Being A Writer
(Dedi Felman, who has written previously here about the art of film adaptation, was particularly impressed with the way a screenwriter handled the challenges of a recently released historical film. Here's Dedi on The King's Speech, a new hit that's been generating a lot of Oscar nominations, and some controversy as well. -- Levi)
“Two men sitting in a room talking.” That’s how director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler described, in a recent post-screening talk, their marvel of a film, The King’s Speech. Hooper and Seidler even said that they cut back on some of the original script’s history and pageantry scenes (e.g. King George V's funeral) because they wanted to nudge us ever closer to the film’s heart: a stammerer and his speech therapist sitting around talking about how a would-be king can find his voice.
But how does one make a film about two men sitting around talking gripping? Especially if one of those men has a stammer and makes us “wait a long time” for the punchline to his jokes? And how does one create even a modicum of suspense in a story of a family about whom the basic facts are part of the history books? The wartime broadcasts that lie at the core of this story made a huge impression on their listeners and so, spoilers or no, many audience members are aware that George VI does make it through the speech. Similarly, Edward’s deliciously scandalous abdication on account of an American divorcee is common lore. So we know a great deal going in. Yet we're still completely drawn into Bertie's plight. Will he find his voice?
1. Okay, enough of that French stuff. A recent link on Books Inq. reminded me of one of the funniest books I've ever read, the neat, smoothly vicious British satire from 1888 and 1889 called Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.
Diary, originally published as a serial in Punch Magazine, is the fictional record of a humble but optimistic middle-class man who keeps house in the suburbs north of London. The parody of his provincial mind has a sharp, bitter sense that may remind you of P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (it predates all of them). This excellent article about the book from the Dabbler draws an original analogy between the character of young Lupin Pooter, the rebellious son of our respectable diary-keeping hero, and the later character of Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man invented by John Osborne.
It's easy to draw connections from Charles Pooter. When I read Diary I always think of the beautiful songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks. The character that emerges from many of these Kinks songs is Pooter:
I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday -- all right!
(As a longtime Ramones fan, I was very moved by Mickey Leigh's memoir about growing up as the younger brother of Joey Ramone, who died tragically of cancer in 2001. The book has just come out in paperback with a new epilogue. I was thrilled to have a chance to ask Mickey Leigh a few questions. -- Levi)
Levi: Though it has a sort of jokey title, I sense that I Slept With Joey Ramone is meant to be a serious entry in the field of punk rock literature, along with many other good books like Rotten by Johnny Rotten, Go Now by Richard Hell, Poison Heart by Dee Dee, Please Kill Me by Legs, the new Just Kids by Patti Smith, even And I Don't Want To Live This Life by Deborah Spungen. Why do you think punk rock has become so literary, or has it always been so?
The folks who run a weekly radio show called Cityscape at WFUV in New York City kindly invited me to read from a piece I'd written many years ago, The Bridges of New York City, from my 1995 fictional folk-rock record album Queensboro Ballads, for an episode of their show devoted to, well, the bridges of New York City. The show aired this morning, and you can listen to the podcast here.
I was particularly glad they'd aptly dug up this old piece of mine for this show, because at the time I wrote it The Bridges of New York City represented an important step forward in the evolution of my writing. After I created Literary Kicks in 1994 I began doing a lot of writing about literature and, as the website became popular, found myself widely read for the first time in my life. But I had an urge at this point to try something different. I wanted to write about my beliefs, about the philosophy of my life; I wanted to preach.
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.
2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)
Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:
3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.
Jay-Z puts out one major release every year, most often in November. Usually it's a record, another installment in the lyrical autobiography that has made up his life's work. This year it's a book, Decoded, and Jay showed up at the New York Public Library last night to talk about it.
Decoded rocks a golden Andy Warhol Rorschach image on its front cover, hinting at the psychological self-exploration that has always been Jay-Z's specialty. The book's heft, dramatic packaging and thematic chapter structure indicate a serious work, and a highly deliberate encounter with the literary form. I was hoping to hear Jay talk about his writing process and his literary inspirations at the NYPL, but the onstage interview with Paul Holdengraber and Cornel West was such a high-energy affair that, after an hour and three quarters of intense conversation, we never even got around to that topic.
(Goodloe Byron is a novelist -- with an unusual approach to literary economics -- as well as a book cover designer whose graphic work was recently featured on Mark Athitakas's Notes on American Fiction blog. The Wraith is his latest book, from his own Brown Paper Publishing.)
Levi: Your novel The Wraith is very charming. The portrait of hapless trailer park hipsters going about their lives reminds me of the affectionate stylings of Richard Linklater or Jim Jarmusch ... but I also understand that Jose Saramago was your primary inspiration for this novel. Can you tell me what your mission in writing this book was?
Goodloe: It is actually a knockoff of a Saramago book, but it warped in the rain having took so long! The original idea was to do something like the duplicated man; it would be about a little fellow who is suddenly deprived of the dimension of necessity. That is to say that he no longer needed to sleep, eat, drink water, come in from the cold, shave or whatnot. It would then follow that he didn't need to work either, or do anything. What I imagined was that this person would then flee this terrible freedom. He would then go about pretending to be alive as he was before and that his life would become a kind of hollow nightmare.
This isn't really a novel that many people would like to read, I think. That has not stopped me in the past, but it also wasn't enjoyable to write either. I started it about eight times five years ago, then I quit writing altogether. Then, last year, my friend Pablo D'stair and I were discussing the idea, which was the only book that I wanted to write anyway. In this discussion I figured out that the story could not really be told directly, as it was more of a static concept. So I decided to give it a Heart of Darkness touch and describe the story of someone on the periphery of such a man. Mr. Kurtz, for example, is much this some problem, because he is not a person so much as a concept; the collapse of civilization in the face of its underlying barbarity. Once I figured this out, it was very simple and I wrote it in a few weeks while another book was at the printer. All of the events involving the main characters I kind of made up on the fly, though a variety of them I'd thought up during my 'hiatus'. They came together all right I think. The brain stepped out of my way once I figured out the Kurtz thing.
Levi: I notice a strange price on the book's cover: $0.0. What's that all about?
Goodloe: All right, so ... this is kind of complicated to explain. But basically I don't really like to submit stuff places or do the whole writer thing. I just find it ghastly as an experience. Also I would like to point out that my books tend to be a bit of a drag and I design them that way. I want the audience to have to get a bit scrappy. Books that succeed in the market tend not to share this worldview. So instead I save up enough so that once a year I can print up about ten thousand books. Then throughout the year I roll out to different cities or wherever I can get and I hand them out for free or leave them in coffee shops.
Sometime during the crazy mid-1990s, young graffiti artist and Chicago activist William "Upski" Wimsatt wrote Bomb the Suburbs, one of the quintessential early Soft Skull books. The title was an attention grabber, though of course to "bomb" a place is to spray-paint your tag on a wall, and no call to violence was ever intended.
But a few more crazy years have passed since the mid-90s, and some places around the world really have gotten bombed -- Oklahoma City, New York City and the Pentagon, Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the title of Wimsatt's new book Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs (published, this time around, by Akashic) deals with these changes head-on. The author's introduction explains the conundrums he's faced:
I had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing. It was 180 degrees opposite of my values and worldview. Yet suddenly, the title of my book wasn't so cute anymore. After September 11, it became even less cute.
Fast-forward to 2008. A lot of my friends were involved in the Obama campaign. I had been campaigning for social change for twenty years. This was the most exciting and important campaign of my lifetime. I was already volunteering. And one of my friends asked me to be on an advisory committee. Exciting. *Just send me your resume, you'll be vetted and then* --
Whoa, vetted. Forgot that part.
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.
1. We told you about artist Malcolm McNeill's Ah! Pook Is Here, a vast extended collaboration with William S. Burroughs, two years ago. Great news -- the work is going to be published by Fantagraphics.
2. Sean Michael Hogan was one of the five winners of a writing contest we held on this site in 2003. He's an excellent writer, and also an opinionated sports nut, and he's combined both inclinations into an e-book, It's Not Just A Ballgame Anymore. Here, also, is a short story by Sean about the frustrations of being a writer.