Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 2018

Mailer in Hollywood

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“I would love to get out to Hollywood for several months,” Norman Mailer wrote in a letter to an agent on May 10, 1948. “I have several ideas for novels now, but all of them are a little too small. The trouble with writing something like The Naked and the Dead is that you get frightened if your next can is smaller. And Hollywood, I think, would fit the bill.” When Mailer wrote these words, he was just twenty-five years old, and his first novel had made him famous overnight, complete with offers for the movie rights, which he was eager to explore. In secret, he was planning to use the experience in other ways, as he later confessed: “I went to Hollywood four years ago because in the back of my mind was the idea that I would write a nice big fat collective novel about the whole works—the idea I suppose with which every young writer goes out.” But he also had hopes of more tangible forms of success. He negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. to work on scripts with his good friend Jean Malaquais, to whom he optimistically wrote a few months after his arrival:

Hollywood-wise our position is not bad. I am not at all without hope, for in the last week a few small things have happened which lead me to believe that we shall reap the wind yet—the golden wind. Also I have a wonderful idea for a movie—just right for you and us. There is a young actor here who is in fabulous demand—Montgomery Clift, and he likes me, respects me, et al [sic]. My idea is that when he comes back to town in a couple of weeks, I will see him, and suggest the movie—The Red and the Black. It will be of necessity an extravaganza which means our pay would be higher.

The “extravaganza” never went anywhere, although Mailer and Malaquais worked on a script for Clift loosely based on Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, and they seem to have considered a project inspired by the organized crime group Murder, Inc. (Most of this information, as well as all quotes from letters, comes from the recent book Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, an astonishingly rich volume that offers countless possible avenues for exploration. I’ve chosen the Hollywood thread at random, but I hope to dig into it in other ways soon.) By 1950, Mailer had grown disillusioned, writing to his sister Barbara: “We got out of Hollywood by brute force, i.e., we made a decision to leave and by gosh and by God we did. I still can’t believe it. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life trying to produce that damn movie. Except I’m probably the only writer who actually lost money by going to Hollywood.” His last remaining point of interest—apart from working on the novel that eventually became The Deer Park—was to sell the rights to his most famous book. A few years later, he wrote to his lawyer Charles Rembar that he hoped to get at least $100,000 for The Naked and the Dead, explaining:

If Naked is going to be bought and crapped up it makes sense only if I’ll get real financial independence from it. Otherwise, I’d just as soon spare myself the heartache…The key to what I feel with all of the above is that the old saw about Hollywood psychology—if you don’t want them, they want you—is very true, at least from my experience. And my other feeling is that if I have to hump for a living in a couple of years, it may not be the worst thing in the world for me. So I’d rather be big or little but not in between.

The Naked in the Dead was ultimately filmed by Raoul Walsh, and Mailer called the result, which I haven’t seen, “one of the worst movies ever made.” (It was evidently in development at one point for Charles Laughton to direct with Robert Mitchum in the lead, only to be scrapped by the failure of The Night of the Hunter—which has to count as one of the most intriguing unmade movies in an industry with no shortage of broken dreams.) But the experience left Mailer with some valuable insights. In 1966, he wrote to Tony Macklin, the editor of the magazine Film Heritage:

I think as a working rule of thumb, a novelist or playwright cannot hope for their work to survive in Hollywood. It can only be adulterated or improved, and since filming a good novel makes everyone concerned quite tense, and justifiably so, since no one wishes particularly to adulterate good art—there are a few rewards in heaven for that—I think if I were a director I would look for the kind of modest novel which can make a fine movie. I think the best example is The Asphalt Jungle.

Mailer never forgot this, and he wrote years later to his frequent business partner Lawrence Schiller, with whom he had collaborated on The Executioner’s Song, to propose a few potential projects: “I think it can be said that any of Raymond Chandler’s novels that are available would be splendid for movies, and I think I could do a lot with them in adaptation, since Chandler has marvelous plots and terrific settings, but is occasionally a little thing in characterization…While we’re at it, it might be worth checking into Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.” None of these adaptations ever came to pass, and Mailer couldn’t resist one more hopeful query: “What’s the story on A Farewell to Arms? I can’t remember when the last remake was done, but if that’s around, it’s a $30 million movie and the event of the year.”

When you read through Mailer’s letters on Hollywood, you’re left with a depressing sense of one of the most important writers of his generation repeatedly failing to gain traction in an industry that stubbornly resisted all his talent, ambition, and charisma. His correspondence is filled with fascinating hints of what might have been, some of which might have better been left unrealized, as when he wrote to the producer Mickey Knox to propose a version of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King starring Orson Welles and Sonny Liston. (A decade later, he wrote to Peter Bogdanovich, who was interested in adapting his novel An American Dream, to ask if Welles would be interested in reading an unproduced screenplay by Mailer titled The Trial of the Warlock: “I agree it’s hardly the sort of thing he’d want to do—why ever get into something like that at this point in his career?—but he might have quick insight into how to make it better, or approach the problem of the horror. I could use that. Truth, I’d be delighted to have him read it in any case just for fun.” Nothing ever came of it, and to the best of my knowledge, the two great wunderkinds of the forties never even crossed paths.) Mailer worked with varying degrees of seriousness on scripts for Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion and the story that became Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and he eventually did write a couple of teleplays for Schiller, including the O.J. Simpson movie American Tragedy. For the most part, however, he concluded that he was better off making movies on his own, leading to such directorial oddities as Beyond the Law, Maidstone, and Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the last of which is one of those films that has intrigued me for years without ever prompting me to actually watch it—and I have the feeling that it could hardly be other than a huge disappointment. And perhaps the final lesson is simply that writers, even the greatest ones, should adjust their expectations accordingly. As Mailer wrote to Tony Macklin: “A novelist or playwright sells his work to Hollywood not in order that the work shall survive in translation, but to purchase time for himself.” And Mailer, like all writers, needed all the time that he could get.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The apostolic succession

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Ever since I began working as a biographer—which is one of the few acceptable ways of earning a living as a private eye of culture—I’ve naturally become interested in what other writers have had to say on the subject. My favorite example, as I’ve noted here before, is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which isn’t just the best book that I’ve read on the art of biography, but one of the best that I’ve read about anything. James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden offers an engaging look at the profession from the inside, even if you sometimes get the sense that Atlas wrote it mostly to settle a few old scores relating to his biography of Saul Bellow. And there are certain loose, baggy monsters of the form that can’t help but comment on their own monstrousness. A book like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry functions both as a straight work of scholarship and as a bizarre mediation on its own creation, and by the last volume, the two elements become so unbalanced that you’re forced to confront the underlying strangeness of the whole biographical enterprise. Such hybrid books, which read like unwitting enactments of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, tend to have three qualities in common. One is the biographer’s extensive use of the first person, which allows him to insert himself into the narrative like a shadowy supporting player. Another is the inordinate amount of time or wordage devoted to the project, which usually occupies multiple decades or volumes. And the last, which should probably serve as a warning, is that this tendency is often most pronounced when the biographer is investigating the life of another living writer, which leads to insidious problems of identification, admiration, and resentment. As Sherry said of his biography of Greene to the New York Times: “I almost destroyed myself. By the time I had finished, my life had been taken from me.”

Which brings us to Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, which combines all of these ingredients into one of the strangest books I’ve ever seen. It first caught my eye over a decade ago, with its striking cover inspired by Philip Castle’s poster for A Clockwork Orange, but I’m glad that I’m only reading it now, when perhaps I have a better understanding of the emotions that it expresses. After describing his first encounter as a young man with Burgess, whom he compares to a baboon with “vampiral” red eyes,  Lewis writes:

My need to know about Burgess twenty years ago: what lack or absence in me was being compensated for? I was youthful, full of ambition and ideals; he was a constellation, larger than life-size, a writer’s writer, crammed with allusions. He was, as Carlyle said of Danton, “a gigantic mass of ostentation,” and the piratical swagger was alluring and I had an abiding affinity with it. The facets which you are taken in by when you are young—the languages, the apparent wide knowledge—genuine academics and professionals, people in the know, see it as so nonsensical, it’s beneath them to contradict Burgess’s bluster. His success came from impressing people who didn’t quite know better; he was left alone by those who did. He fell into that gap, and made a fortune for himself.

If it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, Lewis goes on to explain that his feelings have curdled toward his old mentor, whom he later describes as a “pretentious prick” and a ”complete fucking fool.” But Lewis also adds incongruously: “Twenty years on from my days as a student prince, if I’m allegedly repudiating the lion of my late adolescence, it’s no doubt because deep down I continue to feel close to him.”

Not surprisingly, many reviewers regarded the book as an act of “character assassination,” as Blake Morrison put it in The Guardian, or a case study in the pathology of hero worship. But the tangled lines of influence are even weirder than they seem. Lewis’s real mentor wasn’t Burgess, but Richard Ellmann, his thesis adviser, the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde who is generally regarded as the greatest modern practitioner of literary biography. He played a similar role in the life of none other than James Atlas, who devotes many pages to Ellmann in The Shadow in the Garden, writing of his first encounter with the man who agreed to supervise his work at Oxford: “Steven [sic] Dedalus had stumbled upon his Leopold Bloom.” In a lengthy footnote on the very first page of Anthony Burgess, Lewis uses almost identical language to describe their relationship:

Ellmann was my supervisor (though he didn’t do much supervising) for a doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound, of which I wrote not one word. We became friends and used to dine lavishly at the Randolph…We were both aware of a Bloom/Dedalus dynamic in our relationship. I was immensely cocky and callow, Ellmann wholly lacked the Oxford way of people being interested in each other only for their own advantage.

It was probably impossible to be mentored by Richard Ellmann, of all people, without thinking of the surrogate father and son of Ulysses, but in Lewis’s case, the Joycean labyrinth was even more twisted—because it was through Ellmann that Lewis met Burgess in the first place. His biography opens with an account of the evening of May 7, 1985, when Ellmann and Lewis picked up Burgess at a train station and gave him a ride to Oxford: “We all went to find Ellman’s rusty, seldom-washed car…Ellmann took us through the city, turning corners by mounting the kerb, grazing bollards and scattering cyclists.” And all the while, Lewis informs us, Burgess had been “murmuring to Ellmann about Joyce.”

And it gets even stranger. One of Ellmann’s other students was the biographer Henry Hart, who later wrote an essay on his mentor titled “Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Blues.” Hart is also the author of the biography James Dickey: The World as a Lie, another book full of mixed feelings toward its self-mythologizing subject, of whom he writes: “To my great relief, Dickey expressed little animosity toward my project. But he obviously had worries, the main one being the way I would address the romanticized versions of his life that he had aired so free-spiritedly in conversations and publications.” Hart addresses these problems in depth, as the full title of the book indicates. (The subtitle, he claims, was Dickey’s idea.) And I’m fascinated by how Richard Ellmann, the author of perhaps the most acclaimed literary biography of all time, produced three separate protégés whose work—Atlas on Bellow, Hart on Dickey, Lewis on Burgess—all but explodes with ambivalence toward their subjects, their own ambitions, and the whole notion of biography itself. Thinking of Ellmann and his literary progeny, I’m reminded, as many of them undoubtedly were, of Stephen Dedalus’s famous speech in the library scene in Ulysses:

A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil…Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

That uneasy succession, which assumes unpredictable shapes in its passage from one generation to another, must be as difficult for biographers as for anyone else. And Ellmann may well have had other students whose names I don’t know yet. There’s obviously a good story here. Somebody should write a book about it.

Quote of the Day

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Newton could not admit that there was any difference between him and other men, except in the possession of such habits as…perseverance and vigilance. When he was asked how he made his discoveries, he answered, “By always thinking about them.”

William Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

The passion of the pulps

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Note: I’m heading out early this morning to speak to a class at McCormick Theological Seminary, followed by a reading tonight at 57th Street Books in Chicago. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 12, 2017.

Last year, I happened to read an essay by a distinguished but elderly science fiction writer who did his best to explain the absence of women in the pulp stories of the late thirties and early forties. See if you can spot the flaw in his reasoning:

Prior to public recognition in the United States that babies are not brought by the stork, there was simply no sex in the science fiction magazines. This was not a matter of taste, it was a matter of custom that had the force of law. In most places, non-recognition of the existence of sex was treated as though it was the law, and for all I know, maybe it was indeed local law. In any case, words or actions that could bring a blush to the leathery cheek of the local censor were clearly out.

But if there’s no sex, what do you do with female characters? They can’t have passions and feelings. They can’t participate on equal terms with male characters because that would introduce too many complications where some sort of sex might creep in. The best thing to do was to keep them around in the background, allowing them to scream in terror, to be caught and rescued, and, at the end, to smile prettily at the hero. (It can be done safely then because The End is the universal rescue.)

The man who wrote this, I’m sorry to say, was Isaac Asimov. It appeared in his essay “Women and Science Fiction,” which was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1983 and later reprinted in the posthumous collection Gold. And it might be the least convincing explanation that the man whom Carl Sagan called “the greatest explainer of the age” ever gave about anything.

Before I dig into the argument itself, I should probably review Asimov’s earlier statements about women in science fiction, which go back half a century. In the late thirties, before he became a published writer, he was a regular contributor to the letters column in Astounding. As I’ve noted here before, he had reason to later regret some of his comments, as when he wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science.” And he wasn’t kidding. In “Women and Science Fiction,” Asimov acknowledged:

No doubt there were a number of tough young men and girl-chasing young men who read science fiction [in those days], but by and large, I suspect it was the stereotypical “skinny intellectual” who wrote letters to the magazines and denounced any intrusion of femininity. I know. I wrote such letters myself. And in the days when I was reading and rating every science fiction story written, I routinely deducted many points for any intrusion of romance, however sanitized it might be.

To be fair, Asimov later outgrew these feelings, and while women rarely figured in his fiction, there were a few notable exceptions. Later in the same essay, he derided the science fiction magazines for showing “no guts whatsoever” in dealing with the absence of women in its pages, in large part because of its heavily masculine audience, and in his memoir In Joy Still Felt, he simply wrote: “I am a feminist.” (His actual track record on the subject has been discussed elsewhere by other writers, notably Cat Rambo, and I talk about his horrendous treatment of women at length in Astounding.)

So what do we do with the statement that I quoted above, which was made with a straight face toward the end of Asimov’s career? It’s factually correct on exactly one level, which is that the pulps had to be mindful of obscenity laws, and any explicit sexual content would place the entire magazine at risk. John W. Campbell—along with his assistant editor Kay Tarrant, whom he used as a scapegoat for writers who complained about being censored—had a reputation for prudery, and in the period in question, even a more adventurous editor wouldn’t have much of a choice. This is all true enough. But to argue that women couldn’t be depicted “on equal terms” with men because sex would inevitably enter the equation, as if the writer had no control over his characters, is so flimsy a justification that it reflects poorly on a writer who needed so badly to think of himself as rational. In its implication that sexual entanglements would naturally follow from the “passions and feelings” of women who work alongside men, it uncomfortably recalls similar arguments about women in the military and the sciences. It isn’t just wrong, but dumb, and it feels for all the world like a living fossil of an opinion that was somehow planted in Asimov’s brain in the thirties and then casually transmitted, fifty years later, to the readers of his magazine. And we don’t need to look far to find counterexamples. In the May 1940 issue of Super Science Stories, for instance, a short story appeared titled “Let There Be Light,” credited to Lyle Monroe. It was basically a Campbellian gadget yarn, and its basic plot—about two inventors who develop a free source of electricity and are targeted by the power companies—recalled a story that Campbell himself had written seven years earlier called “The Battery of Hate.” But one of the inventors was a woman. (The story does end with her male colleague literally dragging her to the courthouse to get married, but I suppose you can’t have everything.)

And even Asimov noticed. On May 4, 1940, he wrote a letter to his friend Frederik Pohl, the editor of Super Science Stories, that began: “I’m going to have to take up a new role today. At least it looks as if I’m under the painful necessity of defending the love interest in a story which is being attacked by other readers on that account.” He continued:

As official anti-love-interest-spouter of science fiction, I should have been the first to howl, but, strangely enough, I liked “Let There Be Light” a lot…There’s no denying that Lyle Monroe gave the story a liberal dash of femininity and I certainly can’t deny that several spots of the story called for raised eyebrows…However, Monroe was not obscene, or anything faintly approaching it. He was witty, I think, and humorous and the—shall we say—daring style of the humor is not too out of place in this good year 1940. Let’s not be prudes, ladies and gentlemen and—don’t look now—Queen Victoria died in 1902.

Asimov concluded: “The name may be a pseudonym for someone—I don’t know—but one thing! It is not a pseudonym for Isaac Asimov, in case someone wants to be funny.” The notion that anyone could think that Asimov could have written it was funny in itself, but in any case, it was a pen name—for Robert A. Heinlein. He had submitted the story to Campbell, who rejected it with a letter that hinted at the real reason why female characters so rarely appeared. There were “passions and feelings” involved, all right, but they didn’t belong to the women. The words are Campbell’s, but the italics are mine:

Your work is good. Even this is good, despite the fact that it’s bouncing. Main reason: the femme is too good. The science fiction readers have shown a consistent distaste for…feminine scenery in science fiction stories. She’s much more nicely handled than the average woman in science fiction, but I’m still afraid of her.

Quote of the Day

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The conspiracy theory of society is very widespread, and it has very little truth in it. Only when conspiracy theoreticians come into power does it become something like a theory which accounts for things which actually happen…But the interesting thing is that such a conspiracy never—or “hardly ever”—turns out the way that is intended.

Karl Popper, “The Conspiracy Theory of Society”

Written by nevalalee

November 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

The private eyes of culture

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Yesterday, in my post on the late magician Ricky Jay, I neglected to mention one of the most fascinating aspects of his long career. Toward the end of his classic profile in The New Yorker, Mark Singer drops an offhand reference to an intriguing project:

Most afternoons, Jay spends a couple of hours in his office, on Sunset Boulevard, in a building owned by Andrew Solt, a television producer…He decided now to drop by the office, where he had to attend to some business involving a new venture that he has begun with Michael Weber—a consulting company called Deceptive Practices, Ltd., and offering “Arcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis.” They are currently working on the new Mike Nichols film, Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson.

When the article was written, Deceptive Practices was just getting off the ground, but it went on to compile an enviable list of projects, including The Illusionist, The Prestige, and most famously Forrest Gump, for which Jay and Weber designed the wheelchair that hid Gary Sinise’s legs. It isn’t clear how lucrative the business ever was, but it made for great publicity, and best of all, it allowed Jay to monetize the service that he had offered for free to the likes of David Mamet—a source of “arcane knowledge,” much of it presumably gleaned from his vast reading in the field, that wasn’t available in any other way.

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of another provider of arcane knowledge who figures prominently in one of my favorite novels. In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, the narrator, Casaubon, comes home to Milan after a long sojourn abroad feeling like a man without a country. He recalls:

I decided to invent a job for myself. I knew a lot of things, unconnected things, but I wanted to be able to connect them after a few hours at a library. I once thought it was necessary to have a theory, and that my problem was that I didn’t. But nowadays all you needed was information; everybody was greedy for information, especially if it was out of date. I dropped in at the university, to see if I could fit in somewhere. The lecture halls were quiet; the students glided along the corridors like ghosts, lending one another badly made bibliographies. I knew how to make a good bibliography.

In practice, Casaubon finds that he knows a lot of things—like the identities of such obscure figures as Lord Chandos and Anselm of Canterbury—that can’t be found easily in reference books, prompting a student to marvel at him: “In your day you knew everything.” This leads Casaubon to a sudden inspiration: “I had a trade after all. I would set up a cultural investigation agency, be a kind of private eye of learning. Instead of sticking my nose into all-night dives and cathouses, I would skulk around bookshops, libraries, corridors of university departments…I was lucky enough to find two rooms and a little kitchen in an old building in the suburbs…In a pair of bookcases I arranged the atlases, encyclopedias, catalogs I acquired bit by bit.”

This feels a little like the fond daydream of a scholar like Umberto Eco himself, who spent decades acquiring arcane knowledge—not all of it required by his academic work—before becoming a famous novelist. And I suspect that many graduate students, professors, and miscellaneous bibliophiles cherish the hope that the scraps of disconnected information that they’ve accumulated over time will turn out to be useful one day, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. (Casaubon is evidently named after the character from Middlemarch who labors for years over a book titled The Key to All Mythologies, which is already completely out of date.) To illustrate what he does for a living, Casaubon offers the example of a translator who calls him one day out of the blue, desperate to know the meaning of the word “Mutakallimūn.” Casaubon asks him for two days, and then he gets to work:

I go to the library, flip through some card catalogs, give the man in the reference office a cigarette, and pick up a clue. That evening I invite an instructor in Islamic studies out for a drink. I buy him a couple of beers and he drops his guard, gives me the lowdown for nothing. I call the client back. “All right, the Mutakallimūn were radical Moslem theologians at the time of Avicenna. They said the world was a sort of dust cloud of accidents that formed particular shapes only by an instantaneous and temporary act of the divine will. If God was distracted for even a moment, the universe would fall to pieces, into a meaningless anarchy of atoms. That enough for you? The job took me three days. Pay what you think is fair.”

Eco could have picked nearly anything to serve as a case study, of course, but the story that he choses serves as a metaphor for one of the central themes of the book. If the world of information is a “meaningless anarchy of atoms,” it takes the private eyes of culture to give it shape and meaning.

All the while, however, Eco is busy undermining the pretensions of his protagonists, who pay a terrible price for treating information so lightly. And it might not seem that such brokers of arcane knowledge are even necessary these days, now that an online search generates pages of results for the Mutakallimūn. Yet there’s still a place for this kind of scholarship, which might end up being the last form of brainwork not to be made obsolete by technology. As Ricky Jay knew, by specializing deeply in one particular field, you might be able to make yourself indispensable, especially in areas where the knowledge hasn’t been written down or digitized. (In the course of researching Astounding, I was repeatedly struck by how much of the story wasn’t available in any readily accessible form. It was buried in letters, manuscripts, and other primary sources, and while this happens to be the one area where I’ve actually done some of the legwork, I have a feeling that it’s equally true of every other topic imaginable.) As both Jay and Casaubon realized, it’s a role that rests on arcane knowledge of the kind that can only be acquired by reading the books that nobody else has bothered to read in a long time, even if it doesn’t pay off right away. Casaubon tells us: “In the beginning, I had to turn a deaf ear to my conscience and write theses for desperate students. It wasn’t hard; I just went and copied some from the previous decade. But then my friends in publishing began sending me manuscripts and foreign books to read—naturally, the least appealing and for little money.” But he perseveres, and the rule that he sets for himself might still be enough, if you’re lucky, to fuel an entire career:

Still, I was accumulating experience and information, and I never threw anything away…I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2018 at 8:41 am

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