Archive for August 24th, 2011
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.