Thursday, April 29, 2010


Just typed the words "THE END." For the first draft, anyway. I gave the last line to Oliver.

That was Chapter 23, the coda that pulls the carpet out from under Oliver's feet, about 3,000 words.

Total word count for the novel, just shy of 140,000 words. In other words, much, much too long. About twice as long, in fact, as the traditional, plain, one-crime-only, read-it-on-a-plane mystery novel or thriller.

This Private Plot has a more elaborate plot, more of the length and complexity of a recent Reginald Hill or Christopher Fowler novel (two of my current favorites), but my target is still to pare it back closer to 100,000 words. Time for a Staples run, for blue pencils and red pens. And the book will undoubtably* be twice as good for being two-thirds the length. (First casualty -- all those self-indulgent bad jokes.)

I have a minor sense of anticlimax, not because of withdrawal from my private world, but because I know -- as I mentioned in an earlier post -- that I have the cardigan mis-buttoned in terms of the plot, and there's a yellow legal pad peppered with notes of major scene shifts already waiting for me, which I've been ignoring in the race to the finish line. So in a way, this is a false first draft, an imposter, instantly obsolete, waiting for the dope test. (I had a dope test once. If confirmed that I'm a dope.)

But at least I can say I've written another book now. 

"There's no such word. Just testing.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A legend in my own lunchtime.

My friend, Leigh Ann, puts together a lunchtime program on creative writing for the kids of the F.E. Bellowes Elementary School in Rye Neck. For the second year, she asked me back to be the visiting author. And I just spent a great hour talking about mysteries to -- and listening to -- about thirty of the brightest, most attentive, most enthusiastic bunch of third-, four-, and fifth-graders on the planet.

Truly a highlight of the year. And worth putting off finishing my own book!

Thirty-five years later . . .

In 1975, the disco group Disco-Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes, featuring Sir Monti Rock III, released a song called "Get Dancin'," which anticipated a lot of hip-hop by including some self-referential lyrics: "Here comes DJ Disco Tex/Truckin' with his Sex-O-Lettes . . ."

Total crap. So why can't I get this tune out of my head this morning?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

And so to bed.

Since I haven't give him anything to do in years, Evan Marshall has probably forgotten that he's my literary agent. But he seems to be doing okay with his other clients, his own series of mystery novels, and his first-class multimedia endeavors to teach fiction writing, through books, software, and an indispensable website, Write a Novel Fast. Try it.

One memorable piece of advice I picked up from Evan was never to end a chapter with a character going to bed. (To sleep, that is.) The goal of any mystery or thriller -- or any book at all, for that -- is to keep the reader turning those pages, desperate to know what happens next. Closing a chapter with the end of a day is like handing the reader a bookmark. And, as Evan points out, since many people do their reading in bed before going to sleep themselves, you're making it all too easy for them to put the book down and turn the light off.

But I just broke that rule, deliberately. (As opposed to the times before I read Evan's wisdom, when I did it in sheer blissful ignorance.) I decided to cut my planned final chapter into two. (I know, the fragmentation of this draft is getting a bit like Zeno's paradox, with Achilles never managing to catch up with that bloody tortoise.) And today, I completed Chapter 22 (3,000 words), which wraps up the mystery.

It ends with my protagonists, Oliver and Effie, going to bed to, er, celebrate the successful conclusion of the murder investigation -- a little scene that, in my not-so-humble opinion, is the perfect blend of eroticism and restraint, reflective of the similar final moment of Murdering Ministers. (In that book, Oliver and Effie were sharing a bath at the end.) You might well expect the words "THE END" to follow. Go ahead, go to sleep. As the commentator* said, "They think it's all over."

Only the sharp-eyed might have spotted the hint that there's just a little more to come. And you might need a good night's sleep first, because it's going to surprise you. (And that's tomorrow's writing assignment.)

*Kenneth Wolstenholme, just after Geoff Hurst had scored his third goal in the 1966 World Cup final, giving England their 4-2 win over West Germany. Happy days.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Naming rites.

First draft of Chapter 21 -- actually, a short codicil to Chapter 20, but written from a different viewpoint -- completed in one day. Now, only the last chapter to go. And rather a lot to pack into it.

The best bit of today was thinking up a new character name. (Yes, I know, it's a bit late in the book to introduce new characters, but his very brief appearance makes sense, I promise.) It's a purely comic character who's a pompous theater critic. So I went back to my lists and decided, for now, on "Wedgwood Gallimaufrey." (It beat out Clovis Milkthistle, which I thought was too Hobbit-like.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

This Public Plot.

Just finished the first draft of Chapter 20 -- pursuit and trapping of the murderer. Wa-a-a-ay too long. Over 8,000 words, trimmed back to 7,000. But this is not a thriller -- it's a whodunit, and once the perp is named, you don't want to detain the reader too much longer, no matter how intriguing the chase. So it's gone to my writers group with a demand that they tell me what to cut.

Meanwhile, only two chapters to go, one of them very short. I may even finish this week.

Friday, April 23, 2010


My point about La Grimsdyke is not to turn this blog into a bunch of boring grammar lessons. (Too late.)

I've been leading up to a question that's been on my mind recently. And that is, do we have a word for that first inkling that a stubbornly long-held belief may actually be up for grabs?

I don't just mean a change in your assumption or your opinions, like when you download a favorite old song from i-Tunes that you haven't heard for years and find it's not quite as good as you remember. (Boy, The Nice were a disappointment forty years later.) Or when that hunter green on the walls of your office that looked so classy when you bought the house seven years ago starts seriously getting on your nerves, but to paint the room a lighter color now means finding a swing space for about a thousand books on the built-in bookcases, which you do like, but even they need a coat of paint.

I mean when your mental defenses weaken enough to allow a slight challenge to the dogma with which you've been indoctrinated from childhood, the belief system that has been the very core of your relationship with the universe.

Such as that moment when you realize that Mrs. Grimsdyke may have been wrong about the possessive form of Dickens or not using the serial comma (don't get me started).

Such as the first time you use a shopping cart in a supermarket, when your mother had so sworn by the humble hand-basket throughout your childhood that you thought wheels were some indication of moral turpitude. (I have a lot of those.)

Such as the possibility that birds don't sing simply to offer praise to God, as you were seriously told in Sunday School, but that mating and territoriality may play a role. And that evolution is a distinct possibility. And that for an infallible guide to life, the Bible does have a somewhat patchy history and more than a couple of internal inconsistencies. Including two contradictory accounts of the creation of Eve in the first three pages, for God's sake, but in twenty years of church-going, you never heard a minister mention that point.

Such as that scratchy moment when, after scornfully questioning the validity of a so-called "Next Generation," you're faintly aware that you may be coming to prefer Patrick Stewart to William Shatner as the Captain of the Enterprise. (WWJD = What Would Jean-Luc Do?)

Or David Tennant's Dr. Who to the Tom Baker of your teenage years.

(Don't worry, Sean Connery, your reputation and toupee are unshakable. Although this new Bond is a lot better than everyone was expecting . . .)

We need a word for it. Because it's been happening more as I get older.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The rest is sibilance.

So how did I get onto Mrs. Grimsdyke?

(With a fork-lift truck. Bwaaaa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

But I digress . . . No, it was back when in the comments to an earlier post, I mentioned Gene Wilder's movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. And I noticed the possessive.

My Mrs. Grimsdyke was probably a man. (I don't mean she was a cross-dresser; I went to a boys' high school and the masters were all men. Well, they wouldn't be masters if they weren't. Although we did once have a substitute math teacher who was a hundred-year-old woman who made us call her "ma'am.") My vagueness is only because I don't remember which particular English teacher taught us how to form the possessive of word ending in 's.'

(Shout out here to my tenth-grade teacher, Robin MacGibbon, who's the reason why I'm a writer now.)

I learned all those arcane rules about adding the apostrophe only, for both plurals and words with an s-sound at the end -- the boys' bedroom, Dickens' Bleak House, Vaughan Williams' "London" Symphony, Shakespeare's sonnet "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." And naturally, like a good little acolyte, I would defend this to the death.

But one day, I defected. (That's defected.) Because I realized the people who added an apostrophe 's' to all names weren't acting out of a pathetic ignorance of the English language. (Or to put it another way, they weren't just being American.) This was actually an alternative rule, constantly and consistently applied. And -- shades of St. Paul on the road to Damascus -- it suddenly made sense.

Take, for example, a restaurant I used to go to a lot in Greenwich Village, called "Gus's Place." If you used my classical form of punctuation, it would be "Gus' Place," which you'd have to pronounce "GUSS PLACE." But nobody does. They all say "GUSSIZ PLACE." And it's ludicrous to write it one way and say it another. Gus already knows this.

So I dumped my crumbling belief -- noblesse oblige -- and from now on, all plurals get an apostrophe only, but all names and singular words ending with the 's' or 'z' sound get an apostrophe plus an 's.' Simple.

And I immediately had one of those encounters of the Grimsdyke kind with a fellow mother at the local elementary school, who still espoused the classical approach and claimed her authority from the fact that her child had two names that ended sibilantically. (Just made that word up.) Say the kid was called Chris Ferris. She said it would therefore be "Chris' recent arrest," "Chris Ferris' juvy record."  Yeah, but you're saying CHRISSIZ, for Chrissiz sake, I diplomatically explain, so write it that way. I was met with the blank stare of the undeprogrammed cult member.

Here's why I like the alternative rule. It reflects widespread general usage. And it can be used without ambiguity and almost without exception. Some people say we still have to apply the old rule occasionally to deal with the odd tongue-twister. I don't think "Aristophanes's The Wasps" (ARISTOPHANEEZES) or "Socrates's legacy" (SOCRATEEZES) is that hard to say, but I'll defer.

They key thing, as the Hatter might have accepted it, is to say what you mean, and then write what you say.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Good night, Mrs. Grimsdyke, wherever you are.

You remember Mrs. Grimsdyke, right? She was the sixth-grade English teacher who hammered into you all you ever needed to know about grammar and punctuation. And she spoke with the infallibility of the Pope. The Grimsdyke way was the only way.

Mrs. Grimsdyke was like that founder* of the Jesuits, who may have claimed that indoctrinating a child for his first seven years was enough to win him for life. I've worn one of my hats -- corporate communicator -- for thirty years. And it constantly amazes me that senior managers, lords and ladies of their profession, can peruse a draft of some communication that may be of earth-shattering significance to the future of their business, and yet the only comment I'll get is "I was always taught not to begin a sentence with a conjunction." (Oh yeah? Try reading Chapter 1 of Genesis some time.)

When I'm hired to work on a project for a client, I make it clear that my ultimate loyalty is to the reader. I'm getting paid to make the materials I write as clear, as concise, and as friendly as possible. An informal, conversational tone promotes understanding, which saves the rampant cost of misunderstanding. At a more subtle level, it also diminishes the distance between the (supposed) author and the reader, enhancing the credibility of the message. It's my job to convince the client -- well, the client's lawyer -- that "It is imperative that the employee submit his/her claim for any loss in a timely fashion" doesn't change its meaning when it becomes "Don't wait too long to send in your claim." Never mind that it has a contraction and seems to be in the second person.

I had a client pay me to work my magic on a complete range of informational materials for his company's employees. And then the same client paid me all over again to remove every contraction -- every "don't" became a "do not," every "you're" a "you are"  -- simply because the CEO "had always believed" that contractions were incorrect in a business letter. Protests that I wasn't writing a business letter fell on deaf ears. So I apply the Beechey doctrine. I try to persuade them twice to do things my way. And then I do it their way with a clean conscience.

Language is a moving target. What's right versus what's wrong can often be what's new versus what's old. Although neither of these should be confused with what's good versus what's bad.

That doesn't imply an anything-goes free-for-all, embracing every faddish abbreviation or misspelling with uncritical glee. (To the end of my days, I will spell "all right" as two words, even if "alright" makes it into a dictionary.) Writers should know grammar backwards and forwards, just as they should know the ins and outs of their word processing program. These are the tools of the trade, and it's ludicrous for any professional to take pride in, say, scattering commas by guesswork or "where they feel right."

But an exploration of the basics quickly leads you into the current areas of controversy. And you discover that there are nuances, shades of gray, competing rules -- a world beyond the unbending grammatical celibacy of the Grimsdykes.

Maybe formal writing hasn't actually changed that much. Maybe what's changed is that excessive formality is now marginalized. I remember those ancient rules about whether to use "yours sincerely" or "yours faithfully" to sign off a business letter. But I never use either these days -- it's usually "best wishes" or even "love." I mean, why not?

So take a stand on the controversies. Stick to your position. Draw a line in the sand and be prepared to defend it. Just equip yourself with a better argument than "that's what I was taught in grade school."

*I've seen this apocryphal quote variously attributed to Ignatius Loyola or to his disciple and co-founder of the Society of Jesus, Francis Xavier. I once saw the "incorruptible" remains of Francis Xavier in a church in Goa, India. Or at least the bits that weren't collected by souvenir hunters -- his forearm's in Rome and another arm-bone is in Macau.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Once more unto the beach.

I know I've been half-American for a few years now.

I know it was all to do with sorting out the travel mess because of that six-syllable volcano in Iceland.

But just for a moment there, my English sinews quivered and my heart swelled when I heard that Gordon Brown was dispatching an aircraft carrier toward the French coast.

Choc full . . . or not.

"Did you get any chocolate syrup when you went shopping?" Primus asks me.

"No, because we have two bottles in the fridge," I reply.

"Yeah, but they're both empty," he informs me.

Fifth grade logic. Or rather, fifth grade housekeeping.

The rudest placename in England.

Parts of the beautiful village of Fingringhoe in Essex date back to the twelfth century. It took the language of present-day hip-hop to make it sound dirty.

(After visiting the place and taking the pictures, I found that it had already been included in a book called Rude Britain. But the warped mentality that made me do a double-take when I passed the signpost is entirely my own work.)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Collector's item.

Talking of An Embarrassment of Corpses ("my Embarrassment," as I refer to it for short), the book came out toward the end of the year, perfectly timed for Christmas gifts but already past the deadline for Edgar Award consideration -- at least, that's my excuse. On Christmas Day that year, my brother-in-law Tom gave me a suspicious package, which turned out to be a copy of my own book.  And he and his then wife had autographed it for me, complete with their academic qualifications. Ha bloody ha. But at least it was a sale.

I used this book as my general tote-about copy, including the notes and page-turn cheats I needed when I made the audiobook. (And the egregious typos.) But then it occurred to me that if my in-laws were claiming to have written it, what if other people did as well. I started asking my fellow authors at conventions if they'd also claim it as their own and sign it to me. And they did. S. J. Rozan and Dale Fututani Flanagan added their chop. Carole Lea Benjamin added the signature and pawprint of the excellent Dexter. And memorably, Sparkle Hayter gave it a kiss-print. (Lucky book.)

The list of great mystery writers continues with (in no particular order, honestly) Val McDermid, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Sujata Massey, Donna Andrews, Jerrilyn Farmer, Janet Lawrence, Barbara Jaye Wilson, Penelope Evans, Tom Savage, Gerald Schiller, Sue Henry, Joyce Christmas, Susan Moody, Polly Whitney, Dean James, Brenda English, Tom Kreisberg, Jackie Girdner, and Nancy Bartholomew. And my particular friends (this time in strict alphabetical order) Rhys Bowen, Meg Chittenden and Kathleen Taylor, who is often spotted around these parts. And now Gene Wilder, since I had the book with me at last week's conference. He's not a mystery novelist, but he did write the screenplay for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother.

(I didn't have it with me for Janet Evanovovich, but she cheerfully wrote that she loved my work when she inscribed a copy of Hot Six for me. Of course, she's never heard of me. Who has?)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

So long at the fair.

The boys' elementary school had its annual fair today. Secundus comes out of the book sale and thrusts a 2005 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records into my hand. (Clearly, I am the designated porter for the family. I walked home at the end of the day carrying a cake.)

"But you already have a later version of this," I protest.

"Yeah, but I don't have that one," he explains.

Third grade logic. Maybe I can find a buyer for last year's telephone directories?
* * * * *

Later, the organizers announce a desperate deal over the PA system -- grab a bagful of unsold books for $1. I have enough unread blocks of paper around the house, but to the bibliophile in me, this is the muezzin's call to prayer. I grab a five-minute respite from running the frog-flipping stand. The book room seems to be the place where lightly used copies of What to Expect When You're Expecting go to die. But there, on the hardback fiction table, still unsold despite the price -- a tattered, ex-library, ex-Salvation Army thrift store copy of my own An Embarrassment of Corpses. I buy it to give it a decent burial, but in the end give it to my friend and fellow mother Robin, who was handling the frogs in my absence.

(I wonder if another friend and fellow mother and fellow author, Annabel, has these problems?  She co-wrote a book called Click: The Girl's Guide to Knowing What You Want and Making it Happen, which was very popular around these parts. I have a feeling that her teenage readers aren't giving up that particular bible to school fairs anytime soon.)

Daddy dearest.

Mentioning Eddie Fisher a couple of posts back sent me to Wikipedia to confirm that the much-married singer is still alive, now into his eighties. And I found a great quotation. Reading his explicit tell-all book a few years back, daughter Carrie Fisher -- born a mere 60 days after me -- commented: "I'm thinking of having my DNA fumigated."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Progress retort.

Okay, you lazy git, I hear you cry, what of this so-called novel of yours, the raison d'etre of this blog?

When last we referred to This Private Plot, I was nearly at the end, having written the "reveal" chapter, with only the brief chase scene and the final mystifying plot twists still to go. Well, as I mentioned at the time, the reveal is clearly the point where you can see your entire clockwork edifice for the first time. I certainly decided there and then to tweak the mechanism -- removing clumsy threads, bolstering the identification of the killer with a couple of extra clues. No doubt there'll be more changes in later edits.

But I also realized that there were some glaring structural issues. I was holding too much back for this chapter, tipping a whole box of greasy padlocks onto the table to be picked instead of having the entire mystery solved by the gentle turn of a single tiny golden key. This is a plot-heavy book -- hence the title --  and so, amid the distractions of conferences, workshops, taxes, and Spring Break, I've been seriously shuffling the deck, dragging revelations to earlier places, lightening the load of the final stages. It's a bit like rebuttoning your cardigan after you discover you matched your first button to the wrong hole.

Most of this is in my head. Much of it is in note form, with diagrams and arrows. But just as I was about to go ahead and make the changes to the text, I remembered a timely piece of advice: Don't do any rewrites until you've completely finished your first draft.

Chastened by my betters, I pass this nugget on. And it makes sense. Why risk going through fifteen drafts without ever reaching the end? Isn't it better to make your changes after you've seen what the entire beast looks like? And why postpone that motivating sense of achievement that comes from typing the words "The End."

The End. (Or is it?)

A word from our sponsor.

Here's a great picture of the Unicorn Writers Conference's progenitor, my friend Maureen Amaturo, and her interviewee, our guest of honor. It was taken by Darren Wagner, the official photographer for the conference, who has very generously allowed us to use his images gratis.

Darren has prepared a dizzying slideshow of his conference coverage, which you can see on his website. You have to wait 4:30 minutes for my first appearance, and then I'm merely introducing the splendid Jeff Bens. In case you're interested, I reappear in my own right (write? Thanks, John L.) about half a minute later, wielding my stunningly lo-tech audio-visual and wearing the usual dorkish expression I have when I'm talking, i.e. all the time.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Too much information.

My personal indicator that a dinner party has gone on long enough is when the guests start comparing how many hours of sleep they need.

It's not the subtle signals that they're ready for bed. It's not even the vertiginous decline in the quality of the conversation. It's the blinkered, tone-deaf, puerile egomania that you think anybody else cares if you can do with less than seven as long as you can sleep in on the weekend. I know then that my life is too short to spend any more of it in the company of anyone so solipsistic. (Especially since I need a good seven and a half if I'm to function properly.)

And this is why I don't see the point of Twitter. Several years ago Garrison Keillor scornfully noted that the purpose of cell phones seemed to be to  "announce our progress through life." Tweeting perfects that. As W.S. Gilbert noted in The Gondoliers, "when everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody."

So imagine my complete horror at a snippet in the Personal Tech section of today's New York Times. (I only read it for the articles.) Somebody has invented a bathroom scale that's connected to Wi-Fi (does that still have to be capitalized?) When you step on it in the morning, your daily weight, lean and fat mass, and BMI can be uploaded instantly to a web site, an iPhone app, Twitter, and Google, so the world can check your avoirdupois.

And the tag line? The comforting news that if you don't want anyone else to know your weight, you can still buy the product but create a private Twitter account. So much hipper than putting on a pair of glasses and looking down between your feet at the bloody readout!

Oy. (164 pounds, but I've been raiding the boys' Easter candy.)

This whole business of people who mistake egocentricity for raconteurism reminds me of one my favorite quotes of all time, apocryphal or not.

(I know, I know -- I keep a blog going about my life, but nobody's forced to read it. Not yet, anyway, but if I ever get my hands on those negatives, people . . . Anyway, I'm interesting, dammit. Just ask . . . er  . . .)

Apparently, pop singer Eddie Fisher was on a 1950's TV show called "This is Show Business" and asked a panel of celebrities for advice on a problem, which was that women refused to date him because of his age -- he was in his twenties, but his fans were teenagers. The great writer George S. Kaufman was on the panel that night, and said:

"Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars up to twenty-four times the magnification of any telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the construction of the Mount Palomar telescope, an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification of the Mount Wilson telescope. Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn't be able to detect my interest in your problem."

I truly wish I'd said that, on innumerable tedious occasions.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

You like me! You really like me!

I just got my evaluation from the Young Authors' Conference. Modesty forbids my reprinting the whole thing, but here's my favorite extract:

"Nice accent, powerful, and amazing."

All that and an Oxford comma. I told you these were the best kids in the world.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Brief encounter.

When you're a living legend and one of the great artistic talents of all time, everyone wants to have their picture taken with you. It's not always convenient, but I guess I'd do it for Gene Wilder.

Seriously, Mr. Wilder, now well into his career as a novelist and short-story writer, was the guest speaker at yesterday's hugely successful Unicorn Writers Conference. Thanks to Maureen Amaturo, who inspired the conference in the first place and got to interview the great man, for taking the picture.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Our latest centenarian. And I remember when she became a mere nonagerian.

Happy 100th birthday, Sylvia. Just remember that the first century is the hardest.

Dear Reader: I devoted all my blog entries this week to Sylvia Davis, or at least to the achievements and experiences I'd gleaned from knowing her for only 18% of her life. If this is the first entry about Sylvia you've come across, you might want to jump back to Monday, April 5 ("My other girlfriend . . .") and then read the week's posts in sequence.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Later that same day.

She remembered. A little prompting, maybe, which wouldn't have been required a year or so ago. I stayed with her a good part of the afternoon. There were stories about her childhood, about her mother's childhood, about early antisemitism, about knowing Burl Ives during the war, about filming with Woody Allen, who let her do two takes for Stardust Memories -- his version first, her version second -- and about needing a hospital checkup afterward to make sure the other actor in the scene hadn't broken her rib.

Her health isn't so good, although she hopes to get past a current problem that restricts her food intake. And she continues her hobby (her "therapy," as she calls it), the note cards made with dried flowers. I remind her that she made a batch for me, at my request, which Mary and I used for our wedding invitations, gosh, thirteen years ago. Two of her designs are framed and hang in our guest bathroom.

I found the picture I referred to in an earlier blog. It was taken at the Jersey Shore and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in either 1929 or 1930 (giving Sylvia an age range of 18-20), and it won an award from the newspaper for the photographer, famous for adding the huge, puffy cloud to backgrounds. Sylvia has the yellowing cutting on the wall, but she also has some better black and white prints from the session -- this is my photograph of her framed picture. And it requires a correction:  Martha Graham was later; this was very much under the influence of Isadora Duncan.

The Daily Insult, Sylvia Davis version, part 2.

Today's the day. I'm going into Manhattan after lunch to see Sylvia, as close to the big day (tomorrow) as possible.

I called yesterday to let her know I was coming. She still lives in her own apartment, but now has nursing care during the day -- a mild irony, because when she played an invalid in those TV ads for the visiting nurse service those few short years ago, she had no need of their services in real life. And that was despite breaking a thigh, when a distracted young woman crossing a Manhattan street in a hurry knocked Sylvia off her feet. (She's 5 feet 2 inches and about 100 pounds -- she doesn't offer much resistance.)

Sylvia had trouble identifying me from my voice, apologetically saying more than once that she gets muddled. A day short of a hundred, she's entitled to. And I expected that. The last time I phoned, again to set up a visit, it also involved a long conversation where I tried to remind her who I was.

"It's Alan," I said, as clearly as I could.

"Who, dear?"

"Alan," I practically shouted. She wasn't getting my name. What would do it? I reminded her in some desperation that we used to work together at the library and often spent time together, especially back in the days before I deserted my beloved New York City for the leafy suburbs. Then I could drop in on her, with or without children in tow (or in Baby Bjorn slings, the world's greatest invention), at home, or in her younger brother's distinguished  art gallery, Davis and Langdale, on 60th Street, where she was still working as a receptionist, a relentless enthusiast for the artists who exhibited there -- she knew them well -- and for the collectors' taste shown by Roy and his wife, Cecily (the Langdale half of the partnership).

Polite, regretful, she couldn't fish me out of her memory. It would have been the first sign for me that her mind, troubled at times but always lucid, was showing the wear of the years, that the actress's remarkable memory was losing its professional sharpness.

And then something clicked. "Oh, Alan!" she cried. "How are you? How's Mary? How are the children?"

I needn't have worried. "Who did you think I was?" I asked.

"I thought you said your name was Ellen," she admitted merrily. "You sounded like a woman."

So there it was. Nothing wrong with her mind, it was just her hearing. Or perhaps my light tenor is getting lighter. Anyway, I'm not put off by the limitations of the telephone. When I get there this afternoon, she'll know me. We go way back.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Daily Insult. By Sylvia Davis.

It was December 7, 2001, the sixtieth anniversary of the "day that will which in infamy," and Sylvia and I had a recording session. She was proud of having been a WAC during World War II, stationed in England, and had vivid memories of hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"I'll never forget it," she sighed. She looked up at me. "Where were you when you heard the news?"

(In case you're not following, I was not exactly focused on world events in 1941, since it was fifteen years before I was born.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A perfomer's life.

I have only a partial knowledge of Sylvia's career -- indeed, of her life -- but I know the moments she was most proud of. She started as a dancer -- the name Martha Graham has come up in conversation -- and there's certainly a framed picture in her apartment of a very young and somewhat scantily clad Sylvia, caught at the apogee of a very impressive and well-formed leap.

Her most prominent role as an actress was playing Arlo Guthrie's mother -- Woody Guthrie's wife, who becomes Woody's widow during the story -- in Arthur Penn's film of Alice's Restaurant. She also had parts in a Patrick Swayze movie and, memorably, in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, playing a "hostility victim" during a brief fantasy scene. She did soaps and some other TV stuff, and even during the time I knew her, she took part in shorts by NYU film students and made a sitcom pilot that wasn't picked up.

[Added later] Here's a moment from Alice's Restaurant, with the added benefit of a great song at the beginning from Pete Seeger:

It was her stage work that she was most proud of -- mentioning with pride that she created the role in The Whales of August that was played by Lillian Gish in the eventual movie version -- and among her anecdotes were stories of acting with the Lunts and Edward G. Robinson. Plays by Shakespeare (she loved the role of the Duchess of York in "Richard II"), Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams feature in her resume. Her last appearance (which I missed, to my eternal regret) was as Henry Higgins's mother in an Off-Broadway Pygmalion in 1993.

Together, we recorded biography, creepy science fiction, young adult, literary fiction, works by Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein, and poetry -- Ted Hughes's translations of Ovid (to my private peevishness, because I had voiced all the Hughes recordings up to that point). She was always up to it, and couldn't contain her glee when she nailed a particularly challenging passage or sentiment.

We also did live readings at the library, and I was paired with Sylvia once in reading 20th century English poetry. I did get Hughes this time, plus Larkin, while she had Auden. (And Eliot? Can't remember.) As a finale, I had taken Auden's "Night Mail," originally written as film narration over Britten's music, and split it between two voices, a complex duologue of interlocking rhythm and fluctuating pace. I set aside time to practice with her, since she was unfamiliar with the poem. I needn't have bothered. She was already better than me in the first cold reading.

At another of the readings, Susan*, the studio director, had given Sylvia "Rockaby," a testing piece by Beckett, tough for any actor, let alone one in her nineties. Sylvia was so good that she could have walked out of that meeting room on 20th Street and delivered the same performance at any off-Broadway location.

And then, her most famous role, seen and loved by millions. At 93, Sylvia got a commercial, for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. (Alas, no amount of searching through YouTube and other websites has located it.) As I recall, it began with a tight close-up of her face, lit for glorious black-and-white, delivering a line that went something like: "I survived the depression, two husbands . . . and miniskirts." [Found it much later. See: Another curtain call.] A moment of fame that got her recognized on the streets of New York.

*Susan Mosakowski worked continually to expand the role of the Audiobook studio. New York theater offered an extraordinary pool of voice-over and performing talent willing to volunteer their time for the blind and visually handicapped, and Susan created many opportunities for the library's patrons to enjoy live performances and readings at the 20th Street branch. She was well qualified to do so -- in addition to her role as director, Susan was and is a successful playwright, whose works have been performed off-Broadway and around the country, and with her husband, the inordinately talented Matthew Maguire, founded the Creation Production Company.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Who is Sylvia?

I had only met Sylvia on a couple of brief occasions before we started to work together on the Josephine Baker biography. I was still relatively new to the process of monitoring, and I had yet to record anything myself -- my first narration was much later, Julian Barnes's wonderful Flaubert's Parrot -- while Sylvia had a long track record . . .  and a reputation for doing things her way. I had yet to discover that her personal warmth was as abundant as her unruly gray curls, and that the steely professionalism that I rightly detected beneath a too-obvious veneer of self-deprecation was itself another veneer covering deeper insecurities about her career (but never her undeniable talent).

During our first session, I heard her stop reading mid-sentence, and so I halted the tape and informed her over the intercom that we would be restarting. I assumed she had lost her place in the book momentarily. (Whenever Sylvia made a mistake, I always apologized to her.)

It was reel-to-reel tape in those days; the studio has since gone digital. Because the erase head and the recording head on the old machines were about half a second apart, picking up after a break was a rather complex ritual that was 50% button-pushing and 50% sheer faith that you weren't going to cut off the end of a successfully recorded sentence, especially a long one. So while I was going through the motions for the restart -- it hadn't yet become second nature as it would be later -- Sylvia buzzed. I took off the headphones to use the intercom.

"Why did you stop me?" she asked.

I realized I hadn't explained properly. "Oh, you left rather a long pause there, so I guessed you wanted to do it again," I told her.

There was another pause, and then her voice, frosty, on the intercom.

"My dear," she said, "that was acting!"

Monday, April 5, 2010

My other girlfriend . . .

 . . . was the way my wife used to refer to my dear friend, Sylvia Davis, in the days before we were married.

I met Sylvia in 1992, when I was volunteering in the Audiobook Studio in the New York Library for the Blind. I'd worked on just a few books before I was teamed with Sylvia as her "monitor" (i.e., sound recordist and occasional, trepidatious editor) for Naked at the Feast, a biography of Jazz chanteuse Josephine Baker. We went on to do eleven books together, after she refused to work with anyone else.

(Under Library of Congress guidelines, the books are recorded unabridged, and with weekly two-hour sessions -- any longer and the vocal tiredness of the volunteer readers can be heard by discerning listeners -- a longish book can take months to complete.)

If ever I missed a recording session over the years, only the studio director, the indefatigable Susan Mosakowski, would be grudgingly accepted as a substitute. Anyone else would result in a sulk.

This exclusiveness was no hardship for me, since Sylvia was the best reader I worked with, and I loved her company, in the studio and often on social occasions. She was also the best prepared -- her reading copy of the book was peppered with penciled notes about emphasis and mood, as befits the professional actress she was and remained through all the time I worked at the library. (My move from Manhattan to Rye seven years ago ended my ten-year stint as a regular volunteer.)

But like so many of her colleagues in the business, she lamented the lack of work, the absence of auditions. Her agent just wasn't calling. And any suggestion that, since she was now in her nineties, she was entitled to a graceful retirement was generally met with a withering, scornful look. (Despite her tiny, elfin physique, she could have the presence of a Titaness.) Sylvia had to keep busy.

Well, she has kept busy, to the point where on Saturday, Sylvia Davis will celebrate her one-hundredth birthday. In her honor -- and with a massive measure of guilt that I can't be with her on the day because I'll be presenting at the Unicorn Writers Conference in Connecticut, I'm going to devote this week's blog entries to a true star of dance, stage, screen, and my life.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Impressions from Virginia.

The retirement community where my in-laws live is described at its main gate as an "adult lifestyle" community, which sound like a different kind of euphemism.

Formal meals are served in the main dining room in the central building, known as the "Big House." Returning to the family cottage after lunch a little later than the others -- held up by an impromptu game of checkers with Primus and Secundus -- we pause open-mouthed as a solo bald eagle flaps lazily past us, below the tree-line.


The boys have enormous trouble letting go of things, which is obvious from a glance at their over-stuffed bedrooms. They speculate on how much of our beloved minivan can be repurposed when her days on the road are done, unable to handle the concept of selling her in her entirety. In a rare note of fraternal pride, Tertius tells me that I should just give her to Secundus, the would-be Edison. "He'll turn it into a flying car," he declares with cheerful confidence.

(Well, it's about time somebody came up with one. We were promised them, as any consumer of science fiction will tell you.)


We emerge from the in-laws' cottage to drive back to the hotel (which allows Leila to stay in the room with us). The full moon shines through crisply etched clouds like a Dore illustration or an establishing shot from a werewolf movie.

"That moon looks ominous," pronounces eight-year-old Secundus. The writer in me inflates.

"It does," I agree. "And that's a great word."

"Yeah," he says thoughtfully. Then adds, "Dad, what does 'ominous' mean?"

Oh well.

I didn't take enough pictures of Leila when she was a puppy. Here's one of me and the beast in a rare moment of repose. (For her; I'm generally in repose). It was taken by my mother-in-law during our Thanksgiving visit to Virginia in 2007, when Leila was three months old, but I only collected a copy on this visit.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Daily Insult.

Visiting the in-laws in Virginia (yes, that's one of the reasons why there's been a bit of a hiatus -- and before I left I had to deal with this approaching tax return deadline, always scarier for the self-employed).

I'm walking the dog around the grounds of the retirement community where my parents-in-law live, when an aged resident greets me and notes with devastating accuracy that's she's never seen me or Leila before. I explain that I'm visiting.

"Oh," she replies, "I thought you just lived in a different part of the community."