Plus ça change

The flags American astronauts planted on the Moon are still standing, and they are probably white, which means they're like a Jasper Johns.

I saw the first Moon landing live on television, on a 12" black and white portable when I was five years old. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it because my older brother and his friend were babysitting: they fell asleep, I stayed up for it. I was crazy for space travel, and a bad sleeper.

This week I've been listening to the Purity Ring album Shrines c/- of a good friend who bought the vinyl and gifted me the free digital download that came with it: big ups. This is what friends are for. My listening habits are becoming increasingly Canadian. Megan James has one of Those Voices, and Corin Roddick is working in the sweet spot of melody and hip-hop that gave us Portishead, The Sneaker Pimps and Stateless before them. Like the Sneaker Pimps circa Becoming X, this is Purity Ring's moment.

Here's the band talking to GQ:
The intersection between that type of music [Soulja Boy], and what you guys are doing is fascinating. And it's different in how intimate it seems. Is it true that Megan draws most of the songwriting from a bunch of diaries she's kept since childhood?

James: Yeah, often I'll play the piano and just write songs straight from the diaries. But I never intended for what's happened to happen. Corin had asked me if I wanted to sing over what he was making. It wasn't that weird to do it. I'll write something down and a lot of the time whatever I've written down happens to fit perfectly over his melodies.

GQ: Is it weird to relive this old personal stuff?

Megan James: No, but I haven't really used anything that is that old. It's kind of the same thing as performing a song that's no longer new. I'm still emotional about it somewhat. I mean, I'm writing a journal and I never expected people to be singing those words, to be on stage and have people singing my journal entries back to me.
Shrines has a beautiful, treated sound: it's a delicate, modern, electronic product. Under the Radar popped the big question to Megan James and received the quintessentially Canadian answer:
How does the Purity Ring sound translate live?

We've found a few ways to translate it well. Corin's built a bunch of lanterns that surround him and he hits them with sticks and they light up and also trigger the melody which is really nice.
Read the full interview here.

Something about this kind of band always grabs me. As I wrote about the Sneaker Pimps in 2003:
The Sneaker Pimps' 'Low Five', from the Splinter LP has great songs but it still fails to grab me like Becoming X, the only album to feature singer / songwriter Kelli Dayton. In the usual sad and confusing chain of events that befalls only albums you love and never the ones you can do without, the Muse Lounge's copy of Becoming X disappeared-- not the original available in Marbecks, as I discovered to my cost, but the limited edition featuring Nellee Hooper's phat version of '6 Underground' (from The Saint), Line of Flight's whirly girl version of 'Spin Spin Sugar', and more.

In 1998 after the success of Becoming X Dayton was asked to leave the Sneaker Pimps, an expression of frustration, perhaps, from the male founders of a band that went on to be defined by its female vocals. I saw her perform a duet with Marc Almond on Later with Jools Holland and she wasn't so great; more recently she teamed up with Bootsy Collins for a single that wasn't so great either. But in the Sneaker Pimps she was more than perfect: she and the band worked in the same key or something, and became a sum greater than their parts. I guess they'll never get back together but the fantasy is tantalising: their dysfunction made them the trip-hop Fleetwood Mac.

Dayton now records under the name Kelli Ali and has a new LP called Tigermouth which doesn't seem to be out yet. She recorded with Marilyn Manson ("We had a great time but when we got the track back it was like 'oh!'") and practises kung fu.


Not writing in restaurants

For a writer reading on holiday is like letting somebody else drive. You try to relax but your foot's hovering on an imaginary brake. Clutching my fists on my knees as the Riviera shot by I saw this, from David Mamet's A Whore's Profession (1985):
When the meaning of the script is unclear in the theater, the actors and director usually assume that the author know what he or she was doing, and they reapply themselves to understanding the script.

In the movies if the meaning and worth of the script is not immediately obvious, everyone assumes the writer has failed.
I've had conversations like that. Nice fire engine: does it have to be so red?

Also on the pile was Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies (2005), the first Auster I've read since... Moon Palace, I think. Here he is pulling his usual stunt:
"What's your name?"
"Tom," Tom said.
"Of course. Tom Wood. I know all about you. In the middle of life's journey, I lost my way in a dark wood. But you're too ignorant to know that. You're one of those little men who can't see the forest for the trees."
This technique breaks a rule, for me. He shows you the thing, then he tells you he's shown you the thing, and he even breaks down the symbolism for you, exposing the already apparent aptronymn (wood = forest = forest for the trees). Look at the red fire engine, it's so red, red like fire, it's a red fire engine.

To me the narrator should be like Kate Moss: never complain, never explain. But Auster's Auster-like first person always explains. I don't mind, however. That's his style.


Tick of the clock

"You only get one chance to make a first impression—and that one chance with a reader lasts only minutes. It's no longer acceptable for a book to "get good on page 40." From your first sentence to the first pages of your novel, it's critical to hook readers immediately—whether that reader is an agent, editor, or patron in a bookstore. Not only do you want to quickly pull readers in with your story, you also need to establish your narrative voice as reliable, believable, talented, and authoritative. So how do you best accomplish this? In this brand new webinar, instructor and literary agent Kate McKean will show you how to catch a reader's eye with your first sentences and pages."
As an old advertisement's headline ran: "Quick -- who has the razor?" The illustration below the headline showed commuters on a railcar, one of whom was black. The African-American wasn't the one holding the razor but your eye was drawn to him first, which was the advertisement's message: first impressions are unreliable.

Kate McKean's pitch looks good, but see if you can spot the razor. It's at the start. Of course there is only one chance to make a first impression: if you had a second chance, the impression would be the second, or later impression. The opening phrase is a truism: the premise is not logical. Pick at things after that and they begin to unravel.
It's no longer acceptable for a book to "get good on page 40."
Kids these days. But when was it ever acceptable for 'a book to "get good on page 40?"' The Bible gets cracking pretty quick. As does Dickens. So do the pulps, so did Mills and Boon. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. If you think about it -- if you allow your mind to wander -- you will realise it's difficult to locate a period when it was ever 'acceptable for a book to "get good on page 40."'

But going with Kate: acceptable to whom?
 whether that reader is an agent, editor, or patron in a bookstore 
Nub ahoy. And note the order: this is not about you. This is about a busy agent looking for product. In Kate's case, "contemporary women's fiction, middle grade and young adult fiction of all stripes, craft, sports, and pop culture." This is not reading; it's shopping.

In my experience the editor reads with a more general view, i.e. how does this fit my list. Sure, they want the book to start well, but they're hardly panicky OMG types. Who knows what they're looking for? Pray you find one who likes your voice. (The other kind of editor -- the sub or copy editor -- is being paid to stay awake.)

As for the patron in a bookstore, their hansom cab waiting on the pavement outside... Really? A lot of people won't pick up a book if they don't like the cover. Many read the first page: just as many flick through. My father's mother would turn immediately to the last chapter, but she was a woman who could take the fun out of anything.

But I digress. Quick, who has the razor?

Writing has to work and it has to last. It drives me insane when people cook up moden lite recipes for the act of writing as if creativity is a commodity to be farmed and groomed and sold in bulk. The movie industry has been starving itself on fad diets like this for decades -- Robert McKee's Story, Syd Field -- and now the same crazes are threatening prose writers, boxing them into the same narrow stalls. Look at the wretched state of the movie business. Is that what you really want your work to be like -- concocted in a blitzkrieg of panic about whether or not it will be instantly liked?

If it is, here is Kate McKean's webinar Awesome First Pages: How to Start Your Story Right.

If not:
A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes.
-- Aristotle, Poetics


The cost of living

Wynton Marsalis is playing in town tonight. I thought of going but balked at the price: €100 is too much to pay to hear the blues.

Artistic expression is not means-tested. You don't lose your right to make it above a certain pay rate. And the proposition that art becomes harder to make after one attains financial security is one I'd be glad to test. But speaking as an artiste, one reaches a point -- an age -- when how much the artist earns becomes a factor in what they say. On the day when Picasso could increase the value of a dollar bill by drawing on it, his painting became a whole new game.

Or as a friend of mine once put it: 'I don't need Hollywood to tell me how tough life is.'

An ad hominem argument, but a good one.

Money rarely gets in the way of novels because writers, on average, earn less. The bestseller's reward is Sisyphean: John Grisham has to keep churning out them lawyer thrillers; bonne chance, JK Rowling, with that adult novel. Writers are the writers they always were: sometimes in the moment, one can strike it rich.

Money interferes with music all the time but we accept it, because the stadium experience is part of the aesthetic, and for every dollar Coldplay makes the record company makes 99, and were it not for the looming spectacle of Fat Elvis, what else, having seen a band once, would there be to watch? Led Zeppelin without the excess would be like a train without tracks.

But in film, in "Hollywood" -- money, that gets in the way.

Christopher Nolan's third Batman movie opens this week, and it's a grim tale. Gotham City has been modelled on Charles Dickens; the hero -- a billionaire -- is in crise; and the villain grew up in a prison with a shiv stashed in his teddy bear. It's layered.
Fascinated with architecture, the filmmaker describes the rises and falls of his characters as if they are elevation points of a blueprint plan...  He presents the trilogy almost as a tale of different levels — the heights of the city, the street level and the underground of caves and sewers. "Dark Knight Rises" presents a story where greed, hypocrisy and false justice bring down the city's bridges, stadium and the houses of government.

"We really wanted a cast of thousands, literally, and all of that for me is trying to represent the world in primarily visual and architectural terms," Nolan said. "So the thematic idea is that the superficial positivity is being eaten away from underneath; we tried to make that quite literal."

So much will be made of images of financial market abuse, politicians behaving badly, a terrorist attack at a professional football game and looting riots.
So much work and effort to make us feel down. A $250 million vision of hell; a comic book built behind 525-ton doors.
"I think my dad put it best when he visited and referred to it as the world's largest toy box," Nolan, back in Los Angeles, said last week with a rare relaxed chuckle.



(Pics: Phantom From Space 1953; Paris Texas; sketch; Wong Kar Wei; Fantastic Four #77, August 1968)

A voice I'm hearing, sweet to my ear

Because lugging around 350 loose pages is hard I saved the Final Draft document as a .rtf, opened it in Calibre, exported it as a .mobi file and dropped it into the Kindle app. Processing the files took less time than it took the phone to sync. And then, hey presto, I was reading my new novel on my iPhone.

It's not perfect. The left hand margin is too wide (Final Draft's default page set-up accommodates punch-holes) and the chapter headings aren't linked, but for proofing purposes, it's ideal.

Every six months formatting ebook has become easier. A lot easier.

Writing -- that's still hard. And publishers, they still have to make money, so tomorrow probably belongs to Mia and her Twitter followers. But remember in BSG when Adam lends President Roslyn his copy of A Murder on Picon? I'm hoping the day after tomorrow will be like that. A little less Dani, a little more Runkle.


Boom! There she was

I have a short story 'Here She Comes Now' in the latest edition of Landfall 223, Fantastic, edited by the poet David Eggleton. Landfall is sometimes hard to find but there is a new dedicated site here.

I've seen David Eggleton perform many times over the years, at rock concerts and live events, and always enjoyed it. If I remember correctly he was at Sweetwaters in the 80s, and maybe something in Myers Park with The Swingers, and his work always held its own. He had a dynamic stage presence and a smart, accessible approach to writing about New Zealand. In the wake of The God Boy and Owls Do Cry you felt like there had to be another way of going about it: Eggleton was one of the people who said yeah, there was.

PS: A nice piece from a crime writer who watches watches too much sport. Put him in the books column.


She's not that indie, you

Your Sister's Sister is the story of a man who, having failed to notice that Emily Blunt is in love with him, accidentally sleeps with Rosemarie DeWitt. This is unlikely but, boy, the acting's good, and you get to hear Bluntsky whisper at length in that plummy Surbiton accent while watching Midge Daniels from Mad Men, and Mark Duplass brings shine to what could have been a silly role. Directing and writing -- those truly unlikely bedfellows -- are shared by Lynn Shelton (Mad Men). The ménage à trois and its rustic setting are beyond any human reach (behold the luxurious chill of dawn trickling golden across my ladycabin) but all the more desirable for it. This Nora Ephron for the Nirvana crowd; Sex, Lies and Videotape for people who are too young to know what that is.