Reader’s Corner: American Science Fiction in the ’60s

If you’re looking for a good book or eight to spend your shelter-in-place weeks with, the Library of America is a good place to start.

My review of their big and gutsy boxed set American Science Fiction of the 1960s — including everything from groundbreaking Samuel R. Delany space opera to proto-feminist work from Joanna Russ and even Flowers for Algernon — is available in the spring 2020 print edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books:

The driving impulse behind this anthology is not, nor should it be seen as, a greatest hits compilation. Rather, editor Gary K. Wolfe appears to be approaching it in the same sidelong manner that he used for his previous anthology of nine “classic” science fiction works from the 1950s: He is mixing in the familiar with the lesser-known, using many of the latter to stand in for whole swaths of the genre. This professorial survey-course approach necessitates plowing through some lesser material—which one might have skipped in their original paperback binding—but provides fascinating glimpses of whole styles of writing little seen now…

Reader’s Corner: Buy a Book Today

We will lose a lot in these next months. We’ve already lost too much. One thing we don’t need to lose is our independent bookstores. You have watched all the episodes of Norsemen. I’ve watched them twice. Now we need books…

If there were ever a time to take a few extra moments to order through your local bookstore, it’s now. Admittedly, all retail is and will be under unimaginable strain in the coming months, but bookstores are one category where, with owner ingenuity and community spirit, survival might be possible.

— Dave Eggers, “Bookstores Can Be Saved

Writer’s Desk: Terrence McNally

The recently late Terrence McNally wrote many many plays. Some were great (Love! Valor! Compassion!) and some others were good but less than great (Ragtime, The Visit).

In any event, McNally — who passed away this past week from coronavirus-related complications — did what vanishingly few writers have ever done: Make a living on Broadway.

And he did it without making much of a fuss about the writing itself. A few years back, he provided some tips for the writing life:

What time of day do you get your best work done?
No particular time. I just turn on the computer and do the work.

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write?
I don’t have any rituals. I just put my fingers on the keys. It’s like second nature. I don’t think about brushing my teeth or shaving—it’s just something I do.

What’s the secret to being so prolific?
I live in a fascinating city at a fascinating time in history. When people say they have writer’s block, I say, “Go take a walk around the block! Read the paper! Open your window!” How can you have a block when there’s so much going on? I love what I do, so I don’t think of it as a job that you finish. It’s like breathing.

When you can say that you write like you breathe — and be telling the truth — it is safe to say that you are the envy of the great majority of writers who have ever drawn breath.

Screening Room: ‘Resistance’

Did you ever think you would see a movie in which General Patton introduces his battle-wearied soldiers to a performance by Marcel Marceau? Or that the world-famous mime spent much of World War II spiriting Jewish orphans out of France to safety? You get all that and more in the far-from-perfect but still satisfying new biopic Resistance, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Marceau, which will be available this Friday.

My review is at Slant Magazine:

Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is an old-fashioned and straightforward tale of brave opposition to the Nazi occupation of France whose most potentially intriguing angle becomes its least satisfying dimension. While featuring many familiar elements, including a sarcastically reluctant hero, a mentally unbalanced sadistic villain, and nail-biter last-minute escapes, it’s centered on a character who one doesn’t often see in World War II movies: a Nazi-fighting mime…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer's Desk: Start with a Cold Shower

The Atlantic‘s James Parker wrote recently about how most of his writing days used to start:

I’d wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. Then I’d think: Well, now what? Time would go granular, like in a Jack Reacher novel, but less exciting. Five minutes at least until the kettle boils. Make a decision. Crack the laptop, read the news. Or stare murkily out the window. Unload the dishwasher? Oh dear. Is this life, this sour weight, this baggage of consciousness? What’s that smell? It’s futility, rising in fumes around me. And all this before 7 a.m…

His new approach to kicking off a day’s writing appears to be more fruitful:

I wake up, smoldering and sighing, reel out of bed and into the kitchen, and put the kettle on. And then I have a cold shower … Then you get out, and you’re different. Things have happened to your neurotransmitters that may be associated, say the scientists, with elevated mood and increased alertnessYou’re wide awake, at any rate.

This usefulness of this approach to the writing lifestyle has not been fully tested as of yet.

Screening Room: ‘Blow the Man Down’

My review of the new movie Blow the Man Down — which starts this Friday on Amazon — ran at Slant Magazine:

Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘The Plot Against America’

In Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, it’s 1940 and Hitler is rampaging across Europe. Only in America, Franklin Roosevelt is facing serious political competition: fascist sympathizer and popular hero Charles Lindbergh. A Jewish family in Newark, drawn in part from Roth’s childhood, starts realizing they may have to chose between fleeing to Canada or facing pogroms in New Jersey.

My review of HBO’s The Plot Against America, a six-part adaptation by David Simon (The Deuce, The Wire), ran at PopMatters:

in 1940, the idea of a white supremacist president in league with a fascist foreign power was hard for many to contemplate. Even a fully-fledged racist like Woodrow Wilson had not colluded with enemies abroad. And nobody truly imagined the likes of Donald Trump as president until The Simpsons Movie in 2007. It was a different time. The Wire was only in Season 3.

Writer’s Desk: Be Ruthless

One of the greater speculative fiction writers of our time, China Mieville — imagine H.P. Lovecraft filtered through Kafka and Neal Stephenson with a generous dose of Marxism — talked to Clarkesworld magazine about his writing practice.

For Mieville, his productivity comes in spurts. But that doesn’t mean he is undisciplined:

I’m ruthless with early drafts, as one has to be … More and more as I get older and as I change as a writer, so what tends to happen is the first draft tends to be quite long and maybe quite flabby, then I’ll trim that down. There can be occasions when it’s very difficult because there are some sections that you really want to keep in, but, at the same time, you know that you probably ought to get rid of that bit. Sometimes, you have to be quite ruthless with yourself.

It’s good advice. After all, if a writer isn’t ruthless with themselves, it’s almost a guarantee that their readers will be.

Writer’s Corner: Go Fast

They always say to keep a notebook around. This is not only good advice, it is essential. Inspiration does not strike that often. When it comes, you need to have something to catch it with.

Take Joseph Heller. He told Rolling Stone that he got the idea for Catch-22 in the middle of the night:

It kind of burst into my mind. I was actually pacing the floor at four in the morning. I couldn’t wait to get into my office at this small advertising agency and scribble the first chapter.

He wasted no time. If he had waited, we might have lost one of the greatest books of the 20th century.

However, when answering whether writing classes are worthwhile, he digresses into how long it takes to write a book.

There was for me. None at all, I’d say, for the student who lacks talent. You can’t teach talent. And you can’t give intelligence. You can’t teach a person to be funny. A novel takes two or three years to write. By the time a student is halfway through his book, he’ll know so much more about writing and about literature, and will have experienced so much more as a person, that there’s a good chance he’ll lose interest in the book before it’s finished.

This is not much talked about but there are plenty of writers who have gotten a good distance into a long-term project and then lost any interest in finishing it. Of course by then, they’ve committed so much time (or, if they’re lucky, were paid an advance) that there is nothing for it but to press on.

So when you know what you want to write, do it. Fast.

That’s what Heller would have said. Of course, in the twenty years between his debut Catch-22 and this 1981 interview, he had only managed to produce a total of three novels. So, as in so much of life, do as the man says, not as he does.

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski’

My interview with graphic novelist Noah Van Sciver, author of The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, ran in Publishers Weekly:

You’ve written three books about Fante Bukowski, a delusional, arrogant, and slovenly character. Do you find something admirable in his belief in his own greatness?

I’m always interested in people who are obsessed with one thing, like people who become obsessed with comics history. I think it’s admirable to dedicate your life to this role. But now I have to think about it. Is he admirable? He’s dedicated to being a drunken writer [laughing]. I don’t know if that’s admirable, though…

Screening Room: ‘The Wild Goose Lake’

The latest movie from Yi’nan Diao (Black Coal, Thin Ice), The Wild Goose Lake is a spectacularly cinematic story that sets a massive manhunt for a gangster in a “lawless” part of China.

It opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Sometimes you just know within a few minutes. At the start of Yi’nan Diao’s rapturously beautiful and darkly entertaining The Wild Goose Lake (Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui) two lean and beautiful people with the look of the hunted in their eyes circle around each other at a train station. Cigarettes are lit in the glimmering darkness. The man, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), has a large scar on his face and carries a bag that must contain cash…

Here is the trailer: