Thursday, September 30, 2010

Possibly the Worst

This may well be the number one cheesy 1970's one hit wonder

Morris Albert. "Feelings"

Bill Murray has this terrific "Nick the Lounge Singer" version of this cheesy hit but I can't find it anywhere on the web.

If you find it, please, please please send the link.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review: "His Illegal Self" by Peter Carey

Here’s another “adult forms meaningful relationship with kid not his/her own” story, but one vastly different from “About a Boy” in focus and intent. I didn’t read this book as “research” but rather found it on the library’s scant audiobooks shelf and thought it sounded interesting. Little did I know, I was wading back into Zorro territory, if only slightly.

“His Illegal Self” is the story of 7 year old “Che”, the child of 70’s underground radicals, raised by his WASPy grandmother on a ritzy upstate New York estate. One day, a woman who Che takes to be his infamous and long absent mother shows up and absconds with him. At first Che is eager to join his notorious parents on the run, but the woman is not who he thinks she is, and the two end up in the Australian rain forest in a sort of subsistence level hippy commune.

This is the first of Peter Carey’s books I’ve read and I found the writing stunning. Descriptions of the Australian jungles and beaches are achingly beautiful, so lush and tactile I felt as if I knew these place down to the bones. The characters are interesting—though they take some time to know and understand. Perhaps this is intentional on Carey's part-- our initial impressions as confused as Che's as he sorts out the truth of his situation. It's a complex sort of truth, the characters are, in a way, as densely mysterious as the bush.

In fact, the whole book is structured so that the readers’ emotions mirror those of the boy as he sets off hopefully, becomes increasingly confused and frightened, before finally coming into his own sort of understanding.

From a writer’s point of view, I found the meandering plot really interesting. It had a deus ex machina feel to it in places, and was wide ranging and loose ended, but totally engrossing just the same. Some of the subplots seem to lead off into the dense brush and disappear, others are left shadowy, never quite resolve themselves. But the boy’s developing relationship with his unwitting “kidnapper” – and with a feral, paranoid hippie they encounter (Of course, this character sort of stole the show for me)—is complex and so well-depicted, the loose ends hardly mattered.

Carey is an established and well-respected writer. I wonder if a debut author would have been granted the space to be this sort of sloppy with the plot. Probably not. But I'm glad he was able to; "His Illegal Self" would have been a different book if he'd been forced to hack this wild and fertile jungle into neat little garden row plot strands.

Has anyone else read this one? Comments?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seasons in the Sun!

Here's another one-hit-wonder that reduced my child-self to tears every time:

What was with those 70's anyway?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

An Unknown Current

Last week, I had a wonderful writing chat with friend. We met at a coffee shop and spent close to three hours talking about the process of fiction, the books and ideas that fascinate us, the how-to of taking an idea and turning it into a manuscript then into a polished manuscript.

I rarely get the chance to leave my own head and talk about this stuff with an actual person. And I left the place with a sense of purpose, practically humming with ideas... Here's one of them (Pardon the giddy nature of this post, my writer-self doesn't get out much):

Novels have long been compared to children. There's that "kill your darlings" thing, and the "sending it out into the world" thing and, yes, there are so many, many ways that a book is indeed like a child that we birth and raise and tidy up. But the comparison doesn't quite work for me. Kids are so tangible, evidence of the sloppy, sweet, grubby, constant, push and pull nature of the world. They connect us to the "now" as nothing else can.

But the writing process is different, a strange and mysterious alchemy, ethereal to its core. Writing is not about the "now" at all.

I have no actual memory of writing my novel Family, Genius, Species. The book is 300 some pages long and... poof! nothing! I don't mean it was an easy process, just that I don't remember it in much the way I don't remember the pain of childbirth. (You'd think it'd be impossible to forget birthing three children without the aid of epidurals, but no, I assure you it IS, in fact, possible, and probably the reason I have three kids in the first place.)

But to have forgotten the span of time it took to birth 80,000 words? How can that be?

I remember some tangential parts-- the many days I ditched my family to stare at my keyboard (really, I can't type with out looking). I remember the guilt involved, and returning to household chaos, feeling as wrung out as a damp towel. I remember, vaguely, the countless cups of coffee I consumed, the scrawled notes left while driving through the early morning dark on my way to work. But the moment of creation is a howling blank, a sort of indefinite hum.

I mean, where did the idea for FGS come from?????? Until I wrote the novel, I had no real interest in cheesy 70's music... or gibbons for that matter. I couldn't imagine writing from the point of view of a middle aged man. I mean, really.

As it was originally conceived, the book was a mother-daughter story, about a mother (Carla) so ambivalent that she does something horribly neglectful. I had a first scene in mind-- The mother, sitting in her boyfriend's car watching her daughter cross the street on her way home from school and deliberately NOT picking her up. I spent a few weeks of commuting-time trying to iron out the plot-- what would happen between the mother and daughter from that miserable starting scene? How would they reconcile?

But when I began to write, something crazy happened: The barely-worth-my-notice boyfriend hijacked my imagination! And that mother-daughter story I thought I was writing became something else entirely.

I have no idea how this happened. It was as if I'd dipped my hand in a pond, cupped an unknown current.

An although I remember all the re-plotting that occurred from this point onward, the cerebral sort of exercise of developing setting and plot and character detail, I don't remember the actual writing at all.

Writer John Gardner describes the reader's experience of fiction as a "fictive dream". He says writers are to suggest enough detail to allow for this dream. But it seems to me that the writing process itself, can be a sort of fictive dream. That writers experience their own fiction in much the same way.

So... am I just off-the-deep-end crazy? Where do your words come from? What's your process like?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Then and Now: Michael Martin Murphey

This one isn't from an actual one-hit wonder. Murphey had some other hits in the country music world.

Wildfire is so over-the-top its painful. But when I was 9 year old, there was nothing more romantic than a story of a girl searching Yellow Mountain for her lost pony, dying in a "killing frost" and forever after haunting the night with her calls. A confession: The emotions "Wildfire" engendered must have set some pretty deep roots, because listening to this cheesy video gave me goosebumps. (Embarrassing, I know, but I'm trying for blog-honesty)

I guess I wasn't alone in loving "Wildfire". It was one of the biggest songs of 1975, and fits pretty well, with the similarly melodramatic "Brandi" and "Shannon".

They must have liked to cry back in the 70's.

In 2007, David Lettermen invited Murphey to play Wildfire on his show:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Heightened Tension, Lost Ambiguity?

So, after hanging onto the Netflix version of "The Prestige" for close to a month, my husband and I have finally gotten around to watching the thing. We loved the book and had heard super things about the movie, and so this was, like, the big movie night of the season. (Woohoo!)

Now, I should start by saying that it will be nigh impossible to talk about these works without giving something away. I will do my best, but if you are planning on reading/watching "The Prestige" you should consider this paragraph a long-winded spoiler alert.

"The Prestige" is about two feuding magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. These two obsess over each other and expend much energy ruining each other's acts. Borden, a man of many secrets, creates a trick called "The Transported Man" and Angiers, a less talented magician but better showman, upstages him with his own version of the trick. When Bordon destroys this trick, Angiers' quest to one-up his enemy leads him to the real-life scientist Nikola Tesla and to the creation of a gruesome new "trick", "The Real Transported Man".

The novel details the escalating conflict between the magicians from an ambiguous event in which one holds the other responsible for the ruination of his career and the death of his wife. The great-grandchildren of Borden and Angier investigate how their own lives have been affected by their ancestors' conflict. The events of the past are revealed primarily through the the magicians' diaries. The novel also examines the nature of magic and of magicians and has some very creepy, surreal scenes. It is grand in scale and broad in subject. The relationship between the magicians and their ancestors is constantly shifting about, each is justified and not, standing on principles that are uniquely his own.

The movie was interesting, not only because it was well done, but because Director Christopher Nolan took this complex and multi-layered novel and-- rather than try to duplicate the reading experience on the screen-- simplified the plot, ratcheted up the tension, raised the stakes, and the re-drew the conflicts between the characters so that they were less ambiguous.

The movie version eliminates the magician's ancestors altogether, adds Borden's beloved little daughter (to raise the stakes considerably), a court scene and death sentence (raised stakes again!), and, most importantly of all, shifts the gruesome nature of the "Real Transported Man". The trick was creepy in the novel, but in the movie it is down-right dastardly! The movie also adds a much less ambiguous and satisfying ending-- serious spoiler alert-- with the two magicians basically killing each other off.

So... why am I taking all this time to discuss a book/movie without a single gibbon, purple Buick, or cheesy song? Because it seems to me that the movie version of "The Prestige" did what we as writers are often asked to do: it took a wide-ranging, "deep", ambiguous "draft and created a much tighter, clearer "product".

At first, loyal to the awesome book, I thought this made for less of a satisfactory experience. But I am not so sure now. The movie was so much more defined. The conflict between the magicians had a very clear and unambiguous root, the ending was dramatic and very much earned.

Do we want all our novels to cut out all the extra and ambiguous stuff? No... at least I don't. But I could see how one version derived from the other and so clearly was edited for all the stuff we are told to look for when working with our own drafts.

It was a truly helpful exercise to compare them.

What do you think? Are there other movies out there that seem like better edited versions of the real thing?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

One-Sentence Wonderful

Sigh..... Yoda was right.

There is do or do not. There is no try. (I am probably misquoting the great green sage, but my Star Wars crazy kids are not here to double check for me.) Try sucks. Try is driving me a bit crazy these days.

I've spent a lot of time this beautiful labor day weekend tweaking my draft and query letter, researching appropriate agents, tweaking some more... researching, rereading, revising and so on.

At this point, my query is the literary equivalent of marshmallow fluff-- an amorphous mass that can be pulled a little one way or another but has stubbornly refused to be sculpted into anything close to a work of art. Or at least that's the way it seems when I've been so gosh darn close to it a while.

If ever there was a thankless and miserable task, it's putting together a pithy, slam-bang fantastic query letter. There are a hundred great resources out there to help, and yet... the thing just isn't falling into place.

Perhaps if my novel were more high concept, the sort of one-sentence wonderful that would sell itself I wouldn't struggle along like this. But it isn't, or at least doesn't seem like it to me. In fact, after staring at my 3rd draft for a few days and at my lousy query version #73, I have no idea what it is!

So, in desperation, I'm asking you guys -- all 12 of you... :) -- to tell me what's wrong with this query. (Please!)

Here it is:

"Roger “Zorro” Weitz has it pretty good, slumming off the scant profits from Hate You (Gonna Eat Cheese), a hit second only to Muskrat Love in the cornball-rich scene of 1976. But when a near-death experience leads him to a rare moment of introspection, Zorro decides to make a more tangible impact on the world. Believing “cool” is about all he has to offer, Zorro commits to helping his girlfriend Carla’s timid, obese daughter find the attitude and style that could bring about her own hip transformation… even if it means going behind Carla’s back to do it.

Eleven year old Dawn, a budding zoologist and certified genius, is puzzled by Zorro’s sudden attention but intrigued by his mention of a band mate’s long-abandoned gibbon. While she makes no progress whatsoever in “cool” she does learn a thing or two about blackmail, and before he knows it, Zorro is involved in a vaguely illegal rescue attempt, a slow-speed car chase and—most unexpected of all— he’s actually starting to care for the kid.

Readers of Tom Perrotta and Nick Hornby will enjoy Family, Genius, Species, a sort of reverse Pygmalion, replete with cheesy music references, a lesser ape, and a lot of heart. The book is 90,000 words and ready for perusal."

(I've left off the chummy and agent specific greeting and short bio as the crux of the matter is this middle part.)

Any ideas?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Looking Glass: Then and... Well, Just Then

Okay, I sort of like this cheesy song that just screams (Screams!) 70s at the top of its lungs

But Brandi really needs to pick up the pieces and move on.

Anyway, Looking Glass broke up two years after "Brandi" and that was that.

Interestingly, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers covered this song in the 90's and it sounds pretty much the same

Friday, September 3, 2010


Monkey adopts Kitten: A long tailed macaque monkey adopted a kitten in Bali, Indonesia

In Bali, this wild macaque has apparently adopted a stray kitten. Aside from the neat factor, (which is incredibly high) this sort of thing highlights the the unknowable nature of the natural world.

Its hard to understand the motives of other humans, even those that are figments of the writerly imagination, but animals? Fergedabout it! My first assumption is that the monkey, a male, is caring for the kitten as he might a baby, out of love, or emotional need or something human and understandable. But, really, who knows? This monkey has a whole inner world that we can not even begin to guess at.

During this summer's vacation, our family went on a whale watch off the Northwest tip of Newfoundland. We encountered a pod of Orcas that were new to the whale watch thing, and these whales spent over an hour inspecting us and our small-seeming boat. They nudged its hull, "spy hopped" at the bow to get a better view, blew their seafood breath up into our faces, lingered just beneath the water-- less than 6 feet away-- watching. It was easy to imagine some sort of kinship between us, intelligent mammal to intelligent mammal. Then they took off, churned the water 100 yards away and returned to the ship with a dead seal, all but turned inside out in their jaws. When the gazing and nudging and eye-to-eye continued, there was a different feel to it. There was no knowing the minds of these creatures. We'd imagined we were forging some sort of bond but the whales, well, for all we know, they were trying to figure out how if we would be lunch!


We, humans, imagine that if we could teach an animal (perhaps, a gibbon!) to communicate using sign language or symbols on a board or ESP or whatever, we could know this animal, discover an intelligence, thought process and soul much the same as our own.

This is a pretty huge assumption. It seems these experiments tell us more about ourselves than they ever could about the animals we are studying.

I think I prefer the mystery, the knowing there are ways of being so different from my own that I can only glimpse them momentarily, in the calm black oval of a whale's eye, for instance, or this oddball macaque.

Monkey adopts Kitten: A long tailed macaque monkey adopted a kitten in Bali, Indonesia

*whale picture us from National Geographic (Camera died on the whale watch!)