Friday at the Movies: Charles S. Chaplin

July 24, 2015

hollywood2 (2)For the last hundred years at least, he’s the one face everybody recognizes and associates immediately with “silent movies,” even though some of his greatest films were talkies.  He was known for comedy, but considered himself a serious artist.  He made gobs of money for corporations, but was one of the first movie actors to insist on artistic control—to the extent of forming his own film company that still exists today.  Universally loved but not personally loveable, a shrewd businessman, a prickly personality, a brilliant storyteller, a loner who touched millions of hearts—that was Charlie.

Plenty has been written about Charles Chaplin and I don’t need to write another biography (if you’re Chaplin1looking for biography, Sid Fleishman’s Sir Charlie is delightful).  Some film historians try to slight Charlie because there was a lot going on in Hollywood at the time that had nothing to do with him, but he so dominated the industry—especially the box office—he can’t be ignored.  He and Hollywood grew up together: after a desperately-poor London childhood and fleeting success in vaudeville, he arrived in sunny California at the age of 28 and proceeded to make 35 movies for Keystone in one year.  Though he later turned up his nose at Mack Sennett (head of Keystone) and frantic slapstick humor, his two years with Keystone launched him into the stratosphere of wealth and fame: by 1916 he was, literally, the most famous man in the world.  His face was showing up in nickelodeons and cantinas and makeshift movie theaters on six continents—anywhere a room could be darkened and a projector set up.

Everybody loved his signature character, the Little Tramp.  The Little Tramp is more recognizable than Chaplin himself: bushy hair and mustache, oversize shoes and undersize bowler hat, baggy pants, toothy smile.  He’s a loser who lives hand to mouth and stays barely within the law but always seems to come out okay in the end.  He refined the character in later full-length movies like The Kid and The Gold Rush, but there was always an underlying strain of despair in the Little Tramp, as there is in all the best comedy.

In I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, Chaplin has reached the peak of success.  He has established himself as a free agent and in the following year he will form his own production company with three of the greatest names in the biz: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith.  United Artists, they’ll call it.  Chaplin has a big film project in mind, which will become his first recognized masterpiece: The Kid.. The story is simple: the Little Tramp accidentally acquires a baby who’s been left on his doorstep, names him Johnny, and goes on to raise the boy as his own until Johnny’s mother comes looking for him.  In IDK, I imagine Chaplin latching on to Isobel’s mother as a likely candidate to play the mother role, a development that stirs up confusion and resentment in Isobel.  Nothing remotely like that happened, of course: the mother’s role is played by Edna Purviance, and even in those early days it’s not likely such an important part would be entrusted to an amateur.  But that’s artistic license on my part.

Chaplin2Though it isn’t mentioned by name in my novel, The Kid is probably my favorite Chaplin movie: full of laughs and charm and heart tugs, due as much to Jackie Coogan in the title role as it is to Charlie.  You keep expecting both the comedy and the sentiment to go overboard, but it never does.  (Watch it!)

Three Chaplin movies are mentioned in IDK.  Tillie’s Punctured Romance was his first Keystone flick; the movie reportedly introduced the concept of “meeting cute.”  The Bond was a public-service short film that Ranger and Isobel see at Grauman’s Egyptian theater before the main feature.  Ranger describes Shoulder Arms, a comedy that that mines some funny business out of a very unfunny war.  In Chapter 10 Chaplin attends a party at the home of Titus Bell (Ranger’s father), and in the course of the evening he performs the “Oceana Roll Dance” that would later appear in The Gold Rush.  The roll dance cracks me up—I think it’s the deadpan he maintains throughout.  Isobel thought it was hilarious as well, in spite of her mixed feelings about Mr. Chaplin.

Though he kept making movies into the thirties (City Lights, from 1931, is considered one of his best), Charlie’s heyday was the twenties, and he never hit his stride with the talkies.  He also fell out of love with America (long story), and moved to Switzerland, not exactly a film-making mecca.  But he made a mark on culture and history that can’t be erased.

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

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Friday at the Movies: D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

July 10, 2015

Some people think film is just Keystone Cops crashing cars or somebody’s pants falling down.  But it’s a lot more.  It’s the new art: telling stories with light and motion.  This is going to be bigger than the Sistine Chapel!

Ranger Bell, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends 

hollywood2 (2)A lot of kids are bitten by the movie bug in their early teens, but Ranger, the pivotal character in IDK*, had the good fortune to be bit by the best.  D.W. Griffith is his hero, and Ranger’s burning ambition is to work for the master on the way to becoming a master himself.

Griffith broke into show business as an actor in cheap vaudeville houses, and everybody agrees he wasn’t a very good one.  But he did gain a sense of what audiences appreciated: emotion.  They liked thrills and chills and action, but also wanted to laugh and cry.  When he gravitated to film acting for the Biograph studios in New Jersey, he learned to tone down his hammy stage-acting style—for one thing, the camera couldn’t capture all those broad, wild arm gestures.  But the camera could move in on a face and catch the smallest twitch of a muscle or glimmer of a tear.  A face on film could connect with the audience more intimately than a live actor ever could, and once he discovered the emotional power of the movies, D.W. was never going back to live theater.  The story is that one day a director was sick and D.W. was drafted to take his place.  The director’s chair quickly became his perch for the rest of his artistigriffith1c career.

When Griffith left Biograph he took the studio’s best cameraman with him.  This was Billy Bitzer, who worked closely with him for the next sixteen years and collaborated on some of the most ground-breaking work ever produced up to that time–like The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915.

This is the film that made D.W. Griffith a household word, but it’s hard to even talk about, much less watch.  It’s the story of a southern family during and after the Civil War, and all they lost and suffered.  The first half includes some truly thrilling battle scenes and appealing family relationships.  But the second half is all about noble southerners fighting “bad Negroes” by raising up a little army later called the Ku Klux Klan.  The way African-Americans are shown (even the “good” ones) is racist and insulting, even though Griffith claimed to love and admire them.  Still, The Birth of a Nation can’t be ignored because it broke so much new ground in film-making.  Griffith used quick intercutting to make the battle scenes more dramatic, high angles to capture wider views, fades between scenes, lots of extras, and eyeline matches, where the camera is adjusted to frame the same view a character is seeing.   He even had an original score written, which was played by live orchestras in all the big theaters where the movie opened.  For emotional punch, audiences had never seen anything like it, and Birth of a Nation  was a huge hit.  (Although it’s worth noting that many Americans were not comfortable with its blatant racism even, and it was banned in some cities–even entire states, like Kansas.)

The praise and criticism showered on him was so overwhelming Griffith decided that he had to top himself for his next feature film.  He had already made a touching little drama called The Mother and the Law, but in the meantime he saw an Italian film called Cabiria, which was set in ancient Sicily and Carthage.  The movie used fabulous sets and shocking set pieces, like small children in Carthage being sacrificed to Moloch. (It’s disturbing to watch, even today: here’s a clip, and try to ignore the soundtrack).  Griffith was impressed by the spectacle and determined not to be outdone by any Italian, so he postponed the release of The Mother and the Law and decided to incorporate that story into a larger tale spanning centuries.  That became Intolerance, subtitled “Love’s Struggle through the Ages.”

“The ages” take in Babylon’s fall to Persia in 539 B.C., the earthly ministry of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew Massacre in France in 1572, and the modern story of The Mother and the Law—all intercut and stitched together with the theme of someone not tolerating someone else.griffith2

Most of the money and effort went to the Babylon segments (which Ranger describes with great enthusiasm in Chapter 3 of IDK).  Elaborate battle scenes and court scenes involved a literal cast of thousands, which meant some clever camera work.  Though not filming from a balloon.  They actually tried it, and Billy Bitzer got sick.  Most of the panning and zooming shots were done with a camera on tracks, but film historians to this day don’t know exactly how.

The monster Babylon set towered over Sunset Boulevard, and once filming was complete Griffith was so broke he couldn’t pay have it demolished.  The remains of Belshazzar’s court stood for four years, peeling and crumbling, until the city finally ordered it torn down as a public nuisance and fire hazard.  (That’s where Ranger takes the girls in chapter 3.)

intolerance-set2Intolerance won high praise but didn’t earn back enough profit to justify its expense.  In my opinion, though Intolerance has some fine moments and The Mother and the Law story is genuinely touching and sweet (this is the film Isobel sees in Chapter 4), it’s too long and incoherent to make a strong impression.  But it did enhance Griffith’s reputation, and he went on to make some great movies, like Hearts of the World (described in Chapter 11), Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.  Were they “art,” as Ranger believed?  Most movie historians agree—

When he finished, he was the leader of an industry acclaimed not only as entertainment, but as art . . . Griffith did not achieve this miracle alone, but he deserves unstinting credit for achieving it at all.   Kevin Brownlow, Hollywood: the Pioneers

You can get Intolerance on Netflix, but I warn you, as Isobel is warned by the family cook Rosetta, “those dancing girls in Babylon didn’t wear enough clothes to dry a saucer with.”

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

Charles S. Chaplin

Friday at the Movies: How to Watch Silent Films

July 3, 2015

hollywood2 (2)(In anticipation of my next novel, which will go on sale in October, I plan on a series of posts about the silent movie industry and its profound meaning.  Well, forget the profound meaning–I just found the subject and the movies to be seriously fun!)

I don’t like silent movies.  They’re dumb and hard to understand and the film quality stinks and everybody moves too fast and wears too much makeup and they’re old . . .

Well, silent movies are old.  That’s true.  And that has a lot to do with why they’re hard to watch—at least until you get acquainted with them, and understand a few hard facts.

First, a lot of the film quality is bad.  The movies were produced on celluloid, an early plastic compound that was ridiculously flammable—the film would spontaneously combust if temperatures reached 150 degrees centigrade (which some projectors did).  That’s what happened to over half the silent movie film ever produced, due to poor storage or handling.  Of the film that remains, a lot of it is scratchy, warped, or overexposed–some scenes glare while others sulks into shadows and you can hardly make out what’s going on.  Some of that may have been the fault of early directors and techniques that were still in flux.  But a lot of it is just age.

Second, the speed at which many films are shown today is too fast.  Shooting speeds varied in the early days, generally from 18 to 22 frames per second (today it can be as high as 60 frames per second for high-rez).   Since the earliest cameras had to be cranked by hand, cameramen tried be consistent but there were slight variations in film speed that didn’t match the projection speed.  Even in their own day, the movies were apt to look jerky and hyper.  Sometimes, especially in early comedy like the Keystone Cops, the fast speed was deliberate.  But more often it was just because the projectionist didn’t know his business.  Today, action sequences that were supposed to be dramatic and exciting often look like the sight equivalent of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Finally, the soundtrack that’s often matched to silent films is just awful.  I watched a DVD of The Gold Rush, for example, that has a nauseating organ score all the way through.  After a while I noticed it was eating into my brain.  I had to either turn the sound off or turn the movie off (click here for a clip from The Gold Rush that’s more delightful).

Still, there’s plenty to appreciate about the best of the silent films, especially if you watch a progression of them from around 1912 to 1921, when the industry made amazing strides.  During the twenties, the industry produced some of the greatest movies ever made (snooty film historians say so!)  The range of camera techniques opened up, goofy slapstick gave way to sophisticated sight gags, and facial expressions, even in the weepiest melodrama, can still make audiences cry.

From this . . .  (A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

From this . . .
(A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

After the first sound movie debuted in 1927, the silents were doomed, even though some of the best ones appeared in the very early thirties.  At first they were much better than the “talkies” for photography.  because early sound pictures required actors and cameras to huddle around a microphone.  The action was obviously limited.  Big sweeping views like battles and parades and crowd scenes were impossible, so for a while you could have either spectacle or sound, not both.  Of course, the technology improved so that now you get both.  But it may have been a good thing that movies weren’t hindered by sound technology at first—it freed up cameramen and directors to develop their visual range, including special effects that are pretty impressive even today.

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

So, how to watch?

  • Check your expectations.  The beginning of anything is going to look awkward and crude, and when you consider that The Great Train Robbery, one of the first motion pictures that told a story, was made in 1903, it’s pretty amazing that the industry was able to offer up three-hour spectacles like Intolerance only fourteen years later. Technicolor, wide-screen, high-rez, surround-sound, and CGI have all happened since, but it took 100 years!  Let’s just admire what some very talented people were able to accomplish in a very short time.
  • Try to get the best soundtrack you can.  When big-name directors and actors premiered big movies, they often commissioned an original score to be played along with it, by a live orchestra.  Of course, this was only possible in the prominent cities and theaters.  By the time these films reached smaller towns, the local keyboardist had to match the action to short piano pieces.  The musician might have a book of scores considered suitable for love scenes, sad scenes, dances, fights, funerals, etc.—meaning the piano or organ player was flipping through the book continually as the film rolled.  The silent comedies and dramas you can can get on DVD today usually have a piano or organ score.  These are bearable if they don’t go on to long.  But for a longer picture, try to find a full-orchestra score.  For example, Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad is available with a classical soundtrack by Rimsky-Korsakov—or an organ.  Ditch the organ if you can.
  • Be patient with the film quality.  Even the best-preserved movie classic will probably be uneven in spots—blurry, shaky, or scratchy.  As mentioned earlier, at least half of the film produced during the silent era didn’t make it into the future because it wasn’t stored properly or it was simply lost.  So be grateful for what we’ve got.
  • The best tip is appreciation. Motion pictures were a brand new way of telling stories, for the first time in 200 years (if you count the development of the novel) or 2000-plus years (if you go back to poets like Homer).  Acting and the stage had been around for millennia, but film had totally different demands and possibilities.  Limits, too, especially during the silent era.  Those early directors had to figure out how to communicate as much as possible through action and expression alone, and they caught on fast.

I’m not a snooty film historian, but if you want to explore a bit of the development of the movies during the late teens and early twenties, here’s a list of titles you’ll be able to find on Netflix or Youtube (the asterisk indicates they’re mentioned in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends):

Tillie’s Punctured Romance* (Charlie Chaplin and Louise Dressler)

Coney Island* (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm* (Mary Pickford)

Intolerance* (directed by D. W. Griffith, with a cast of thousands)

The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin)

The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)

The General (Buster Keaton)

The Mark of Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks)

Other Posts in this series:

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

Charles S. Chaplin

Countdown to IDK: Blurbalicious

June 26, 2015

(Sorry about the title–I couldn’t help myself.)

The jury is still out over whether a glowing comment from a fellow author can help boost sales of your latest book.  My best-selling book ever (The Middle of Somewhere) didn’t come with any italicized quotes on the front or back cover.  But at least they don’t hurt, and they can sure give an author a shot of self-confidence just before the reviews start coming out.  So I’m very appreciative of blurbs recently received, and of the generous authors who took the time to read the book and say something nice about it.

Like Cheryl Harness, one of my favorite all-time go-to authors for history.  She’s better known as a topHarness illustrator, but underappreciated (I think) for her wordsmithing.  Cheryl Harness Histories, published by National Geographic and terminated too soon, offer young readers a look at some significant human beings in the American past by taking in the whole context of their time.  Myles Standish is one of my favorites, reviewed here.

So, what did she say about I Don’t Know How the Story Ends?  This:

J. B. Cheaney masterfully combines a family’s pathos in wartime, a vivid sense of old Hollywood (including appearances by the era’s superstars), PLUS  a suspenseful, creative adventure through an entirely new kind of storytelling: MOVING PICTURES!

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

CushmanThen there’s Karen Cushman, practically a dean (in my view) of children’s historical fiction, whose Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice wowed Newbery committees some years back.  They’re still wowing readers today (even one who wants to make a movie of Catherine, and has the clout and the ability to do so).  So it’s a real treat, as well as an honor, to get a friendly nod from her:

 

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends will grab you by your shirt and drop you right into the early days of Hollywood and movie making.  Peopled with delightful characters who find that real life is not just like the movies, this is a funny, insightful, and touching celebration of friendship and family, the imagination, and the power of the movies.

My humble thanks, ladies.  We share a love of history and I’m proud to be on the same page.

Countdown to IDK: First Words

June 19, 2015

What grabs you about a book, from the first page?  Some readers like getting right into the action, as in

  • Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.  (Tom Clancy, Patriot Games)
  • Renowned curator Jacques Suaniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.  (Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code)
  • None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that squirrel in the toilet.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Middle of Somewhere)

Some want to identify immediately with a character:

  • Call me Ishmael.  (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • I am an invisible man.  (Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man)
  • I didn’t mean to do it.  I just got carried away.  (J. B. Cheaney, My Friend the Enemy)

Other readers like a strong sense of place or time; they want to setting to descend on them like a mist.  For example

  • The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, like the highest seat of a ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. (Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .  (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
  • Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs.  An English boy of any learning whatever knows that.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Playmaker)

Other readers are looking for a jolt of mystery or suspense:

  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.  (Louis Sacher, Holes)
  • One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War, and the next minute he was gone.  (Michael Grant, Gone)
  • Last night’s weather forecast predicted rain.  This isn’t rain.   (J. B. Cheaney, Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous)

And others like a shot of emotional adrenaline:

  • What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? (Eric Segal, Love Story)
  • Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.  (Nora Zeal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God)
  • “Stop! Halt! You’ll kill each other!  (J. B. Cheaney, The True Prince)

(Look at me swanning around on the same page with all these great authors!)

Every author knows that first lines can make the difference between a reader reading or a reader refusing (though most readers will stick around at least for a paragraph).  But more than that: a first line can set the tone for the whole story.  Of course you want to engage the reader with some sense of the action to follow.  Of course you want to surprise and mystify.  The question is how.

For my soon-to-be-published novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, I decided to go for voice.  That’s the indefinable quality that makes one person’s style different from another’s.  When you read Call me Ishmael next to You don’t know me without you have read a book called Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter, you know you are in for a sojourn within two very distinct personalities.

I decided to try for that.  Meet Isobel Ransom, the narrator and cover girl of I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (Sourcebooks, Oct. 2015):

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

      The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.

It wasn’t all my fault.  She pushed me before I pushed her—figuratively, I mean.

She’d picked a bad time to tangle with me, for I was in a drippy, dismal mood, like our Seattle weather that day.  While walking from my room to the stairs with an open book—Jane Eyre, my new most-favorite—I heard a moaning noise behind me, starting low and growing louder: “AhhhhWOOOO!”

I turned around.  “Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”

A cobwebby ghost was creeping up behind me: Sylvie, draped in gauzy curtains she’d somehow pulled down from our parents’ bedroom window.  “AWOOO!  I’m the ghost of the battlefield.  No—I’m Daddy’s lonesome spirit come back to haunt you, and . . . Quit it, Isobel!”

I had smacked her on the shoulder with my book.  She smacked me back, so I pushed her against the banister and she stumbled on the wads of curtain under her feet.  The next moment she was bouncing down the stairs, howling at every bump.

The noise brought Mother from the study and Rosetta from the kitchen.  Both could only stare at first, flummoxed by the noisy cocoon I was frantically trying to unwrap.  Sylvie had made it all the way to the bottom without breaking anything, I was pretty sure.  Father used to say he was going to take her on the road as a scientific curiosity because her bones were made of rubber.  But the fact remained that she had been pushed, and someone had done the pushing.

“Isobel,” my mother said accusingly.

“I’m sorry!  But she was acting silly, as usual, and saying she was Father’s ghost, and we know that Father’s alive and well, but I can’t stand it when she . . .” Et cetera.  And all this time Sylvie was yelling that it wasn’t her fault.  She was just playing, and I hit her before pushing her, and so on.

Rosetta stepped in to lend a hand, and finally Sylvie was standing on her own two feet, both of us waiting for Mother to send us outside for a switch from the forsythia bush.  But she just looked at us, lips pressed together, the silence lengthening like the long shadow that had fallen over us ever since Father left for France.

“That does it,” Mother said at last.  “I’ve had enough of dreary days and melancholy daughters.  We’re going to California for the summer.”

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

So the adventure begins .  .

postcard

Countdown to IDK: Cover Coverage

June 12, 2015

Some of my covers I’ve loved; some I cringed at, just a little.  I got kind of a shock with my first-ever published novel, The Playmaker, which looks like this:

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

First of all, the character, Richard Mallory, looks nothing like I described him in the book.  I’ve heard that artists were supposed to actually read the book to get design ideas, and this artist wouldn’t have needed to read far—the description is in the first chapter.  Second of all, nowhere in the story does Richard attack anyone with a sword.  Third of all, what’s with the font style?  It looks like “Goosebumps.”  (On the positive end, I really like the bear in the background, even though lots of kids guess it’s a dog.)  I did bring up the Goosebumps font with my editor, who explained that the design team was going for boy-appeal.  And in the end I can’t complain, because The Playmaker is still in print—after fifteen years!

myfriendtheenemy

Alternative Title: Please Love Me. Please.

Usually the hardcover image carries over to the paperback, but that didn’t happen with my third published novel, My Friend the Enemy.  To your left is the hardback, which quickly made itself scarce.  No wonder; to me this cover says Read me because I’m thoughtful and sensitive and good for you.

MFTE.pb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, here’s the paperback edition, which says Read me because I’m a great story about a girl and a boy and their fraught friendship during World War II.

I might hesitate about reading the first.  I’d pick up the second in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

 

My first publisher, Random House, always gave me a completed design and basically said, “Here.  We hope you like it.  (And too bad if you don’t.)”  My current publisher, Sourcebooks, asks for my ideas ahead of time and doesn’t use them.  But they also ask for feedback and are willing to make small changes.  So here’s what the cover of my goes-on-sale-in-October MG novel looked like in its first version:

hollywood

“What do you think?” asked the editor.  Well . . .

Isobel Ransom, the main character in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (that’s what IDK means, if you’re wondering) lives in Seattle.  The story takes place during the summer of 1918, while America is involved in World War I.  While her father is serving as an army surgeon in France, Isobel and her mother and sister travel to southern California to spend a couple of months with her aunt, who lives in a sleepy little town called Hollywood.  But times are changing fast for Hollywood, soon to become the motion-picture capital of the world, and Isobel is caught up in the frenetic, wild-west age of movie-making.

First of all: nothing in the above design says 1918.  The look is more 1930’s.

Second of all: nothing says California.  The look is more depression-era Kansas.  In fact, a couple of people I showed it to said the first thing that came to mind was The Wizard of Oz.  Since that was also the first thing that came to my mind, surely it’s no fluke.

Third of all: nothing says motion pictures.

I mentioned all this to my editor: the girl’s dress needs to change; her hair should be different; what’s that thing in the background that looks like a broken-down fence; why is the landscape so desolate; and can’t we stick in a few palm trees or something?  And finally, where’s the movie camera?

No movie camera.  The philosophy behind this cover is that the story reflects universal themes and they didn’t want to make the time and setting too specific, in order to appeal to as many readers as possible.  I don’t know about this, since movies are about as universal as we get these days, and the specific subject matter seems to generate plenty of interest whenever I mention it.  But they did take the landscape and costume into account, and here’s what we ended up with:

hollywood2

Still no palm trees.  But it passes for California, and if you look closely you can make out the hazy outlines of the blue Pacific. And the girl’s dramatic pose is a nice touch–even if it makes older readers like myself immediately hear the opening bars of “Tara’s Theme.”

So, what do you think?

Keep watching for reviews, blurbs, first paragraphs and chapters, and more!  You might even find out How the Story Ends!  (And oh yes, you can pre-order here.)

Book-Burning and Guilty Consciences

June 10, 2015

I burned a book once.

True confessions: it was an ARC I got at a library or booksellers convention, and I didn’t like it.  Usually I don’t burn books I don’t like—that conjures up all kinds of Nazified images, like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  But it was winter, and we had a fire in the wood stove, and I was so irritated with the contents (don’t even remember what the book was now) that I bent its innocent spine and tossed a section at a time into the flames!  I’m not bragging, because I still feel a little guilty.  What is it about books that seem so not-for-burning?

Maybe it’s their humanity.  Humans are sometimes described as embodied souls–not quite accurately, I think–but if that’s so, books are embodied minds.  Every human artefact is in some way an embodiment of the mind, and we do burn old houses and letters and discontinued uniforms and items no longer useful (otherwise known as trash). Books are more personal, though: they don’t just say something about the writer, they also testify to the reader.  When displayed proudly on a shelf they declare our admiration–or pretention, if we haven’t actually read them.  When stuck in a briefcase or hidden under a sweater they assert our guilty pleasure.  When blazing in a bonfire they express our contempt.

Some thoughts, stories, premises, and exploitations are contemptible, and I wouldn’t have a big problem with a bonfire made of Hustler magazines.  When the Ephesian converts brought their occult books and magic scrolls “and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:19), they meant to demonstrate the worthlessness of superstition against the power of the Holy Spirit.  Book-burning is a statement—or least it seems like it should be.  Remember the scene in The Day After Tomorrow where the survivors of an apocalypse are burning books in the library just to keep warm?  That was a statement in itself: Look how and how quickly a civilization can fall.   (I couldn’t find a video clip on youtube, but that scene has its own piece of soundtrack, appropriately mournful.)

Each volume, whether it’s Karl Marx or J. K. Rowling or Pope Benedict or Louis L’Amour or E. L. James stamped on the spine, represents some little facet of humanity, whether noble or trashy.  All together, they represent one huge facet of humanity, perhaps the most definitive one: the ability to communicate in words, across continents and down the years.  Even if it was written to formula by a nameless hack in a basement apartment, each book is a little voice crying out—articulately.

Voices from the flames give me the creeps.

I tend to hold on to books the way hoarders hold on to old tools, old clothes, pieces of string: I might need those particular words someday.  But limited space demands culling every now and then, especially since I now get unsolicited copies for possible review. So . . . what to do with unwanted books?  Not just the unsolicited ones, but the ones you now realize you’ll never get around to reading, the ones you’ve outgrown, the ones that were gifts from Aunt Marge who totally doesn’t get you?

  1. That’s what library sales are for, and once I’ve dropped off the two-three boxes I accumulate every year I try not to think about what happens to the books that don’t sell.  Not my problem.
  2. Some trendy couples use books as decorating items.  If you google “Creative Uses for Old Books,” or similar key words, you’ll get pages and pages of ideas: knickknack shelves, furniture, desk accessories, clocks, paper roses.  A few years ago a very creative lady I know make these as giveaways for all the authors attending the Warrensburg Children’s Literature Festival:

JC book

(Those little voices may have cried out when the saber saw cut into them, but I don’t care–I’m keeping mine forever!)

  1. And did you know there’s a whole creative field of book sculpture?  I love these—a striking blend of thought and deed, word and form, spirit and flesh.  The artist said, “Let there be . . .” and it was so.

book-sculpture

My admiration for books-as-art doesn’t change the fact that most of us can’t do this for all their unwanted titles.  It’s an understated secret that publishers submit their unsold copies to the pulping machine.  I shiver at the thought—some of MY books have met that fate–but at least those unappreciated pages can be reincarnated to new pages.  And life goes on . . .

Character Qualities – IV

June 3, 2015

One more to close out the school year!  Yesterday the sixth-graders at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Kankakee, Illinois, voted on the character interview they’d most like to see, after Shelly, Bender, and Igor.  This time the vote went to

JAY THOMAS PASTERNAK III

Take it away, Jay!cartoon_0022

What’s your favorite color?

Blue and silver.  Go, Cowboys!

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

Setting a goal and sticking to it.

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Life’s pretty good right now; I’d be almost afraid to “improve” it.  Or me.

Okay, I guess there’s one thing.  I freak a little too easily.  It may not look like it, especially compared to Spencer, but like for instance.  When I started going nearsighted, I didn’t want to admit it.  It went on for a long time—even last year I started noticing, but I kept hoping it would get better on its own.  Nobody in my family wear glasses.  Peppy still has eyes like a hawk; he told me so.  He just uses reading glasses sometimes.  Even my dad.  So I didn’t mention it to anybody for a whole year, even when I started missing Poppy’s throws.  He brought it up himself: how’s your eyes lately?  It wasn’t until early this year that I had to say something, because I was writing the wrong assignment pages down from the smart board.  Just admitting it made it seem like the end of the world for a while.  I know that’s stupid, but it took some attitude adjustment.  All the time I was thinking I should be able to take it more in stride.  NFL players get injured all the time.  And I see it in the movies; star runner gets body-slammed, the doc says he’ll never be able to play again but he sucks it up and . . . Forget the sucking-up, I just don’t want anything like that to happen in the first place.  I have to be extra careful.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

That’s easy.  Without Poppy I never would’ve been able to develop my talent to this level, or get as much fun out of it.  My dad’s a good dad, but he’s just not into the whole pigskin thing.  I would have grown up watching the History Channel and not have a clue until I got to high school, maybe, about a whole big side of my life.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Happy, friendly, fun.

What do others not understand about you?

Whoa, dude.  I’m not sure what there is to understand.  I mean, I’m pretty much out there all the time, you know?

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years, I’ll be in the top ten contenders for the Heisman Trophy and talking to pro sports agents.  I’d really like for both Cowboys and Steelers to be bidding for me, but I’d settle for one or the other, plus at least one more club showing a strong interest.  Maybe an expansion team, like the Titans or Panthers.  I could live with that.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

I don’t know if I would pick a happy moment.  But a happy time would be winter.  You’d probably guess my favorite time of the year is the fall, but actually it’s between Christmas and Super Bowl, when the playoffs are going on.  On Monday and Sunday nights, I run across the commons after dinner—Mom always yells, “Is your homework done?” and I always say Yes.  It usually is.  Cold air freezing my ears as I sprint through the woods, dodging trees like they were defensive blocks, leap onto the patio like I’m clearing the goal posts, chest-bump the grill, knock on the glass door.  Geemaw slides it open, hot dry air rubs my face (they’re always arguing about where to set the thermostat).  She says, “Come on in out of the cold, Trey!  You want some spice tea?” I love her spice tea—she loads it up with extra sugar and Tang and puts in a cinnamon stick to stir it with.  Poppy won’t touch the stuff, calls it warm syrup.  He’s already set up in his Lay Z Boy with a can of beer and a bowl of Doritoes or popcorn, with the platform rocker pulled up for me.  That’s Geemaw’s chair, but she never watches the game so she doesn’t mind Poppy moving it as he puts it back.  Which he never does anymore, so I do it myself just before going home, so they’ll have one less thing to fight about.  The fighting doesn’t really bother me, since it doesn’t seem to bother them.  I’d just rather they wouldn’t, especially if it’s got anything to do with me.  Anyway, those few minutes before the game starts, when I’m stirring my spice tea with the cinnamon stick and we’re talking over our picks and he’s threatening to trounce me on the averages again, and we don’t kind what kind of surprises the game is going to have for us . . . I don’t remember being any happier than that.

What is your greatest fear?

Do we have to talk about fear again?  Okay: knees.  Then calves.  Then shoulders.  I just have to be careful.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Uh-uh.  I’m not going there.  No way.

 

 

Character Qualities, III

May 29, 2015

Continuing this short series on character interviews . . . If you’re just joining us, I’m exploring the use of imaginary “interviews” as a way for authors to get to know their characters better.  Somebody on this Bus Is Going to Be Famous is a great example of the benefits of this technique, because with nine (count ’em! Nine!) main characters I needed an effective way to get to know them better.  Earlier this week I visited with kids at Montessori Magnet School in Kankakee, and asked them which interview they’d like to see.  The winner:

SHELLY GUADALUPE ALVAREZ!

(She’s not surprised at all.  Just wait until she’s famous–everybody will want to read her interviews!)

What’s your favorite color?cartoon_0025

Silver!  That’s my brand.

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is determination and focus.  Is that two qualities?  How about focused determination?  Or determined focus?  You know Roger Foulkes, on American Star Search?  He says not having a focus is like playing darts with a balloon. He means you have to be sharp.  And I guess kind of hard, too.  I can’t think of anybody in my whole school like that except me.  Focus means you have to think about something all the time and set goals for yourself and figure out ways to reach those goals.  The only people I know like that are in the All-City Glee Club.  I’m the youngest member, did you know that?  Luke Springer, our coach, says that I—

What?  Go on to the next question?  Okay . . .

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Well, I believe that you don’t focus on your weaknesses; you build on your strengths.  So sure, I want to improve on everything there: voice, volume, breath control, musicality, body stamina, flexibility.  Grades?  Okay, I want to improve on those enough to get into some good performance schools.  Even though, like, how is it going to help me to know when the Civic War was or how to find the area of a circle?  But whatever it takes, I guess.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Claire, definitely.  Did you know she was the youngest of six kids, and their dad ran off and their mother had to work all the time and she grew up in Arkansas?  And she made it big singing country and western?  Yeah.  You can find her old clips on YouTube, age 15 or something like that, singing “Wildwood Flower” on an acoustic guitar.  Wearing white cowgirl boots and a shirt with a fringe!  What I admire about her is that she wasn’t afraid to change or, you know, evolve.  She kept the white boots but that’s it.  And now she’s so . . . so . . . just dazzly.  She lights up the whole stage.  She’s going to be in St. Louis in January and I’m dying to go.  But Dad says it’s either that or save the money for camp, so . . . Nobody should have to make a choice like that!

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Sparkly.  Exciting.  Focused.

What do others not understand about you?

Well, I think everybody understands my goals, and that’s all I care about!

But . . . I don’t think they understand what performing does to me.  I guess maybe they might think I’m just a showoff.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.  Really, a lot more.  Like music.  Music takes me places, you know?  When the music gets inside and starts swirling around it kind of lifts me up and swirls me around, too.  And then I’m exactly who I want to be, not a little Mexican beanpot like Uncle Mike says.  (I guess I used to fart a lot, though I don’t remember.)  He still calls me that, even though my ears fit my face a lot better and my hair got long and thick enough to cover them.  It’s like a big hilarious joke that nobody thinks is funny except him.  He’s a loser, anyway.  But the music, that’s what people don’t get.  The talent show really showed me that.  I know, it was just a little dinky elementary-school show, and when the sound went off I would have freaked, totally, except for the music.  It was inside me—no, it was me, and it made me so much bigger and stronger I could pick up that whole cafeteria full of kids and take them anywhere I wanted to go.  Talk about focused!  I was so there, I never want to be anywhere else.

That’s what I wish people understood about me.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll be 22.  Claire did her first concert tour when she was 19, her first platinum album at 20, her first Super Bowl halftime at 21.  Does that give you an idea?

What was the happiest moment of your life?

Well, I was going to say the talent show—duh!  But then I thought a little more about this question, and I remembered this funny thing from way back when I was only 7.  M6y grandpa on my mom’s side, Papa Early, he gave me my first showbiz break.  Really.  He was the entertainment chairman of this old-folks group he belonged to, the Golden Gang, and he came up with this bright idea to have a grandkids’ talent show.  He called it Bragging Rights Night, because he told us he got tired of all the old duffers bragging on their grandkids and wanted to see all these wonderkids strut their stuff (he actually talked like that).  He’s the one who talked my parents into letting me sing, because I used to sing for him on the back porch on barbecue nights.  He picked two songs and even coached me a little.  I didn’t think too much about it.  I always liked to sing but never thought about performing.  I didn’t get too nervous, or not too anything until I was halfway through “The Good Ship Lollipop” and noticed all these old people smiling at me.  Really smiling, not like Aw Isn’t She Cute, but like I was making them happy.  And that made me happy.

At the end of the show, Papa Early picked me up and walked around with me like I was, like, three years old.  “Here’s my little star,” he kept saying, like he wanted all his friends to know me.  And all the time they were smiling like they were still in that happy place.

Papa Early died a few months after that.  Heart attack, really sudden.  I wish I could remember him better.

What’s your greatest fear?

Well, if you want to stay focused you can’t think about fear!  So I’ll pass on this one.

If you died tomorrow, what should your epitaph be?

What kind of question is that?!  And what’s an epitaph?  Like, what you put on your gravestone?  Okay, if you want to know how I’d like people to remember me, how about Shelly Alvarez: a Real Shooting Star.

But really, it’s a stupid question.

___________________________________________

To see how other characters answered these same questions, here’s Bender and Igor.

Character Qualities, II

May 27, 2015

So, last week I introduced

The Interview

as a useful tool for helping an author get to know her character.  That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit the main characters down and ask them a set of predetermined questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  Nothing mystical happens here; I’m answering as if I were Jay or Shelly or Igor.  But I have to use what I’ve already determined about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward, in order to answer these questions.

Last Thursday, I posted my interview with Bender Thompson at the request of the class I Skype-visited.  Today, at the request of King Middle Schoolers in Kankakee, IL (thanks for your great questions, guys!) I’ll share my interview with

ROBERT JAMES PRICE SANDERSON, better known as “Igor”

(I pronounce it EE-gore, by the way)

 What’s your favorite color?

Igor

Neon!  I know, lots of colors can be neon.  But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What do you see as your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is my abdominal muscles because I can leg press 200 pounds.  No kidding.  My Webelos troop that I was in for about two seconds (before they kicked me out) had a fitness day at the Y and we tried out all the machines.  That’s what I could do.

In what area of your life would you like to improve?

I would like to improve my report card.  But not enough to, like, work at it.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

The person who has had the most influence on my life is the Incredible Hulk.  That’s why I turn into this big green destruction machine when nobody’s around.  The person with the second-most influence is probably my real dad.  Even though I don’t really remember him.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Funny, crazy, hysterical.

What do others not understand about you?

My friends don’t understand how smart I really am.  I’m just pretending to be stoopid.  Most people don’t realize, but it takes a lot of brains to act dumb.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll probably be finishing junior high.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was when I finally managed to flatten the Empire State Building in Monster Donkey Kong.

Okay, here’s the truth: my happiest memory is the day we left for Disney World, in Florida.  Big Al, my stepdad, told us two weeks before that we were going on this vacation, but up until that minute I didn’t believe it.  I’ve been told enough things were happening that ended up not happening.  Big Al is a morning person—when he’s at home his normal get-up time is like 4:30 in the morning—and he likes to get an early start on any trip, so we were on the road before the sun came up.  I know what that that time of day feels like, because every time we make a move that’s when we leave: it’s kind of fuzzy and blurry but sharp at the center.  Does that make sense?  Anyway, Big Al had the van all loaded up so all we had to do was pile in, but I was already awake—I’d been lying in bed thinking about Space Mountain and Haunted Mansion and all the other rides.  The baby was a little fussy when Mom strapped her in her car seat, but I knew she’d be out like a light once the car started rolling.  Little Al and Samantha started a fight over whose space was whose and Mom told them to knock it off, but not like she was mad.  Big Al said, like he does every time, “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it,” and we backed out of the driveway.  There was a rim of orange light on the horizon and I knew that in about fifteen minutes Big Al and me would be the only ones awake in the van but we wouldn’t need to talk.

Of course, we ended up having to leave a day early and I never got to ride Space Mountain.  I guess nothing can be perfect.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that someday the space/time continuum will break down and I’ll wake up to find I’m 87 years old but still think like a kid.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Here’s lies Igor Sanderson—just kidding!

(Illustration courtesy of Tielman Cheaney, Cartoon Vegas.)