Writer’s Desk: Ian Fleming on Sticking With It

Ian Fleming, who had a blast as a real spy for Her Majesty and then an even bigger blast writing about a made-up spy, was born today in 1908.

His James Bond novels weren’t the greatest pulp of the postwar era, but still generally smashing good fun (more so than the Sean Connery movies, that’s for sure). Even so, Fleming wasn’t a careless stylist; he worked at it.

According to Andrew Lycett’s Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, Fleming once gave this advice on writing:

You will be constantly depressed by the progress of the opus and feel it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint . . . Don’t let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don’t allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don’t worry about what you put in, it can always be cut on re-reading.

(h/t: Simon Read)

Weekend Reading: May 26, 2017

Screening Room: The New Canadian Wave

My article “Les Auteurs: Quebec Directors Make Their Mark in World Cinema” was published in Film Journal International:

Excepting Toronto’s avant-horror maestro David Cronenberg, the Canadian directors making waves outside their home provinces have tended to be art-house auteurs like Sarah Polley (Toronto), Guy Maddin (Winnipeg) and Atom Egoyan (British Columbia).

That is starting to change now, however, with a growing cadre of filmmakers from Montreal making their marks in world cinema as well as Hollywood, while retaining their identity as Quebecois directors. Montreal has deep film roots, after all, boasting the nation’s first movie theatre (1896) and serving as an epicenter for the “Direct Cinema” documentary movement in the 1950s and ’60s. But since the international success of Denys Arcand’s work in the 1980s, it has taken the comparatively recent emergence of directors like Denis Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallée, Xavier Dolan and Philippe Falardeau to put the city back on the film world’s map…

Screening Room: ‘War Machine’

One of the biggest feature film plays yet attempted by Netflix, War Machine is an Afghanistan War satire based in part on Michael Hastings’ nonfiction book The Operators. Brad Pitt (who also produced) plays a hard-charging general loosely based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, though reportedly his character was eventually fictionalized to avoid legal hassles.

War Machine debuts this week on Netflix and in select theaters. My review is at PopMatters:

Things kick off in 2009, when McMahon, aka “The Glenimal”, charges into Kabul like George S. Patton’s less patient twin. Surrounded by a platoon of intensely loyal hangers-on, McMahon is looking to repeat the success he had decimating insurgent networks in Iraq. A cannier movie would have stood back a bit and allowed the audience to get sucked in by the presence of McMahon’s West Point, Ranger school, Yale graduate, warrior with a degree, armored carapace of confidence before making apparent his pride-blinded cluelessness…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Shake it Up’

As part of the Library of America’s attempt to reach beyond their authoritative bind-ups of great American writers, here comes Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar.

It’s in stores now and a necessary addition to your bookshelf. My review is at PopMatters:

…stuffed with everyone from Robert Christgau to Nick Tosches and Nelson George, this anthology is like some steam-powered hurdy-gurdy of sound and vision. In these gnarled curlicues of theoretical musings, cool-handed thematic unpackings, freakout rave-ups, and widescreen snapshots of postwar America’s sonic landscapes, this is a book that will remind you of just about everything you love about music.

Writer’s Desk: Nora Ephron on Getting Paid

The salty yet ever-cherubic Nora Ephron was born this week in 1941 in New York, the city that she chronicled as well as just about any other writer of the century.

She started out as an ink-stained wretch at Newsweek and the New York Post before moving on to books (Heartburn) and writing and sometimes directing romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally).

In 1974, before any of that came about, she was interviewed by Writer’s Digest—here’s some of what she had to say to young writers:

First of all, whatever you do, work in a field that has something to do with writing or publishing. So you will be exposed to what people are writing about and how they are writing, and as important, so you will be exposed to people in the business who will get to know you and will call on you if they are looking for someone for a job.

Secondly, you have to write. And if you don’t have a job doing it, then you have to sit at home doing it.

Note that second point in particular. Sure, you can get up at 4:00am and write a few pages of your book before leaving for the office. But, with all due deference to the Stones, isn’t it better to get your ya-ya’s out while getting a salary and benefits?

Get paid to write. It helps.

Shameless Self-Promotion: ‘The Handy New York City Answer Book’ is On Sale Now

When you think of cities, there is no other place on Earth that better exemplifies what that word means than New York City. Incubator of pretty much every important cultural genre or trend, nerve center of world capitalism, melting pot of ethnicities and religions, New York City, as they say, has it all.

In my newest book, The Handy New York City Answer Book, on sale now from Visible Ink Press, you’ll get an all-in-one reference that covers everything from the city’s complicated and dramatic history to its geography, sports teams, many peculiarities and personalities, and just about all the trivia that could be packed into 464 pages.

Here’s a few of the things you’ll discover:

  • How did New York invent Christmas?
  • Where was baseball first played?
  • How come police officers tried to scare tourists away from the city in 1975?
  • Did punk begin in New York or London?
  • How did the 1863 Draft Riots start?
  • Did Rudy Giuliani actually save the city?

Weekend Reading: May 19, 2017

Screening Room: ‘The Commune’

In the 1970s, communal living was all the rage in parts of Scandinavia. That’s the backdrop for The Commune, a drama about the ensuing entanglements and confusions from Danish director and Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt).

The Commune opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

I’m bored,” Anna (the superb Trine Dyrholm) says to her husband Erik (Ulrich Thomsen). “I need to hear someone else speak.” There are subtler ways to communicate middle-aged ennui to one’s husband, but that’s how the characters tend to speak in The Commune; if they’re not repressing themselves, they’re erupting. The movie follows what happens after Anna’s spur-of-the-moment declaration. Things go sideways, of course, but not in the ways one might imagine…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’

The newest documentary from Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, opens this week in limited release and should be running soon on PBS. My review is at Film Journal International:

For his first feature-length documentary since Life Itself, Steve James takes on one of the great unknown stories of the housing market crash. Following the detonation in 2007 and 2008 of the toxic subprime mortgages that had been inflating the profits of financial institutions and the subsequent government bailout, there was a hue and cry for at least some heads of those firms to face criminal charges … No matter how loud those calls were, though, ultimately no financial-industry institution was ever put on trial for anything relating to the greatest market collapse since the Great Depression. Except, that is, for the family-run Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Enjoy It

In 1958, Daphne Du Maurier, author of gothic treats like RebeccaJamaica Inn, and the story that inspired Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” wrote an essay about her fame called “My Name in Lights.” Du Maurier, born this week in 1930, had advice what to do when you have just done something right:

There come moments in the life of every artist, whether he be a writer, actor, painter, composer, when he stands back, detached, and looks at what he has done … This is the supreme moment. It cannot be repeated. The last sentence of a chapter, the final brush stroke, a bar in music, a look in the eye and the inflection of an actor’s voice, these are the things that well up from within and turn the craftsman into an artist…

So cherish it, because those moments don’t come often:

The feeling has gone in the next breath, and the craftsman takes over again. Back to routine, and the for which he is trained … The moment of triumph is a thing apart. It is in the secret nourishment.

Weekend Reading: May 12, 2017

Screening Room: ‘Elian’

In 1999, a five-year-old Cuban boy was plucked from the waters off Florida. The story that followed was part international incident, part domestic political soap opera, and all spectacle.

CNN’s ‘Elian’ documentary is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

[The 1990s] saw the 24/7 news cycle roar to life in spectacularly messy fashion through round-the-clock coverage of everything from the O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey cases to the siege in Waco, Texas. Like those other media tsunami, the Elián Gonzalez case stormed in from nowhere, tore everything to pieces, and was gone before anybody knew what had happened. It started with a five-year-old boy found clinging to an innertube off the coast of Florida and ended with federal agents storming into a Little Havana house, assault rifles at the ready. Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s Elián tells the stranger-than-fiction story of what happened not just in between but afterward…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Do What Zadie Smith Says

Zadie Smith—you know her, buzzy English novelist (White Teeth, On Beauty) with an incomparably cool style and legions of fans—is an accomplished enough author at a relatively young age that when she laid down a list of writing tips for the Guardian back in 2010, people paid attention.

Listen up:

1 When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2 When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3 Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4 Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5 Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

6 Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

7 Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

8 Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

9 Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

10 Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

Take that last tip particularly to heart and nurture that dissatisfaction: It will power everything you write.

Weekend Reading: May 5, 2017