Michael Largo is the author of "Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die", "Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages" and "God's Lunatics: Lost Souls, False Prophets, Martyred Saints, Murderous Cults, Demonic Nuns, and Other Victims of Man's Eternal Search for the Divine". I was curious about the human being behind these unique books, and recently got a chance to ask the author a few questions.
Levi: I've enjoyed three of your books, but I don't know the first thing about you. Can you please fill me in on who you are, and how you became a writer and an alternative encyclopedist?
Michael: I became a writer because books captivate me. Gripped not only by words, or by certain authors’ lives, I like the very idea of what a book is. From earliest memories, I always had a book to read and at least a few in waiting. I read, and still do, anything and everything. But there were certain books that became better, or at least more interesting when I learned of the authors’ backgrounds, how they lived, wrote, and died. Hemmingway, London, Poe, Keats, Thoreau, D.H. Lawrence, Colette, Kerouac -- no matter the consensus on their works, all had intriguingly perilous biographies that hooked me when I was a teen: If you lived intensely, it might be possible to one day write a book people would read. Many have this idea; however, what turns a reader, even an avid one, into a writer is something different. I believe it has to do with the desire to defy death. With books, you can read the ideas of a writer who lived long ago, know of his or her life, and in theory, make them immortal. To become a writer I obviously had to write and keep writing even when everyone said to give up, get a regular job. Like most writers, I have a huge file of single sheet rejection letters. Persistence has to be a writer’s most consistent virtue. I wrote my first poem after reading e. e. cummings, and was deceived into thinking it was simple to break all the rules. I grew up in Staten Island, New York; back when it was a countrified suburb, and I had a relatively “normal” childhood, one that any kid of a New York City homicide detective might have. I got a B.A. at Brooklyn College, back when Clarence Major, Peter Spielberg, absurdist playwright Jack Gelber, and John Ashbery were teaching writing there. I had a chapbook of poetry, Nails in Soft Wood (Piccadilly Press) published in 1975, and a novel called Southern Comfort (New Earth Books), a few years later. I lived in the East Village during the 70s and 80s, was heavily involved in the small press scene, and edited a few lit magazines, most notably New York Poetry. I got a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts for fiction. I kept publishing or posting poetry and fiction when the Internet sprung up. (Here’s a sample of one in The 2River View.)
Bad Marie is a funny yet strangely haunting new novel by Marcy Dermansky. The hero of the book swipes the husband and young child of one of her only friends for a romp in Paris. She meets several movie stars, stays in very fancy hotels, and ends up flying back across the ocean to barge in on a family that hates her in one of the poorest sections of Mexico. Despite the fun Marie's having, the narrative dwells hilariously on everything she encounters that annoys her. Through it all, though, she never neglects to change a diaper that needs changing, and by the end of the book Marie seems to have even grown up a bit herself. I had a chance to ask the author of this enigmatic new hit novel a few questions. Off we go:
Levi: Bad Marie certainly is "bad", at least by any rational standard. She gets fired from her nanny job and then steals the baby, along with clothes, a husband or two and some credit cards. And yet, she is clearly a sympathetic and likable character. Are you trying to deliver a philosophical message about the relativity of good and evil, or what?
Ron Hogan -- media journalist (GalleyCat, Beatrice), marketing strategist and the only literary blogger I know who's been doing it as long as I have -- has just published an unusual book: Getting Right With Tao: A Contemporary Spin on the Tao Te Ching.
It happens I share Ron's fascination with the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese religious/philosophical text ascribed to a mysterious author named Lao Tzu, and with the set of ideas and traditions known as Taoism. The original Tao Te Ching is unquestionably a masterpiece, and the strong philosophy it presents has much in common with later movements like Buddhism, Transcendentalism and Existentialism. I still have my beloved, very beat-up Penguin Classic copy I bought in college; like Thoreau's Walden or Emerson's essays, this is a book you can pick up and return to often when you need inspiration or advice.
(Last week I talked to Ron Kolm, who's been a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades, about his newest anthology. Here's the second half of that interview, where we talk about what it's like to be a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades. The painting of Ron is by Bob Witz)
Levi: How did you first become a part of the NYC literary scene? What were your first impressions of the "scene", and what are your impressions of it today?
Ron: To be honest, I’ve never really been a part of the NYC literary scene. There was a brief period when Eileen Myles was the Director of the Poetry Project that I got paid to read there and was part of the New Years Benefit Reading -- but I was writing fiction then; small dirty stories about a couple (Duke & Jill) that sold junk on the street, and since I wasn’t a Language Poet, or any of that ilk, I fell off their radar, which was fine by me. What I did do was work in bookstores. I was at the Strand in the early to mid 70’s, when Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith worked there. In the late 70’s I worked in the East Side Bookstore with guys who would later found St. Mark’s Bookshop –- that’s where I got stabbed by a junkie, etc. By 1980 I was managing a bookstore in Soho, pre-tourist trap Soho, which was owned by High Times Magazine. I had to take a subway uptown to their office, where I partook from the canisters of nitrous oxide standing around everyone’s desk, before getting the checks I needed to pay for things signed. Then I worked at St. Mark’s Bookshop, and finally at Coliseum Books.
There's something wonderfully circular about the fact that Walter Kirn's novel Up In The Air, originally published in 2001, is now a $7.99 airport paperback. Like the hit film version directed by Jason Reitman and starring George Clooney, Kirn's novel affectionately skewers the modern corporate mentality that thrives on airplanes, in airports or in airport "edge city" chain hotels. Hollywood has brought a literary novel to its intended audience.
The book is very different from the movie, of course. Date-flick fans who appreciated George Clooney's gentle, sad Ryan Bingham may be disappointed to meet the book's jittery and insecure hero. Admirers of the movie's warm, loving tone may be put off by Walter Kirn's distinctive DeLillo-esque chill. The plots are also different: there is no perky entry-level office foil in the novel, though there is a charming "Alex", a slick boss, lots of people getting laid off, a kooky family heading for a wedding. But beyond the usual Jack Davis/Harvey Kurtzman transformations, the book and the film do converge on a basic message: what happens if we travel so much and so fast that we becomes disconnected from reality?
Arlene Malinowski is a Chicago-based playwright, actor and teacher. She grew up in New Jersey and has spent many years in Los Angeles. She has written and performed several solo plays, which draw on her unique experience growing up in a family where both parents were deaf. Her solo work has earned her an LA Garland award and several other nominations and picks. As an actor, she has appeared in numerous theatre productions around the country. She also teaches solo writing and performing. I caught up with her at the Cafe Selmarie in Chicago's Lincoln Square, where she gave me some insights into writing and performing in solo plays, as well as what it was like to grow up in a deaf family.
Michael: The first thing I wanted to ask about was: I see that you have two solo plays, What Does the Sun Sound Like
Arlene: and Aiming for Sainthood.
Michael: ... and Aiming for Sainthood.
Arlene: Those are the two full-lengths, and I have a few one-acts.
Michael: All right, so let's talk about What Does the Sun Sound Like first. Is that your oldest play?
Arlene: That's my oldest full-length. There are the one-acts which came before that. But all my work is autobiographical solo work, and it is autobiographical solo -- let me think of the right word -- it's social autobiography, which means telling one's story in the context of a cultural group.
Arlene: That's what it is. And so I say "I'm an actor and a performer".
Michael: And you write the play completely yourself ...
Arlene: I live the play first! Then I write the play, and then I perform it.
Michael: So you're it: you're the writer, the actor ...
Arlene: I'm everything.
Michael: What about the sets and the staging, do you have someone ...
Arlene: You know what, it depends on what kind of a venue I have. If I am doing a full length run in a theatre, then I have sound designers and lighting designers and scenic designers. A lot of my work -- once I have a couple of full runs -- I travel the country with it, and I do it at colleges and universities and theatres for one or two or three nights or a week. So when I travel like that, it's much more bare-bones. The good thing about solo is you can do a blank stage. You can be in a black box, and it's my job as the playwright to develop this whole world that people don't see, but that they make this quantum leap in their head. I play all the characters ...
Michael: Oh, so it's not just you -- it's multiple characters ...
Arlene: Yes: they're multi-character plays. I have a narrator, who narrates the play, and then I write scenes, and I have an internal narrator and an external narrator. And the external narrator is the narrator who is omnipresent, and that narrator knows the past, the present and the future -- that narrator knows everything that's happened. And then there is a narrator that is within the scene, who only knows what's happening in the scene. So, "when I was twelve years old, I went to a catholic school, and little did I know that this would happen" -- that would be the external narrator. The internal would be -- "so I'm walking to my mother's house, and it's really dark ..." -- so the internal narrator is speaking from within the scene with no knowledge of what's going to happen.
Michael: And the action is happening to that narrator.
Michael: This title is very interesting -- What Does the Sun Sound Like. What is this play about, and what does the sun sound like?
Arlene: The title of the play came from a conversation I had with my father. I grew up in a deaf family -- sign language is my first language -- and all of my material up until this point has been about cross-cultural intersections: between hearing and deaf, between men and between women, between classes, um, upper-class and lower-class. Because I grew up in a deaf house, I was my parents' ears. I listened for them. I was about twelve -- and it's a very natural kind of seamless dance that I had with my parents, and that most children of deaf parents have. There's a whole group of us, there's a whole history. There's a group called CODA, Children of Deaf Adults, it's going to be twenty-five years old. It was started by a woman who was writing a dissertation in deaf studies. She was a child of deaf parents, and so she started talking to other kids of deaf parents, and found that everybody had remarkably the same story -- with these huge threads that wove themselves through the tapestry of their lives. So growing up in a family like that, there were times that I was the parent, and there were times that they were the parent. In situations where a waiter would come by, I would need to speak for them.
Michael: and you were like twelve ...
Arlene: Oh no, I was seven ...
Arlene: I was five! And it starts very simple, "tell me when the toast pops, because I'm going to be in the other room. When the washing machine turns off, tell me. When the baby cries, come and get me." So that's how it starts. So "what does the sun sound like" -- I'm twelve. And during my twelfth year I was a real handful. Growing up, I was always treated like an adult, so I thought I was an adult. ( Laughs). So at twelve -- plus being an adolescent girl, plus being in a very strict household -- there were few times of peace in my home. And I remember that my father -- we shared breakfast together -- and I'll just quote a little bit from the play:
"it was another dreary, overcast day in a series of dreary, overcast days that marked that dreary, overcast summer ... of trouble." And it was fight, fight, fight, fight -- and then for the first time [in a long time] the sun breaks free from the clouds and the kitchen just floods with this light. And I remember my mother and my father and I just kind of looked out the window because it was just so long since we had seen the sun, and my father turned, and he said "what does the sun sound like?" And I'm like -- "the sun has no sound". And my father thinks, and I still see his expression, and he says "the sun hits the sidewalk. I read that. It has a sound -- you can't fool me." So I said, "Dad, that's not true. It's an idiom." And then the whole thing is how do you explain an idiom?
So then my father says "You can see the sun, but you can't hear the sun."
"You can see the rain, but you can hear the rain, but but but but ..."
"You can see the snow but you can't hear the snow. It's" and I use his deaf voice (very guttural) "Qui-et!"
"And you can't see the wind, but you can hear it."
And then my father looks at me and he says, "You know, sometimes it's hard for me to understand."
And it was like my heart just opened. So years later I go back, and I tell my father about this play, and he said "I don't remember that. That never happened!"
Arlene: And I'm like "Yes it did!" And it was this remarkable turning point. Like for the first time I really understood what it was like to be deaf. Up until that point it resonated with me on a whole different level. So that's where the title comes from.
Michael: What about the next solo play, Aiming for Sainthood. Does this kind of take your family life further ...
Arlene: It's the second in a trilogy. The first play, this is my blurb: "totally true tales of a hearing daughter who grows up in a deaf family and culture." Aiming for Sainthood is "when her deaf mother gets cancer, her middle-aged daughter moves back into her childhood room with two questions: "where is God?", and "who moved my Springsteen poster?"
Arlene: My plays are different than other disability-oriented work, because I refuse to treat ... (pauses). How about this: I have a very funny view of life. Things are funny to me. So, even horrible things are funny to me. So there's a lot of funny in my life, especially around the deafness. So, my parents' life is not precious, do you know what I mean? It's not that precious kind of writing. But the stories, the stories, the stories! My husband is meeting my parents for the first time. We had just been dating, but I knew he was the one. I was really careful about who I was going to introduce them to. So we're meeting my parents in a restaurant, and all of a sudden it hits me -- oh my God, I need to teach him some signs so it will be nice for my parents! So, I'm like: "I know you love me, and I love you, but the time has come. I need to teach you sign language before you meet my parents in the next few minutes!" And he's like: "Okay, just calm down, everything's all right". So I teach him to say "very good, thank you." And the sign is (makes the signs) "very" from the center out, "good", your palm facing heaven, "thank you", from your chin. He meets my parents, and my father says (in a guttural deaf voice) "How ... are ... you." And he signs it. And Dan - he looks at me, he looks at my parents. And he signs "fucking is good, thank you." (laughs). Instead of this (sign for very good), he does this (sign for fucking). The stories go on and on. Like my mother, who orders a penis colana, because that's what it looks like on people's lips. "No, it's a pina colada." "That's what I said, penis colana." So the stories go on and on. Cross-cultural intersections ...
Michael: So it's not -- sad -- but it's like: here were are, we're deaf, okay ...
Arlene: And here's the culture ...
Michael: And here's the culture, and this is funny. Yeah.
Arlene: These are some of the things that we've been through.
Michael: So it's a trilogy, though. Have you finished the third, uh ...
Arlene: I haven't started the third. The third comes later. I think in the next two or three years. The third one is going to be a look at disability and the [American] culture. While the story is about my parents, the story is really about me. And, I think I look at the culture now -- and you know, we are fast becoming disabled culture people - you know, baby boomers are all getting old -- and to really explore how the culture deals with disability. As we get old, my parents, when they get to that next level. That will be part of it. And then there is me, and I had some disabilities that are not spoken about, because I went crazy for a little while, and how families are much more willing to discuss, you know, hysterectomies [than that]. And I talk about as "losing my kibbles and bits."
Arlene: So it's going to me an interesting look at how disability runs us and how we run disability. So that's my next play -- I don't know what it's called and I don't know when I'll start it.
Michael: How long are these plays? One hour?
Arlene: One thirty.
Michael: An hour and a half?
Arlene:. One twenty-five is what I like to keep them to, because at one thirty people start looking at their watch. And the one-acts are probably thirty minutes.
Michael: So you have some other things that you wrote that are short, one-act, again -- solo ...
Arlene: One is called Kicking the Habit. I grew up in a Catholic school, and that story is about a mean nun, a Catholic school girl and her timid mother, who saves the day. And I was getting bullied by a nun, and my mother, she went in and read the nun the riot act. For the first time, and she was very timid of authority ...
Michael: Plus she was deaf ...
Arlene: And of course [she was going up against] the Catholic Church.
Michael: Those nuns are tough ...
Arlene: You know, the nuns were great. They taught me how to read, but Sister Mary Concepta, Sister Mary Concepta, you know, I have a little blurb about her: "Sister Mary Concepta is a hundred and ten years old and has been dying of cancer for decades but everyone says she's going to live forever, because she's so mean not even God wants her."
Arlene: And I swear ... you know, I went on one of those internet sites where you find your classmates, and they have chat rooms. I went back to St. Brendan's in Patterson, New Jersey, and the chat rooms were full of: "do you remember Sister Mary Concepta?"
[ ... ]
Arlene: My personal mission statement is ... there's this solo Artist named Claudia ... I can't remember her full name ... but she said, "Everybody has a story that will stop your heart." And so I take that as the major premise of my mission statement and I changed it to "everyone has a story that will stop your heart, but we've stopped telling them because people have stopped listening." And so, my goal is to help people find their voice and find the voice of their story, and help them always -- always -- listen to the story. So I look at this solo autobiographical thing, you know, spoken word salons, it's all about people sharing their stories. I think that we've gotten really insular -- and I know what it's like to be in a place where people don't hear you -- literally!
Arlene: Where people do not hear you. And you know, we know Oprah and we know "Who Wants to be a Millionaire", we know all those people intimately, but you know, I know very little about my neighbors. "The Second Story" (a performance venue) also is a place where people work a lot. So what happens is, you tell a story, and then you come off stage, and someone says "Oh, my God! Sister Mary Concepta! I so had a nun!" So I then get an opportunity to listen to your story, and it connects us: story by story by story. It connects us to who we are. And connects us to each other. Part of the reason this is so important to me: in the deaf community storytelling is a revered art form. And the story is not a punch line -- the story is in the telling! Because deaf people use their faces and their bodies and sign language. So the story is in the telling, and I grew up around amazing storytellers. At deaf club -- there is such a thing as deaf club -- my parents belonged to the North Jersey Silent Club -- people would talk, and there would always be one or two storytellers that when they started telling a story, everybody would crowd around, and watch. And they would tell the story, they would take on the characteristics of the person, and they would know how to build the story, and know how to tell a story-within-a-story. And that's what I always come back to.
Michael: Thank you.
Florida author and blogger Bill Ectric is one of my very favorites among the indie writers I've met here on Literary Kicks. He and I first bonded many years ago over our mutual regard for Henry David Thoreau, and he made a big showing in our 2004 collection Action Poetry. His playful intellect and sweetly philosophical frame of mind make him more interesting, in my opinion, that most of the mainstream authors crowding our bookstores these days, though his work does not fit neatly into any category (is it comedy? speculative fiction? boys adventure? Nobody knows for sure).
Tamper is Bill Ectric's most cohesive novel so far. It opens in a small town in a past golden age, as two boys take pictures in the pitch blackness of an old abandoned church with a clunky ancient 35mm camera and ponder the mysterious orbs that bloom in the resulting photographs. What do you see when you take pictures in the dark? That's the kind of question that absorbs the mind of a writer like Bill Ectric. Tamper evolves into a classic good-time mystery/adventure that explores the legend of Amazing Stories writer Richard Shaver, and somehow ends with a printed diagram of a folded-paper fortune teller, the kind I remember playing with as a kid. Ambiguity? Sure. I decided to ask Bill five questions about his new novel, and the results are below.
Levi: I've been enjoying your work for a while now, but your new novel Tamper appears to be your most ambitious and focused work to date. Can you talk about your evolution as a writer, and why you wrote this particular book at this particular time?
Bill: I’ve been writing Tamper off and on for almost three years. I started having crystal-clear dreams and visions when I stopped drinking three years ago. Looking back, it seems like I placed my writing life "on hold" upon joining the Navy in the seventies, and only picked it up again years later when I discovered Literary Kicks in the nineties. While writing Tamper, I got in touch with feelings of awe, wonder, fear, and enchantment that I hadn't felt since childhood.
More to the point is why I was able to finish writing this particular book at this particular time. It’s because of the numerous books I’ve read and studied, which equipped me with the tools I needed for the novel I wanted to write. Just to name a few: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, who talks about the "dazzlement" of discovering hidden truths in one’s own writing (thanks to Jamelah Earle for bringing Kundera to my attention), and books by writers I identified with because their childhood memories seemed as magical as mine, like Swann’s Way by Proust and Dr. Sax by Kerouac.
Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS used the concept of an "influencing machine" -- a term coined by psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk to describe a common trait among schizophrenics who think that some type of machine is trying to control them. Which is what many people theorize was happening to Richard Shaver, the pulp science fiction writer, who claimed that the stuff he wrote in Amazing Stories magazine was true! The question in VALIS, of course, is whether or not the main character is crazy, or is a satellite in outer space beaming signals to his brain, or is God speaking to him, or is the satellite and God one in the same? And does it make any difference?
Levi: Tamper seems to deal with the paranormal, and yet is highly grounded in real life. Do you seriously believe in supernatural influences in our life, or are you just screwing around with the theme and having fun?
Bill: I seriously believe that magic and science are both flowing wide-open at the same time, like two parallel river currents that converge briefly at points. When we really tune in to it, we see that it’s the same river, but if you look too close, it diverges again.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Back in the 1600s, if you said “some day men will fashion a small moon from the Earth’s metallic elements and hurl it into the heavens, giving us power to direct thoughts from our brains to our fingertips and out to people miles away” there would have been cries of, “Witchcraft!” but I’m simply describing satellites and cell phones. When I say it like that, it sounds like I’m leaning more toward science, but I should add that there have been times when my mother could sense that a family member was having some kind of problem or illness, which turned out to be true, and sometimes it was downright uncanny! Or, maybe you’ve heard about the well-documented out-of-body experience of Pam Reynolds, who nearly died in surgery in 1991. Like in many near-death experiences, she said she looked down at her own body on the operating table, surrounded by the medical team, but the fascinating part is, she described several things that she couldn’t possibly have known unless her astral experience was real!
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve read countless books on unexplained mysteries -- all the supposedly documented stuff about ghosts, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, spontaneous human combustion, the devil’'s footprints in Devon, the Bell Witch, and so on. But what a lot of people don’t get is that I am fascinated in equal measure by the stories themselves and in the mechanics of documentation. This goes to my interest in meta-fiction, which includes devices of writing as part of the story, like the poem and footnotes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the books within books of VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, or the complete text of Aylett’s Lint.
I sometimes find unintended humor in the way paranormal investigators use some facts and omit others. Take the Bell Witch legend. There is a house in Adams, Tennessee where in 1817 a man named John Bell and his family experienced poltergeist activity. The word spread until even General Andrew Jackson heard about it. This part is true. Jackson, his wife, and some friends actually traveled by covered wagon to Adams, Tennessee to spend the night in the Bell house. By all accounts, nobody got much sleep that night. People were pinched and slapped in the dark, covers got pulled off of beds, weird noises were heard. Andrew Jackson is widely quoted as saying, "I would rather fight the British than to deal with the Bell Witch!" But what he actually said was, "I saw nothing, but I heard enough to convince me that I would rather fight the British than to deal with this torment they call the Bell Witch!" I tried, in Tamper, to capture some of the humorous aspect of paranormal documentation. To convey the fun of it.
Levi: Does the fictional town of Hansburg, Virginia correspond to a real place? Can you talk about the places in this book and what they mean to you in real life?
Bill: Oh, for sure, I based Hansburg very much on the town in Virginia where I was born and raised, called Christiansburg. It started as a settlement called “Hans Meadow” in the 1700s. Later, they changed the name to Christiansburg. A small, idyllic town like in the old television shows, Leave It To Beaver or Andy Griffith or that Twilight Zone episode where Gig Young tries to revisit his childhood. Seventy-five percent of everything in Tamper really happened, but of course, I embellished parts of it. The treasure hunt, the layout of the streets, the bag of bones, Main Street, the woods, racing sleds and bicycles downhill, are all based in reality.
Besides the events in my hometown, some of the other stuff is based on real experience too. For example, I really did sit on a beach under the night stars in Spain, with some friends, looking out at the Rock of Gibralter, listening to "Four Cornered Room" by WAR on a small, battery operated cassette tape player, and it seemed almost transcendental at the time.
Levi: How do you plan to market and sell this novel? Do you enjoy being an indie writer, and do you have advice for other indie writers?
Bill: I would prefer that a major publisher picked up my book and promoted it to the masses. There is one thing I like about being an indie, which is the realization that just because a book is supposedly finished, that doesn’t mean I can’t go back and fix things. I learned by trial and error on my first two books, and I used to stress out, thinking, "What if I release a book that’s not good enough?" I either put the book out too soon and grieved over the errors, or toiled endlessly for perfection. Partly, it was not being able to afford a second edition with some of those high-priced, so-called self-publishing companies. So, I founded Surtsey Publishing, and I use CreateSpace for print-on-demand, and it’s no longer a problem. Obviously, I have to draw the line somewhere with revisions. At some point, you have to let it go. I don’t foresee any revisions on Tamper -- it’s nearly perfect. But I’m going to combine the short stories from my first two books, Time Adjusters and Space Savers, into one volume, re-release them on Surtsey with some killer revisions! Anyone who has already purchased one of those books will get a chance to buy the new edition at the greatly reduced price, or maybe even get a free copy for a limited time. I haven’t worked out the details yet. But anyone interested in reading Tamper need not worry -- it’s not going to change.
As for marketing, there’s been a lot of talk lately, mainly from Cory Doctorow, about making books available online for free. Doctorow says that making his books available free online has not hurt his book sales. I’m not quite that adventurous yet, so I’m going to make the first three chapters of Tamper available on the internet.
I’ve got two book signings lined up here in Jacksonville, Florida so far, where I’ll read excerpts from the book and talk about it.
I plan to use blog ads to target the various types of readers who I believe the novel will appeal to. These include, on one hand, the pulp science fiction fans and the Forteans, folks who know that Richard Shaver was an actual writer for Amazing Stories Magazine in the 1940s. People who like offbeat historical fiction. My first draft had Richard Shaver as one of the central characters, in the manner that James Morrow includes Ben Franklin as a character in his novel The Last Witchfinder, but I wasn’t sure how far I should go, so I invented Olsen Archer, a friend and colleague of Shaver, to fill out the plot. I also think Tamper will appeal to those who enjoy dark psychological excursions into the locked desk of Henry James, as well as enlightening psychological expositions from the open lectern of his brother, William James. And books about the intersection of mysticism and science, like Deciphering the Cosmic Number by Arthur I. Miller (thanks to Jessa Crispin for recommending that one on her blog).
Levi: Many blogs such as Largehearted Boy and Paper Cuts ask writers what music they listened to while they wrote their latest books. Instead, I'd like to ask you a better question: what foods did you eat while you wrote this book?
Bill: I fell in love with olive oil and feta cheese about three years ago. I went for weeks at a time eating nothing but a big salad every day, with all kinds of fresh vegetables, topped with olive oil, vinegar, and feta cheese, and later in the evening, drinking many cups of black coffee, staying up all night. But from time to time, maybe to compensate for the lack of booze, I went on binges in which I ate big bowls of cereal with milk, bananas, raisins, peanut butter, and ice cream piled on it. I seem to be one of those all-or-nothing people. I won’t even go into the prescription drugs I eat.
For more about Ectric's novel go here, or check out Bill's website.
MT Cozzola is a Chicago-based screenwriter, playwright, and actress, and a native of Oak Park, Illinois (the hometown of Ernest Hemingway). She has written the screenplay for the film Eye of the Sandman, which will appear in theatres in Fall 2009. Eye of the Sandman is adapted from a short story entitled The Sandman by German writer E.T.A Hoffman. I spoke with MT at the Cafe Neo in the shadow of the El tracks on Lincoln Avenue.
Michael: So, MT, I’ve read the script of The Eye of the Sandman. How did you get the idea to do the film, and where did you find the story that you adapted the screenplay from?
MT: Actually the project came about before the story. A producer, Dave Evans, wanted to do a horror film, and he approached me and two other directors, Jeff McHale and Dennis Belogorsky, about collaborating on a horror film. We tossed around some ideas, some serious ideas, some comedic ideas, and Dave was really interested in this story The Sandman, the E.T.A Hoffman story, and we all read that. He talked with another screen writer, who did a very serious treatment of the story. It wasn’t getting any traction –- it was interesting, but not something we were really interested in. So we started talking about other ideas, and doing more of a comedy. And I really loved the story, and I thought there was a lot of humor in it. Although it can be looked at as a very serious story, and there's definitely some scary imagery and there's serious themes in it, I thought that there's also a lot of humor in it. There's even that line at the end after the poor hero falls to his death, and the writer says something about how his poor bereaved fiancee shortly thereafter met someone else and is now living very happily with a big family -- so that's pretty funny. Anyway, I took a stab at just taking the elements from the story that I found interesting, that idea of obsessions and seeing in an object of beauty, in this case this man, and sort of pouring everything into him that you think you want in a lover. And believing because of his passivity that your love is returned. I started from there, and I wrote this story. Actually, I wrote the last scene first and then everything kind of fell into place, so then I wrote the opening scene, and then the scenes that happen in the middle, and I brought that to Dave, the producer, and he really liked it and the other directors really liked it. I knew because I was familiar with the production company, that if I wanted to get this made, I needed to give them something that was production-wise very simple. You'll notice that it's a single location ...
MT: Very limited cast, those are all things that ... I think because I was thinking about the production, and I wasn't starting from "if I could tell any story in the world what would it be?", that really worked out well in terms of the idea, but that was also where my focus was initially with the story -- let's really limit this to just a few characters in a single location, and let's put these people together and see what happens. All of the characters in the movie are based on either a character in the story or a suggestion of a character. The main character in the film is a young woman, but she's very much based on the hero of the story, who was a man.
Michael: There was a robot in both stories, as I recall …
MT: Yeah, there's an automaton in the short story, but it was more complicated than the film, because there's the young man's father, and the mysterious Sandman (evil guy) who comes to the house, and then there's another scientist that the young man meets later on in Germany who is the one who actually created the robot. But in my story, the robot was created by the heroine's father and another scientist, and their relationship is very important. So, the elements are all taken from or inspired by the original story but just laid out differently.
Michael: So, the process then, as I understand it, is you took a story that everyone involved in this project was interested in, and you took a crack at giving it some shape, and then you took that back to the producer, and then he said yeah go ahead, and then from there you created a more fully fleshed story ...
MT: Yeah, I think the thing that I gave him was like a treatment with a few scenes broken out, you know, with the opening scene and a couple of interior scenes and an ending scene broken out. In a lot of treatments I've seen ... are you familiar with treatments or what a treatment is?
Michael: No, I'm not, actually.
MT: It's essentially a kind of a detailed synopsis of the entire film. So you might think of each paragraph of a treatment as describing one sequence in a film. So you could write a very concise treatment and say, "Mike goes to the cafe, he finds the murder weapon, the owner doesn't want him to take the weapon but he grabs the weapon and leaves." Then the next paragraph is "Mike is in the car ..." But you could also detail that treatment a little bit more, which I think really helps directors and producers and anybody reading it, and just throw in a little bit of dialogue, so you think of it more as when you're telling someone a story, you know, "Mike goes into the cafe, he finds the murder weapon and the owner says ‘grab it and I cut your head off', but Mike says 'no, I've gotta do this for Julie', and he runs out of there". And like, suddenly, once you insert some dialogue into it, it becomes much more specific and real, and the characters become real, and it's not just this and this and this.
Michael: So it's kind of like when you are trying to pitch a book to somebody -- you have a synopsis -- you don't have the whole thing written but you have a synopsis, and then you kind of walk them through it with a few details, to try to get them interested.
MT: Right, right. You're giving them the flavor, it's not just dry summary. So yes, the treatment I did had a few scenes broken out with full dialog and then other scenes where just this happened and this happened -- that was what I did. And actually, I didn't think they would like it because they were really talking about a serious horror film, and that's just not what I'm into. I'm not a horror film fan, I don't know most of the references -- most of the horror films I've seen are from the 1930s. I don't know Nightmare on Elm Street. So all I could really write was just, like, this is what I'm interested in –- this is what seems fun and interesting to me.
Michael: So after the treatment, the director or producer can either say go ahead write me a screenplay or ...
MT: Or thanks anyway.
Michael: So is there a lot of rejection in film?
MT: [Laughs] it's all rejection!
Michael: So it's like any kind of writing, then, you write and you write and write, and you work and you work and work and ...
MT: ... and no one's interested!
Michael: What's the difference between adapting an existing story, versus writing something new?
MT: For me, when I'm adapting something I'm reacting -- to an idea or something in the story. When I'm creating something new it's more about discovery of a story. Not that there's not a lot of discovery in adaptation but it is your spin, something that you see in another work.
Michael: For a new work, do you start with an idea and let that idea germinate over time and then at some point you feel like you can start writing it down, or ...
MT: I usually start writing right away. I usually figure out what I think through the writing. For me that discovery comes from dialogue. And maybe to some extent I'm influenced by -- maybe that's why I enjoy improvisation, and when I performed more I did a lot of improvisation which is really, you know, discovering through dialogue, and letting something build in that way. I think with writing, even adaptation, it's really letting the characters speak and kind of seeing where they're going and who they are and what's on their mind. And with the Sandman piece I didn't feel bound by the story in any way – because I wasn't using the plot, I didn't have to end up in any particular place. So I could just go with that main character who so clearly has memories that he is not dealing with, and our heroine also -- she has memories that she's not dealing with, she sort of takes all her desire not to deal with what's going on in the present and just project it onto something else, so you just start with that and go wherever, so you have a lot of freedom when you adapt.
Michael: So it sounds like rather than constructing a rather complex plot, you get the characters talking and interacting and then the plot sort of falls in behind? Is that right?
MT: Yeah, especially in the first draft. The first draft is all about the characters and the relationships that develop between them and yeah, you're not so worried about the plot. Then you get through that first draft and you figure out who you've got and do you have something interesting going on. And then maybe in the second draft I focus more on the plot and the structure, and usually the second draft is kind of dry and icky because it's all like "we've got to get to this point!" so you kind of lose something. But then when you get to the third draft that's when things seem to coalesce. There are some things you can do in terms of the plot in that second draft because you know you have to get somewhere, and you write these clunky scenes to get people to the climax and then you come back to that a little while later and it's "this is awful" -- these characters -- you're just using them to get somewhere. So in the third draft you get away from it a little bit, and you come back, and you go –- oh, ok, he's not going to get there this way -- we know he's got to get there, but he's not going to get there this way. So I feel that's it's a three draft process.
Michael: Do you visualize what these characters are going to look like on the screen at this point?
MT: Oh, totally! I see 'em.
Michael: What is the process then that goes from getting a final script to a film -- how does it get from that piece of paper, those pieces of paper, to the screen? Can you describe that process?
MT: [Laughs]. There's a really long winded, rambling answer to that. That's a tough question. Once you know you're on the same page just in terms of the broad concepts. Like with this script -- it's campy but it's serious, too. And I wasn't sure if it would come across to the other directors.
Michael: It's kind of a spoof of a horror story in a way.
MT: Yeah, there are a lot of spoofy references, but it was also important to me that what the characters were going through from their point of view was entirely serious and the stakes were high for them, and they felt this very deeply. So I didn't want a film that was about laughing at the characters. So once it was kind of clear that the other directors were on the same page as I was about that – that they got it -- you sort of trust that they got it. You don't really know until you're actually shooting it. Then there's storyboarding and all of the production planning. Even before we got to storyboarding there was the concept of the art direction, and meeting with the production designer and that's also again where you're creating the world that your going to shoot in, so then things start to come out like "what does this world look like?" So, before storyboarding we talked about production design, talked about costumes, talked a little bit about music, although the music is just now being scored. So we were basically kind of creating the world where this is going to happen. And there was really another stage, preparatory to storyboarding the scenes -- storyboarding is just basically, you know, whether narratively or just by quick sketches, showing how you see a scene being shot -- before storyboarding we had a meeting where we all brought in images, scenes from films we liked and that was a great way of communicating some of the things that are really hard to describe such as how you feel this looks like. And I remember Jeff brought in some scenes from Moulin Rouge and Return to Oz which was a film I'd never seen. I brought in and the adventures of Mr. Toad –- you know The Wind in the Willows, the illustrations, and Fritz Eichenberg engravings of Jane Eyre. So it was all kind of show and tell –- this is kind of the feeling that I have. So we went into storyboarding, and especially when we started out we all brought in our storyboards for a scene, and I found that my ideas visually were a lot lest interesting than Jeff's, because he has much more of a visual eye than I do. And because he is a great editor, he really sees things in sequence so he has a really strong sense of how this shot is going to tie into this shot and where the viewer's eye is going to be and how this will all fall together, whereas I might just have a feeling of I can see this one moment, where he has a more comprehensive vision of an entire scene. So storyboarding was next. And then when it came to the actually shooting, Jeff and Dennis tended to be more focused on things like lighting and composition, and I tended to focus more on the actors and their relationships with each other and their interpretation of the dialogue and the characters. And that worked amazingly well.
Michael: So it's quite a process, then.
MT: It's a really long process.
Michael: You take this thing that's your baby, and you hand it to a bunch of other people, and it turns into something else again.
MT: At least in low budget film making which is [laughs] my world. Which is –- what you really pay for in film making -- that is, large-budget versus low-budget – is time. And on a low-budget film when you're in the situation we were in where we've got this fantastic location to shoot in and we've got these wonderful actors; we don't have a ton of money to spend on sets and costumes but we have wonderful designers, we've got everything that we need, but what we don't have is time. Every day we have an assistant director who has a schedule for tomorrow. And at 9:00 we're shooting this shot, and at 9:40 we need to move on to this shot, and at 10:10 we need to move on to this shot. So all of a sudden the limitation of time means that you may have this image in your head or this thing that you want and it may not happen. You might not have time to get the thing that you want. So you're constantly battling with the clock. And depending on the kind of person you are it can be really easy to say "just screw it, let's just get the shot and move on", because you're feeling all this pressure. And that I think is the most challenging part of this work.
Michael: To turn in something really good under a really tight time constraint.
MT: Yeah. And it's really hard on the actors. Because they're waiting around all day while you're doing other scenes, and then it's like come on and do this death scene. And you have to do it in 20 minutes because you've gotta get it, because the light's going or whatever. That's one thing, while working in theatre has its own limitations, I don't think that there's that fear of the clock like there is in filmmaking.
Michael: How long did it take to make the film.
MT: I think we had 22 shooting days total ...
Michael: So from the script to the final cut, how long did it take?
MT: [Laughs] Forever! I turned in the script in June of 2007. Principal photography was October-November 2007. The film sat almost all of 2008. We had a music video sequence to shoot, but we couldn't shoot this until the song was written -- it was an original song -- so we spent the first half of 2008 getting the song written and recorded -- so we shot the music video in July of 2008 and then things sat around some more while Jeff finished editing another film. The rough cut of the film was just finished last month, in February. So we're just now looking at some composers -- there are a handful of composers that have just submitted a workup of a particular scene, to kind of say "here's what I would do with the soundtrack." And so we're looking at those now and choosing a composer. And although we have a rough edit there's been no audio correction, no color correction, there's a lot of tweaking to be done, that'll happen at the same time as we continue to work with the composer. And then the film is coming out in September this year. So 2 1/2 years from June of 2007 to Fall 2009.
Michael: It's a long time, but there were a lot of gaps.
MT: Yeah, there were a lot of gaps in 2008.
Michael: So where will this play? Where will be the venues for it? Just in the Chicago area?
MT: They'll premier it in Chicago, at a local theatre. We're booked for the last week of October at the Center on Halsted, and I don't know if that's the premiere or if there will be screenings somewhere else before that. Split Pillow has also premiered stuff at Chicago Filmmakers and the Gene Siskel Film Center, so I'll be curious to see how that rolls out. Anyway, it will be one or more local theatres here, and then they will try to get it into festivals and seek a wider distribution for it. I think the process is local showings, then hopefully festival distribution, theatre distribution, and ultimately DVD distribution, so it becomes available through places like NetFlix.
Michael: So eventually, October 2009 this year, we can see it at a venue here, and if it's a huge hit, it will spread!
MT: That ... Yeah!
In close proximity to primordial Florida swamps, branch-shrouded canopy roads, and Kafkaesque state capital intrigues, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer are Tallahassee’s greatest unnatural resource.
Ann is the fiction editor of Weird Tales Magazine, its continuing mission to publish brilliantly strange original material unavailable anywhere else. Jeff is on the cutting edge of the “New Weird,” infusing literary proficiency back into gothic fantasy and sci-fi with such novels as Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and most recently, Finch.
Cost, Roxana Robinson's tense novel about a disintegrating American family, begins in a mood of heightened sensitivity. Katherine, an elegant elderly woman visiting her adult daughter, caresses her combs and frets that she is losing her memory. Her daughter Julia roams the kitchen of her Maine beach house, "her movements hurried, slightly inept", and when she opens a jar of mayonnaise she feels the glass threads give way beneath her hands.
These moments of awareness, the reader knows, must be interrupted -- and soon Julia's older son Steven arrives at the summer house bearing the news that younger son Jack is a heroin addict. Cost, a knowing portrait of a family in crisis, is notable for its refusal to offer easy answers. Julia's father, a retired brain surgeon besieged by raging emotions, declares that rehab programs have terrible success rates for heroin addicts. An intervention/rehab expert ("found online") arrives, but also announces that there is little chance of success. The climactic intervention, seen through the eyes of the miserable, pain-wracked Jack as well as the other family members, turns out to be a holy mess -- several of the speeches only manage awkward sentimentality, Julia's sister cringes when the leader uses the word "love", and at the end it's Julia, not her addict son Jack, who has an epiphany and breaks down crying.
This is a brutally honest story about a modern family, sharper than Jonathan Franzen's Corrections and at times almost as bleak as Ken Kalfus's A Disorder Peculiar to our Country. Cost also reaches back to one of the greatest family tragedies, Shakespeare's King Lear, which it refers to in numerous details. At times, Cost reads like King Lear reflected in a broken mirror, mainly because Julia's stubborn and arrogant father, a well-meaning tyrant prone to feeling insulted, resembles Shakespeare's King to the depth of his being, and because the young brothers Steven and Jack pointedly recall Gloucester's two sons, the earnest Edgar and the "bastard" Edmund. Numerous other design patterns in the novel recall the great play: a rivalry between three siblings (one of whom is completely absent), an unsteady walk on a beach, a "storm" in the shape of a boat adventure, a disguised child mistaken by his parents for a bum. It's as a fragmented "Lear", with all the kaleidoscopic interpretations this makes possible, that Cost moves farthest beyond the limits of realistic tragedy to achieve greater cosmic truth.
I haven't found too many novels to get excited about lately, but Cost is a knockout, and I think Oprah Winfrey would do well to consider it for her next selection (no joke; it's better than Corrections *and* A Million Little Pieces). I got a chance to ask Roxana Robinson a few questions via email recently, and did so with so much hasty enthusiasm that I think I oversold my questions about Shakespeare. I'll leave those embarrassing sections of the conversation out, but our other exchanges were fascinating. It was a privilege to be able to read this book and quickly follow it up with my rapt inquiries, below:
Levi: Cost was my first encounter with your fiction. Can you tell me something about where the book is meant to fit into the wider context of your career?
Roxana: Cost turned out to be the third in a trilogy. The two earlier parts of it are This Is My Daughter and Sweetwater. I hadn't really planned to do this, but when I finished Cost I realized that I had been exploring certain kinds of entitlement that I think are particularly American.
This Is My Daughter is about two divorced parents who marry and then try to create a "blended" family. At the time I wrote it -- the early '90s -- it seemed to me that everyone around me was getting divorced and remarried, with an implacable disregard of the consequences, as though there would be no consequences, if they were smart enough, and responsible enough, and possibly affluent enough. That they deserved this, and the children would simply bend to their wishes.
It seems to me this notion is connected to the American sense of the landscape. We have always luxuriated in the knowledge that our continent is 3,000 miles across, and that if things get bad we can always move west and start over. The land is ours. So this idea of remarriage - as though all you needed, to make a success of it, was determination - seemed to me particularly misguided and particularly American.
The second book in the series is Sweetwater, and that also comes from a misguided sense of entitlement -- the notion that, no matter what we do to it, the environment will always be whole, healthy, and generous to us. That, too, seems to relate to our notion of ownership -- of our vast country and our enormous natural resources. To our sense that we deserve them, and that they will always be there, and they will always be ours, no matter what we do. Again there is the misguided notion that there will be no consequences to our actions.
The third book in the trilogy is Cost. Here the notion of entitlement started out as a smaller issue -- the notion that, if you are responsible and focused, and hard-working, that there will come a time in your life when you can live it for yourself. When your children are launched, and your parents still healthy, then you can address the things in your own life that only concern you.
This, too, seems profoundly misguided, and as I wrote Cost it became clearer and clearer to me that the bonds of family are never loosened.
Levi: As a stark portrait of heroin addiction, your novel calls to mind a few articles I've read recently about the failure rate of rehab for serious drug addicts or alcoholics. There seems to be a growing realization that rehab simply does not work, even when carried out according to the highest standards. Did you intend this to be a theme in your novel? Do you think Amy Winehouse had it right? What do you think offers the best hope for a drug addict like Jack, or for the family of a drug addict like Jack?
Roxana: When I started the novel, I was unaware that it would be about heroin addiction. I thought it would be about the problems and complications of being an adult child, about how difficult it is to relate to your parents in the way you'd like.
When I learned that it would be about heroin addiction, I had to learn about a whole world with which I was unfamiliar.
I learned about the sad statistics, the sad prognosis of most addicts. All these were things I recorded, but this is not a point I set out to make. (I don't know what Amy Winehouse says about it.) As a novelist, I think my task is to bear witness, not to offer a solution.
I think the best hope for a drug addict is a real sense of dedication to quitting. It must come from him. The best hope for a family is to learn to negotiate this awful terrain, offering both emotional support and love, but withholding any kind of enablement. It's a terrible lesson to have to learn. As far as I can tell, there is no one correct treatment method that is always successful.
Levi: I believe it's Wendell [Julia's ex-husband] who defends the use of cliche in one of the book's conversations. Does Wendell's point express a literary principle of yours, and does the idea that we should embrace cliche point to any larger truths in this book?
Roxana: I think Wendell makes the point that cliches are always based on reality. As a writer, I detest cliches, and I wouldn't at all suggest that we embrace them. But as a desperate mother, I'd suggest that Julia recognize that the reason her situation seems so commonplace is that humans all have the same capabilities, we share the same emotions and the same experiences. It doesn't lessen her experience to realize that it's shared by many many others. My point was more about the commonality of experience than about literature. Does this point to a larger truth? Yes, I'd like to think so.