Wednesday, May 26, 2010

V is for... Whaaa?

All right, I told myself I wouldn't be writing about too much family stuff... privacy issues, unfair to the kid, etc. etc.... but this just begs to be shared.

The Sex Talk is upon us!

Maybe we shouldn't have been playing "FutureSex/Lovesounds"to Benjamin at age 6,  but at age 8 he's got questions. Lots of them. Sure, he already understands the "egg + seed= baby" concept,  and he's always asked questions ("Does the doctor have to cut open the man's sack to get the seeds out?"), but by now the "special hug that adults do" explanation isn't cutting it. He wants nitty gritty. 

He usually waylays Doug at his most unsuspecting, like when Benj is in the bath or about to go to bed. It would usually go something like this:

Doug:   "Okay, Benjie, have a good sleep—"
Ben:      "Daddy, how does the sperm get to the egg?"
Doug:   "Whaa?"
Ben:      "How does the sperm get in there?"
Doug (matter of fact-edly):   
              "Through a special opening called a vagina."
Ben:      "Does it go through your clothes?"
Doug:   "Uh... no. You're naked."
Ben:       "You're naked?"
Doug:    "Yes. Okay, pumpkin—"
Ben:      "So they do it on the bed?"
Doug (teeth ever so slightly clenched):
Ben:       "Can you do it in the shower?"
Doug:     "I... suppose so."
Ben:        "But how does the sperm get there?"
Doug(mentally screaming):
               "The man puts his penis into the woman's vagina."
Ben:       "Oh. Can I have grits for breakfast?"

And then Doug quietly leaves the room and passes out. 

He's asked Doug for a book on the subject, but Doug forgot about it. Then he asked, "Is there, like, pictures or video of private parts on the internet?" Doug paused, then said... "No."  

(note to self: get those privacy settings activated on the computer)

He also ordered some books from Amazon that night:

 One's for ages 4 and up, the other for ages 7 and up. He figured we should probably cover our bases. They're good. Goes into detail, doesn't shy away from facts, but in a cute, fanciful way. Covers everything, from body parts to puberty to sex to pregnancy. Probably a little more informative than the Hustler magazines I learned from... Of course, the questions keep coming, like "So... she can just stick her finger in there, huh?" but at least we have books to refer to.

The funny thing is, Benj almost always asks Doug the big S questions, not me. I'll ask him the next morning if he has anything he'd like to ask me and he says, "Yeah. In Plants Versus Zombies, can the watermelon plant kill the bucket zombie or do you need a cactus shooter too?"

Why is this? Am I the "Mommy" and so he's not comfortable asking me these things? Or am I the "Daddy" and too distant? Why aren't I getting the hard questions?

There was one thing he did ask me the other day. He was looking at a diagram of a woman's body parts, and points to an word ands says, "She's got a Volvo in there?"

"Uh, no, Ben, that's a VUL-va."

He's definitely an L.A. kid.

 (note to self: find out what the hell a vulva is.)

That would be pretty amazing, though. A tiny little car with a tiny little baby seat in it that shoots in and out of there. It delivers your baby in half an hour or your order is FREE! And we know how high the safety standards are on those Volvos...

Oh... maybe THAT'S why he doesn't ask me these questions...

update: okay, I found out. Huh. Never would have guessed. These books do come in handy.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Adventures in Publishing, Part 1

As you may have heard, I’ve written a novel. It’s called Liberace Under Venetian Skies. Ta Da! It feels like I’ve been working on it almost as long as Flight 815 has been stranded on that island with the polar bears. The book’s been revised, scrutinized, analyzed, and truth be told, I’m crazy-cakes about how it turned out. I’m in that glowing honeymoon period where it’s done and there are only possibilities up ahead; it’s all mai-tais and complimentary macadamia nut shortbread cookies all around. I’ve overcome Hurdle #1:

Hurdle #1: Finish the damn book.


Now comes the hard part. I’ve got to sell it.

Hurdle #2: Find a Literary Agent

This process is eerily similar to looking for theatrical agent when you’re an actor (only I don’t need to get my teeth capped or lose ten pounds. Not yet, anyway) Referrals from other actors are the most helpful way to get seen by an talent agency; ditto with writing agents. To gain exposure as an actor, you’d perform in plays and showcases; writers do the same by getting their short stories published in literary journals and (ahem) writing blogs. And instead of submitting a headshot & resumé—
photo courtesy Suzanne Plunkett

—I send out to potential agents what is known as a query letter. It’s a one-page pitch of you and your book, enticingly described. I went to a seminar by the redoubtable L.A. agent Betsy Amster, who counseled reading book jackets to get a sense of how to sell your work. She also said, rather surprisingly, that it wasn’t a bad idea to compare your book to an established writer’s work (“it’s like a Raymond Chandler book written by Dr. Seuss”), as long as you do it tastefully. This gives the agency a frame of reference for your work. There really isn’t an analogous situation in the acting world; I can’t imagine an actor striding into an agency and announcing “I’m a little George Clooney, a little Dustin Hoffman, and just a smidge Dame Edna.” (Really, though, he wouldn’t have to— a theatrical agent’s going to type that actor as soon as the headshot crosses her desk.)

Advice on query letters can also be found at the excellent website querytracker, which helps you research agents & publishers and keep track of your submissions. Very recommended.

I’ve sent out a couple of query letters thus far, both referrals (Ms. Amster, however, recommends sending out queries out in bunches of about ten.) One of them has already yielded an interest in the manuscript. Here’s a sample of a letter I sent:

Dear Mr.XXXXXX:  
Hi, my name is James Sie and I had the pleasure of meeting you during at the Festival of Books workshop. I was the Asian-American guy who had written a novel told in several formats, titled LIBERACE UNDER VENETIAN SKIES. I would love for you to consider representing it.  
The book is a darkly-funny saga, the reconstruction of a tragic event that has blown a family apart, pieced together by a son who has no memory of the incident at all. It's told not only in prose, but with sections of graphic novel and fragments of screenplay. The book plays with formatting and image in a similar way to Jonathan Foer's EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE.  
Walter is a wry, isolated 17-year-old and budding artist who knows only too well the absurdities of life behind the neon of Las Vegas. He's taking care of his bedridden father and working as a tour guide in a tacky museum on the fringes of downtown. Walter's home life is shadowed by the absence of his mother, who abandoned his family when he was five. His discovery of the facts behind her disappearance is entwined with his parent's past adventures: how Emily, a former accordion player, chased a besequined vision of Liberace across the country; and how Owen, her grief-stricken husband, went searching for her amongst the gondolas of the Venetian Hotel. 
The three stories converge and refract through time, wandering in and amongst the gloriously artificial worlds of Las Vegas, which are both more and less magical than they appear. The Truth, in all its permutations, gets sifted through again and again, leading Walter to a place where everything is illuminated, and nothing is real.  
Prior to this book, I have written primarily for the stage; my plays and adaptations have been produced nationally, including a solo show about my Italian/Chinese upbringing called "Talking with My Hands," which was performed at the Mark Taper Forum. I'm currently a cartoon voiceover artist in Los Angeles; I've done the voices of monkeys, mafiosos and Jackie Chan, but this novel's voice is, I'm happy to say, all my own.  
I have included the first five pages in this email, as you had suggested, and would be happy to send the full manuscript so you can get a sense of how the different formats work together. Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.  

James Sie

Whatcha think? Does it entice? If you were at an airport bookstore carrying a bottle of Dasani and an overpriced bag of “deluxe”cashews, would you also pick up this book?
mock up purely theoretical

I’m not feeling too daunted right now. Yes, I know that I’ve still got rose-colored glasses perched on my nose, and that right now it’s a horrible time for the publishing world, but finding acting representation was no walk in the park either and I managed that. Actors are used to rejection; it’s in our wheelhouse. I haven’t gone looking for talent agents recently but I imagine that after a few no’s it’ll all come back to me. It’ll be like riding a bike. Or, more aptly, falling off of one. Again, and again, and again. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Antidote to Hate

Tony Perkins.  James Dobson. Michelle Bachman. George Rekers. Congressman/Philanderer Mark Souder and his "Abstinence Video." BP. That judge in Malawi. BEGONE! You have no power here. Today, you are NOT going to get to me. I've found something that, unbelievably, makes me happier than a James Bond sighting in a gay bar:

Apparently, this was a birthday surprise for the bus driver. I don't care if it was a flash-mob-generated event; just watching his reaction upped my endorphin level about 200%. Of course, I'd hate to be someone on that bus that needed to actually GET somewhere, but let's not dwell on that, okay? I wish someone who knows Danish could fill me in on all the details. Until then, I am going to watch this video again and again and again until it forms an impenetrable shield of good mojo around me and restores my faith in humanity.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


My Personal Arsenal of Procrastination Weapons

Name: How Smart is Your Right Foot?
Type: Useless, yet oddly fascinating, brain test.
Origin: Forwarded on from, believe it or not, from my Zen Buddhist Abbot/teacher. My Roshi! Isn't she supposed to be teaching me how to free my mind from distraction?
Damage: Minimal. Takes barely a minute to read and perform. That is, unless you're trying to prove that you have superior mind-over-matter skills, in which case, see ya later.
Range: Pervasive. It's easy enough to send on, and since it's such a quick test, people are inclined to give it a try. Plus, the slightly wheedling tone in the description ("You have to try this" is mentioned twice, promises of hysteria and the backing of an orthopedic surgeon) is irritating but irresistible.
Notes: No really, it's quick. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Damn. Now I've got to try it again...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

What a Road of Clap

Way back in the day, when I was starting my acting career in Chicago (I’m talking waaaaay back, in the Dark Ages of pagers and dot matrix printers) I got sent out on one of my first commercial auditions, for Ace Hardware. You know, the place with the helpful hardware man? They were looking for Japanese businessmen. You had to go dressed in a dark suit. No particular age, no particular type; if you were Asian, you got called in. There wasn’t that big a pool of Asian talent in Chicago, back then. They’d take the mailman, if he were Asian.

A bunch of us were herded into a photographer’s studio. We were to pretend to be in an Ace Hardware store, gawking and pointing at the spectacular inventory! Each of us got a little prop: a camera, a camcorder, a calculator, big black round Mickey-Rooney-in-Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s eyeglasses. Ruh roh…

Mickey, Mickey, that's not fine...

The props weren’t the most offensive thing. That honor went to the ad copy. It was, at first, undecipherable. I recall it went something like this:

Japanese  Businessman 1
Rook ovel thele! Ovel thele!

Japanese  Businessman 2
These plices ale unberievabre!

Japanese  Businessman 3
This stole has evelything!

It took me a few reads before I decrypted the copy. To give it that funny Japanese flava, the writer had taken all “l’s” and replaced them with “r’s” and all “r’s” and replaced them with “l’s.” The spot ends with the awed businessmen happily clustering together and singing:

Ace is the prace fol the herpfur haldwale man!

I mean, seriously, WTF? Putting aside how incredibly insensitive and wrong-headed it was, the writing just MADE NO SENSE at all. Not even phonetically. The copywriters couldn’t even be bothered with figuring out how the dialect sounded; they just remembered that those kooky Japanese folk had trouble with “r’s” and “l’s,” and switched ‘em all around. They should have just written “To be spoken in the manner of Mickey Rooney.”

Did I go through with the audition? Yes, of course I did. It was hard enough for an Asian guy to get any commercial auditions in Chicago, let alone a national one. I was just out of school and didn’t want to make waves, so I sucked it up and gaped and guffawed, joined the black-suited chorus singing mangled hosannas to the men in red. But it rankled, and set off a hair-trigger defensiveness in me for any audition that had an accent in it, which, for a while, was pretty much every on-camera audition I got. It was bad enough to play the Chinese waiters or delivery boys, but to put on the ching-chong… oy.

It wasn’t until I got to Los Angeles, in a more racially sensitive atmosphere, where there was a more visible (and vocal) Asian presence, that my views on Asian accents changed. For one thing, the roles I was getting were better. I learned the delicate, melodic tonality of Tibetan-accented English for a monk in “Family Law” and began to see that accents, if done correctly, could actually be inspiring, rather than demeaning. That to put on an effective Korean, Japanese or Vietnamese accent required as much skill as an East London or Mississippi dialect. Granted, most producers/directors didn’t care what accent it was as long as it sounded vaguely Asian, but I could take the ching-chong they wanted and imbue it with finesse.

Of course, now, as a voiceover actor, accents are my stock in trade— all kinds, but predominately Asian ones.  And with a few notable exceptions, I’ve felt very comfortable with all the voices I’ve done. Hong Kong, Singapore, Lao, Indian, Buddhist cows and Eurotrash dragons… It seems most producers are very careful not to go overboard with the accents (“just a hair of an accent,” they tell me, and “dial it back to just a flavor,”); most of my Asian cartoon characters haven’t even had accents at all (to which you might ask, “why do they have to hire an Asian actor if the character doesn’t even sound Asian, and I would answer “Shut up, why you wanna be taking food out of my baby’s mouth?”). Even when the accents were part of the humor, like on the late, great “King of the Hill,” it was written with a fair amount of cultural sensitivity and, more importantly, specificity.

(zSHARE video - 229-King Of The Hill-Pour Some Sugar On Kahn-_03.30.08_-_THC_.avi.flv

(if you want to see me as an old ex-dictator, I start at around 3:13)

All is fine in this post-racial world.

Or… maybe not.

Last week I went into my agents to read for a very popular primetime cartoon series. Primetime! Score! Then I saw the copy. I knew there was trouble ahead when I read the title of the episode. It was called… uh… well, let’s just say it was the name of the show, but with a "r" replacing an "l". Ruh roh…

I was auditioning for the voice of an Asian dry cleaning man. It goes downhill from there. The humor was all about how funny the guy spoke, his fractured English and his loud, strident, tirades. This lasts for  for two scenes. There were jokes about eating dogs, penis size and putting “pee pee in your Coke.” I was shocked, not at the content, but that these tired tropes were still being peddled TODAY. The show is known for being edgy, defiantly un-PC, and these are the best jokes it could come up with? It wasn’t witty, it wasn’t clever. The humor was derived entirely from trying to be post-post-racial. “Look at us! We’re naughty ‘cause we’re getting away with trotting out all the old offensive stereotypes!” It was like racist nostalgia. Reading those lines pushed on all my well-worn buttons of outrage, but I could only summon up a kind of weary sadness. Aren’t we beyond this? Are we still in the Dark Ages?

But unlike back then, this time I said no. I tried to working on it by myself, tried to find some irony, inject some spin, some finesse, but in the end I kept thinking of my son Benjamin, and how he might one day see this episode, and hear my voice coming out of that character, and… I couldn’t. So I turned in the copy and took a pass. I suppose there’s a place for this kind of television, and I wouldn’t deny anyone the right to watch it, but it doesn’t mean I have to participate.

My agents were completely sympathetic. To save it from being a completely wasted trip, they had me read instead for a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Two dim-witted crows and a flying monkey. No accent required. Excellent.