11/28/10

Commedia dell'arte




When Stephen Stratford broke from his luxury lifestyle to forward me Mick Hartley's complaint about the Saatchi Gallery I misinterpreted his sarcasm as a recommendation and attended the Newspeak exhibition myself. Entry to the Saatchi Collection is free, and if you get off the tube at Victoria you can enjoy a nice stroll through Knightsbridge past empty, harshly-lit designer outlets that resemble Moscow shops during a 1980s shortage.

My favourites in the exhibition were Robert Fry and Maaike Schoorel and Jonathan Wateridge because I'm an old-fashioned sucker for sticky stuff pushed around on canvas, although I accept that what appears to be aesthetics is just as likely to be conceptual. Artists nowadays swap styles in the way that Japanese teenagers change clothes - rockabillies one day, Goths the next - and I envy them for it. Nor did I need to be warned to avoid the gallery essays, the reading of which inevitably becomes a frustrating game of Spot The Verb.

But if you want a way in my cheater's tip is to head straight to the fifth floor and look at the artists' photographs for some good old-fashioned stereotyping. Pictures about pictures...

11/24/10

Queen of Horror. And Ingrid Pitt

Ingrid Pitt's resumé is the cult ultimate: from The House That Dripped Blood to The Wicker Man to Smiley's People. But can we pause in our sadness at her passing to recall her in the lavish Jason King? I could say they don't make them like that any more but be honest, you could throw a stone in Soho and hit a dozen like her. Which is precisely why Pitt was so special to British horror - she was a type. Three fingers of Glenlivit and some cheese to you, madam.

11/23/10

The incredible Fran Lebowitz


This interview is so good you could cut and paste the whole thing. It starts with FL talking about her appearances on Law & Order, then moves to Keith Richards...
Have you read the Keith Richards memoir?
I did. I did.

How'd it turn out?
You know, it's good. It's good. I mean first of all, James Fox is a good writer. It's very unusual to choose a writer like that, I think, to do that kind of book [...]

Somebody told me that Keith's book was going to be written by Nick Tosches at one point.
Is that right? He would've been a great choice. He's a great writer. He would've also been a great choice, but he's not English. You know Keith is very English. People forget that, and James Fox is English. Keith is really English in a way that people who are younger are not that strongly their own nationality, you know? Have you read the book?

No. Only excerpts.
When you read the book there's this tremendous connection to being English, especially in that era.

The war era?
Right. Every English person that age, always the first thing they tell you is they talk about rationing and what they're talking about is rationing of candy because they were children. This never leaves them. You would think they were survivors of Auschwitz, you know? "We only got this much candy ever!" I love Nick Tosches as a writer. I think he's a fantastic writer and he would always be a great choice, I think, but he's not English so maybe it's better to have an English person.
... and then only after this does the interviewer ask 'Are you still playing drums?'

Full transcript here at NYMag.com.

The low moon helps me sing

Fingers just flying across the keyboard now. But I still have time for James Ellroy interviewed in 1995:
ELLROY: Raymond Chandler once wrote that Dashiell Hammett gave murder back to the people who really committed it. This was his comment, I believe, on the 'tea-cozy' genre, and I think that's interesting, and I think that I would like to do that again. You're under a great deal of pressure, if you write crime fiction, which is what I used to write, to create serious characters, so-called sympathetic characters, with which the readers can empathize, so that you can build a readership. Of course, it can kill you because you have to write the same book over and over again. And I think that Chandler, who I have less affection for by the day, spawned an whole number of easy imitators. His style is easy to adapt to the personal prejudices of the individual writers, which is why you now have the gay private eye, the black private eye, the woman private eye, and every other kind of private eye. But I don't think that's the realistic archetype of twentieth century violent intrigue: to me, it's these legbreakers, these guys like Pete Bondurant, corrupt cops like Dave Klein, and I take a great deal of satisfaction out of putting these guys back in history.

Ron Hogan: When I read critics of your work, they often react: "Oh my god, he's writing these horrible homophobic, racist, misogynist, psychopathic books." And I'm thinking: "No, he's not writing from his perspective. He's getting into the heads of these ugly characters." You're not endorsing their world by any means.

JE: I think I know what's behind this, especially some of the views expressed by Mike Davis. These are fully rounded characters, and the racism and homophobia are casual attriubutes, not defining characteristics. These are not lynchers or gaybashers, toadies of the corrupt system. When you have characters that the reader empathizes with, who are carrying the story, saying "nigger" and "faggot" and "spic", it puts people off. Which is fine. I would like to provoke ambiguous responses in my readers. That's what I want. There's part of me that would really like to be one of Dudley Smith's goons and go back and beat up some jazz musicians, and there's part of me that's just appalled.
(Photo c/- The Guardian)

Back to silence back to minus

I'm not one of the people who worship Chuck Palahniuk and I'm not that big a fan of the movie (I started liking David Fincher after Zodiac) but, credit where credit is due. Fight Club gave novels the same happy kick up the ass that Reservoir Dogs gave to movies. Here is Palahniuk talking about source material:
RH: Let me start by saying, and I mean this as a compliment, that you have a very twisted imagination.

CP: I wish it were just mine but it's really all of my friends. About eighty percent of Fight Club (1996) is received information. I can go to parties and say, "How many people have doctored food in the service industry?" and get their stories... people write the books for me; all I've got to do is remember everybody's stories and put them together. So, I can't take credit for most of it.

RH: So how did you first get interested in hearing these stories?

CP: I was always disappointed when I went to read anything. I'd go to the library and I'd pull fifty books off the shelf and none of them were anything I wanted to read. And I always thought, you know, I could do something better. And there's always stories that really stand out that make me laugh out loud when people tell them. People have fantastically funny stories. So I thought, why not collect these things instead of letting them be wasted, letting them go out in thin air. I collect them and put them together somehow and it seems to work.

11/22/10

Two artists


Two London-based artists I like: Ellis Scott and Elizabeth Eamer. Scott photographs for Dazed and Confused but that doesn't interest me as much as his nightlife photography. I can't decide if his disciplined and (visually) educated documentary images are in contrast to his subjects' disarray or a by-product of it. Drunk people don't usually look this interesting, surely? Londoninnit.

Elizabeth Eamer draws, mainly. Her work is based on the Mass Observation movement, a group formed in Britain the 1930s with the stated purpose of creating 'an anthropology of ourselves.' After completing a big solo show last month Eamer has been sketching a spooning (think bed-in) and has a piece going at the Auction East. I like her thick-lined drawings of overlapping, recollected people.

11/20/10

Today's apropos of nothing




Quincy MD; Band à part; Miss Mosh; Sleepy Hollow. When I was flatting it was a good game to watch Quincy MD and take all the dialogue literally. The ep when Quincy yelled at someone 'Your father was my right arm!' was a particular hit. I'm always thinking Band à part. Miss Mosh who begat GaGa. A lot of Tim Burton's movies get better with age, which is interesting.

OK: day's a wastin'.

11/19/10

The F word

Sopranos creator David Chase interviewed by PBS presenter Jim Lehrer in 2001:
Q: Much is being made about the profanity in The Sopranos. How important is that to its success?

DAVID CHASE: It is important. I can't comment as to whether - how important it is to the success of the show - but it is important. I've heard people say, well, you know, they can do all that swearing on HBO. They can show all that violence; they can show all those bare breasts, and I don't believe those are the reasons that the show is a success. I believe you could do this show on a network. The only place you'd have a problem - because you could do it with less violence if you so chose to - you could probably do it with - you wouldn't need to have the Bing dancers be naked - that's not an absolute requirement, but it would lose something only in language, I think. I think language is important.

Q: So it wouldn't be the same program - wouldn't be the same story?

DAVID CHASE: It sounds crazy to say that if you can't say the "f" word it'd be different, but all I can say is that would be the one place where I would have trouble. I'd be writing stuff I thought wasn't accurate. And that I think would filter down - that language thing. I guess language is important to people. I think that language thing would filter down to other aspects of the show and kind of a creeping unreality would get into it.

11/18/10

The passage of my life is measured out in shirts

Complaining about a new seven-hour production / reading of The Great Gatsby, Time theater reviewer Joan Marcus mentions in passing that the novel is 49,000 words long. I knew there was a reason I liked it. I first read Gatsby when my brother was doing his first year of English lit at Auckland Uni. His secondhand paperback edition was a tie-in with the 1974 movie version with Robert Redford on the cover so I picked it up because I liked Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid*. (My brother is seven years older than me, so I must have been around 12.) Anyway: in; out - bang. And that's the book. Whether or not it dates from that experience, I have always associated the form of the novel with concision. This puts me at odds with almost everyone nowadays but when I look back on my book collection (i.e. visualise it in its Kane / Raiders style storage warehouse) my favourite - or rather my most enjoyed - reads are the shorter ones. Why fuck around? You focus, You get in there, you get out. Travel light, etc.

I'm closing in on the final draft of The New Thing ™ and cutting left and right. Last draft was 90,000; this one is peeking under 75,000. I keep what's been cut in a dump file and review it afterwards; no matter how good it is, it's never good enough.

* Actually I liked Alias Smith & Jones on TV but knew it was a rip-off. Not a bad one, though. I remember watching M*A*S*H* on TV and thinking, 'This would make a really good movie...'

11/15/10

WIP

New draft, nearly there... I've gone into some sort of zone where the only thing I watch is Mad Men and the only things I read are old detective novels and the NYT. This is fairly normal behaviour for creative types; when Irvine Welsh was writing Trainspotting all he watched was Star Wars, over and over, although drugs may have been involved. And David Lynch eats the same thing for lunch every day - broccoli and a tuna sandwich, a quirk which drove Isabella Rosselini from his life. Good company, happy thoughts. Repetition is the mother of invention. When I was writing The Church of John Coltrane I only listened to Coltrane, of course - which drove the neighbours nuts. The soundtrack for the new thing is Sly and the Family Stone, Sticky Fingers... but hey, that's a whole other blog entry.

11/12/10

Bender

I've been taking blogging much too seriously lately, and I swore I'd never do that (again). But man, you need a distraction when you hit a bump. Bump being dealt with. Normal transmission to be resumed, etcetera, etcetera.

11/11/10

The Sweet Smell of Success

The Social Network benefits from a second viewing. Aaron Sorkin's script is so upfront you get all the main points the first time but re-examination turns up all kinds of gems: Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) putting out a fire while he's putting out an actual fire; the champion rowers beginning to lose from the moment they're interrupted in the practice tank; the very Citizen Kane arc of Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) breaking into the frat party virtually, attracting and being surrounded by more and more people until he ends up being crowded out and as isolated as he was in the beginning; the Facebook blue that creeps into the edges of the sky until it's filled.

Sunrise and sunset are as one in this movie - it's on Fincher time - but the tone is very noir, The Social Network is really this generation's The Sweet Smell of Success, filled with talk and sleek urban treachery. Male bonds are more prized than male-female relationships and while there's much mention of money there's little evidence of it. The most direct expressions of wealth are crass and excessive; Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, a convincing shit) fusses over vintage whiskies in a droning nightclub and drives a humorous mom-mobile. Sex is likewise superfluous - the most fun women (girls) have in the film is with a bong. The real glitter is the chatter of keyboards.

Much has been made of how much Sorkin's Zuckerberg is like the real one. Jesse Eisenburg's performance certainly satisfies the stereotype of today's Asperger Kid (how time flies - it seems like only yesterday that all movie teens were bipolar) but it's more likely that the character has been reverse-engineered from the modern Zuckerberg as he appears in press statements and leaked online gloats. The audience is meant to to be appalled by his lack of empathy but an early scene in which he speedily constructs a site to insult every female on campus is undeniably cool: to object would be like criticising Robert de Niro for stealing in Heat. To be online is to be understanding of, if not actively engaged in, narcissistic stupidity. The character's actions are more of a caution: therebutforthegraceofgod-dot-com.

We live in a larger world now, something which Fincher telegraphs by shrinking the rest of it down to size. The Henley Royal Regatta is miniaturised in digital (i.e. faux) tilt-shift so it looks quaint, even petty; Harvard is a series of Roman-looking facades, like faded theater flats; a final decadent Los Angeles party is as squalid and domestic as the fraternity binges at the start of the movie. If TV, as someone once said, is about people walking in and out of rooms, the internet is about them being locked inside. Zuckerberg only physically exits locations a handful of times: trapped in a Last Year at Marienbad loop of opprobrium, he can't even leave his lawyer's office. His fate should be consolation for real people - Fincher compares them all to a caged chicken - but it's not. From the stupid girls to the repulsive boys, the stale arguments to the unsexy sex, The Social Network is a groovy place, and you want to be part of it.

11/8/10

His nibs


I got into clutch pencils late. I'm a fan of the old-fashioned wooden kind (2B) which I enjoy sharpening with a pocket knife (a 60mm Laguiole) or the aluminium-bodied sharpener that my grandfather gave me, which I've carried around the globe several times. When I was in Bali the humidity was so intense that graphite was the only thing that could make a mark on the wilting page but in London both knives and wood shavings are frowned upon so I picked up a plastic-barrelled clutch from Ryman's in Oxford Street and have never looked back. The Staedtler pictured here is aluminium with a plastic cap - 2B, 0.5mm leads. The metal barrel encourages the user to press harder than necessary - it's like holding a scalpel or a dentist's tool - but it has a nice action on newsprint, which is good for the NYT crossword. The Staedtler is also extremely well-balanced, and cylindrical. (With clutch pencils many people go for Pentels which are hexagonal, too short and set with a clip that's too low in the body. Fine for sketching perhaps, but useless for writing.)

The Rotring cartridge fountain pen glides across Moleskine stock as smoothly as a pencil. Rotring's black ink leaves a very satisfying mark but their red is rather wan. This model has a medium fine nib and a beautifully straight cylindrical barrel with no adornments which makes the grip comfortable, although the proportions are slightly wide; if I'm writing for a longer stretch I tend to change to the more slender Aurora. The Rotring is also very reliable. It has never leaked either in heat or an airplane cabin, and the shaft accommodates a spare second cartridge which cleverly balances the pen. It's also excellent for drawing, which can be a distraction. I have two but can identify this one as the going-away present I received when I left the Auckland City Art Gallery because it has a little dent in the cap.

I don't really like ballpoints but they write on anything so you need to have one. This model has obvious appeal because it's from the Royal Plaza on Scotts Singapore but it also has an extremely satisfying click action. Virgin Atlantic also do an excellent complimentary ballpoint although the clip is loose and easily lost. Flashing either sort about gives lazy thinkers the impression that you're richer and more successful than you are. (Disclosure: VA flight attendants on the Heathrow / LAX do a fantastic gin and tonic.) Both are also light enough to tuck behind your ear. I'm right-handed but put pens behind my left ear because I am contrary. (I can also write left-handed: I was very bored as a child.)

My Aurora uses longer Parker refills and tends to leak. It's fitted with a fine nib but with use the tines have spread to the point where it must be a medium now. I used this pen to write most of Shirker and Electric, using green legal pads because I found the colour soothing and it made the pages easy to spot after being inserted in a white-paged ms. (In New Zealand legal pads came in an onion skin finish but in the UK they're called Conference Pads and are scratchy, thick and no fun.) The Aurora's nib benefits from a smoother writing surface; at the moment I'm mostly using it on the Ryman wire bound Shorthand notebook. Because it's old it tends to leak, especially on planes, and the slit admits too much ink for recycled stock. Nevertheless this is the pen I use most - it's mah thinkin' pen. I use it as often as I use the lap top.

My disposable pen of choice is a Pilot V Ball which is the most precise marker on a Moleskine or almost any other stock. If you want to diagram something, it's ideal. But the short moulded barrels are ridged to secure the cap and the moulding digs after a while, which drives me nuts. What's wrong with a smooth shaft, people? The rolling tip also encourages poor penmanship so after half a page I end up writing like a doctor. I use the black one when I need to make notes or doodle during phone calls, the red to correct a typescript and the green to run big diagonal slashes across the page when I'm juggling the black, red ink and pencilled notes.

T bones

November is my favourite month. You can ruin it for me by growing a moustache or writing a novel. There's nothing wrong with writing a draft of a novel in thirty days. Faulkner did, as we are reminded to the point of annoyance; less glowingly, so did Sebastian Faulks when he was paid a gazillion to write a post-Fleming Bond (twenty-eight days for typing and two for sobbing in the shower). A better use for November would be Publish A Novel In A Month.

Terry Southern spent a year on his novels. Specifically he wrote a page a day, then on New Year's (approx) dispatched said 365pp "manuscript" off to some poor bastard of an editor. He had no judgement but he had an amazing talent and instinct for concept - the big shape wired like a switchboard to a wider community of cultural references - which is why he flourished in film even if his storytelling faltered (or wandered, rather) on the page. Southern was simultaneously hard-working and lazy; dogged yet careless. He was English, in other words. Plenty of American authors drank that much and crashed; Southern crashed and kept on going. His son Nile wrote about him in Gadfly in 2001:
Terry used to say to me, "Never take a job just for the money." I was ten years old at the time, and he continued saying it as my friends were doing their summer jobs, which I eventually did as well. "Only take a job that somehow relates to film work, or that informs or facilitates your creativity. "A night watchman" was his favorite suggestion — which, for a kid, of course, was not possible. But the irony is that Terry himself ended up taking so many jobs "just for the money" — and yet they never paid well. It worked like this: someone would find out how to contact him (often by looking him up in the phone book), call him up, bottom-line it by saying they could pay him $5,000 ($2,500 now and $2,500 when he finished), he would say "yes" and it would be another (failed) project under way. If he was lucky, there would be some sort of contract where the Guild minimum was promised. But that would only kick in when a studio picked it up, which they never did.
His work method is described thus:
Early on, Terry developed the habits for composition that remained with him for the rest of his life. "Let discipline be my touchstone," he wrote in his journal of the early '50s, and later, toward fulfilling his minimum "page a day," he would say, "Get up, no matter what time, have coffee and go to the desk. Chain yourself to the chair."
Altx interviewed him about his work method:
What is your general routine for writing? Do you need to create some sort of discipline to handle different demands from articles to screenplays and teaching?

TS: I like to work at night. My metabolism seems to be one of those if there is such a thing. It's sort of a hit and miss thing with me. The nearest thing to a methodical procedure that I can relate to, in terms of theory, is unfortunately just a sense of imminent deadline, either imaginary or real. Imaginary in the sense of deciding of 'Well, you really must get working on this' in order to avoid some kind of last minute rush. If I had, as I always try to encourage my son, Nile, to develop a methodical or disciplined approach, I would be more productive and prolific.
Southern wrote for Stanley Kubrick and did or did not write a film called Easy Rider, depending on which living person you speak to. He told Dazed and Confused:
How much involvement did [Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda] have in the script? Because they're both credited along with you as scriptwriters.

Well, right at the beginning Dennis (Hopper) and Peter (Fonda) had just this one idea, right? Listen, this is their contribution to the whole thing. These two guys, Peter and Dennis, at first they were going to be in cars, so they could do stunts in cars. It was going to be called Barnstormers or something. This is what they came to me with. So we changed it to motorbikes, but the idea then was that they would score some drugs and--this is when people are just beginning to realize you can make big money in drugs--so they buy some Coke in Mexico, sell it, ride their bikes to Florida, buy a boat and leave the American rat-race. Sail off into the sunset. The entertainment aspect of the film, presumably, was to be their pilgrimage from Mexico to Key West. That was it.
What were the formative experiences that led you to write Easy Rider? There's an anger and bleakness that comes through in that film that made it quite unlike anything else being made at that time.

Well, I'm glad that anger and bleakness came through. Because Dennis Hopper didn't have a clue as to what the film was about. The thrust of the film, from my point of view, the philosophical position is that it's supposed to be an indictment of the blue-collar thing, the truck-driver people of America, for their intolerance and their support of the Vietnam war. It's supposed to be an indictment of the worst part of mainstream Middle America, as personified by those two assholes in the pick-up truck. Bigotry incarnate. And the final sequence is, I guess, the ultimate statement about that mentality, where these two assholes don't like their looks, So that's the ending. And when Dennis Hopper read it he said 'Are you kidding? Are you going to kill of both of them? Yeah, that's what he said, 'kill off', (laughs). So I said, 'Well, that's the only way it can be, because otherwise we're not saying anything, it's just a little odyssey by a couple of irresponsible hippies. So they've got to serve some purpose, make some point'.
(Photo: Stanley Kubrick, 1963)

11/7/10

Gonna take a while for this egg to hatch

Deborah Eisenberg interview at Beatrice.com:
Ron Hogan: What starts a short story for you?

Deborah Eisenberg: There are a few things that might kick something off, like an image or a phrase. Sometimes there's a kind of tonality that I want, almost as if I was writing a piece of music. Unfortunately, I'm not at all musical and could never even dream of that, but sometimes in the back of my mind there's...you could almost describe it as a musical model, really... You know how sometimes there's just a certain slant of sunlight, the fragrance of a certain flower, and a whole world will open up in your head? You think, "What is that?" That's what I go for, an exploration of the signals that make you feel that way.

RH: It's a very meticulous process for you.

DE: I wish I were faster, and more fluent, that I knew much sooner what I was going for. I wish I were more efficient in every way. I'm just not, and I can't seem to do anything about it. It just takes many months of scrabbling around in swampy territory to figure out what it is that I want. There's always a point at which I think I have a final draft, then I read it and ask myself, "Why have I written this?" Then I go back and write it again and that's the final draft.
(Photo: Diana Michener.)

11/5/10

My only weapon is my pen, Oh and the frame of mind I'm in

Because noir and crime fiction has had such an influence on my work (mentioned briefly in context here) I'm always interested in other writers' thoughts on the genre. In an old interview at Beatrice.com Kazuo Ishiguro discusses the form of the English post-war detective novel:
RH: In allowing Christopher [in When We Orphans] to grow up and become the celebrated detective he's dreamed of being since a child, was it fun for you to-- I don't want to say parody, but let's say tweak the conventions of that type of fictional English detective?

Ishiguro: Yes, it was fun just at the basic level of a reader wanting to be entertained. I do enjoy those detective mysteries. Now, over the distance of time, there is a certain kind of quaintness that comes from that style and the atmosphere of that past age. But in a way, it was my way of trying to seduce a reader, you know, evoking a certain kind of atmosphere, an old world, Edwardian atmosphere. But I did have other reasons for choosing that kind of cozy detective story as a thing to parody or pastiche. I was quite keen to look at that view of how you deal with evil. In those detective mysteries of that time, there was a certain view of what evil is and how you deal with it to expunge it. Those mystery novels written by people like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, or Dorothy L. Sayers often give you an idealized harmonious community, usually an English village, that would be absolutely tranquil if only this one thing hadn't gone wrong...which is that somebody's been murdered. The evil is always very clear and easy to identify; you just don't know who the bad person is, and that's the mystery. So the detective unmasks this one element and everything goes back to being beautiful again.

What struck me about that whole genre is how it flourished immediately after the First World War. In other words, it was a very poignant escapism on the part of a generation that knew full well that evil and suffering in the modern world wasn't about a master criminal or a clever vicar who was poisoning people for somebody's inheritance. They had had the trauma of experiencing modern technological warfare in a world where nationalism and racism had gone bananas. They had seen a vision of the world that their leaders couldn't control, where bloodshed and suffering seemed to be unlimited in potential, and they very much wanted to escape it. I mean, they knew full well that the world wasn't like those novels, evil wasn't like that. But they wanted for a time to escape into that vision of how simple life could be if all you had to do was point to the person who was committing evil and the problem would go away. So part of my reason for being attracted to the whole detective thing was to say, "Well, let's look at someone who believes that everything that's gone bad in the world, in his personal world as well as the larger world, comes from an evil criminal element that needs to be unmasked. Let's bring him into the chaos of the 20th century and the brink of another world war. Let's see how he copes. Let's see how long he can hang on to his little vision of how to deal with the problems of life."
My new novel has a crime at its kernel but has spun off to embrace another subject entirely. Such digression drives publishers crazy - to rejection, even - but it suits me just fine.

11/3/10

Aches & Cream

I go back and forth between first and third person. I instinctively write in the first because it accommodates my prose accent and my errors, and I enjoy the romantic folly of a narrator who has no idea what's really going on. (Stanley Kubrick said something about the only true romantics being criminals and insane people. Knowing Stan he probably lifted the quote from someone else; anyway, I'm taking it.)

Currently however I'm older than the person / people I'm writing / writing about so I find myself naturally slipping into the third. I need the distance. Nicholson Baker talks about that here:
Q: Why is it that so many educated, intelligent readers can't tell the difference between the writer and his or her protagonist, and confuse viewpoints expressed with the viewpoints of the author?

NICHOLSON BAKER: Well, they're right, in a sense, to be confused like that. There was this whole tradition of new criticism that swept across the 20th century. The poem was kept utterly distinct from the writer's life. Biographical considerations were kept out completely. That's complete crap. Of course the fact that Coleridge had a laudanum habit is germane to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So, to a certain extent, readers are right. Readers are right when they read a book like Lolita and think "Well, Nabokov must have had a thing for little girls." How could he have written 300-some pages with lovingly obsessive descriptions about downy hair on Lolita's arm, if it wasn't something that really got to him? You can take that a little too far. What Nabokov was doing was maybe taking one tiny chip of himself and then putting it under the highest powered microscope that he had and then subjecting it to many different strange sidelights and coming up with a whole book. To make an equal sign between that tiny chip and how he was as a person is a mistake. The Mezzanine is about 87 per cent myself. Room Temperature is a little bit more. But The Fermata is purely fictional and not like me at all.
Full interview is here. Photo: Ian Dalziel.

11/2/10

Playing my records and dancing all night

Fuck, she's back. And it's good. La Winehouse delivers a fishtailing siren version of 'It's My Party' because the song is not too long, everyone loves it and all British singers must select their Comeback ™ singles from These Foolish Things. Seriously, AW's version is one long vocal handbrake slide into melancholy, regret, smeared eyeliner and back again. Producer Mark Ronson cuts things short before they get messy although the spoken section will be disturbing to some. You can listen to it on Pinboardblog but NYMag's mirror is faster.

11/1/10

I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things

I thought the last two episodes of Mad Men - 'The Suitcase' and 'The Summer Man' - were two of the finer pieces of TV writing I've seen. I've been watching each episode twice (they screen twice a week here) and the repeat viewing is rewarded: the stories get deeper, and better. Ken Levine writes about the series on his blog: Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner insists he's a team player but his fingerprints are on everything:
Matt comes up with the general arc and direction of the season. The staff works together with him on breaking stories and then write individual scripts. Matt then takes his pass at every draft. That's not to say that a lot of the original writer's draft doesn't make the final cut but everything passes through Matt first. And that's in addition to the scripts he writes by himself. Hey, he's the real deal, folks.

To confirm all this I [Ken Levine] double-checked with Matt, who added this:

"I have had a lot of writers come through the show. And the story process in that room is very collaborative and essential. I do not and more importantly can not do it by myself."
Weiner's education included photography, film and acting. In another interview with Bob Fisher he reveals that the prospect of the writing life "terrified" him:
The popular mythology was that talent and drive had nothing to do with it. You needed to know somebody to get a foot in the door. It's also true that your chances of succeeding are very low when you're an aspiring novelist or poet. My parents were very pleased that I got into film school, because it was like having a relative in the film business. The question was, why would you strive to be in a profession when you could be really good and not make it? The truth is that I am a tenacious person. I've learned that tenacity is a common part of the personalities of successful writers whom I have met. Now, maybe because I have had some success, I can say that the struggling for the 10 years or so before I got a paying job, made me a better writer. It was very clear in my mind that I was not going to set a time limit on myself. I had role models. I wouldn't say they were mentors, because I didn't know them. I would read about people's lives all the time, and see how long it took them, whether it was the Beatles who played together for eight years before they hit it big, or Stanley Kubrick who was also a terrible student with a physician father. When The Sopranos came on television, I found out that (creator) David Chase was 55 years old and I was already 32 years old, but it helped to know to not put a time limit on myself. I was prepared to struggle to the end.
(I appreciate the line about reading about people's lives: I was taught the same thing by my art teacher, Ken Robinson, who always told us to go straight to what artists say rather than what is said about them. Distributing such texts is one of the motivations for this blog.)

When Weiner was starting out he earned money for himself by being a contestant on Jeopardy. Interestingly, a similar thing happened to the Rear Window screenwriter John Michael Hayes. After returning home from service in the Pacific, Hayes was stricken with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis and spent a year and a half in hospital recovering from the illness. Then:
On a Sunday evening, while his family was at the movies, the twenty-nine year old writer packed his belongings, left a note for his parents and, with only $15 in his pocket, embarked on a cross-country journey, using two canes, his thumb and the goodwill of motorists kind enough to offer a ride... Hayes finally arrived in Los Angeles with $4.50 remaining and checked into the Mark Twain Hotel for the night, planning to go the following morning to CBS, where he had worked previously. En route to CBS the next day, Hayes passed the NBC radio studios, where there was a line of people waiting to get into one of the popular quiz shows, Double or Nothing. Hayes decided to wait and see the show. While he waited in line, one of the show's assistants saw him on canes and let him inside the studio ahead of everyone else. When he got inside, he was asked if he would like to be an assistant. Hayes said yes. The questions they asked were about English literature, and he won $640.
(Stories like that reassure me that I'm not working too hard. And that my health - touch wood - is pretty good.)

Cinema and TV writing has influenced my novels because I relish the moments in a story when nobody says anything and nothing happens - a neat trick if you're using only words, and often trying for the reader who must then do some thinking of his own. Again talking to Fisher, Weiner describes this approach very well:
You know, being a writer, the closest thing in production to writing is editing... [The] dean of the film school taught a class where he would show a film. Then, he would take a break, show it again, and explain it over a microphone as it was happening. That was the best writing class I ever had. That's where I saw The Apartment for the first time. He really influenced me in a non-formulaic way by explaining what tools a writer could use in cinema. I realized that everything I liked about both watching movies and making movies were those visual moments where there is nonverbal communications. Think of what you can learn by looking at the human face. There are those elements and also the real cinematic elements of seeing objects and people in their environments. You see a movie like The Conformist and say, 'It feels as if it's happening' - the storytelling, the incredible dialogue that was adapted from a spectacular novel, and then all the filmmaking that went into it, including performances, and how it was edited. It was very exciting to take these things apart and realize how much thought went into every aspect of great storytelling. That was very exciting to me.
(Re: The Conformist - my brief notes on Bertolucci's talk at the BFI here.)

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