Literary Birthday: Francine Pascal

Francine Pascal (born today in 1938) grew up showbiz-adjacent in Queens (her brother Michael Stewart wrote the book for Hello, Dolly!). But after a stint writing for soap operas, Pascal made her mark in a different format. In 1983, she had an idea for a teen soap opera about 16-year-old twin sisters (good Elizabeth and more risqué Jessica). An eager publisher snapped up the idea. Ghost writers were hired. Pascal was in charge of outlines, characters, inspiration, and continuity.

The first Sweet Valley High paperback was released that year. Their popularity smashed records and birthed a new subgenre (The Babysitter’s Club, et al). In 1985, Perfect Summer became the first New York Times-bestselling young adult title. By the time the series ended in 2003, it had published 152 titles and sold roughly 250 million copies. After all those stories, though, the sisters never managed to reach their seventeenth birthdays.

Writer’s Desk: Find Other Writers

Sometimes the best advice about writing has nothing to do with the actual act. Take this quote from the great Olivia Laing, whose The Trip to Echo Springs and The Lonely City should be considered guidebooks for any aspiring (or even veteran) artist.

When asked about the best advice she ever received, she told TLS:

Long-term emotional survival as a writer is achieved by treating other writers as a community that thrives when tended, not as enemies to be defeated…

Some might think Laing is stating the obvious here. But for people who spend so much of their time alone, and who may occasionally feel resentment towards their more successful colleagues, it’s a worthy reminder to seek out your own kind.

Who else can give better advice? Or be wiling to listen to you talk for twenty minutes about that one sentence that just won’t work?

TV Room: ‘The Underground Railroad’

In Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, the famed abolitionist rescue network is made into an actual railroad that spirits enslaved people out of the South.

The Underground Railroad will be streaming on Amazon Prime starting May 14. My review is at PopMatters:

Jenkins is generally more experiential than plot-driven, and so the show ripples with the kind of silently evocative and luxuriantly filmed moments that gave Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Speak much of their power. But still, even though the series also has its share of sinking-gut horror and hairbreadth escapes, Jenkins ultimately delivers a subtler and yet grander impact by telling the story as a unified whole rather than a string of attention-grabbing peaks and valleys to jolt viewers out of pandemic streaming torpor…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Niall Ferguson’s ‘Doom’

In his newest book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, historian Niall Ferguson tries to produce a sweeping history of how miserably humans tend to respond to catastrophes. The results are not entirely successful.

My review is at PopMatters:

Readers will find two Fergusons on display. Besides the conservative columnist who picks fights in periodicals in order to burnish his brand (or just to pick a fight) the serious if sometimes wrong-headed historian is also in attendance…

Writer’s Desk: Pare It Down

There’s a Mike Birbiglia joke about how some quotes attributed to famous people are really just sayings that predated that person but they were the one who everyone remembered saying it (funny in his original version). It’s hard not to think of that when reading this piece of advice from ace science-fiction writer and editor Frederik Pohl:

Students of playwriting at the University of Texas (so one of them told me long ago, leaving an indelible impression on my mind) used to be told that there were only three reasons for including any given line in a play: To show character; to advance the action; or to get a laugh…

Clearly that advice was around before Pohl, and likely before whichever teacher delivered it to those students. But it’s grand wisdom nonetheless and if you have ever read any of Pohl’s witty, page-turning science fiction, you know that he followed the lesson to a tee.

So for the sake of convenience and giving a somewhat overlooked writer his due, let’s credit Pohl with this one.

Literary Birthday: Terry Pratchett

Even though his most popular series began as something of a spoof on the genre, Terry Pratchett (born today in 1948) nevertheless became one of the most famous fantasy authors of all time thanks to his Discworld series. Set on a flat world that whirled through the ether on the back of a massive turtle (itself resting on some elephants and who knows what else), Discworld was a palimpsest on which Pratchett could satirically riff on everything from the hidebound traditions of post-Tolkien fantasy to more modern topics ranging from the Balkan Wars to the privatization of public institutions.

He also conjured up many memorable characters, particularly that of Death himself. A thoughtful chap who spoke quietly in ALL CAPS, Death was there to greet Pratchett when he passed away at 68. According to an entry that day from the author’s Twitter account, Death said, “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.”

Writer’s Desk: The Best Things Are the True Things

When George Huang was writing the screenplay for Swimming the Sharks, he based much of it on his experience as an assistant working for hot-tempered producers like Joel Silver. He noticed, though, that whenever he and other assistants traded war stories, there was a catch:

Consistently, my friends who worked for Scott Rudin would always win. Some of the stories they told were almost too absurd to be true. If I put it in the movie, no one would’ve believed it.

In a twist that is either ironic or simply flat-out disturbing, the 1994 movie ended up starring Kevin Spacey, who would later be accused of horrific abuse, embodying many of those anecdotes. Still, Huang remembers that he was convinced to not go all the way, specifically with the stories about Rubin, now facing potentially career-ending charges himself:

I remember trying to put the stories in an early draft, and when [other producers] read it, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is way, way over the top. This would’ve never happened,’” Huang recalled. “I’d go, ‘Oh, but it does.

Huang was a first-time director and ultimately likely did not have the power to have his way on everything. But his experience serves as a good reminder: If it is true, no matter what people think, fight to leave it in.

Literary Birthday: William Shakespeare

Centuries after the passing of William Shakespeare (born today in 1564), there are almost as many superlatives appended to his writing as there have been productions of his work. Whole swaths of libraries are devoted to studies of his plays, which regularly top lists of the greatest works ever produced in the English language.

But it is possible that with his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the great critic Harold Bloom may have topped just about all of the plaudits hurled at the Bard. Bloom argues in essence that during the time that Shakespeare was writing, so little serious thought had yet been turned to the human condition without being seen through the lens of religion, that his insights about character were nearly as critical as anything conjured up by scholars and philosophers. “Shakespeare will go on explaining us,” Bloom writes, “in part because he invented us.”

Screening Room: ‘Stowaway’

In Stowaway, launching tomorrow on Netflix, the crew of a spaceship heading to Mars discovers an unexpected fourth crewmember on board, which is a problem since they only have enough oxygen for three.

My review is at Slant:

This would seem to have potential for white-knuckle tension and even heady discussions about whose life has more value, as there’s not enough oxygen for everyone on the Mars-bound vessel to reach their destination alive. But the film hits its dramatic and philosophical ceiling long before the tiresome conclusion has drained the scenario of any interest…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Know When to Move On

Every writer has had those sections that give them problems. They will be moving right along and then there is this part that just refuses to fit. They know it needs to be there. Otherwise the plot will not make sense or readers will not appreciate the argument being made or that one line of crystalline description will be orphaned.

John Steinbeck knew what to do in that situation. Take this item from a 1962 letter:

If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there…

Writers are always told to cut out the troublesome bits. But that does not always feel right at first. Sometimes you need to let it sit for awhile before you are able to put it out of its misery.

(h/t: Brain Pickings)

Literary Birthday: Isak Dinesen

Danish writer Isak Dinesen (born today in 1885) went by several names throughout her eventful life. Born Karen Christentze Dinesen, she became Baroness von Blixen-Finecke (aka Karen Blixen) after marrying royalty. Her family nickname was Tanne. According to biographer Judith Thurman, her “literary disciples” called her Pellegrina, Amiane, and Scheherazade. Dinsen started publishing short stories in 1907 under the pseudonym Osceola.

Her best-known books—Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and Out of Africa (1938), her memoir of running a coffee plantation in Kenya—were published under Isak Dinesen (she chose her first name because it meant “laughter” in Hebrew). This shifting cloaking of names fitted Dinesen, a theatrical personality whose travels and romances powered her twice-Nobel Prize-nominated writing. After winning the Nobel in 1954, Ernest Hemingway said “I would have been happy—happier—today if the prize had gone to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.”

Reader’s Corner: ‘Rock Me on the Water’ Celebrates and Elegizes Los Angeles in 1974

In Ronald Brownstein’s new book, Rock Me on the Water: 1974 – The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics, he brings together a knot of cultural revolutions (Chinatown, All in the Family, groundbreaking sitcoms) that cross-pollinated a once parochial town on the verge of becoming a global city.

My review is at PopMatters:

Los Angeles was starting to wrest the mantle of cultural dominance away from New York. The city’s close and clubby feel, not to mention the post-hippie haze of friendly experimentation and the boozy musicians’ camaraderie at clubs like the Troubadour, engendered supportive networks for cross-pollination. Sunny California beckoned just as America’s other cultural capital, New York, seemed to be collapsing under grime, rats, and crime. (New York would have its revenge, of course, with punk rock and the Soho art scene, after the Southland scene had imploded in drugged self-indulgence)…

Writer’s Desk: Amuse Yourself

In her 1966 primer, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) had some choice advice for what writers should do. Above all, she said:

The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers and the readers can and will come later.

This should probably not be taken to mean that if you hit a rough patch in your writing to immediately abandon ship. But if you have difficulty sustaining interest in your topic, it is almost certain readers will do the same.