Writer’s Desk: Pull a Gatsby

Megan Abbott, whose newest novel The Turnout is out this month, had some good advice for how to find the right narrative perspective for your book:

I’ve always been interested in the “Gatsby structure,” which is when you don’t tell the story from the point of view of the most interesting character, though they can become the most interesting character, of course. You let Nick Carraway tell it…

You want a watcher to tell your story. Somebody with an exciting life may not have the time or focus to notice what’s happening around them.

Screening Room: ‘Stillwater’

The new movie from Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) takes some inspiration from the Amanda Knox case but goes in different directions, some interesting, others less so.

Stillwater is playing in wide theaters-only release now. My review is at PopMatters:

Oil field roughneck Bill (Matt Damon) relocates from the hardscrabble flatlands of Oklahoma to the graffiti-splattered urban puzzle of Marseilles to help free his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from prison. It’s not an easy quest, given that Bill does not know anybody and barely communicates in English, much less French…

Here’s the trailer:

Literary Birthday: Chester Himes

Raised in Missouri, Chester Himes (born today in 1909) began his writing career in an unlikely place. While attending Ohio State University, he started walking on the wild side. He was sent to prison for robbery at the age of 19. Buying a typewriter in part with his gambling winnings, he began writing stories from his jail cell that were published in the black press and Esquire, under the pen name 59623 (his prisoner number).

After moving to France, Himes began publishing the raucous Harlem-set noir novels that made him famous, particularly Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965). One day in Paris in 1953, Himes was at a café with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. The two rivals were sparring over petty literary slights, real and imagined. “I confess,” the street-wise Himes wrote in his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972), “at this point they lost me.”

Screening Room: ‘Enemies of the State’

Enemies of the State opens in limited release this Friday. My review is at Slant:

Sonia Kennebeck’s murky, labyrinthine documentary would seem to be another entry in the tradition of heroic whistleblower narratives popularized by filmmakers like Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) in the early 2010s. Its story is centered around Matt DeHart, a former Indiana Air National Guard drone team member and professed Anonymous- and WikiLeaks-affiliated hacktivist who claims to have been interrogated and tortured by the F.B.I. because of classified government documents in his possession…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Put in the Effort

In this interview, Minnesota author Charles Baxter explains how he knows he is on a good streak:

I work during the morning. I pace; I stare out the window. I sit with my head in my hands. If I can feel myself breaking out into a sweat, particularly from my underarms, and if I give off a noticeable body odor that even I can smell, I know the writing is going well…

If it feels too easy, maybe give your last few pages another look.

Literary Birthday: Ernest Hemingway

Like many eager young men at the time, Ernest Hemingway (born today in 1899)  tried to enlist to fight in World War I. “I can’t let a show like this go on without getting in on it,” he wrote to his older sister Marcelline. “There hasn’t been a real war to go to since Grandfather Hemingway’s shooting at the battle of Bull Run.” Rejected by the Army, Navy, and Marines for bad eyesight, he was thrilled to go to war in 1918 as a Red Cross ambulance driver.

After being wounded, and winning a medal for trying to rescue a soldier, he spent six months recuperating. Marcelline was seeing a movie back home when she was thrilled to see Ernest in the newsreel. “He was in uniform, sitting in a wheelchair on the hospital porch, being pushed by a pretty nurse,” she wrote. “He smiled at the camera and waved a crutch.” The Hemingway family went to theaters all over Chicago to catch the newsreel as many times as possible.

Literary Birthday: Frantz Fanon

“Decolonization,” wrote Frantz Fanon (born today in 1925) at the beginning of his revolutionary-philosophical text The Wretched of the Earth (1961), “is always a violent event.” He knew what he was talking about. Born in the West Indian French colony of Martinique, Fanon studied in France to be a psychiatrist and published the pioneering work of racial consciousness, Black Skin, White Masks (1952).

Stationed at a hospital in Algeria during the civil war, he witnessed up close the effects of torture. Fanon joined the Algerian liberation movement the FLN and began writing of the need for violent overthrow of the French colonial system. Published the year he died of leukemia, The Wretched of the Earth called in stark terms for colonized peoples to not replicate Europe but instead to “turn over a new leaf … and try to set afoot a new man.”

Writer’s Desk: Watch TV and Learn

Say you have written a book. You have been lucky enough to have your book published by a major house. Maybe you have even gotten some good press. But nevertheless, the income stream is negligible. What do you do to keep writing and not have to hold down a separate job?

Maybe write a book that has a better chance of being optioned for a streaming or television adaptation. In “The Rise of Must-Read TV,” Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter note how streaming services like Netflix (which has had great success with book-sourced series like The Queen’s Gambit [pictured above]) have been on a “buying spree” of book properties.

The writers studied what makes a book more appealing to the interests of TV producers looking to populate a big, broad-appeal series. They identified a few common characteristics:

Although not every novel under contract for potential adaptation shares all of these features, they do seem to possess a consistent set of what we call “option aesthetics”: episodic plots, ensemble casts, and intricate world-building. These are the characteristics of contemporary fiction that invite a move from the printed page to the viewing queue.

These are just dramatic choices you can make. If (and only if) they work well for the story you have in mind, then run with it. Remember: Jennifer Egan modeled A Visit from the Goon Squad on The Sopranos.

Literary Birthday: Wole Soyinka

Like his cousin, world-renowned musician and activist Fela Kuti, Nigerian poet and dramatist Wole Soyinka (born today in 1934) is almost as well known for political agitation as his art, the latter of which made him the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He made numerous enemies with his outspoken critiques of authoritarian African regimes and post-colonial powers, lampooning “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it.”

For his efforts, he was imprisoned by the Nigerian government in 1967 for over two years. During that time, he wrote verse that was smuggled out on toilet paper and published as Poems from Prison (1969). His poem “When Seasons Change” reflects a perspective shaped in solitary confinement: “Shrouds of seasons gone, peeled / From time’s corpses, mouse-eaten thoughts / You flutter upon solitude in winds.”

Writer’s Desk: Write As Though You Are Already Gone

Sometimes the best advice can come from writers reminding you of what other writers have said. For instance, there is the 2012 speech that Jeffrey Eugenides gave in which he gave some advice via what one writer related about another writer’s advice:

In his 1988 book of essays, “Prepared for the Worst,” Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously.”

Eugenides goes on to interpret what Hitchens/Gordimer meant, which to him boils down to writing in some sense as though one is already dead and gone:

It may inoculate you against the intellectual and artistic viruses that, as you’re exposed to the literary world, will be eager to colonize your system.

Which is all likely true. Better to accomplish, of course, without trying to finish one’s memoir or mystery while viewing it through the veil of the after life.

(h/t: The Millions)

Reader’s Corner: ‘Seek You’

My review of the new graphic novel from Kristen Radtke (Imagine Wanting Only This) ran in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

In Jim Shepard’s recent bio-noir “Phase Six,” a character mockingly defines loneliness as “solitude with self-pity thrown in.” That line’s chilly dismissiveness would not play well in Kristen Radtke’s immersive, novelistic and intensely humanistic book-length graphic essay on the subject…

Screening Room: ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’

In Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, documentarian Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) tracks the alt-chef’s rise to fame and his struggle over what to do once he reached the top of the mountain.

Roadrunner opens next week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

The current theatrical landscape in which celebrity culture mixes with foodie nerdism and extreme travel narratives is impossible to imagine without a boundary-crossing hyphenate enthusiast like Bourdain. What is de rigueur now—chefs with tattoos and potty mouths going to faraway lands or little-known domestic dives to eat off-the-beaten path foods—was more or less invented in 2000. That was the year Bourdain blew up the still-staid manner of writing about cuisine with his bestselling behind-the-scenes part-memoir part-manifesto Kitchen Confidential

Here’s the trailer:

Literary Birthday: Ann Radcliffe

Given that she was later referred to by Sir Walter Scott as “the first poetess of romantic fiction,” it is fitting that many dramatic rumors about Ann Radcliffe (born today in 1764) swirled around her. There were stories that she had died young, gone mad (potentially being locked up in an asylum), or even arrested as a spy.

But whatever the truth of her biography, the impact that Radcliffe’s picaresque Gothic novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) had on the literary world is undeniable, influencing everyone from Coleridge to Wordsworth and Scott. She was the highest-paid writer of the 1790s and one of the most imitated. Jane Austen paid tribute to Radcliffe in her semi-comic Gothic Northanger Abbey, in which a character raves about Udolpho: “I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time.” 

Writer’s Desk: Try Again, Try Harder

Writers love little more than those days when the words just arrive, streaming from your mind to the page with seemingly little to no effort on their part. It can, of course, be glorious to go from eking out a few lines to finishing five pages in a morning.

But Samuel Johnson has a warning:

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.

It’s good to feel the pleasure of your writing. But stay frosty.

Screening Room: ‘A Choice of Weapons’

In John Maggio’s documentary A Choice of Weapons, the photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks dazzles not only as a groundbreaking artist but as a continuing inspiration to younger photojournalists.

A Choice of Weapons played at the Tribeca Festival and is coming to HBO later this year. My review is at Slant:

Born in 1912 and raised on a Kansas farm, Parks lived by his wits and talents (which included playing piano in a Minneapolis brothel) before finding photography. A stint at the Farm Security Administration in 1942 resulted almost accidentally in a stark, Dorothea Lange-esque series about black cleaning woman Ella Watson. One of the portraits, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., which showed her standing dourly in front of an American flag inside the FSA, was considered so politically incendiary that it almost got Parks fired…