Monday, September 1, 2014

Billie Holiday, Augusten Burroughs, and Underwater Dogs: Business and Pleasure in New York

A week on the East Coast. One last hurrah before the blessed regularity of school kicks in.

Four moves in six days. Beds of varying comfort. Uniformly good showers (except the one at that hotel where the water was perpetually tepid). These are the ways older folks measure their vacations.
First stop: Rhinecliff, in upstate New York, where the Morton Library was showcasing my son Ben's photographic work. Ben has a series of underwater photos of our dog, Rowdy, who dives to the bottom of our pool in an obsessive quest for The Ball. This was Ben's first public viewing, the first time his photos have ever been by frames and red dots. The reception was a big success, well attended. As per the artist's request, Hawaiian punch and cheese puffs (both crunchy and puffy) were served. 






Could not. Be prouder.
His Auntie Sue arranged the whole event. We stayed at her beautiful home, ate from her garden and watched Swallowtail Caterpillars munching on her fennel. 

Back down to the City, where we stayed at our friends Denis & Hugo's most comfortable digs in Ft. Green, Brooklyn. I had some business of my own in Manhattan. Took the N train down to the Flatiron Building, where I had my first visit to St. Martin’s PressMy editor Sara was away on vacation (as almost everyone is in Manhattan during August) but I was warmly welcomed by her assistant, the young and impossibly refreshed-looking Alicia Adkins-Clancy, who looked as if she had just stepped from a meadow filled with daisies instead of from a tiny white office in the warren of St. Martin's in the heat of summer. 
I then enjoyed a lunch with Ivan Lett, the tall, poised Marketing Manager of “Team Still Life.” He gave me all manner of good advice (hint: it involves social media) and I left lunch armed and reassured. Did you know I now have a tumblr account? And a Facebook Author page? There's also tin cans connected by string dangling from my window so you can connect with me no matter where you are!

Ivan Lett, the man who will make me talk to people.
A quick stop to Eataly, Mario Batali’s food-court-on-steroids emporium of Italian gourmet food. It's like a Disneyland for foodies: Pastaland! Torroneville! Proscuitti of the Caribbean! I want to book a room and eat my way through every department. If you had seen the delicacies on display, you would not blame me for taking away a caprese panini even though I had JUST MOMENTS BEFORE eaten lunch. Mario must bring one to Los Angeles, we are a poorer town without one.

Lunch the next day with my agent, Christopher Schelling. It was our first meeting after more than a year of phone calls and email correspondences, and it had the possibility of becoming Momentous; luckily Mr. Schelling was as warm and friendly as his phone persona, and a good time was had by all.  He brought along Augusten Burroughs, the author ("Running with Scissors,” "Dry") with the piercing eyes and a mordant wit, whose perception of family hews close to mine own. I tried not to burble like the fanboy I am. 
I swear, I did not cripple Christopher. He came that way. 
The 9-11 Museum and Memorial: profound, and sensitively rendered. Also, intensely immersive. Fear not the commercialization and Disneyfication of the event, native New Yorkers—I think they got it right. 

Husband Doug also had a reason to be in New York: a long-awaited birthday present of seeing Audra McDonald in “Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill.” We saw it the night before we left, and spent most of the performance agape at Ms. McDonald's vocal transformation into Billie Holiday. A great capper to a whirlwind trip. 


A year 'til my book is out! The countdown begins!


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

Seedling

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.

HM: THAT'S SO MANY PAGES!

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.

HM:


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

HM: Goodnight!