Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Robin Williams and the Under Toad

“But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” 
—The World According to Garp
I knew it was going to be sad, but I didn’t realize how sad it would be. Tuesday, I took myself to the Arclight Cinema to see a special showing of “The World According to Garp” as part of a Robin Williams celebration. I didn't know what I was getting myself into.
I don’t think I’d seen that movie since it had come out in theaters in 1982. I remember, at the time, liking the movie, but not too much. It would have been impossible for any film version to please me, given my utter devotion to the source material. “The World According to Garp” was one of the first contemporary adult novels I read that wasn’t for a class, and that didn’t include space travel, wizards or the supernatural. It was about Life, its terrors and joys, humor suffused with melancholy, and it perfectly encapsulated my world view at the time. John Irving is a masterful storyteller— the worlds he creates are so complete and rich and textured, his characters are so full of life you feel like they live on beyond the page. “Garp” was also the first book I read that described the life of a writer and the creative process in a way that felt both honest and aspirational. It was, and continues to be, a touchstone novel for me.
It’s a lot for any movie to live up to. When I first saw it as a college student all I could concentrate on was what was changed from the book (where was “The Pension Grillparzer”?) and the fact that the guy from “Mork and Mindy,” was playing T.S. Garp.  I remember being unimpressed with his performance, and also thinking he looked waaay too old to play a high school student.
What a difference thirty years, and a tragedy, makes.
In the Arclight theater, watching him make his first appearance onscreen, the first thing I thought was “God, look how young he looks.” His smooth, baby face, the long lashes, the bright clear eyes. It didn’t get any easier from there.
The movie was much, much better than I remember, full of great peformances (Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Marybeth Hurt, even a young Amanda Plummer). It was touching and funny and surprisingly faithful to much of the book. But of course I was watching it through the lens of grief. I laughed a lot, but wept almost as often. In the movie, there is tragedy hiding around every corner, and no matter how much Robin William’s Garp tries to protect his family from harm’s way he of course never can, because death is waiting for us all, the Under Toad ready to suck you out to sea. 
It’s impossible to watch the movie and not imagine that Williams felt the Under Toad swirling at his feet, even then. There’s a sadness, or so I perceive now, lurking in his twinkling eyes that I hadn’t noticed before. And I appreciate his performance much more, his restraint (no John Wayne impressions here) and simplicity. I’ve come to believe he was perfectly cast in the role, a man trying to hold it all together in a world filled with absurdity and horror. The world, according to Garp, is full of terminal cases, and in the end Williams became one of them. 

Early on in the movie, before Garp becomes Robin Williams, Glenn Close, as Garp’s mother, takes a young Garp aside and tells him, “Everybody dies. I'm going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure, having a life.”

Thank you, Robin Williams, for sharing so much of your life with us. It’s been quite an adventure.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Remember those germination experiments in elementary school? The ones where you press a sunflower seed or mung bean into wet paper towels and watch as they sprout, their softened bodies cracking open to release delicate tendrils of life?

That’s what’s happening now with my novel, Still Life, Las Vegas

We’re slowly starting to move from the theoretical to the real. My editor at St. Martin’s Press, Sara Goodman, warned me that the route to getting a book published is notoriously slow, and for authors there’s always a “hurry up and wait” element (actor friends, does this sound familiar?). My agent Christopher added, “The black hole between the book being completely off your desk and actual being published is ALWAYS a slog.” But now the first roots are starting to appear. 

Hi. I'm friendly. Buy my book.
I was asked to okay some copy, a bio and a book description, for the catalog that St. Martin’s sends out to booksellers. It’s a unique sensation, reading someone else’s synopsis on your story. Oh! so THAT’S what it’s about! I’ve had to submit photos of myself for publicity, and lucky for me, my old friend AND headshot photographer Suzanne Plunkett from Chicago just happened to be in town, so I got her to make me look all, you know, authorial

Conversation is also beginning about the book cover art, and the idea of this is exciting beyond measure. I’m sure there will be angst down the road, but now, the idea of a graphic designer reading the book— it makes me squee. Isn’t that the word the kids are using these days? 
This was when I was still trying different titles.
It's the equivalent of a teenage girl writing
her married name in script

Best thing so far? Working on my acknowledgements. It’s just the warmest feeling, sitting and writing down the names of all the people who have helped me along the way. I see a flip-book of faces who have offered me advice and given me these great nuggets of information to sprinkle into my book. All those who have nurtured this concept, this impossibility, of getting a novel to print. Of course, I’m already nervous about how many people I have inadvertently left out, but I am grateful for each and every one, acknowledged and otherwise. 

Little leaves are unfurling…

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tongue Tied

Once, many years ago, I had a screenplay I was flogging around town. It was an amusing little ditty about being Asian-American in Hollywood. I had a manager involved, it placed in a screenplay competition, there was actually some interest in the project, but I needed a director to make it happen. A director to, you know, push it forward, talk it up, make the dogs and ponies prance about. Which was not really my strong suit, as the following story will illustrate:

One potential director I met with was someone with whom I had worked closely in my Chicago days. We were in the same theater company for years. He had directed me in a play. We were friends. We had history. (I also had a slight crush on him, but that was beside the point. Or was it?) This director and I had both recently relocated to Los Angeles, where he was making inroads into the film community. I was looking for a film director. Perfect, right?

We agreed to meet at his house and talk about the project. I stayed up late the night before, getting the script in perfect shape. The morning of the meeting, I trundled over to his home, a bohemian California bungalow rental in Silverlake. He made coffee and I made chit-chat (in my signature Barbara Walter’s interview style) while we tried to negotiate that odd tonal terrain between friendly catch-up and commerce.

What was he up to? I asked. A lot, apparently. The director smoothly unspooled a long list of projects— upcoming, completed or conjectured—all while casually opening the refrigerator, hauling out the Brita, handing me my glass of water. He presented a verbal resumé without it ever sounding like a recitation, making it sound, like, well, conversation.

“And what have you been doing?” he asked, all friendly-like. I stared blankly, like he had just asked me to recite the Gettysburg Address in Portuguese. “Oh, well, I, uh, oh you know, just the, trying to… get…stuff… done.” Never mind that there were accomplishments I could have ticked off— my one man show, my nascent voiceover career, anything—no, it was as if I had just that morning awoken from a three-year coma. I took the longest swig of water ever known to man.

And that was just the chit-chat portion.

We made our way to the living room. There, on the coffee table, was the script I had so diligently worked on the night before. Without words, we both knew, instinctively, that we had at last wended our way to the business portion of our meeting. “So,” the director said, settling down on the couch, “tell me what the screenplay’s about.”

You’d think I might have anticipated that question.

“Oh! Well, it’s about, um, there’s this girl, she’s half-Asian, and she’s got a fixation on this up-and-coming Hollywood star, and, well, you think it’s a crush, but it’s not really, he’s, um, I mean, it turns out he’s got this secret, um, and it's that she’s his sister, I mean, that’s not the secret, I mean, though no one knows that, but the secret is that, like, he’s half-Asian, and so, in Hollywood, they don’t know, and, um—“

This is not the most painful part. The most painful part is when I actually interrupt my rambling to bury my face in my hands, sigh the weariest of sighs, and mutter the three words guaranteed to sell your pitch: “I’m so tired…”

I’m. So. Tired.
But I was!

Needless to say, he passed on the project.

This cautionary tale continues to haunt me, especially now, as my book is entering its long gestational period before publication. I want to speak eloquently about “Still Life Las Vegas” in conversation or interviews. I want to chat it up at a moment’s notice. I love my book, and I need to think of it like it’s my own son, about whom I can talk proudly and endlessly.

So here’s where you come in.

If, in the next year, we happen to be conversing, and you find a propitious moment, could you casually ask me what my book is about? I won’t go on too long, I promise, and we needn’t dwell on the matter.

It’s just that, you know, I might need the practice.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

In Which we Bid Adieu to Zac Efron, and 90-Day Challenges

It's finished. Three long months ago, I undertook a challenge to write a novel in 90 days, with the aid of a book called, uncannily enough, "The 90-Day Novel." I took with my on my journey my friend and colleague Holly Myer, who was going to draw ninety illustrations in that same time period. How did we do? Well, let's just say, I waited the WHOLE night, but Rumpelstiltskin did not show up to rescue me and spin my straw into narrative gold. Damn him. Holly fared better:

James Sie: Saw your blog. The Olsen twins. You really want to finish this whole thing with the Olsen twins?

Holly Myer: I don't know why it had to end with the Olsens. It just happened. I’ve been watching a lot of Full House.

JS: I'm so sorry. Trauma conditioning? Or John Stamos?

HM: I love John Stamos more than words can say. I've done extensive studies on his face, and I've discovered many similarities between his Full House-years face and Zac Efron's current face.

This is the last Efron photo
I will ever post on my blog.
Hand to God.
JS: You definitely have a type.. He's like an early Efron prototype.

HM:  Exactly.

JS: Glad to see the technology has advanced.

So, how did the challenge end for you? Cross the finish line?

HM: I ended up with 90 drawings. I aimed for 100, but 90 is still good!

JS: A drawing a day! Perfect!

HM:  Yep! Very proud of the collection overall.

JS: You've got quite a lot of stuff to work with! What were some of your favorites?

HM: : One of a family photo of my dad and brother, the OITNB characters, and one from the last week-a portrait of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of Girl Scouts.

JS: You talked about how it ended up being waaaay different than you imagined it being when you started out. How?

HM:  My original idea was to illustrate all my blog entries/essays thus far, based on GIFs I've used, but most ended up being based on random family photos, frames from TV/movies, or historical portraits. Though, I still did some based on the GIFs.

JS: Why did it go that way? And do you wish you had done more of the GIF's, or is this new direction giving you more?

HM:  I think by starting with that idea was a good warm-up, but getting exercise with the digital art made me want to just run wild and abandon the path I'd set out on… but that’s okay, because I ended up with a series of illustrations that still says something! And maybe I can incorporate them into a collection with the essays so far.

JS: Certainly the iconic TV images can be in a section all their own. Maybe with commentary.

HM: Definitely.
How about YOUUU, sir? Do you have a first draft??

JS: Well, I wrote just shy of 27000 words. I have 108 pages completed.


JS: Yah, but it's only about a third of the way done. HOWEVER, if I'm being honest, judging from my last book, it ended up being about my usual pace— a little more than a page a day… So my natural tendencies pulled stronger than my self-imposed challenge.

HM: Nature wins once again!

JS: "Nature, Mr. Allnut, was what we were put on this earth to rise above."

HM: Um…

JS: Say it with a quavering, strident voice and you might get it.

HM: When I said it out loud, it was accidentally in Maya Rudolph's Whitney Houston impersonation voice. Is that close?

JS:  Not even.

HM: Sorry. I had to google that.

JS: I will do my Katharine Hepburn impression for you some time. You will be impressed.
"Maybe you'd get a little more writing done without this Satan juice."
JS: ANYWAY, I do have enough of a start, and enough research, that I can continue. The challenge did give me that-- a flying leap.

HM: Oh well. But YES! See, we both made big plans that were super optimistic.

JS: You know what the big downfall for me was? The whole seven days a week thing. I needed one day to get the rest of my life in order. One day of respite. I struggled to write every day, and once I transgressed that rule, it was easy to let the whole thing slide. Like, "Oh well, if I'm not getting this part of it done I'm already screwed so..."

HM: Yeah, it's easy to feel like you're sliding, so you may as well give up.

JS: Exactly. Today, however, feels DELICIOUS. So many possibilities of things to do, with no guilt. How 'bout you? Are you going to miss the pressure?

HM: Nope, not one bit. Now I feel great, since I have some good samples… which I wouldn't have if I didn't do this whole thing

JS: And what's your plan for going forward?

HM: Build a portfolio website, and try to connect to people in the world of editorial illustration. But also/mostly, write! I missed writing. I still worked on essays, but didn't post them. I'm excited to go back to sharing.

And you? Will you keep working on the book?

JS: I think so, though now there’s also a short story I've been wanting to revise, plus an old stage adaptation that I’ve got to revamp for a production next year. And selling the book that’s already written. It’s all in the realm of good productive stuff.

HM: Awesome!! You've got the writing activated, so keep going, even if it's on other projects!

JS: Well, I'm glad we went through this together.

HM: Me too. Thank you so much for inviting me to do this with you!

JS: It was MUCH less lonely a venture.

HM: Agreed.

JS: Until next time... any final thoughts?

HM: When I was little, I got very frustrated when I didn't have time to create every picture/craft/play I wanted to. My mom would tell me, "Holly, it's okay. You don't have to do ALL your ideas. Some ideas just stay ideas. And the ones that become real things are the best ones anyway."

I think about that all the time, even now.

JS: Wise words, Mom. I think she trumps Zac Efron. Speaking of which, how many Efrons got created?

HM: Only 4, surprisingly.

JS: He was such a part of this whole challenge, sadly. Our patron saint. No wonder I was doomed.


JS: Nice. It's like he's looking down from the heavens. Good night, Ms. Golightly.

HM: Goodnight!

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Bitter and the Sweet Blog-- Guess Who I Play?

In which we check in our participants
 of the 90-Day Challenge, one happy and one hapless, at the 2/3 mark, and discover that things are looking up. But not for everyone.
Some of Holly's work

James Sie:
We’re on day, what? 56? Are you on track?

Holly Meyers:
Okay, slightly less focused that I thought, bc I'm still technically behind by a few. BUT some pictures are way more detailed than the original parameters required, so I give myself some credit for that.

JS: How MANY are you behind?

HM: Only 9.

JS: Hmm.. last time it was 7.


JS: Oh, so BIRTHDAYS are exempt. And busy WEEKENDSCan we be just done with this?

HM: NO, we will get through it.

JS: C’mon, let’s just delete all our blogs and no one will be the wiser. We'll wake up in the shower and it will all have been a dream.

HM: And we'll be our 17-year-old selves again, and go back to high school and try to get recruited for college basketball. Oh wait that's a Zac movie.

         JS: It all comes back to Zac.

         HM: Always does.

JS: It's negative conditioning; I'm starting to HATE the thought of Zac. Because he represents crappy writing and guilt.

HM: No way. By the end of these 90 days, when you have your first draft, 
he'll be a vision again.

JS: If I have a first draft. IF.

HM: So how is it going?

JS: Everything I wrote in my last blog was a lie. All that affirming shit. I’m miserable.

HM: Oh noooooo.

JS: Just drudgery drudgery and wondering what the hell I'm doing. Though it's amazing how a promise to myself becomes so binding, like I'm pretending it's an actual deadline.  I'm afraid that I'm going to get to the end of this and then look at all the wreckage and not know what to do with it.

         [full disclosure: the book does warn against this darkness descending, and says I'll eventually move beyond it]

HM: If that happens, at least you will have created some original wreckage, and that counts as producing something.

JS: Hrmph. Anyhoo, many days missed, word count perilously low. I keep thinking I should just stop now and work on it in my usual methodic way, but that would preempt the challenge.

HM: Exactly. We're in this challenge for a reason, so chaalllleeenngggeee ourselves and our normal patterns. Maybe the last third will be the breakthrough phase.

JS: Maybe gilded monkeys will fly out of my butt.

 How are you feeling about it?

HM: I'm feeling good, but nervous! A few people at the new job have caught wind of this 90-day thing and have gone so far as to send my blog to art people. Like, legit art directors and stuff. It's freaking me out. Now I feel like I have to get super organized with a real website and business cards or something.

JS: Wow!

HM: Yeah. Mostly, said Art People have been very friendly and polite, giving me good advice about the business of editorial illustration.

JS: Editorial illustration. Explain, please.

HM: Magazine art directors hire people (like... me?!) to create illustrations for articles, online products, and even covers. It's a lot of freelance, so if I want to get in the game, I need to be legit.

JS: Oh! And is that the field you've been focused on?

HM: Well, it wasn't my original plan! I thought maybe it would get my blog a little more traffic (which it has), but I didn't think I'd need to mobilize so soon! I actually got one little gig for a fellow NYU alum, to create a poster for an event in Brooklyn next month!

JS: Look at you! Gilded monkeys aflight!

Does it affect your work on the challenge, knowing it's being scrutinized?

HM: Big time. I thought I could get away with casually posting just anything, but now I'm paralyzed with fear.

JS: Some actual trepidation!!

I only sit at my computer paralyzed with fear until I remember that someone thought it was worthy of a magazine, then I feel confident again.

JS: Do your hands get tired, squeezing all those lemons into lemonade?

HM: Bahahaha!

JS: So, I guess this has all been worth it. I guess it ennobles MY efforts, knowing that it will have gotten YOU somewhere. I feel... downright philanthropic.

HM: Seriously!! I wouldn't have done this without the challenge you set up! THANK YOU.But you're not off the hook about your own writing.

JS: [grouse grouse grouse] Okay, I guess I can suffer through one more month.

HM: Yay k bye!

[Note: Sorry if there's weird spaces and tabbing and stuff; for some reason this posting has been acting up and I'm too tired to try and figure it out. Also, I figure I should actually do some, oh you know, actual WRITING, instead of mucking with it more.]