Saturday, February 27, 2010
"I'd better," he says darkly, "to stop you getting anything embarrassing."
(What, fifth graders wouldn't like a board book of Goodnight Moon? Not even ironically?)
Friday, February 26, 2010
When I contacted Julia many years later to sheepishly report that I had borrowed her appearance and some other characteristics for Effie, she graciously agreed to be flattered by the portrayal and not sue me for copyright infringement or defamation of character. And she also sent me this picture of us both from 1975 that not only gives a fuzzy indication of those amazing tresses, but also shows that, at that time, I could give her a run for her money. They say that if you can remember the sixties, you weren't there. The problem with the seventies is that you do remember them, even if you don't want to. Especially the hairstyles.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
But oddly enough, Oliver's appearance is partly based on a real actor, called Robert Longden. (Oliver's actually an amalgam of a fellow psychology student at Oxford, Longden, and a Chase Manhattan banker who used to work for my ex-wife, who all shared a vague resemblance. Not my ex-wife.) It was Longden's appearance in a 1980 Agatha Christie television play that registered with me, but no amount of Googling or Binging has brought a picture of that performance to light. And then yesterday, I was watching a documentary on advertising from Britain's Channel Four, which included a segment on Peter Seller's last work -- a 1980 television commercial for Barclays Bank that was shelved following Seller's death a few days after filming ended. His costar was the young Robert Longden, and here's a screen capture of him from that long-unavailable film.
Monday, February 22, 2010
I've found writing is like exercising -- it's thoroughly addictive when it's a daily routine, but a little tough to get back into after an unavoidable break. And writing was impossible in one hotel room holding five people, three of them addicted to Cartoon Network. (To create quite unnecessary tension, I won't reveal which three.)
I'm not one of those writers who's internally driven to write every day. But I am one of those writers who's internally driven to keep going once he's started. Can't start, can't stop. A bit like my problem with being both an anal retentive and having an attention deficit. I'm both organized and untidy. Everything in the office, the closet, the bookshelf, the CD rack has a place, labeled, alphabetized, and color-coded, as appropriate. It may just have to wait in a random pile on the floor for a month or so before it's put there.
That's why the best advice for writers is still to follow a routine -- have a daily time when you apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, whether or not you're in the mood. It's taken me too long to learn this.
Now I'm on record as saying how much I hate rules or fixed templates for creative writing, and one of the most heinous is the one that says true writers have to write. They can't help themselves. The muse takes over -- if they have to wait more than a minute for the barista to froth up their machiato, it's whip out the netbook and on to the next chapter of their intimate memoir.
What a crock. Sure, there are authors like that, but they're more likely to be highly disciplined than constantly in the throes of inspiration. There are great writers who hate writing and have to be manacled to the desk by frazzled agents and publishers. There are fine writers who are content with 100 words a day, as long as they're good. For some, writing's a breeze; for others, it's a grinding, heart-rending chore. Just because you're good at something, it doesn't always mean you enjoy it. (And, of course, vice versa.) Dorothy Parker -- with whom I share a birthday, but sadly, little else, not even underwear -- said "I hate writing, but I love having written."
But just to contain multitudes, I shall make one observation that's perilously close to a rule. A person doesn't have to write much to know that he or she wants to be a writer. But the person who proudly upholds that ambition without having written anything -- and I've met some -- should be encouraged to keep the day job.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
No, we may not be the ideal family for Disney, with the boys currently in that zone between the wide-eyed submission to charm displayed by the tots in the TV commercials and the ironic regression of the returning teenager. Not to mention my premature curmudgeonliness. (Okay, not so premature these days.)
However, it's hard to be cynical. To get an hour of entertainment, you may have to spend a further five walking, queuing, waiting, planning, snacking, etc. But the point is, it doesn't feel like five hours. You admire that. You admire the efficiency, the cast members' apparently genuine desire to please you, no matter how trivial their job. You admire the wit and creativity of the designers, the impossibility of finding any vantage point where Cinderella's castle doesn't look imposing (and I've tried). I admit I'd love to live in a town with storefronts like the art moderne fantasy facades of the Studios' Hollywood Boulevard. Okay, they're all shops. But so what if the whole enterprise seems to be a way to sell you crap, every ride designed to over-promote the latest Disney release? The commercialism is no less rampant and slightly more subtle than, oh, everything else in modern society. (And Toy Story 3 looks like it's going to be bloody good.)
We all loved Epcot's Soarin', a gentle simulation of flying in a hang glider over well-chosen parts of California, although I wouldn't go so far as the lady I overheard exiting the ride, who claimed it was the best experience she'd ever had in her life. Hmmm. But that reminds me that while it's hard, as I said, to be totally cynical about an enterprise that really does try to give the punters a good time, it's almost too easy to get a laugh out of the guests. (Not that pervasive childhood obesity is funny.)
So I'll just end this entry with one overheard remark, as we were heading out of the park for the last time. A woman is inspecting the photographs on her digital camera. "My picture's blurry," she complains to an older companion, perhaps her mother. "Oh, it was blurry when I took it," the other woman reassures her.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Second visit to the Kingdom on this trip, and this time we attack it like pros. In through the gates at opening time, hurtle solo to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Frontierland to collect Fastpasses while kids are escorted in the opposite direction to Tomorrowland to get on line for the popular Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. Tertius overjoyed when, scurrying along Main Street with his mother, his spare hand is grabbed by Chip, who walks with them a short way. Or was that five-foot rodent Dale? Alas, I'm the one with the camera, and by the time I join them, they've gone through Buzz twice and I've had an indifferent, lukewarm cappuccino from the pleasantly deserted Sleepy Hollow cafe in Liberty Square. But with the park still half-empty, there's no waiting for a turn on the classic Mad Hatter's Teacup ride. Two turns, if I forgo my photo-op with the cute blonde dressed as Alice.
And so it goes. From nine o'clock in the morning until three in the afternoon -- Buzz twice, Mad Hatter twice, Haunted Mansion, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, It's a Small World (your brain on drugs), Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, Aladdin's Flying Carpets, the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, Big Thunder Mountain again.
Total time in the park by this point: six hours. Total amount of this time actually spent being entertained on rides: 64 minutes (17.8%), not including the self-guided, cursory ascent of the treehouse. (Does anybody read The Swiss Family Robinson these days?) And this was a day when the lines were short and the planning paid off.
But then we take the motorized raft to the ultimately low-tech Tom Sawyer's Island, which is little more than a high-concept adventure playground. The boys had a blast, seeming to enjoy their own games of hide and seek around the fake fort and fiberglass escape tunnels, caves, and mines as much as any attraction they'd ridden on earlier that required an electrical supply. (And it awakens memories for me of a childhood dream of finding such a playset in our local park, the spark for a whole set of imaginary situations to place myself in during those long hours or seconds between bedtime and sleep.) After an hour or so, the only temptation we could offer them to move on was an immediate return to the hotel for a swim in the pool.
We may not be the right family for Disney.
Friday, February 19, 2010
So he's so all-consumingly gloomy that it temporarily colors the whole day, and he adopts his grumpy, whiny persona. I'm quite used to this and weather it for a while, knowing that sooner or later I can make him laugh. Eventually, I murmur that if he's that unhappy, he might prefer to stay in the kennel with the family dog. And as I say this, I see a couple of passers-by smile to themselves.
At first, of course -- like the bird-flipping urchin of my previous post -- I'm convince they're enraptured by my acerbic insouciance and dry, low-key wit. But then it dawns that, in that split-second of judgment, I'm nothing more than a harassed father, driven to extreme threats by what must be an uncontrollable six-year-old brat. They see me as one of those parents.
Disney can do that to you.
In the spirit of recycling for conservation, I often use odd snippets of conversation that I overhear. I keep a list of odd names that can be used for characters. But I long ago gave up collecting the stupid things people say or do while watching animals in zoos. It's too easy.
The breaking point for me was a visit many years ago to the Bronx Zoo (if I recall correctly, although it must have been before the Congo Gorilla Forest was opened). A ghastly boy of about ten had decided that the funniest thing he'd ever managed to do in his life was to sit in front of the glass frontage of the gorilla exhibit and give his not-so-distant cousins the finger for several minutes, looking around all the time with a rictus of self-satisfaction on his stupid, inbred face, clearly expecting as much delighted approval from the surrounding zoogoers as if he'd discovered cold fusion in his underwear. And the saddest thing of all is that, twenty-odd years later, that particular specimen of homo sapiens has probably yet to surpass that single act of wit.
So we were very happy to stop for a while and, quietly and in stillness, take in the dignity and beauty of a young silverback gorilla sitting thoughtfully beside a waterfall in Disney's African exhibit. As for the whoops, screams, and foolish comments of a minority of the passers-by -- well, I'll merely say that they're supplying more coffin-nails for the intelligent design heresy. Unless God is a gorilla.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Second worst sight of the day: young English mother in front of me in the line for lunch -- fashionably low-waisted jeans, fashionably commando (or so it seemed), fashionably broad in the beam (for Disney visitation, that is) -- bending over frequently to deal with her rambunctious toddler and every time mooning me with a coin slot long enough for all of Apolo Ohno's medals.
Worst sight of the day: The bearded, middle-aged man in the bathroom lifting his shirt and waggling his thus-denuded lower back underneath a warm-air hands dryer.
Now I come to write these up, it strikes me there's an anatomical parallel between these two observations, but out of sheer good taste I choose not to go there.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
As I wait my turn and add my fingerprints, I hear an American women complain: "I was expecting something bigger. You know, like a big lump."
As I reminded Primus, when I was his age -- Valentine's Day was his eleventh birthday -- I was in my first year of the English equivalent of Middle School, and we were riveted by the Christmas lunar orbit of Apollo 8. (The "Santanauts" as Liverpool poet Roger McGough called them at the time.) The first men to come close to the lunar surface, the first men to see the far side (not the "dark side," despite Pink Floyd) of the moon. Primus was, of course, kind enough to calculate exactly how many years stretched between our respective eleventh birthdays.
For me, the Apollo program resonates like no other. I have vague childhood memories of Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, and I kept my interest up for Skylab and the Shuttle, but it was the moon, the moon that captured my adolescent imgination. To this day, I can barely utter the words "Tranquility Base here -- the Eagle has landed" without choking up. And I remember that summer morning in 1969, when I woke up to see those ghostly, grainy black and white images on our grainy black and white television of Armstrong and Aldrin already out of the Eagle and onto the pallid surface of the moon. The moon!
Today, I ate my lunch under a Saturn V rocket, laid horizontally and suspended from a museum ceiling. Impossibly huge and utterly cool. And I almost wept when watching the highly effective simulation of the Apollo 8 launch, as experienced in the interior of the actual launch control room.
And it's while I'm lost in reverie as I'm calculating the best possible setting for a hand-held, low-light photograph of the casts of the hands of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins that I hear those immortal words whispered in my ear: "Dad, I need to use the bathroom."
One disadvantage of having children . . .
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
The afternoon parade is called "Celebrate a Dream Come True." Surely Disney must be running out of these cloyingly optimistic sentiments by now?
Later, on the crowded monorail from the Magic Kingdom to the transportation center, a middle-aged, single man leans toward a group of Australian ladies he's been listening to for a while and asks: "So what part of Italy are you girls from?"
Sunday, February 14, 2010
That's when it hits me -- it's one of those syllabic spoonerisms, a variant of "West of the Rockies," no doubt trying to isolate the word "rock."
Now, I was 18 years old and living in London when that album came out in 1975, and I was already losing interest in Reg, thinking he'd been on a downturn since "Caribou." (I do give serious props, though, to 1983's "Too Low for Zero," with its iconic "I'm Still Standing." I used to time my sit-ups to that track, in the days when my abs still showed.) So I wasn't too familiar with a key American geographical distinction, which functions a bit like England's "North of Watford*."
But there it is. It's taken me 35 years to get that joke, and I hereby claim the world record for being dull.
Not to be coy about my classical education, a phrase from Homer springs to mind: "Doh!"
Saturday, February 13, 2010
The conference grew from an idea of the inexhaustible Maureen Amaturo, founder of so much that is good in Rye, including my beloved Sound Shore Writers Group and the Arts Center's annual literary event celebrating the extraordinary Edgar Allan Poe. Maureen had attended conferences further afield and thought it was about time we had something similar in this corner of the Tri-State area. The keynote speaker is writer (Young Frankenstein, for goodness sake) and legend Gene Wilder. There'll be another not-to-be-missed session by my buddy Lee Stringer, who gives me two degrees of separation from Kurt Vonnegut. Oh, and somewhere down the list there's a workshop on writing the mystery novel by some guy with my name.
Of course, there's still at least two more chapters to write. The next is the pursuit and comeuppance of the guilty party, solid comic action all the way, planned for years (to the point of photographing the attempted escape route, including the backstage interior of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, on my last scouting trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. Google Earth is useful, too.) And then at least one more chapter for the wrap-up, because, being me, I've always got something else to say. Plus a major surprise for the regular cast members, to set up the sequel.
But Chapter 19 was hard going. This has been a big puzzle story. Without indulging in spoilers, I'll just say the plot presents a two-stage process for Oliver -- the first is to solve a set of mysteries that will identify the murder suspects, and the second is to decide which of them actually did the deed. Chapter 19 was this final stage -- and I had to make sure that every clue or hint or red herring I may have planted is all present and accounted for by now. (I actually use Word's highlighter feature to mark every clue as I write it, removing the color -- pink -- only when its resolved.)
You don't want the final accusation to be too wordy, with those "there's-just-one-thing-I-don't-understand-Inspector" asides. You want to show as much as possible rather than assert it. You don't want to sound as if your detective character -- or worse, you, the author -- are just parading your cleverness. (And I let Oliver make mistakes, even at this stage.) You don't want to save it all for this point, just those final details that may have obscured the culprit's true identity and/or motivation. Above all, you don't want to laboriously explain every tiny reference -- trust the readers' ability to fit a few of the jigsaw pieces into place without your help.
You aim for an effect that's like a baize-covered tabletop, on which there's a seemingly random scattering of beads. And as you pick up one, you find that another follows, and then another, and it's actually a well-ordered necklace on a fine nylon thread, clumsily thrown down, but regaining its integrity as it's lifted up to eye level.
I'm not sure I have that yet. That's why it's called a first draft.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
As far as I can see, the only advantage of having ten nominated best movies instead of the usual five is that you can play the new game of deciding which five wouldn't have made it in a normal year. (And Nine still couldn't get a shout out.)
Or, instead of deciding which two nominees don't really have a Republican's hope on Pandora of winning, it's now which seven.
Of course, there's dumbest title of the year: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Now if you go to the trivia page for this film on the Internet Movie Data Base, you can follow each step of the logic, and they do sort of make sense. But surely, as soon as you get to the point where you need a colon in a title, it's a call for a rethink.
(Private fantasy number 1? Sorry to disappoint anyone. It's to be the suave, velvet-voiced villain in a James Bond movie. Not play the villain. Be the villain. "Good evening, Mr. Bond. So kind of you to drop in . . . TO MY TANK OF PIRANHA FISH, AH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HAAAA!")
Which leads into another Oscar game -- what's the easiest way to get one, without having all the bother of a lifelong career working hard in the movie business? I suggest it's getting co-opted to co-write the lyrics on one of those crappy songs that get sung over the end titles, in a year when there are no films of old Broadway musicals with one extra song cynically added (I'm looking at you, Andrew Lloyd-Webber) or Randy Newman-scored Pixar movies or James Cameron spectacles about lithe, semi-naked, giant blue space cats. Hmmm, that reminds of private fantasy number 2 . . .
Friday, February 5, 2010
This career choice comes up again in conversation, on the way to a playdate. (And why can't grown-ups have playdates, I wonder aloud. They do, he replies, they go to lunch.) As I pull up at his friend's house, I tell him that his first priority as an inventor is to make something that will generate so much money, I'll never have to work again.
"But by the time I do that," he assures me, "you'll already be in a retirement home."
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
I did this once before. In An Embarrassment of Corpses, I make a very convincing case for why Oliver himself should be the murderer, before I switch everything in the final chapter. (I know it's convincing, because I had hate mail from people who were fooled.) And now it can be revealed -- the reason why it's so convincing is that it was, in fact, the original ending of the book. Only in the course of writing it, I came to like Oliver so much as an amateur detective that I wanted to use him again, and I wasn't inclined to turn him into a peripatetic villain, like Patricia Highsmith's Ripley.
(Why am I spoiling the surprise, in case you're among the vast majority of the American population who haven't read the book? Because when the publisher issued the sequel, Murdering Ministers, they attached the phrase "An Oliver Swithin Mystery" to the title, which is kind of a giveaway that Oliver isn't spending the rest of his days in penal servitude. I'm hoping it's like Ron Howard's Apollo 13 -- even though we know that in reality those astronauts got down safely, it doesn't stop us watching the movie with our hearts in our mouth.)
So I had to go back and graft an entirely different set of clues onto the story structure, with alternative motives and a new outcome. I'm rather proud of the fact that while the basis of Embarrassment -- detecting the patterns behind a serial killer's string of bizarre murders -- is a familiar one to mystery readers, both of my resolutions, ersatz and real, were original. I didn't lift any of the solutions used in similarly themed novels I'd read up to that time.*
But I also felt obliged to come up with a reason why Oliver couldn't have committed the murders -- why the reader should have realized that so-convincing false ending had to be false. And that raises a questions of fair play that I haven't thought about before: Is it enough to show why the guilty party had to be the killer? Or is it better if you can also show why each of your red-herring suspects couldn't have done it?
*Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders and And Then There Were None, Philip MacDonald's The List of Adrian Messenger, and Lionel Davidson's brilliant and frustrating The Chelsea Murders. I'd also cite two Vincent Price movies that I had to be careful not to copy: Theater of Blood and the hugely underrated The Abominable Dr. Phibes. The movies The January Man and Seven appeared after Embarrassment was published.
Monday, February 1, 2010
As I complete each chapter, I do a cursory edit (on top of the constant editing that goes with using a word processor instead of my first novelizing tool, a used IBM Selectric, brought over from England in 1983 and run on a transformer in the bedroom of my apartment) and then I fling it to my colleagues in the splendid Sound Shore Writers Group. I mentioned beginning Chapter 16 in my January 19 blog. This was finished (8,700 words) by last Friday, complete with f-word and Finsbury the Ferret appearance, for those who've been paying attention. I just pushed the button to send Chapter 17 (7,500 words), written over the weekend. Well, it was cold out. Current tally: 111,000 words. Or 11,000 words too many.
On to Chapter 18, which wraps up the mystery, although it doesn't quite end the book. I wonder who the murderer is?