Archive for August, 2009

Timmy Visits the Ministry of Health

August 28, 2009

So, last night I was reading a post on BigHollywood about a cool move from the administration. It seems that Patrick Courrielsche, filmmaker and arts consultant, was invited to join a conference call hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts, the White House office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve. During the call, about 75 filmmakers, artists, poets, promoters, “or just plain cool people” (according to the invite) were encouraged to use their talents to help create public awareness and enthusiasm for the Big Four Obama initiatives: health care, education, energy and environment. These cool people had played a part in getting Obama elected, and he wanted them to know he appreciated it and valued their contributions for the future.

Actually, I’m a little miffed I wasn’t invited. Don’t children’s book authors have a part to play? I couldn’t help recalling a picture book we used to read to our children when they were little: Timmy Goes to the Doctor. Just as that story was designed to reassure kids who might soon be facing a six-inch hypodermic needle, I think children’s authors could contribute some soothing medicine to the health care debate . . . .

      “Hi, Timmy!” said Nurse Molly, as a nervous little boy entered the sunny office of the Ministry of Public Health with his Mom. “I’m glad you came to see us today.”

      “Is it time for one of my shots?” Timmy asked.

      “No, no,” Nurse Molly laughed. “I have your file right here and you’re not scheduled for any shots today. Maybe later . . .” Her voice trailed off as she looked at Mother.

      But Mother was looking at all the puppy and kitty photos on the wall and didn’t seem to notice. “These are nice,” she said.

      “The committee–er, doctor, will see you in a moment, Timmy. Please have a seat,” said the nurse. While waiting, Timmy and his mother looked at the colorful storybooks in the office, like Your Life, Your Choice–For Kids! and Let’s Take a Number and Smoke And Die!

      Finally Nurse Connie opened a door and said, “Timmy?” Mother stood up.

      “No mothers,” said the nurse. “Just him.”

      “Oh,” said Mother, sitting down again. “Sorry.” Nurse Connie led Timmy down a long hallway and stopped beside the very last door. After one short knock, she swung open the door.

      “Hello, Timmy,” said a voice from inside. “Go in,” said Nurse Connie. Timmy walked into a big room with soft lights and nice music playing. Three people sat at a black table, two ladies and one man. All wore white jackets and had very kind faces.

      “Come and have a seat,” said the lady who was sitting in the middle. “Do you like chocolate chip cookies?”

      Timmy saw a plate of fat gooey cookies on the table beside an empty chair. This might not be so bad! Usually they just sat him down butt-naked on a slab and poked him over.

      He climbed into the chair and took a bite of cookie. It was still warm. He ate it all while the man and two ladies smiled at him. Then, swallowing, he asked, “Are you going to listen to my heart and look into my ears and stuff?”

      “No Timmy,” said the lady in the middle, “We’d like to talk to you about your life. You like to run and jump and ride your bike, don’t you?”

      “Uh . . . Yeah.” Timmy was getting a little nervous again but couldn’t say why.

      “It wouldn’t be much fun if you couldn’t do those things, would it?”

      “Uh . . . No.”

      The man said, “Let me show you something, Timmy.” He picked up a remote and clicked it toward a screen built in the wall. A picture of a sad-looking boy in a wheelchair filled the screen. He was watching a Little League game, holding an empty catcher’s mitt in his limp hands. “Do you like to play baseball?”

      “No,” Timmy said. “I like soccer, though.”

      Suddenly the picture changed and there was that same boy in the wheelchair holding a soccer ball in his lap, while a game went on in the background. “That boy looks pretty unhappy, doesn’t he?” asked the man.

      “Uh . . . I guess so.”

      The lady in the middle said, “We want to talk to you for a few minutes about–”

      Suddenly the door flew open and Nurse Connie hurried in with a file folder. She slammed it down in front of the middle lady, picked up the folder that was lying there, and hurried back out.

      The three grownups leaned together over the folder. “Well!” said the middle lady.

      “That was a close one!” said the man.

      The other lady didn’t say anything but she wasn’t smiling any more.

      “Well then,” said the man. “We don’t need this little chat after all. You can go. Don’t touch that other cookie!”

      Out in the waiting room, Mother and Nurse Molly were having a good laugh. “Just think!” Mother told Timmy. “They got your file mixed up with another Timmy, who has MD!”

      “It was an honest mistake,” said Nurse Molly. “Actuarial Unit 34,578,625 looks very much like Actuarial Unit 34,578,635.”

      “No harm done.” Mother opened her purse and took out her SecureHealth Card. “How much do we owe you?”

      “Oh, nothing today,” smiled Nurse Molly. “The bill will come due when Timmy is about twenty-three, and it’ll crush him. Have a nice day.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you’re opposed to the administration’s health care plan, you may think this is amusing. If you’re in favor, you probably won’t. If you’re like me, you’d be thinking, Isn’t there some place on this great, pulsing, wonderfully varied Internet where we can get away from politics??

Just one point, and I’m done. I posted this of my own volition; no one from the RNC invited me to a conference call and suggested I use my talents to fight the opposition’s health care plan. What does it say when the largest source of funding for the arts in the nation encourages artists to get on board for the President’s initiatives? Might artists who cooperate be looked upon with favor when the NEA is handing out funds in the future? Have artists ever been told by a government agency that “We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government” (actual quote from the conference call)? Is that what the NEA was established to do?

Final discussion question: When art is recruited for political purposes, should it still be called ‘art’?

Loving Your Characters Like God

August 22, 2009

My first novel took eight years to write and weighed about 5¼ pounds (including the box). Stylistically and structurally, though, it weighed a lot more than that–dense as granite, it could no more fly than the Washington Monument. Or even walk. But the characters were great!

No, they really were. I thought about them all the time–shopped, ate, walked, drove, dropped by the C-store for a gallon of milk, and slept with them; followed them out of the confines of my plot, watched their every move. That turned out to be part of the problem, because when it came to writing the story, I wrote down their every move. There was little left for the reader to imagine, and little room for the characters to move–they were mine, all mine (fiendish cackle).

And they stayed mine, because nobody else was especially interested. One editor at Doubleday–the old Doubleday–told me the problem was narrative drive. Kind of a relief to know that the characters weren’t the problem . . . but in a way, they were.

Let me backtrack a little, before examining why. The most formative book of my youth was The Once and Future King, a re-telling of the Arthur legend. I read the first part, The Sword In the Stone, when I was about eleven. At the age of thirteen, I finished the entire glorious 1000+ pages. From my perspective now, it’s a ponderous volume–too much description, too many pages of intense psychoanalysis, interludes of heavy moralizing, especially at the end. Sort of like my first novel, actually. But what struck me then, as it does now, was the intense, burning love the author had for his characters. Even secondary and tertiary characters. Even villains.

The chief villain of Camelot is Mordred, who brings down that “one brief shining moment” out of bitterness, envy, and sheer badness. He’s an essential element of the story, and as such, irredeemable. But the author loves him enough to demand that we understand him. Mordred is still a destructive person, but we can . . . not appreciate him exactly, but (excuse the bulky phrase) apprehend his personhood. (For another interesting treatment of this classic villain, check out Vivian VandeVelde’s YA novel, Mordred.)

Some time ago it occurred to me that authors should love their characters the way God loves the world. That doesn’t mean they like all their characters, or approve or commend them. But it does mean they should not despise them. I’ve read manuscripts by aspiring authors in which the villain and/or many of the secondary characters were obvious stand-ins for types the author doesn’t like: overbearing patriarchs, Christian fundamentalists, knee-jerk liberals, busybodies. There was no sense of a person beneath the “ism”–maybe we could call them “personisms.” The author doesn’t know these characters, and evidently doesn’t want to.

God loves by creating and knowing, not by approving or condoning. He takes our existence seriously. He does not despise, dismiss, or disregard anyone. How could He despise His own image, warped though it may be?

Obviously we’re not God, but we can pay even secondary characters the compliment of taking their existence seriously. We don’t have to approve of them, but we can understand their story and not dismiss it as trifling.

And we can grant them their freedom. This also godlike in a way. I won’t say He grants us free will, because it’s not that simple. We can’t be totally free of Him, just as a fictional character can never be free of the will, motives, experience, and personality of the author. But God does grant us the integrity to work out the compelling forces in our lives. In my first novel I didn’t do that; I kept them too close; they were too much me. And maybe that’s inevitable in a first novel. But subsequently it’s been easier to get to know Richard Mallory, Starling Shaw, Kit Glover, Hazel Anderson, Veronica Sparks, and others who haven’t yet seen print–and then let them go. Are all my characters are living out their destinies in a parallel universe? If not, at least I tried.

First blog: The Zombie Invasion

August 17, 2009

Introductory haiku:
I swore I’d never
start a blog, because who cares
for my half-baked thoughts?

Expository free verse:
But everybody says
successful writers must pollinate
the internet like hopeful flowers.
And besides,
blogging may be the best way
to make the oven timer go “DING!”

Concluding couplet:
So here is the first installment,
For your delight or appallment.

Did you hear the one about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? That’s . . . the punchline. P&P&Z is an actual novel by Jane Austen and Seth Graham-Smith (who evidently has no shame), published by Quirk Classics. First line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want to more brains.” Fans who devoured P&P&Z and are hungry for more will be happy to hear that the companion volume is out: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

I’m waiting for the baby-boomer favorite, Paul Is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion (Pocket Books, 2010).

The zombie/vampire craze is bound to run its course, but until it does what about some enterprising children’s author cashing in? I thought of a few possibilities, with opening lines:

1. Peter Rabbit’s Back. “Peter emerged from Mr. McGregor’s garden with a rake embedded in his head and a hunger for something other than carrots and lettuces!

2. Alice’s Interview With a Vampire. Alice was beginning to get tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and having nothing to do, when suddenly a white rabbit with red eyes and pointed teeth ran out of the nearby brush, and leapt for her neck.

3. Charlotte’s Web Of Horror. “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

4. Goodnight Ghoul. “In the great green room there was a telephone, and a stalking goon, and a picture of . . . a head rolling under a broom. And there were three little bears hanging from stairs–”

Okay, enough of that. I won’t even get to the frantic old lady whispering “Help . . .”

5. Little Wyrd Sisters.  “Solstice won’t be Solstice without human sacrifices,” grumbled Jo, lying on the heath.

6. The Gaping Chest Cavity Of Somewhere. “None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that half-eaten brain in our refrigerator.”

(Private joke, that last one. Unless you read my books.)

That’s all I have the stomach for, but I’m open to suggestions . . . .