Monday, October 20, 2014

Songs in the Key of Grief

“I like a look of Agony, 
Because I know it’s true—
Men do not sham Convulsion
Nor simulate, a Throe—
The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish Strung.“ 
        Emily Dickinson

To say I was looking forward to reading Edward Hirsch’s new book Gabriel: A Poem is not quite apt, but it’s not far from the truth, either. It is, after all, an elegy to his son, who was found dead of an overdose at the age twenty-two. It is a sometimes harrowing, sometimes heartbreaking, look back at the life of a boy, from time of adoption to time of death. We watch him grow up, moment to moment, much like the movie “Boyhood,” except instead of ending with promise and possibility, we are left at a graveside. In propulsive three-line stanzas, Hirsch details a childhood gone awry, through the caprice of internal chemistry and behavioral disorders. There are moments of joy and much dark humor, but it is mostly a narrative of a troubled childhood that starts difficult and does not get easier. There is also, not surprisingly, quite a bit of tenderness. It pierces the heart. Throughout the poem are interspersed tales of other famous artists who have lost their children too soon, as if Hirsch is trying to make some sense of the death, give it some context, but in the end the universal cannot illuminate the specific. The poet is left alone to say goodbye to his singular son. 

               “I did not know the work of mourning
               Is a labor in the dark
               We carry deep inside ourselves

               Though sometimes when I sleep
               I am with him again
               And then I wake

               Poor Sisyphus grief
               I am not ready for your heaviness
               Cemented to my body

               Look closely and you will see
               Almost everyone carrying bags
               Of cement on their shoulders

               That’s why it takes courage
               To get out of bed in the morning
               And climb into the day”

               —Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: a Poem
It is beautifully written, insightful and lucid, but there are quite a few people who would not even open the book. “Why on earth would you want to go through that?” they ask. I suspect there are those reading this who feel the same. Not I. I gravitate towards the stuff. I am someone who could watch Emma Thompson die of cancer every year in “Wit.” 

Who has read, in quick succession, in hardback, the grief memoirs of both Joyce Carol Oates (A Widow’s Story), who lost her husband to a secondary infection at a hospital, and Joan Didion, who has had the great misfortune to have written two such memoirs, following the death not only of her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking) but of her daughter (Blue Nights).

I am not ghoulish. I don’t wallow in misery, exactly, but I do gravitate towards stories of loss, and grief. Those chords resonate within me. My upcoming novel, Still Life Las Vegas, is permeated with it, no matter how fantastical or whimsical the story gets. (It’s funny too! Promise!) I guess my Humor tends towards the Melancholic. I am someone who is ever waiting for the other shoe to fall, no matter how many of them have already rained down. Perhaps I read these type of books for the same reason I read travelogues: I’m going to be taking the same journey, sooner or later, and I’d like to check out the terrain. 

But it’s more than that. There is a clarity in devastation, a stark honesty that can present itself in times of loss. We are stripped of the trappings of our day-to-day and are asked to confront the deeper truths of life— its impermanence, its fragility, and its many overlooked small kindnesses. There is a strange beauty in it all, especially as refracted through the discerning eye of a skilled writer. We may not have the austere, piercing insight of Didion, or the caustic humor of Oates, or the anguished imagery of Hirsch, but in reading their words on loss, we are connected to them all, and to each other. We are all of us huddled in a cave, staring out into the impenetrable darkness, and the poet's lamentations illuminate our own coupled hands. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Am I Blue?

"It always starts with a blue Volvo, driving away." 
—Still Life Las Vegas

In some ways, my book must be a big pain in the ass for my publishers. I mean, they bought a novel, but it's not just a straight up novel. There's narrative art in it as well (the twenty-buck term for cartoons). Plus sketches. Plus color. Plus colored text. All those pluses add an expense to the printing, and for a debut novel, it takes an extra measure of faith. So, when my editor, Sara Goodman, wrote in July that she was waiting on approval for adding color, I wasn't holding my breath. 

I also took a preemptive dip into anxiety. I knew that Sungyoon Choi's amazing illustrations would certainly hold up on their own, but a POP! of color could add that much more to a reader's experience. It also served as a subtle but pervasive thematic element that wove several strands of narrative together. At least, this is the argument for color that I imagined myself giving as I threw myself on the conference room table of St. Martin's Press in a last ditch appeal for a CRUCIAL element, just as I was resigning myself to the idea of black-and-white art.

Two weeks ago Sara wrote me again. Color was in

She had just gotten approval for one other color, plus black (YAY Sara!). This color had to be derived from a single Pantone shade, not comprised of several colors together. We needed to send the colorized art files to the book's interior designer and the whole production process would begin.

The hunt for Blue was on. 

What followed was a ridiculous amount of emails propagated by me in the dark of night and hurled towards Choi, Sara and my agent, all about what shade of blue was the perfect shade of blue. Was this blue too gray? Was this blue serious enough? Didn't this one look like it came from a mimeograph machine?  (Only my agent got this reference.) And not only what shade, but where the blue was going to be used. Should this text be in blue? What was it saying if it wasn't blue? Or should it be a blue box? Could the blue of the hat match the blue of the car window?  I had a sudden appreciation for my husband's futile attempt to get me interested in the color of the dining room trim. 

Luckily, everyone humored my molehill preoccupations and gave sage, considered advice. Choi doled out color revision after color revision with the patience of a Baskin-Robbins scooper handing out samples. And the winner?:

It really is a lovely blue. And what Choi can do with one shade of blue is nothing short of miraculous.

Color does make a difference. A big difference. I am the luckiest guy in the world. Who has developed a sudden craving for panettone.

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


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…