Archive for August 2011
Today my wife and I closed on our first house, a beautiful single-family home in historic Oak Park, Illinois. My original goal, after realizing that we were really going to move, was to become the greatest novelist Oak Park ever produced, which I soon discovered might be difficult, if only on account of this guy. The greatest living novelist, perhaps? Unfortunately, that requires catching up to the extraordinary Chris Ware, perhaps our best living novelist, period, which I’m not sure even I can do. So I might need to settle for being the best novelist on my side of the block. If that. Still, I’m pretty excited.
I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a Seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. And I’ve realized that I am a poet. It’s really not my fault.
Yesterday, after watching clips of Lady Gaga’s peculiar drag performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, I became aware of two things almost simultaneously. The first is that Gaga is the ultimate realization of what Cindy Sherman once promised. I’ve been a huge fan of Sherman’s ever since discovering her Untitled Film Stills, with their uneasy but seductive commentaries on roleplaying, voyeurism, and, above all, the importance of movies in shaping our ideas of ourselves and others. Although her work has grown increasingly alienating over time, she remains one of our most interesting artists, and you can draw a direct line from her to Gaga, an acknowledged fan. Indeed, Gaga might be Sherman’s daughter: both women are provocateurs, aggressively intelligent yet fascinatingly blank, famous but unknown, so that either could probably walk down the street unrecognized, after all the costumes and disguises have been stripped away.
Of course, Gaga is far more famous than Sherman has ever been, which leads me to my second realization, which is that we’re witnessing a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in twenty years or more. Gaga is that rarest of pop icons, a deservedly popular artist who also serves as a conduit for smuggling unexpected images and ideas into America’s heartland. The VMAs were seen by the largest audience in MTV history, which means that Gaga’s strange little drag act succeeded, if nothing else, in confusing the hell out of millions. I’m not saying that her performance as Jo Calderone was entirely successful—the reaction of most viewers was probably close to Justin Bieber’s—but the fact that it was staged at all, with such oddness and commitment, counts as a weird sort of triumph, a Whitney Biennial moment in a Jersey Shore world.
And a crucial part of Gaga’s genius is her accessibility. Some have criticized her for linking outrageous imagery to resolutely conventional (if highly accomplished) pop music, but it’s hard to imagine her ascending to her current cultural position in any other way. And her talent as a musician shouldn’t be underestimated. As a lifelong fan of the Pet Shop Boys, I’ve always believed that dance music can be as rich a form of expression as any other, and Gaga comes closer than any arena-level artist in a long time to achieving that magical combination of irony, earnestness, and encyclopedic skill. A song like “Alejandro” is a miniature history of pop music, both good and bad, as well as a movie, a radio play, and a sensational dance song. And Gaga’s art absolutely needs to be part of the mainstream to make any sense. It’s no accident that her first two albums are called The Fame and The Fame Monster.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this heady combination of surrealism and accessibility hasn’t been seen in this country for more than twenty years—since June 10, 1991, to be exact, when Twin Peaks went off the air. Both Lady Gaga and David Lynch used their nimbleness, intelligence, and talent to introduce an unprecedented level of strangeness to a mass audience. Both ended up on the cover of Time. Both were clearly just good kids at heart. And both emerged during recessionary, politically divided, and culturally conservative periods that nonetheless managed to produce at least one exemplar of the outré, as if all the culture’s unresolved weirdness were being channeled into a single icon. Lynch, of course, has retreated in recent years, and where Gaga goes from here is anyone’s guess: I have no doubt she’ll continue to produce interesting music, but it’s hard to imagine her thriving anywhere but in the spotlight. But at the moment, she threatens to make the rest of us seem obsolete.
Over the past week, New York City has seen three exceedingly rare events: an earthquake, a tropical storm, and a visit by me. And while my recent trip, thankfully, wasn’t something that happens once in a generation, it’s still less frequent than I would like. I lived in New York for seven years, moving there right out of college despite never having spent more than a few days in the city, simply because I figured, as a writer, that it was the only place in the world to be. Perhaps inevitably, it was only after I left two years ago, moving to Chicago to be with my wife, that my writing life finally began to resemble the one I wanted. But I still miss New York and the time I spent there, so it’s always a pleasure to go back.
If there was a center to my New York life, it was the dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore. My own suspicion, confirmed by long experience, is that every book in the world, no matter how unusual or rare, turns up there sooner or later—usually just after you’ve bought it somewhere else. For years, then, on a weekly basis, I would take the train to Union Square and browse in the Strand dollar bin for an hour or so, nearly always emerging with some unexpected find. And although inflation has increased the price of certain hardcovers to $2, my visit last week was as productive as usual: in half an hour, I found a copy of Nancy Arrowsmith’s classic Field Guide to the Little People, a book I remember fondly from my childhood, and, even more remarkably, the anonymous Mediations on the Tarot, a book I’d been hoping to pick up for years.
And while a visit to the Strand alone would have more than justified the trip, it wasn’t the only reason I went to New York. One of my closest friends, the poet and memoirist Katy Lederer, is getting married at the end of the year, and her engagement party seemed like a good excuse to fly out for the weekend. At the party, in addition to Katy and her fiancé Ben, my wife and I got to hang out with Katy’s dad, the legendary Richard Lederer, author of Crazy English, Anguished English and many other classic works on language and wordplay. I devoured his books growing up, and I’m pleased to report that, in person, he’s exactly what you’d hope him to be: funny, garrulous, a fount of jokes, trivia, and sharp observation. I’m looking forward to seeing him again at Katy’s wedding.
On the business side, I also had the chance to catch up with my agent, who had some updates on The Icon Thief and its sequel. Now that the cover art and copy have been finalized, the next step is to go out to readers for potential blurbs, which we’ll be doing in two stages over the next few months. My publisher will also be printing advance readers’ copies soon, which is very exciting. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of pushing forward on House of Passages, the final draft of which is due on September 30, and laying the groundwork for a possible third novel, a tentative synopsis of which I’m hoping to finish shortly. All in all, the next few weeks promise to be exceptionally interesting, with a move to Oak Park, a novelette, and possibly a couple of surprises. Check back soon for more!
Colonel Cathcart was impervious to absolutes. He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better. The fact that there were thousands of men his own age and older who had not even attained the rank of major enlivened him with foppish delight in his own remarkable worth; on the other hand, the fact that there were men of his own age and younger who were already generals contaminated him with an agonizing sense of failure and made him gnaw at his fingernails with an unappeasable anxiety…
In retrospect, my dedication—or my obsession—toward getting the script to look exactly the way it should, no matter how long it took—that’s an example of the sort of focus one needs to make it in this industry. Any slight advantage is worth gaining. Nothing that might allow our scripts to be passed on is acceptable to ignore.
If a page break came at a bad spot, perhaps splitting the set-up and pay-off of a joke, I’d go in and edit out a line so the pay-off came without the reader having to turn the page. If, as I was mailing the script off, I noticed a word was misspelled or a dash got split, even if it was 2:00 A.M., I’d re-type the page.
If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behavior—like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count!—then, I think, you’ve got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood.
—Terry Rossio, screenwriter of Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean
Last night, as part of Redbox’s free movie promotion, my wife and I rented Unknown, a Liam Neeson thriller that is slightly more polished than Taken, but features significantly less throat-punching. If there was ever a movie meant to be rented for free on a random Thursday night, it’s this one: director Jaume Collet-Serra has a nice, slick visual style that keeps the story clocking along, and there’s one short scene between Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella that is a quiet masterpiece of suspense, but in the end, the movie founders on a script that squanders a clever premise for a series of generic action beats. As the implausibilities mount, it becomes impossible to take any of it seriously: it’s the kind of film where you walk out of the theater humming the plot holes.
Of course, nobody expects thrillers to be airtight. For a movie to mislead audiences, it’s usually obliged to reach some kind of accommodation with plausibility, working in the moment without necessarily standing up to extended scrutiny. Hence the phenomenon of fridge logic: a detail in a movie that seems fine at the time, but later strikes the viewer as ridiculous. Ted Tally, the screenwriter of The Silence of the Lambs, instructively quotes Jonathan Demme on this point:
“That’s a refrigerator question.” A refrigerator question? “You know. You’ve just come home from a movie, you had a great time, you go to the refrigerator to get a beer, you open the door, and you say ‘Wait a minute…’”
Tally concludes by saying that Demme doesn’t worry much about refrigerator questions. And for good reason. Because even the best thrillers tend to fall apart on closer examination, but if we’re emotionally engaged, we don’t care.
Take Vertigo, for instance. This is easily the greatest of all thrillers, and one without which a movie like Unknown might not even exist, but it contains so many implausibilities—among other things, how Madeline managed to disappear from her hotel room, and how anyone could be sure that Scotty wouldn’t make it to the top of the bell tower—that we can thank it for the term “fridge logic” itself: Hitchcock referred to such moments as “icebox” scenes, since they start to bother you “after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.” And the greater the thriller, the more likely we are to discover such problems, if only because we’re drawn to revisit it more than once. If there are numerous elements of The Usual Suspects that I no longer believe, it’s only because I’ve seen it over thirty times. By any measure, then, the movie succeeded.
So why can’t I forgive the plot problems in Unknown? The issue is one of delay: if Unknown had managed to postpone my objections until even five minutes after the closing credits, I would have enjoyed it more. As it stands, I found myself annoyed by its implausibilities long before the end of the movie, at which point fridge logic becomes a simple plot hole. That delay of five minutes may seem like a small thing, but it’s no different than any act of sleight of hand, in which a few seconds of misdirection can make all the difference. A movie like Unknown is a reminder that ordinary professionalism can take a movie ninety percent of the way, but the last ten percent requires something more. And that last bit of effort, as Hitchcock and Demme know, is what pushes a plot hole out of the movie and safely into the fridge.
What I am trying to achieve is a voice sitting by a fireplace telling you a story on a winter’s evening.
With the unexpected resignation of Steve Jobs as chief executive of Apple, many of us, including me, have probably been inspired to revisit the legendary commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005, which has deservedly become one of the most famous speeches of its kind. The entire address is worth reading, of course, but in particular, I’ve always loved its closing appreciation of The Whole Earth Catalog, which Jobs describes as “sort of like Google in paperback form.” More recently, a New York Times article on Jobs referred to it as “a kind of hippie Wikipedia.” Both characterizations are fairly accurate, but The Whole Earth Catalog is much more. For as long as I can remember, I’ve found it to be an invaluable guide and source of inspiration, and I can sincerely say that it deserves to be a part of every thinking person’s life.
Of course, I’m somewhat biased, because The Whole Earth Catalog is a product of a time and place that is close to my heart: the Bay Area of the 1970s, centered in particular on Berkeley, Sausalito, and Menlo Park. Stewart Brand, another singular visionary, founded the Catalog to provide access to tools for those interested in exploring a wide range of issues that remain important today, notably sustainable living, simplicity, and ecology in its original sense, which spans everything from environmentalism to the most straightforward kind of home economics. Above all, the Catalog was the expression of the same restless curiosity that informed the early years of Apple. It gave you the tools to investigate space exploration, personal computing, art, literature, anthropology, architecture, health, backpacking, mysticism, and much more, almost without end. And the most useful tools were books.
As a lifelong obsessive reader, I’m always looking for new things to read, and the classic editions of the Catalog have pointed me toward more great books, many neglected or out of print, than any other source. First and foremost is Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, the best nonfiction book of the past fifty years, which gets a page of its own in the Catalog, with R.H. Blyth’s great, eccentric Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics close behind. There’s The Plan of St. Gall in Brief; D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s classic On Growth and Form; and such odd, essential books as Soil and Civilization; Form, Function, and Design; Structures; The Prodigious Builders; The Natural Way to Draw; Poker: A Guaranteed Income for Life; Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings; and the works of Lewis Mumford and Buckminster Fuller. All these I owe to the Catalog.
And the Catalog itself is full of wisdom that doesn’t date: original essays, tidbits of advice in the writeups of individual books, ideas and inspirations all but tucked into the margin. I own three editions, but my favorite is The Next Whole Earth Catalog, which, at five pounds and fifteen by eleven inches, is as big as a paperback book can get. Opening it to any page reminds me at once of what really matters, a world of books, ideas, and simple living, and it has always steered me back on track whenever I’ve been tempted to stray. And Steve Jobs can probably say the same thing. At the end of his address at Stanford, he quotes four words from the back cover of the 1974 edition of the Catalog, which many have since misattributed to Jobs himself: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” And if the career of Steve Jobs is merely the most striking illustration of what these words can do, we can thank the Catalog for this as well.
Since I’ve received so many new visitors over the past couple of days, I thought this might be a good time to reintroduce myself and this blog for the benefit of those joining us for the first time. The basic facts can be found here, and obviously I’d be pleased if you’d check out the page for my novel, although you’ll need to wait a few months longer to pick up a copy. In the end, though, you’ll learn the most about me from what I like to read and write, and I can think of no better way to begin than by working back through my Quotes of the Day, which offer a glimpse of what have turned out, rather to my surprise, to be my primary interests: the writing life, creativity, and the problems of craft. And for those willing to dig deeper, there’s a lot more, on topics that can best be summed up as writing, movies, and everything else.
On writing, I’ve explained why I became a novelist, and why I think most writers should start with novelettes, rather than novels or short stories. I’m an unabashed defender of plot. I’ve frequently discussed the basic tools of the novelist’s craft, including outlines, lists, and the importance of cutting, and confessed that some of my best ideas come to me while shaving. I’ve described what it’s like to read a rough draft of your own novel for the first time, discussed whether a novel should ever be abandoned, and used Google to chart the rise and fall of literary reputations. I’ve talked about why I love science fiction, and provided a detailed look at the writing of my own novelette “Kawataro,” from inspiration to final draft. And I’ve spoken at length, of course, about the authors who have influenced my life, and even provided a list of my fifty essential books.
Because I love film as well, I’ve also listed my fifty essential movies and my ten favorite screenplays. I’ve shared my choices for the greatest opening and closing shots of all time, and explained why Hayao Miyazaki is greater than Pixar. I’ve discussed the joys of cinematic comfort food, dissected the careers of such directors as David Fincher and Francis Ford Coppola, and unpacked the movie adaptations of The English Patient, The Silence of the Lambs, and L.A. Confidential. I’ve written appreciations of film critics David Thomson and Roger Ebert, and shared my clever Oscar snacks. Not surprisingly, I often talk about the movies I’ve recently seen, including Transformers, Super 8, and Birdemic. And I’ve explored, but never solved, the mystery of who really saw Klaus Kinski buying that ax at Ace Hardware in Beverly Hills.
As for the rest, I’ve spoken about the influence on my life of creative artists in other fields, including Jim Henson, Charles Schulz, Stephin Merritt, and X-Files scribe Darin Morgan. I’ve railed against fake quotations by famous dead writers, especially a certain inspirational quote that Margaret Mead never said. I’ve explained why agnosticism is the ideal stance for a working writer—at least for me—and talked about using dreams for inspiration. I’ve spoken about the perils of cleverness, the pitfalls of craft, and the end of browsing. I’ve used Metcalfe’s Law to explain Bridesmaids and Blinn’s Law to shed light on the writing process. I’ve put away my iPod, shared my high Tetris scores, and looked back with nostalgia on growing up near Berkeley. And there’s a great deal more, some good, some indifferent, always the best I can do on any given day. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and look forward to seeing more of you soon!
One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted by Humphrey Carpenter
Yesterday, I was at Barnes and Noble in Union Square when, apparently, the earth shook. I didn’t notice it, possibly because I was slightly more preoccupied by another, rather smaller earthquake taking place on this blog. I had been in New York for the past few days, away from my desk, so I wasn’t aware that anything unusual was happening until the comments started flooding my cell phone. I’d like to start, then, by saying what a thrill it was to be featured on Freshly Pressed, and how gratifying it is to see so many new readers and visitors. You never know what to expect when a blog is opened to radically increased traffic, so it’s been heartening to see how universally positive and insightful the comments have been. Thanks so much for coming, and I do hope you stick around!
That said, I suspect that much of the response was due less to the quality of the writing than to the subject of the post itself. The Fellowship of the Ring is, to put it mildly, a movie that unites people. I could feel it last week at Ravinia, and I’ve felt it again over the last twenty-four hours as readers shared their thoughts and memories. We heard from fans who think of movies as The Lord of the Rings and everything else; from viewers for whom the films, and their special features, changed the way they saw filmmaking; and from those whom the trilogy helped through difficult times in their lives. Few other movies can say as much, or inspire such universal good feeling. (I imagine that the response wouldn’t have been quite as positive if I’d posted a rave about, say, Eyes Wide Shut.) And it all comes down to the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson have created a world we want to live in and revisit.
This, it seems to me, is the real point of world-building, which has become such an established convention of fantasy fiction that its original purpose is sometimes forgotten. Invented languages, cultures, and geographies are all very well and good, but they’re a means, not an end. The true goal is to create stories and characters so vivid that we can’t help applying them to our own lives. I’ve certainly felt this myself. Last year, when I was hiking the Lares Valley in Peru, lungs and feet aching, what kept me going—and this is a real nerd confession here—was the thought of Frodo and Samwise trudging through Mordor. Similarly, after seeing Fellowship again last week, I was seized by the urge to write an alternate universe fanfiction epic that would begin with Galadriel taking the ring. Since such a project would probably require 50,000 words and three months of work, it doesn’t seem like a great use of my time. But I’d still like to read it. (Oddly enough, I don’t think such a story exists, although if anybody out there has seen one, please let me know!)
And it’s important to remember that both Tolkien and, to a lesser extent, Jackson and his collaborators were creating worlds out of their own personal compulsions. Tolkien was a linguist and philologist whose work arose from his interest in invented languages; Jackson was a fan of the books who began planning his monumental project long before the current cinematic vogue for epic fantasy. Neither knew if there would be an audience for what he was doing—which was how each of them ended up finding such vast audiences. And at a time when fantasy series sprout appendices, maps, and extra volumes just because Tolkien’s example says they should, and when Hollywood sees fantasy primarily as a lucrative revenue stream, it’s worth recalling that it all began with a solitary professor furnishing a world for his own amusement. And as the past couple of days have made clear, there are still plenty of us who want to follow him there.
If you’re passionate about your work, you can get almost anything made.
Q. What pops out when one surveys your career is the sheer volume of music you have produced. Can you tell us about the creative process?
A. I developed from very early on a habit of writing something every day, good or bad. There are good days, and there are less good days, but I do a certain amount of pages it seems to me before I can feel like the day has been completely served. When I am working on a film, of course, it’s a six-day-a-week affair, and when I’m not working on films, I always like to devote myself to some piece, some musical project, that gives me a feeling that I’m maybe contributing in some small way or, maybe more importantly, learning in the process.
Q. I understand you take a lot of walks here on the Tanglewood campus. Do you do that after you finish writing?
A. The rest of my life is spent sitting, writing, so it’s a kind of an antidote to the physiological strains if you like of sitting bent over a writing tablet all day long. People ask me do you compose when you walk. Not really. But solutions or choices do occur to me. I may be walking along for 20 or 30 minutes and say, ‘Aw, this is what I should do here or there.’
Q. Do you ever get blocked?
A. I never experienced anything like a block. For me if I’m ever blocked or I feel like I don’t quite know where to go at the next turn, the best thing for me is to keep writing, to write something. It could be absolute nonsense, but it will project me into the next phase of thinking. And I think if we ourselves as writers get out of the way and let the flow happen and not get uptight about it, so to speak, the muses will carry us along.
The brilliant is born out of a writer’s pain, some divine inspiration, and a slight bit of madness. You can aspire to it but you can’t plan on it, especially if you know your limitations. Your horizons can expand, however, if you allow yourself the possibility of failure. You must, in fact, court failure. Let her be your temptress. There must be danger in the attempt and no net strung across the abyss to break your fall.
Everyone’s like, “Oh, you have a cushy life—you just sit around and write.” I’m like, “No, it’s actually really hard.” As I like to say, I wish that my job was being a bricklayer—because I would lay the bricks, the wall would be built, and that would be it. Nobody could deny that it’s a fucking brick wall. Nobody’s gonna come along and say, “Mmm, I think that brick should be over here.”
Last night, not long after I mentioned The Lord of the Rings in my discussion of the future of storytelling, my wife and I found ourselves at Ravinia Park in Chicago, where we saw The Fellowship of the Ring with a full orchestra and choir performing Howard Shore’s famous score. An excited crowd had packed itself into the pavilion and lawn, and looking around, I was reminded of the true definition of a four-quadrant movie, which has nothing to do with marketing and everything to do with how it fires an audience’s imagination. “Three generations of any family,” David Thomson has drily noted, “could see [The Lord of the Rings] at the same time, in emotional comfort.” And it’s true. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that there were grandchildren in attendance last night who had not yet been born when the movie came out almost ten years ago.
And whatever its other qualities, the movie works. It still looks great, and the special effects, if not miraculous, do a fine job of serving the narrative and performances. And while I’m personally of the opinion that Peter Jackson never quite figured out the right tone for his material until The Return of the King, Fellowship still has the strongest story in the trilogy. There’s something inexpressibly satisfying about seeing the pieces of the epic falling into place, as the Fellowship is gathered, tested, and finally scattered. The other two movies have their moments, and Return of the King in particular is a masterpiece, but I’m guessing that when most viewers think back to their favorite scenes, whether they’re casual fans or Tolkien obsessives, this is the installment that first comes to mind. And the individual moments haven’t lost any of their power: when Aragorn beheads the Uruk-Hai at the end, for instance, the entire auditorium erupted in cheers, drowning out the orchestra.
There are small problems here and there. Jackson’s treatment of Saruman’s army verges on Sam Raimi-style horror, and not in a good way; he occasionally botches big moments, like Galadriel’s speech, with overuse of special effects; and there’s a little too much slapstick in the Shire. All of these qualities would be progressively improved over the course of the trilogy, and to my relief, I found that that the acting was strong from the very beginning. Now that we’ve come to know these actors so well, it’s important to remember that many of them were unknowns or doubtful quantities at the time, and in many cases, their performances have been enriched in retrospect. It’s hard to watch Orlando Bloom, for instance, without seeing something comic in Legolas’s unblinking intensity, while Viggo Mortensen, who once came off as miscast, now seems ideal as Aragorn. Throughout it all, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf remains the film’s perfect calm center—it’s a performance that looks even better as the years go by.
Watching the film again with an audience, for the first time in almost a decade, reminded me of how movies serve as markers in our own lives. When I first saw Fellowship of the Ring, I was a college senior; now I’m married and about to get my first mortgage. Movies, too, have changed. It would be premature to say that this kind of film now seems old-fashioned, with Deathly Hallows having done a commendable job with a rather different franchise, and the two parts of the Hobbit still on the way. Yet with Universal canceling The Dark Tower, directors like Guillermo Del Toro unable to finance their dream projects, and the likes of Andy Hendrickson running the show at Disney, one senses a certain lack of the will that led New Line and Peter Jackson to risk so much on this trilogy. Thankfully, though, they did. And the movies are permanently richer as a result.