Friday, March 28, 2008

From the Novelist Picket Lines

No, I’m not walking around in circles with a placard in my hands while the cats stare at me and wonder why I haven’t tossed any toy mice their way recently. Instead I’m laughing my out-of-shape butt off as I read a wonderful story from the Onion.

The story is about a Novelists’ strike and how it has affected absolutely no one. Some of the quotes are brilliant.

Hey, if you can’t laugh, then you shouldn’t write.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Attack on the Memoir?

There was a story the other day in the New York Times about a British writer who was not allowed to come into the United States, where he was going to attend an opening party for his new book, Dandy in the Underworld, which is a memoir.

I've not heard of this guy, Sebastian Horsely, before, though I'm not much for memoirs, which seem to have pushed the novel further into the background of the literary world. His work is about his experiences as a drug abuser and frequent user of prostitutes. He chronicles his trips to the Philippines, where a photographer took pictures of him being hung from a cross. (Buy the book, just in time for Easter! Good God, what has this world come to?) Presumably, that's where the image I found online and borrowed for this post came from.

Memoirs and memoirists have had some trouble the past couple of years -- especially in recent weeks -- and I couldn't help but wonder whether, in a way, this decision by the United States is a way to challenge whether Horsely really was telling the truth. What Horsely has that "Margaret Jones" didn't have was indisputable truth that he'd done these things -- at least the mock crucifiction. Jones's tale, while reportedly poignant and stunning, is not her personal experience. Ergo, not memoir. Thank you, try again.

Personally, I have no trouble with fiction. I love reading it and writing it. I believe most readers who say they prefer nonfiction because they want to read about what is real are simply lazy. They literally have not exercised their imagination. Shame on them. A good story -- especially fiction -- should feel real to a reader, otherwise there is no believability and ultimately the work will wither and die on the vine.

I'd like to believe that Margaret Jones, whose real name is Margaret Seltzer, could simply have converted the story to fiction. As the New York Times blog post suggests, that's not always easy. But at least it's honest.

As for Mr. Horsely, well, if I read the article correctly it said that he was trying to get into the United States without a visa -- which, reportedly, is still possible for British folks, as long as they haven't been convicted of a crime involving moral terpitude. Perhaps I'm reading it wrong. I'd have expected his publisher or agent to have checked into securing a visa, but the article is silent on that point.

I doubt I'll be reading about the book about the dandy. I can't relate to drug abuse and using prostitutes, and I don't care to live vicariously through him. I imagine he'll be in the United States eventually to sell another book. Or perhaps the next we hear of him, he'll be admitting that he made stuff up for his book. As he told the Time Out London, "It's better to be quotable than honest."

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ad Astra, Sir Arthur, Don't Forget to Write

Arthur C. Clarke, the author of numerous science and science fiction dreams and books, died this week. While he's best known for writing 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Stanley Kubrick made into one of the all-time greatest films, Clarke was a prolific writer (author of nearly 100 books) and a great thinker. Though his idea was considered by his attorney too crazy to be worth patenting, he is credited as the first to imagine telecommunications satellites.

His idea was proposed in a scientific paper he wrote in 1945 (Sputnik launched in 1957), which showed the feasibility of satellites that stayed in geostationary orbit around the earth. That now well-trafficked area of space has since been officially designated the Clarke Orbit. According to Clarke's New York Times obituary:

[That paper was] "the most important thing I ever wrote." In a wry piece entitled, A Short Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time, he claimed that a lawyer had dissuaded him from applying for a patent. The lawyer, he said, thought the notion of relaying signals from space was too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

But Clarke wrote much that his millions of readers took very seriously. My personal favorite book of his is Childhood's End. Like 2001, which came later, this work included a benevolent yet removed presence that watches over -- even mentors -- humanity. They step in and stop warfare among nations, but their real goal is to prepare them for the next, awkward step in their evolution.

I never met or interviewed Clarke, who lived for the past half century in Sri Lanka, but he contributed a video commentary to Space Day in 2001, which I covered. The event, held at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, was special for me, in part because I love space but also because I had the chance to meet and interview John Glenn, the first American to orbit the planet and a former U.S. senator from Ohio. Clarke said to the crowd of mostly school children that among them might be sitting the first person to set foot on Mars.

That comment came back to me after watching a statement (available on YouTube video) that Clarke gave upon the announcement of the Google Lunar X Prize. The announcement of the $30 million competition, challenging a privately funded team to send robot up to the moon, came last September. As he did on Space Day 2001, Clarke offered a taped statement and spoke about things like the fiftieth anniversary of Sputnik, which occurred in October.

"I was always sure that humanity would reach the moon," he said, "but I didn't really believe I would live to see it. And I'm sure I didn't believe I'd live to see it end. ... We need to go to the moon for the right reasons. We need to find the models for markets of profitable operations that would inspire entrepreneurs and business leaders as well as our scientists and engineers. That's the only way to ensure permanence."

He went on to say that he hoped to one day enjoy one of the nongovernmental suborbital flights that he believed would be actively taking passengers before this decade is over. That sounds like a tall order, (assuming he means, as most people erroneously do, that the decade ends when 2010 begins; it ends when 2010 ends), but Clarke was not one to shrink from his dreams.

Peter Diamandis, who chairs the X Prize Foundation, offered his thoughts after the death of his friend, Sir Arthur. He wrote,
"Arthur once said, there are three phases to a great idea: 'The first phase is when people tell you it’s a crazy idea, it will never work; the second phase is when people say, it might work, but it’s not worth doing; and the third phase is when people say, I told you that was a great idea all along!' We at the X PRIZE Foundation know that feeling ... and Arthur was one of my great supporters to pursue the original Ansari X PRIZE, and the many prizes that followed. Thank you Arthur for encouraging our crazy ideas!"

Thank you, indeed, Sir Arthur, for dreaming big and encouraging others to dream too. Like you did, I hope one day to venture off this wonderful home planet. I can't think of a better way to truly learn the most about humanity and appreciate what we have here on earth than to view it from a distance and return to the cradle of life to share what has been learned.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Amazing Influences of Michael Chabon

Boldtype has a wonderful interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. Boldtype's newsletters are gathered in themes, and the one from late February (Hey, I can't read everything right away) is about collections. In the interview, Chabon talks about his baseball card and comic book collections, but overall it's an examination about his soon-to-be-released collection of nonfiction work, being published by McSweeney's. Beyond that, it seems like a collection of influences.

As I've stated before, I'm a big fan of Chabon; I count The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay among my favorite books written in the past fifteen years. I can relate to the idea of collection -- believe me, my wife can attest to large collections of books, baseball cards, and beer bottles that "litter" our house -- so this interview worked for me on many levels.

What did you think of it?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

My Name Is John Connolly, and I Didn't Come Here to Kill

I've just finished the last of the Charlie Parker novels in my possession -- The Black Angel. While I enjoy a good thrilling movie as much as the next guy, I've never been much for reading thrillers. But I've enjoyed reading John Connolly -- though my favorite of his works is The Book of Lost Things, which is decidedly not a crime thriller. (TBOLT is a very clever twist on fairy tales and growing out of childhood.)

Connolly has definite talent for description, and the frequent themes of redemption and salvation are ones that I enjoy reading about, especially when done well. He's a writer I'd love to interview, which he might appreciate as an Irish journalist who interviews other authors. Check out his interview with Stephen King, who seems more candid or "willing" to speak about personal subjects than I think I've ever found in the oft-interviewed author.

One thing I'd love to talk to Connolly about is his intense depictions of brutality. I'm both appalled and intrigued by his willingness to express such vivid scenes of dismemberment and evisceration, for example. These are things that most mainstream writers -- and I consider Connolly in that category -- would not deign to show. Even in his later work, the scenes of murder and the details of fingers ripping through skin and organs continue and are not for the weak of heart. But if you can stomach scenes of sometimes cringingly disgusting murder, Connolly's Charlie Parker books are fast reads and cleverly crafted works.

I recommend one starts with Every Dead Thing, which feels like two books in one. It sets the background for why Parker is the way he is, and the horrifying death of his wife and daughter aptly prepare you for the steady stream of bloody murders that continue throughout the Parker books. While Charlie Parker makes a cameo appearance in Bad Men, it's not in the same family of works. Call it a neighbor, as it takes place in Maine -- as do most of the Parker books, at least in part. But Bad Men lumbers without quite the payoff. I'd have edited it differently.

Though I have The Nocturnes collection waiting atop one of my bedside stacks, I'm taking a break from Connolly for now. I recently bought The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon's first novel, and began reading it last night (in the midst of a blackout). Chabon may be my favorite writer currently working. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Summerland were wonderful, and friends have told me that The Yiddish Policeman's Union is excellent too. And when I arrived on squad duty this morning, I found Rules for Old Men Waiting waiting for me. I read the first two paragraphs and discovered that Peter Pouncey is a wonderful novelist. It's nice when discovery happens like that, and I love when friends recommend good writers.

My mailbox remains open wide (as do my comment areas) for people who would like to recommend any fine work -- even your own -- and I'd be happy to share my thoughts on them.

[BTW, for those who don't catch the reference in my headline, it's a (somewhat hackneyed) reference to a Black 47 song, James Connolly. I didn't mean to imply that John Connolly has posted anything to my blog, though he would be most welcome.]

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Quote of the Day

This is from a story in today's New York Times. The story is about the revelation that a woman's memoirs of being a gangmember and foster child were completely fabricated.

Nan A. Talese, who published Mr. Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, said the combination of these recent episodes could start to change the business’s practices. "I think what editors are going to have to do is point to the things that happened recently and say to their authors, 'If there is anything in your book that can be discovered to be untrue, you better let us know right now, and we’ll deal with it before we publish it,' " Ms. Talese said. But she added: "I don’t think there is any way you can fact-check every single book. It would be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship."

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Tag, You're It!

Back from vacation and after digging through the first strata of emails, I received this today: an announcement that Barnes & Noble has launched a video magazine series called "Barnes & Noble Tagged!"

Though I've peeked at its first couple of minutes, I've not watched enough to say it's well done or not, but my initial impression is the image quality is good, the volume level may be a little low (which means you have to remember to turn your speakers down later or you may blast something later), and the books are decidedly mainstream. I intend to watch it more thoroughly, and I encourage book lovers and writers to give it a shot. We all need more ways to promote reading and to promote writers of all levels.

Personally, I'd like to see less about Jodi Picoult, who has done well to establish an audience, and more about excellent writers who remain relatively or completely unknown. Of course, I have a vested interest in that, since I hope to be one of those "relatively unknown" excellent writers who claws his way to everyone's consciousness and sells boxes full of books.

[And for those of you who asked: No, I didn't finish all the revisions this past week, which I regard as a blessing. It means that I'm putting in the appropriate amount of time to make sure I do it right (these weren't merely correcting a couple typos; it's a matter of weaving things in and tightening up loose strands), and that I actually relaxed a bit during the vacation. I needed that! And thanks for asking.]