid foundation for how we interact with an own up to our responsibility for the technology we create.
Recently, we have all seen too much misuse and abuse of technology in the vitriol of social media, as a vehicle for abuse in the work place, and as a damaging distraction in our schools. It is my hope that all of this fumbling around in the dark is a necessary evil to prepare us (or perhaps just one of us) to step up and be the adult when that first sentient machine rolls off the assembly line and wants to know who and what it is.
Access Universe is the story of Silver Rainwater, a psychology graduate student who, on the verge of breaking through the glass ceiling and being the first in her family to achieve academic success, is lured into a lucrative online adventure game by a quirky AI named SNIS (Sneeze)—Systematic Network Infiltration System. As Silver develops and awkward relationship with SNIS and her own ethics begin to spiral out of control, she is unwittingly thrust into a dangerous struggle between a maniacal player, a hierarchy of secret players, and a covert government agency all vying for control of the most advanced artificial intelligence on earth.
At its core, Access Universe is a story about the power of humane relationships and how that power can be used to cultivate and educate the machines of the future. Consequently, it is also a foreshadowing tale of how machines can help human beings continue to grow in a fast-paced technology drive world.
Access Universe will be available very soon. Check back here for details.
Lately, it seems that the two “Fs” (Fiction [Literature] and Film) are having a pretty strong impact on the American economy. When the fiction and film combination includes comic book heroes, each film seems to earn more than the last. And while the money these films generate is significant, the potential educational impact on the minds of young Americans is also worth considering. As a high school English teacher, I stand in front of a young audience everyday and try to convince—no, sell—young minds on the idea that reading old texts like the Iliad, Beowulf and Frankenstein are still valid experiences both relevant and rich regardless of age, race, cultural background or old the books are. One of the reasons this is becoming easier as the years in the classroom speed by so much faster than one might think, is the presence of popular films that build on the concepts these great works are founded upon and spins them into block buster images that young mind just can’t resist. Do some of these movies inadvertently or intentionally promote violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.? YES. But they can also be used to encourage kids being conditioned every day by popular technology to abstain from text, to pick up something old, read it and discover just how much the old world connects with the new.
By drawing clear lines between characters like Beowulf, Achilles and Victor Frankenstein and the heroes, villains and anti-heroes featured in films about Thor, Captain America, Iron man, and the myriad of Batman movies, average public school teenagers, who are neither advanced placement nor necessarily college bound, are reading and understanding a complicated epic poem like the Iliad and enjoying it. This is important because not only do these complicated texts challenge their perceptions of language and help their brains carve out new neural pathways, they can also help create a common ground upon which students from a diverse cultural and ethnic palate can stand with each other and the great heroes, villains and anti-heroes of the past. Once these connections are made, their attitudes magically change from reluctant and often indignant to curious and amiable. At this point their eyes can begin to focus on the essential similarities between the ancient and the modern worlds. This can be an educational moment that reaches across demographic barriers. For example, most Native, African, Mexican, Asian and European American students in my classes had no idea how similar the Roman’s attempted conquest of the Britons—a historical topic relevant to Beowulf—and subsequent spread of Christianity was to the colonization of America by the French, British, and Spanish. Many of my students viewed colonization as a singularly American “thing” that happened only to minorities. Fortunately for teacher, there are films out there like Beowulf and Grendel or Centurion that dramatize this very concept. Suddenly, in their eyes, the world became just a little bit smaller. Suddenly, the people across the sea and the ones seated next to them don’t seem so scary or different any more.
So the next time you yawn and complain about another comic book hero franchise film, remember that one person’s kryptonite could be some teacher’s magic lasso.
Writing within one particular genre has always been restrictive, difficult and a bit frustrating. Just the idea of being trapped in the magical realms of the young adult universe might make me spontaneously combust. This is not to say that I do not enjoy or respect young adult or single-genre fiction. What I am saying is that adhering to a plot formula that is tried and true and fits easily on the consumer shelves in familiar categories is certainly the smart thing for a writer to do today, but I prefer, and usually do not have a choice as my process can be uncompromising, to mix genres and various literary elements and see what comes out of the oven. To me, taking a risk and breaking rules and boundaries is the thrill of writing. Giving words their own life—not directing them toward maximum sales potential—is what imaginations are for. The idea of hybrid anything has always been appealing to me and writing is no exception. Under the House, my first novel about an old widow and an eager young intern who must take down a gifted serial killer, wraps horror, mystery and fantasy into one thrilling ride. Benny, Resurrection, the story of an imaginary friend who comes back to life to punish the world of angry, misguided, misfit adults, blends science fiction, dark fantasy, mystery, horror, historical and apocalyptic elements into a diverse fictive landscape. Access Universe, my latest novel set to be released next year, is no exception. My third novel drifts away from fantasy and horror to blend mystery and science fiction into a relevant techno-psychological thriller.
A writer who has developed and maintained excellence in hybrid or cross-genre fiction is Clive Barker, one of my favorites—a mentor really, though I have never met the man. Mr. Barker, more so than any other contemporary author, showed me that a fantasy novel could also be horror, mystery, sci-fi and literature all rolled into one. Weaveworld was the first thing I read by Barker, and it (he) really rocked my writing world. Weaveworld helped lay the foundation for what I write today. To read such lush prose in a fantasy novel juxtaposed beside some of the most outrageous, terrifying, perverted and stunning themes, imagery and settings all writhing within a mystery-horror context thriving inside a carpet was both liberating and promising. Even Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, central pillars of my mythology as well as pioneers of cross-genre fiction, did not slap me as hard as Barker. And while I must admit that if not for Poe and Shelley the chance of Barker and myself ever dreaming such dreams or finding the audacity to pick up the pen and say, “what if…” would not have been possible, it was Barker, in a contemporary world that blindly embraces the commoditization and often simplistic over-categorization of art, who showed me another way.
So when you read R.S. Hill, expect the unexpected, the kitchen sink and then some…
Music has been helping to guide my thought process and push through mental blocks or what I call plot barriers or vacuums. I am not talking about full on writer’s block, but those annoying sticking points that stop the flow of a project I’m committed to. This musical intervention could be endemic to the project I am currently working on, but, regardless, it is refreshing not only because music helps me move past a barrier it also restores my faith in the power of music. There is no question in my mind that music has done more for making America great than any politician, leader or entrepreneur. Think about where this country would be without the Blues. The magic of music for me as a writer is its ability to instantly allow me to visualize what is happening or could be happening in my story. And for those brief moments while the music is screaming from my ear buds whether I am riding my bike, doing yard work or taking a walk, I am watching a music video in my head of what I am writing. When the music is over, the floodgates are wide open, and I am refreshed, alert and brimming with new ideas. I can write again. I have even started writing while playing music again as it adds pacing and cadence to the flow of the story.
So if you write and get stuck, try it. And while this music intervention may not break down your barriers, I guarantee it will be fun.
readrshill (via weebly) is the location of my latest blog.
I hope to be better about posting regularly but sometimes the world has other ideas. Anyway, Access Universe, my latest novel, will be released through Amazon and other outlets in several months. I am very excited!! to share it with you. Hope you are excited too. More to come on Access...