Writer’s Desk: Shape Matters

A Lesson Before Dying Book Cover - typographic layout with author name and book title with small image of an African American man standing beneath a wooden structure

In 2010, Ernest J. Gaines—the late author of A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—talked about how part of his fiction grew out of listening to the stories of the people he grew up around in Jim Crow-era Louisiana.

But, he emphasized, writing is not just about having good material:

Content is probably only 40 percent of it, no more than 50 percent, as far as I’m concerned … If a book doesn’t have form, then damn, it ain’t no novel. We can go down the block right now and find a guy on the next corner who’ll tell the biggest and truest story you can ever hear. Now, putting that story down on paper so that a million people can read and feel and hear it like you on that street corner, that’s going to take form. That’s writing…

Screening Room: ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’

Cate Blanchett stars in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s beloved novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which opens this week.

My review is at The Playlist:

Once upon a time, Bernadette was a rising ingenue in the architecture world, with a knack for quirky science-fiction designs and looking dazzling in old photographs (the bangs and artfully dangled cigarettes help). Her career was then sidetracked by a catastrophe that the movie withholds until far too late in the process. By the time we catch up with her, she has become a fierce recluse. Living in a damp and vine-riddled hilltop Seattle manse that she keeps up like some horticulturally-minded relative of the Addams Family…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Don’t Give Up

Novelist, poet, and writing professor Chuck Kinder passed away recently. Known in many circles as the inspiration behind Michael Chabon’s glorious novel Wonder Boys (and its highly underrated film adaptation), Kinder sometimes had a hard time finishing things.

Per Shelf Awareness:

Chabon, who studied under him in the 1980s at Pitt and published Wonder Boys in 1995, spoke with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001 about Kinder’s role in inspiring the character played by Michael Douglas in Curtis Hanson’s 2000 film adaptation: “I remember peering into his office and seeing this monolithic pile of white paper–the inverse of the monolith from 2001–under his desk lamp. In my memory, it was 4,000 pages long. He was proud of how big a bastard it was…

Kinder eventually wrangled the beast into the quite svelte 360-ish page novel Honeymooners after a mere two decades or so.

Never give up.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Lake Success’ is a Picaresque Journey to Nowhere

My review of the new Gary Shteyngart novel is at PopMatters:

One gets the sense from the start of Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success that this is going to be something of a status report on the nation. And it’s not just because of Trump. Barry Cohen, the doofus we’re stuck with throughout, stumbles into Port Authority bleeding from his head and trying to get a ticket out of town. A fund manager with $2.4 billion in assets wearing a Citi-branded Patagonia vest over his Vineyard Vines shirt, he’s not a bus station type but nevertheless is feeling like he needs to go off the grid. No NetJet from Teterboro or Acela train for Barry…

One of the book’s chapters was excerpted at the New Yorker.

Writer’s Desk: Immerse Yourself

Michael Ondaatje doesn’t work fast. He spent six years on his seminal novel The English Patientwhich actually just won the Golden Man Booker Award (meaning it was the Booker Award-winner of the past 50 years). That is in part because he likes to drown himself in the material.

Per this interview from BookPage, Ondaatje prefers to get outside of himself and what he knows:

That’s how you learn. You don’t want to write your own opinion, you don’t want to just represent yourself, but represent yourself through someone else. It doubles your perception, to write from the point of view of someone you’re not. To write about someone like myself would be very limiting…

He was talking about his novel Anil’s Ghost. That one took seven years. Escaping into a new character and a new world takes time. But the immersion is worth it if you want to write something great.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Heather, the Totality’

In this novel from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, the lives of a spiritually deadened uptown Manhattan family intersect with the downward trajectory of a New Jersey convict who never had a chance.

My review of Heather, the Totality is at PopMatters:

Nobody will finish this novel remembering a sublime fillip of dialogue or splash of lovely description. They are more likely to snap the book shut about three or so hours after picking it up—and they almost certainly will fly through it at that speed, because this thin blade of a book has a wicked magnetic pull—and pour themselves a couple fingers of something strong. To steady the nerves…

You can read an excerpt here.

Screening Room: ‘Mudbound’

The historical melodrama Mudbound has been making the festival rounds, from Sundance to the New York Film Festival. It’s due on Netflix and in select theaters on November 17.

My review is at PopMatters:

A surprisingly assured big-canvas effort from director Dee Rees (PariahBessie), Mudbound is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel about two families, one white and one black, who find themselves unwillingly bound by land, happenstance, poverty, and the persistence of persecution in the Jim Crow South. The Jacksons are a family of black sharecroppers who have to adjust to their new white landowners, an unsure bunch known as the McAllans whose various missteps (intentional and accidental) lead to bloody tragedy…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Take the Train

Among the books listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 were familiar names like Arundhati Roy, George Saunders, Colson Whitehead, and Zadie Smith.

New to the list was Fiona Mozley, a 29-year-old bookseller from York whose debut novel, Elmet, hasn’t even been published yet. According to her editor, Mozley wrote the story while commuting on the train.

To be longlisted is an impressive achievement for anyone but for a debut author who wrote Elmet while travelling up and down to London from York on the train is just amazing.

This might be tricky if you take the New York subway to work (fewer seats, after all), unless you’re one of those dictating writers.

Screening Room: ‘Silence’

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A spiritual epic of the kind he hasn’t tried since Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is playing now in limited release and should be expanding nationwide soon. My review is at PopMatters:

…with his long-gestating adaptation of Shūsaku Endō‘s 1966 novel Silence, Scorsese returns to a scenario where souls are lost and seeking answers. Set in 17th-century Japan, a world distant from his usual contemporary American settings, the movie presents characters who willingly undertake punishments as brutal as anything experienced by the great martyrs of his early work, from Jake LaMotta to Jesus Christ…

Here’s the trailer.

Reader’s Corner: Michael Chabon’s ‘Moonglow’

moonglowMy review of Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, which is hitting stores tomorrow, is at PopMatters:

Chabon starts Moonglow in a great, glowing gush of reminiscence and incident. The narrator character that he has created for himself adheres to the broad outlines of his biography, though one who keeps himself surprisingly small in the background; no Philip Roth-ian excavations of the self to be found here. Instead, Chabon places himself at the bedside of his grandfather who is near death in the late-‘80s. This is just after The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has come out, and Chabon is there to hear the tales of his grandfather’s life. They come pouring out in a rush, “Dilaudid was bringing its soft hammer to bear on his habit of silence”…

Writer’s Desk: Start Your Novel Now

November is only a couple days away. And you know what that means: time for National Novel Writing Month!

Pretry simple: 50,000 words in 30 days. Easier said than done, of course, but therein lies the challenge. 

So get started! That sci-fi romance series or timely political satire you’ve been pondering won’t write itself…

Screening Room: ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’

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MirbeauChambermaidDiaryIn Octave Mirbeau’s scandalous 1900 novel, Diary of a Chambermaid, he uses the exploits of a canny maid unencumbered by bourgeois morality to satirize the hypocrisies and power games of French society. It’s been filmed a couple times, most famously by Luis Bunuel with Jeanne Moreau in the title role.

Benoît Jacquot’s new version stars Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color) and is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The loathsomeness of humanity is so thickly painted in this latest adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s satirical novel that by the time anti-Semitism and murder rear their head, they almost can’t bring the film’s opinion of its characters any lower. That isn’t to say that director BenoîtJacquot doesn’t relish watching his players scheme and plot their way around hard work or simple decency. In this world, fin de siècle French society is a rigged game. Those not born to its few crucial advantages of money or place have to do what they can to survive. Of course, many don’t put as much into that struggle as his manipulative heroine Célestine (Léa Seydoux), who hasn’t met a corner she didn’t cut or an angle she didn’t play…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Revenant’

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' (20th Century Fox)
Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Revenant’ (20th Century Fox)

The Revenant, the new film from Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Gravity, Birdman), is a revenge epic based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel and starring Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The_Revenant_2015_film_posterIt’s opening on Christmas Day in limited release and will expand wider in January. My review is at PopMatters:

A spiritual view of the natural world clashes with the animalistic drives of a fallen humanity in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s operatic wilderness survival tale,The Revenant. This freewheeling adaptation of Michael Punke’s novel about fur trappers, Indians, and soldiers tangling in primal ways on the Western American frontier in the 1820s stretches the limits of endurance in more ways than one. Inarritu’s film pushes against known boundaries of art, suffering, and revenge tale…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Umberto Eco’s ‘Numero Zero’

9780544635081_hresUmberto Eco’s latest novel Numero Zero goes on sale today. It’s a slim fantasy about crackpot conspiracy theories and journalists who play the game of massaging the truth a little too well.

Eco told NPR that he hopes readers of his novel “will become more suspicious and attentive when reading a newspaper.”

My review is at PopMatters:

Beware of stories by hack journalists who are given a chance at doing something greater and in the process discover that the seemingly too-good-to-be-true offer masks something darker that will test the limits of their conflicted ambition and fraying morality. Fortunately, Umberto Eco’s newest crackpot thriller, Numero Zero, is not one of those stories. His hack journalist doesn’t aspire to much more than he is, and he’s in on the big secret from the get-go. Unfortunately, the novel, for all its intellectual zip and brash erudition, never builds into anything more than a trifle…

Here is an excerpt from Numero Zero.

Writer’s Desk: Alone Time

Is there anybody here who can write in a loud room full of people? There are people out there who can somehow accomplish that feat; your average journalist, say, who doesn’t have the luxury of going off to find a cozy tea shop with decent coffee and good Wi-Fi. They’ve got 45 minutes to pound out that 1,100-word piece on the newest unemployment numbers or a listicle on the month’s top 10 most cringe-inducing GOP candidate flubs, and a deadline waits for no man or woman.

Them1Prose is a different matter. Because that’s what we’re generally talking about when we say writing, yes? Those of us who toil on both sides of the fiction divide don’t waste too much time worrying about process and idea-mongering when it’s time to work on the nonfiction material. It’s just as much work, and frequently just as much artistry. But nonfiction writing is simply different. Not to get into fuzzy notions of the muse, but one usually doesn’t need to be struck by inspiration to knock out 500 words on a new misery memoir or 1,500 on what the popularity of Game of Thrones says about the impending collapse of Western hegemony. You just need to find a way in and then how to put all the building blocks together. That’s a vast oversimplification, of course, but it generally holds.

Prose (or verse, assumedly), though, is a creature of a different hue. And it’s not an easy thing to do with others around. Joyce Carol Oates said this to Salon on the question of creativity requiring being alone:

Probably nothing serious or worthwhile can be accomplished without one’s willingness to be alone for sustained periods of time, which is not to say that one must live alone, obsessively. Ultimately, any art is intended for an audience — a community. In this way, the artist/writer is linked to the community and is only temporarily “alone.”

So buckle up, close the door, put on the headphones, whatever you have to do. Don’t worry. The world will still be there when you get back.