Thief of Books: A review, sort of

Cover of The Book Thief - boy playing dominoes
Zusak's "The Book Thief" sparkles with gems

I just finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which was a runaway success a few years back that I somehow missed. But then I’ve always been a few steps out of tune with pop culture.

It was recommended to me by my sister, who has outstanding taste in books despite being a Republican. We forget that there are intelligent conservatives, or at least I do. Such individuals are no less misguided for possessing thoughtful qualities. But then there also are plenty of people who vote Democratic who are complete assholes. No general truths are absolute. They’re just generally true.

So back to Mr. Zusak and his wonderful book. The New York Times is credited with saying that, “it’s the kind of book that can be LIFE CHANGING (sic).” I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s pretty friggin’ good.

It’s set in Nazi Germany during the war, and it’s about an orphaned, illiterate little girl taken in by a foster family on the shady side of Munich. The family looks to be a horrorshow: a passive, if good natured husband and a terror of a foster mother with a foul tongue and a penchant for corporal punishment. Little Liesel Meminger seems to be in for a rough ride. I read with extra interest as my own mother was a child of four during the Allied bombing raids over Berlin. Liesel’s only a few years older. And I couldn’t help but think of my mothers stories all during this novel.

In a kind reversal, Liesel’s gruff little foster family is hardly Dickensian. Instead, they turn out to be surprisingly human in a world of Nazis. They hide a Jewish man in their basement, for example, at time when neighbors will readily turn you into the Gestapo. Papa risks a beating to give a crust of bread to a man being marched to a concentration camp. He teaches Liesel to read, which leads to the title character’s book thievery, giving this novel it’s title. And Mama’s capacity for love proves to be as large as her off-color vocabulary and as quick as the back of her hand.

With Allied bombs turning German civilians into hamburger, and columns of half-starved Jews marched through Liesel’s neighborhood on their way to Dachau, The Book Thief is brutal and tough, especially for a young adult novel. But then it’s probably the type of thing young adults should read if they are to tackle such a big subject.

The pages are replete with magic and dazzling characters. Like Liesel’s neighbor and boyish crush, Rudy Steiner, a wiry pre-teen who likes to sneak out of the house at night and paint himself black and run laps at the local track to emulate his hero, Jesse Owens, the man who rose from his own country’s segregation to travel to Berlin and disprove Hitler’s theory of racial superiority. Liesel’s first kiss with young Rudy will conjure a few tears if you have any sort of a heart. I’ll admit to being a little choked up at the end of this novel, and not a little sad that it was over.

Probably most magical element in this book is it’s narrator, who is none other than Death himself, Harvester of Souls. And Death certainly has his hands full during the Holocaust and WWII. In a brilliant stroke, Zusak makes Death the most thoughtful and “human” presence, whose grim work is undertaken (pun!) with such grace and beauty that one can only wish the real Grim Reaper has such compassion. For example, Mr. D says of this key character’s soul, as he carries it off:

This one was sent out by the breath of an accordion, the odd taste of champagne in summer, and the art of promise-keeping. He lay in my arms and rested.

The language is subtle, stylish and beautiful. There are many asides and interjections by Death made in bold type, little sonnets of wit and bittersweetness that give this long book a clever, clipped pace. When the book ended, I didn’t want it to be over. Zusak said, “I like the idea that every page in every book can have a gem on it.” He sure as hell writes as if he believes that. This book sparkles and glitters.

Four stars, three and a half thumbs up. It’s great to know that this whole novel writing thing is alive and well.

New storytelling possibilities

What fascinates me most about the film City of Lakes isn’t it’s gorgeous photography or vibrant locations. It isn’t even the fact that it was filmed with Canon DSLRs, my latest gadget infatuation, though I must admit it’s stunning to think of people producing feature films with an inexpensive prosumer handheld camera. The most interesting thing isn’t even the fact that I recently c0-directed a film about a wedding.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=9856236&server=vimeo.com&show_title=0&show_byline=0&show_portrait=0&color=ff9933&fullscreen=1

What’s most interesting to me is the blend of fiction and reality. The producers of this film used a real wedding as backdrop, and they wove actors and a fictional story into the periphery of this real event. It’s reality programming, but done with grace, elegance and storytelling.

This is where documentary meets fiction, and I hope it lives up to the promise of a new genre. Even if it doesn’t, it’s a fascinating idea. The guerilla filmmaking possibilities are endless. Imagine assembling actors and filming a scene with Obama’s inauguration as a backdrop. Or how about mixing some current ongoing phenomenon, say some of these protesting Tea Party nincompoops, into a fictional, scripted film that uses actors.

I love the new possibilities created by technology. I suddenly have so many ideas for a blend of documentary and fiction. And what helps make it possible is an inexpensive, portable system of producing big-screen quality footage that DSLRs provide.  Can’t wait to see what’s next. I hope I can somehow be a part of it.

100 pages

Reached 100 pages on my newest writing project, Homeland. It’s a feature script set during Japanese American internment during WWII. Took me 17 days to reach 100 pages, which I did as part of the Script Frenzy event. I’ve probably got another 40 to go, which I hope to knock out in the balance of April.

It’s amazing how many folks, a lot of them young, who write recreationally as part of this program. I suppose there are plenty of screenwriters who would shrug this sort of activity off as amateurish, but I find it enjoyable. Plus it never hurts to have a deadline.Writing can be painful. It stings to use both sides of your brain in concert, struggling with a blank screen or the banality of a cliche-ridden draft you’re cranking out at warp speed.

But then storytelling is inherent in us as a species. We do it around meals, beer, cocktails, business lunches, on the phone or in 140 characters of SMS. Might as well capture in in Courier in feature film format.

The vast majority of the 20,000 people signed up to write a script in April won’t finish. Most of the finished scripts won’t be very good, mine included–at least until another dozen drafts of the material are completed.

Some of us might get lucky. Maybe I’ll option another screenplay or produce all or part of this on my own. None of that really matters, though, in the short term. Right now, I just have to finish this draft, stealing an hour here and there.

So long Sammy, 1994-2010

Sammy the catSammy was cold when I found her this morning on the couch. There wasn’t shock or surprise…she’d been dying hard for the better part of a week. Mainly there was relief: I was thankful she was no longer suffering; I was grateful I didn’t have to watch her waste away any more; glad that I didn’t have to wrestle syringes of mushed cat food down her throat with the faint hope that this might somehow re-start her system.

In the end she died, and I took her out and buried her in the flower bed. We’ll plant a fern over her and find a concrete statue that resembles her in her prime, and we’ll remember an awesome goddamned cat.

Even people who hate cats loved Sammy. Partially it was that she acted like a dog: greeting you at the door, climbing all over you, desperate for affection, desperate to win your approval. She was cussed out not a few times when we tried to work and she’d be there calling for attention. She weathered the abuse of a growing child who treated her like a doll and carried her around the house once she grew too old to outrun her. When Bailey was an infant and we closed her in her room at night to cry herself to sleep because that’s what some stupid book told us to do, Sammy, who knew better, would sit outside the door with a look of pity concern until the crying stopped.

Within minutes of meeting her, even the most hardened cat hater and most macho dog lover would be absently petting Sammy as she snuggled into his lap. You couldn’t help yourself. She worked harder at melting hearts than any creature I’ve known. You open yourself up to ridicule, I suppose, writing a eulogy for a cat. Even a cat lover like Hemingway wouldn’t stoop to this. But I gave up being a serious writer a long time ago. Screw it, I’m going to eulogize.

Sammy sat on my lap while I wrote three thousand pages of drivel…two finished and unpublished novels, and two stillborn epics never completed despite amassing an ungodly number of pages. She outlived my desire to be a Great American Novelist. She spent many late hours purring patiently as I wrote a few screenplays that fared a little better than my novels, and as I burned oil until well past midnight launching armadas of marginally useful emails for what is colloquially referred to as a “real job.”

In the end, she never judged. She just wanted a warm hand to slick back her fine gray fur. She wanted to wedge her chin against your cheek and make a burbling noise not unlike a coffee percolator that would slowly unravel your frayed nerves and remind you that you aren’t alone in the world with your toils, and how the simple things, like the humble acknowledgment of the fact that other creatures exist and breathe and want nothing more than a scratch under the chin, can change your attitude. Sometimes it takes another species to remind us that we’re human.

Sammy had a good life. Nancy picked her out at a shelter fifteen years ago. She was scrawny, wearing her rib cage like a corset, blowing snot and twisting her bony, patchy body around our legs. For some reason, this little mongrel won Nancy’s heart even though she didn’t look like much to me. We spent a couple thousand bucks, which was a lot when you’re making $6.50 per hour on the night shift at Kinko’s, getting her healthy, and she spent the rest of her life showing us her gratitude.

Thanks, little gray buddy, for the gift of your friendship. I’m reaching out my hand now, and for the first time in fifteen years a grumbling, mewing, sleek little creature isn’t leaping out of the shadows to arch her back under my fingers. That’ll take some getting used to.

Couple of short films

After my last post that warned against obsessing over technical details, here are a pair of short films that are both technically solid and have strong story elements.

The photography is stunning in both pieces. The first is shot with a newer DSLR, and the second, a previous generation SD camera.

These pieces are similar in their technical precision, but they’re quite different in the pacing of their editing.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=7152063&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=00ADEF&fullscreen=1

Nocturne from Vincent Laforet on Vimeo.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=870512&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=00ADEF&fullscreen=1

SIMILO teaser from Macgregor on Vimeo.

Story and style

I tallied up the hours I spent editing our first short film, A Country Wedding, and it’s somewhere up around 100. If you multiply that out by my hourly rate I used to charge when I did freelance web design and consulting, that would amount to $6,000. That’s more than three times our budget, and nearly as much as Robert Rodriguez spent making his crazy-good debut feature film.

But you don’t make short films for money. You do it to learn how movies are made, to have fun, to build a portfolio or maybe a combination of all three. I recently saw Rodriguez’s award-winning short film, Bedhead, for the first time. I’d just watched a rough cut of our short and was feeling pretty good about the technical quality and the beauty of many of the shots. But watching Bedhead made me realize that polish and technical quality are probably the least important elements of a short film. What is more important is the story and style.

You can see the evidence of clear brilliance in Bedhead. Sure it’s 16mm, black and white with overdubbed sound and a hand drawn title sequence. He edited that film on two VCRs. But none of this matters, because if you start watching this movie, the next ten minutes fly by and you’re a little sad when it’s over. To me, that’s the mark of a quality short film.

How does Rodriguez make you care about the characters? How does he pull you into the story and make the time pass so quickly? He does it through solid directing and creative camera work. The performances are natural. The editing style and shots are whimsical and fast-paced. You don’t even notice the technical details after a while.

It’s amazing to think what he would have been able to accomplish with Final Cut Pro and a Canon 7D. Or even a Flip camera. What kind of movie would Bedhead have been if he had all this gear 20 years ago?

Anyone interested in independent film has probably read Rodriguez’s book about breaking into the film business. And they know that he spent years making short films with the most crude equipment imaginable. But he still managed to make films that are as watchable today as when they were released nearly 20 years ago. And that’s made me realize that you can get seriously sidetracked worrying about the technical details of a film. It’s dangerous to spend about what camera to use or whether to shoot SD or HD, or to be thinking about what sort of color treatment you’re going to give your movie. It’s more important to focus on the story and style of your project, because that will ultimately determine whether or not it’s successful. Would your movie still be watchable if you were limited to the same equipment that Rodriguez had in making his first films?

Technical details are still important. With amazing filmmaking equipment available at reasonable prices, the bar is constantly being raised, and you need to proceed with care and attention to detail if you want your work to stand out. But I’d be willing to bet that Bedhead would still be a winner at film festivals today, even if it were stacked up against a slate of films shot on an HVX with adapters, edited in Final Cut Pro and color corrected with Magic Bullet.

The Foster Child

She’s six years old and has three failed adoptions and suffered a number of smaller atrocities, but now she’s sprinting up the beach against the wind, clutching the pink leash of a borrowed Labrador, the wind swallowing the frantic shouts of her foster mother and the dog’s owner.

She strains cold air through her teeth, not quite a grin, and the blown sand that crusts her lashes and snakes over her receding footprints scours this hard child’s shell. Inside she’s all mush and hurt, but that shell, man, it’s something. You could break bottles on it.

She’s never before seen the sunset or the ocean, and this sudden confluence has her on a high. She trusts the dog and the reckless, headlong strides and the taste of the salt air, gulps of crab rot, kelp and bird shit.

She doesn’t understand her crimes, even less so the sentence, but the pounding of her feet, the tiny splash of each stride on the wet sand…this feels very real and solid to her.

Her brown hair is a ribbon, a salt-sticky pennant streaming behind her. The dog’s tongue lolls and flaps, and there are three princesses and sequins stitched into her garage sale sweatshirt.

She doesn’t know that regular children aren’t in the habit of screaming themselves to sleep at night, and they will assert their rights with tooth and claw only at their peril. Punishment doesn’t really work on her. “Is that all you got,” she grins back over her shoulder.

She also doesn’t know that the Labrador, who gallops ahead of her, tugging on the leash, aware only of a gull in the distance and this strange little creature in tow who is indulging her penchant for headlong flight, has only this morning chewed the armrest off of the sofa and that she shits regularly on an heirloom throw rug, the oblivious creature persisting only through the owner’s sense of duty.

She glances back only briefly to see her latest mother and the dog’s owner both waving and cupping their hands to their mouths to shout into a wind that sucks the voice out of their words before they even cross their lips. Then the Labrador snaps the leash and puts her head down to gallop with redoubled stride, as if to say, “come on, kid, now’s our chance.”

She squeezes her eyes shut and trusts the leash and the yellow plug of fur and muscle at the other end, not heeding the voices she can no longer hear, not even sensing that the big people far behind her are, without even admitting it to themselves, both hoping that these two girls just keep on running.

Becoming a filmmaker, or at least trying

Making movies requires that you talk to people; you can probably get used to this, even if you're a writer.

I’m in the midst of producing and co-directing a film that I wrote. It’s a strange position to be in because filmmaking is the ultimate community artistic undertaking and writers are crotchety, solitary creatures who generally toil in solitude and typically engage in public only after several cocktails.

But I have to say that this is great fun. And after countless hours in the dark, scrabbling a keyboard at obscene hours before or after a full work day, squinting under a dim lamp at my daily five hundred words, it’s nice to be out in the sun. I was quite burned, despite the clouds, after our first two days of shooting. Filmmaking is an outdoor activity. Writing involves long hours hunched over a desk.

Attaching a camera to a car in a complex attempt to accurately capture what the asshole writer put in the script without thinking how hard it would be to get the shot.
Attaching a camera to a car in a complex attempt to accurately capture what the asshole writer flippantly put in the script without thinking how hard it would be to get the shot.

Making films requires talking to people, occasionally shouting, and a whole lot of thinking with both sides of your brain. You suddenly realize the power of your words when the DP comes up to you and says, “It says here that the truck rounds the bend, spraying gravel, but I’m not sure we want to blast our borrowed camera with stones so that we have to buy a broken piece of equipment with the credit card.” When you make a film, your words become concrete and literal with surprising velocity.

I’m not sure where filmmaking will lead. I’m middle-class stock, not one to pull stakes and head to Los Angeles or New York City. I’m pragmatic enough to appreciate the fact that I’ve got a good job. Like anyone who grew up in a union household, you don’t take a paying gig for granted.

But I still feel that I’ll be making films for some time to come. I know that I can write scripts that people want to buy. I don’t yet know if I can make a film that people will want to see. But after only two days in production, I feel good about this. The mood on set is upbeat. Our crew and actors are enthusiastic. A shitload of talented people are coming together to make something special. And if the vibe we’ve created carries over into the finished product, the audience will sense that enthusiasm.

I’m not sure where it leaves that aspiring novelist. After two books with which I’m pleased despite the fact that they’re not published, I might go back to it someday. Nothing to me smells better that the fanned pages of a Jim Harrison novel as I sit reading on a stump in a Douglas Fir forest. Nothing, perhaps, except the smell of synthetic butter-oil on popcorn in a darkened cinema while projector light flickers overhead.

Two more days of production. A few months of post. And then we’ll see where things stand.

Why he writes: Part II of a Q&A with novelist J. Adams Oaks

jeff

Any reader who is also a writer understands that questions will rattle in your head as you wend your way through a work of fiction. Unlike regular readers, you can’t simply be subsumed by story, sinking into the world that the author has labored to create. Like a retired engineer you have to kick the tires, lift up the hood, puzzle through how this contraption was put together.

This is part two of a Q&A with J. Adams Oaks, the author of the hot new YA novel Why I Fight. The great thing about knowing writers, especially writers as talented as J. Adams Oaks, is that those questions need not merely echo around in my head. I can kick them over to Jeff and get some actual answers and insight into the process he went through in creating his amazing book. So let’s lift up the hood…

Your novel has one of the most distinct and unique narrators I can recall. As soon as I finished “Why I Fight” I went back and read your story “Ash Butterflies” in Hair Trigger 21. Two things struck me.  First, it’s amazing how the promise of this novel is contained in that story: the voice, the characters, your rich attention to detail.

But Wyatt’s voice in the novel has also grown since that early story…his wide-eyed, childish innocence has been colored by an edge of street smarts. He’s developed quirks and narrative traits that bring him to life. What happened after the publication of that story? What elements led to the evolution of Wyatt’s narrative voice?

First, thanks for the kinds words. I do think that Wyatt Reaves was much more naive back then, because “Ash Butterflies” was his very first incarnation and it was really that scrawny scared 12 and 1/2 year old sitting in his parents house alone for days on end telling that initial story. It’s that voice, more than anything, that made me want to carry the story forward. I couldn’t get his voice out of my head and I couldn’t help but wonder who these people were around him.

So I listened. The thing is that his story moved forward and he grew, so his voice aged and honestly, innocence can last only so long and then it gets really annoying, you know like a character in a Disney cartoon. So once I realized where Wyatt was going, I had to go back and revise his understand of his situation and the story. My amazing mentor, advisor and friend, Randy Albers, Chair of the Fiction Department at Columbia College and I had long discussions as to how distant Wyatt was from the telling. Randy encouraged me to see it from a 40-year-old Wyatt’s eye, but I just couldn’t hear that person. I couldn’t even imagine him that far into the future, and honestly I didn’t know if he even made it that far. So we hear it from a nearly 18 year old, who thinks he understands the world a bit, but really is only starting to see it. That’s what makes me so excited for him, he’s moving toward a beginning.

The story “Ash Butterflies” has become the emotional climactic scene of “Why I Fight.” All of the core elements are there, though the version that appears in the novel is leaner and more headlong.

Okay, well, I always saw the short story as the beginning of the Wyatt’s adventure, because most of it is told fairly chronologically. But, as I started to work with my phenomenal editor Richard Jackson on the 2nd and 3rd drafts, the story really became this close-up, intimate telling with Wyatt next to you on a bus talking to you just inches away. And because Wyatt was talking to you, a stranger, my editor asked me, “Would you tell your most shameful secret to someone you’d just sat down next to?” And he was right, there was no way he’d admit to what he’d done; he’d have to really sink in and feel comfortable before he could admit the truth.

why
Why I Fight

Did you do this much trimming throughout the book during the editorial process? Were there any moments that you hated to give up?

That novel was as big as 350 pages and as trim as 175. I wrote 5 complete new versions over the years. Each was this amazing learning experience that had a specific reason it needed to exist, so there was also expanding and removing and adding back in and shuffling of chapters and reshuffling and on and on. It was intense and insane, but I’m a much better writer for it.

I did hate giving one chapter that had Wyatt and Clark, his only friend, spending time together, but my editor said if it didn’t have a purpose other than them spending time together, it needed to go. I loved it. Sure, it did some stuff, but I couldn’t figure out why I needed it, so it’s gone (of course, nothing is truly gone with computer now, so I’ll tuck it away for another day…). But for the record, I L-O-V-E editing and trimming. I love to write a bunch of STUFF and then, like a puzzle, try to figure out how the words can be there best.

The novel has an urgent, headlong pace. It’s hard to put down. This is helped along by the structure, particularly the short chapters, averaging 5 pages. When in the process did you arrive at this structure? What were the advantages of breaking the story down in this fashion?

Honestly, it was done in the last draft of the book and it was after Richard Jackson and I had discussed how young adults would see the book. He mentioned shorter chapters are better for young readers to feel a sense of accomplishment as they turn the page.

I remembered back to my childhood and that feeling of reading before bed and thinking, “I’ll read through this chapter and then I’ll sleep.” Or I’d check to see how much further I had to go. But it also serves the purpose of keep that pace that Wyatt is keeping and keeping anecdotal as it would be in a longer conversation. Plus I think it’s good for my adult friends who read it on the L here in Chicago and can read a couple chapters on the way to work!

How did you arrive at the title?

Oh, the title… Hmmm… Okay, so the original title for years was “Shreds” which came from the image of Wyatt tearing up comic strips and burning them, but obviously referred to the larger shreds of Wyatt’s life. Once the book evolved into this intensely intimate first-person narrative, wise Mr. Jackson asked me a simple question that would stump me for A VERY LONG TIME. He asked me, “Don’t you think that Wyatt deserves to title his own life?”

Well, damn it. How could I say no to that. But what would you name your own life, you know? That’s not as easy as if sounds. And certainly not for a 17 year old. So, I brainstormed and brainstormed and emailed them to my editor. Often times, I’d come home from a night out drinking, and I’d sit down at my computer and make a list of 10 or 20 that I’d shoot off to Richard, he’d reply in the morning with the two or three he thought were okay, but not quite right, we were getting there, keep going, he’d tell me. And somehow, maybe with the bourbon helping the creative flow, WHY I FIGHT was in one of panoply of lists. FINALLY! It felt right. It sounded proper. I think Wyatt would like it, you know?

One of the many vivid, visceral scenes in the book has Wyatt killing and cleaning fish at Spade’s insistence. I can still recall a version of this scene that your read in class more than ten years ago. Was that always a part of this novel? If not, when did you realize that it was part of something bigger?

No, that was always part of the book. And yes it started in that class, me trying to understand Wyatt and Uncle Spade’s relationship. It always felt very defining for the two of them.

There are so many emotionally charged moments in the book, like Spade’s confrontation with Lynnesha, or when Wyatt grabs Clark by the throat. Was there any scene that was particularly challenging to write or especially draining for you as the writer?

Without giving away the scene with Lynnesha and Spade finally confronting each other, I’ll say that it was one of the most difficult, because as I got into it, I kept saying to myself, “I don’t want this to happen… Is this really happening? What’s going on?” and it had to happen. It was the story telling me what it needed. The violence was overwhelming to me.

So many other people are upset by the killing of fish and tadpoles, but man that confrontation gets me every time! Wyatt and Clark having it out, was actually taken out of the book and then added back into a much later draft. I relished writing it, not for the violence by any means, but for the moment Wyatt is really claiming how he feels and standing in it so fully. I love imagining him standing in the woods, clenching giant fists as the rain trails off them, his brow furrowed. That’s like a movie scene for me!

This is a road novel that carries Wyatt and Spade across the country. Did you hit the road while you were working on this book? How did you capture the sights and smells of the state fairs, the salvage yards and the seedy motels?

I didn’t do much road-tripping while writing the book, but I did take one specific vacation before my last semester of grad school; I had a week off, rented a car and drove only rural routes and back roads all the way to Boulder, Colorado and back. I journalled a lot along the way.

Most of the book was actually written while I lived in Denver. Two of my closest friends, Claire Fallon and Steve Kalinosky, were kind enough to let me live with them for free as long as I wrote every day, so I committed to 4 hours daily. And Colorado was so foreign to me as a midwesterner that it certainly helped me truly pay attention to The Road. I should also say that my parents are academics, so we all had summers off and our vacations were in the family station wagon seeing as much of the U.S. as possible. Thought I didn’t really appreciate that education until I was much older.

The whole novel is framed as Wyatt spilling his guts to a stranger on a bus, with the reader standing in for the stranger. How did this device come about? You can truly hear Wyatt’s voice in your head. Did this structure help to develop that voice?

After Richard Jackson decided to work with me on the book, he asked me a question that I’m sure you and I were asked frequently in classes at Columbia: “Who is Wyatt talking to?”  I answered quite flippantly, trying to dismiss this extremely important question, I said, “He’s talking to a stranger on a bus.” Dick answered, “Well, if that’s so, you haven’t written that book.”

We talked about what that situation would really contain: only enough information during a bus ride, a public conversation, a censorship of language, etc. So I worked on an entire draft considering what Wyatt was saying to this “stranger.” Eventually, in later drafts that stranger became the reader. And in the second to last draft, Dick asked me read the entire book out loud to myself, and if I couldn’t say it then it wasn’t working, if it didn’t fit in my mouth then I had to consider whether it needed to stay. It was amazing to read the whole thing over a couple days. It made me hear those flowery sentences that were the author or the narrator over pouring Wyatt’s voice. It made that voice really come first.

The entire novel is linear except for the fire scene near the end…why did you decide to jump back in time right at that point of the story?

I think I accidentally answered this earlier. It felt like Wyatt just couldn’t admit to what he’d done until he felt comfortable with the listener, the stranger.

Nana, with all of her quirks and eccentricities, is one of the colorful characters that sparkles in this story. How did she come to play such an important role? And where did the crates of glass come from? How did you decide to give Wyatt his ever-present piece of “Nana glass” to hold on to?

Nana was one of the first characters developed in grad school after I’d written “Ash Butterflies.” I’m not sure what exercise we were doing in class, but she really came to life pushing that grandfather clock, surrounded by cats and crates. I wasn’t sure what was in the crates at first, but once I saw the glass, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why did she have it? What made her do it?

I sort of figured that something broke lose inside of her when she lost her husband and so she found this manic behavior to occupy her time. Wyatt’s Nana glass is up for your own interpretation, but I know that constantly trying to understand his family and that is just a little piece of it for him.

How have audiences been responding at readings? Are you still taking the book around on tour?

Ah, the “book tour.” I seriously thought that was a real thing. I mean, I’m sure that well-known authors with a serious track record or maybe authors with small presses might be taken to a few cities by their publishers, but at this point there is so little money in publishing that the houses are struggling to keep afloat which means authors are left to self-promote and that is like taking on a 4th job.

I’m trying to visit friends around the U.S. and use the visits as stops to do readings. I’m going to North Carolina, where my brother and his family live. I’ll read for a couple book clubs and maybe a bookstore. The readings themselves are a blast. I love talking to folks about the book and seeing people excited. I’m especially excited to get responses from young adults. I did a reading in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin month back and two young boys showed up, dropped of by their parents. They sat in the front row and wouldn’t look me in the eye they were so nervous, but as soon as I opened it up to questions they raised their hands and came up with some of the most astute observations I’ve gotten so far. They seemed to really “get” Wyatt. And that makes all the hard work worth it!

Read more about Jeff at his site, buy his incredible book.

– DB

Book Description

Wyatt Reaves takes the seat next to you, bloodied and soaking wet, and he is a big-fisted beast. Tell him to stretch out like an X across asphalt and you’ve got a parking space. But Wyatt’s been taking it lying down for too long, and he is NOT happy.

Since he turned twelve and a half, he’s been living with his uncle, a traveling salesman of mysterious agenda and questionable intent. Soon, Uncle Spade sees the potential in “kiddo” to earn cash. And that’s enough to keep the boy around for nearly six years.

But what life does Wyatt deserve? Alcohol? Drugs? Bare-fisted fights? Tattoos? No friends? No role models? Living in a car?

If you’re brave enough to stay and listen, you’ll hear an astounding story. It’s not a pretty road Wyatt has traveled, but growing up rarely is.

Praise for WHY I FIGHT

“A breathtaking debut with an unforgettable protagonist…His painful and poignant story is a wonderful combination of the unlettered and the eloquent.” –Booklist (starred review)

“For male reluctant readers.” –Kirkus Reviews

Writing fiction vs writing for film

I’ve been so absorbed with our short film project that all my free time has been taken up by production meetings, script revisions, scene breakdowns and fund raising. Fiction is squarely on hiatus for the moment, though I’m still sending out the odd novel query.

Novels are like a marathon. Here’s my process: wake up obscenely early; read a few hundred words from the previous day and do some light editing; crank out a target number of words (500 – 1,200); go out and live your regular life; sleep; repeat.  You need a rhythm that you can sustain for a long period of time. Years.

With film scripts, it seems to be a series of sprints. A first draft can take a couple of months only because full time work, family and mortgage-related related obligations conspire to squeeze out the time you have to write. The collaborative aspect of making a film also changes the dynamic. You’ll do a read with cast or crew members and find yourself editing on the fly. One of your actors will be a different age, gender or ethnicity than you’d originally planned, and that will force changes. We had trouble casting a woman in the 40s-50s age range for A Country Wedding, so we wrote her out of the script and added a younger woman in her 20s because we had a strong read from a younger actor.

So one form of storytelling happens in the slog of an isolating routine, and the other happens in the chaos of collaboration.

The key aspect of writing prose fiction is focus. You need to zero in on the emotional core of your work. you need to intensively follow the heart of your story. In screenwriting, it’s all about flexibility. Can you hold the story together when someone throws a wrench into your plans. These surprises come in the form of budget issues, equipment and location challenges, producer notes, etc. Writing prose fiction is muscling through a steep uphill hike through thick underbrush and loose scree. Writing for film is holding everything together while your scampering down the same grade at a headlong sprint.

I’ve tried to make comparisons for my own sake, and I can’t identify any inherent superiority in one form of writing over the other. I enjoy them both, or rather compelled to do them both. Storytelling is that weird, narcissistic compulsion to make something up and share it with other people. Writing film scripts and novels both address this need. If you’re so disposed, it’s not like you really have a choice. Not writing isn’t really an option.

Six excellent screenwriting and film blogs

johnaugust.com

Solid industry insight from the writer of Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate factory; this blog is an ideal blend of real information delivered with personality and opinion; John’s enthusiasm for the craft is infectious, and his honesty is refreshing.

sellingyourscreenplay.com

Though the title of this one seems rather mercenary, and the site’s loaded with ads, this blog is loaded with real, practical information, especially for novices; it’s clearly written and frequently updated, sticking to bare-bones how-to blogging.

the pen is mightier than the spork

Amusing and entertaining perspective from a working writer in the UK; it’s personal and chatty, but if you dig in you’ll find good information and an interesting glimpse into the industry overseas.

Truly Free Film

Great blog on filmmaking from an indy producer’s perspective; it captures the angst in the independent world with economic challenges and changes in the media.

Risky Business

Balance out your indy film perspective from TFF with a solid blog from Steven Zeitchik at the Hollywood Reporter.

The Unknown Screenwriter

Irreverent and brutally honest, this is definitely a blog worth popping into your reader. No less useful for being a  counterbalance for ernest and sincere advice.

So what screenwriting and film blogs do you have in your RSS reader?

Why he writes: a Q&A with novelist J. Adams Oaks

Don’t call me kiddo. I REALLY hate it. People been calling me that way too long. Fever and Ma and Uncle Spade all call me kiddo, and it makes me crazy. See how I ain’t smiling? People who know me, know that means trouble.

jeff
J. Adams Oaks is the author of the new young adult novel WHY I FIGHT

So begins the new novel by J. Adams Oaks, Why I Fight, which is already earning glowing adjectives (poignant, breathtaking, unforgettable – Booklist). It’s the story of a 12 year old bare knuckle boxer from a dysfunctional family, and from the pugilistic prose you might think Jeff is the type of writer to step in the ring with Papa Hemingway. But in truth, he’s more of a Faulkner guy, with a little Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marques thrown in.

I attended Columbia College Chicago ten years ago, where I had the great pleasure of watching the inception of the story that became Why I Write. The Fiction Writing Department at CCC doesn’t tell writers how to write, instead, they cultivate voice and foster the conveyance of rich imagery in prose. And did they ever cultivate the hell out of Jeff. His first book, more than ten years from inkjet to hardcover, is amazing.

This is part 1 of a two-part Q&A.

So what have you been up to for the past ten years?

Wow! So much. I’ve finally found a good balance of writing, teaching, and bartending to pay the bills. The novel, WHY I FIGHT, in its first form was my thesis for Columbia College Chicago. I tried working a 9-to-5 job and write, but that didn’t work, so I actually moved to Denver, CO into the house of my friends, Claire Fallon and Steve Kalinosky, who let me live with them for free as long as I was writing every day. I cranked out that first draft, then started bartending while I looked for a literary agent. That took me four long years during which I rewrote the manuscript and told everyone I met that I’d written a book and was trying to publish. I actually got referred to my agent through a regular at my bar!

What’s the worst job you had during that time?

I have to say for me personally the worst job I’ve had was the 9-to-5 cubicle farm job, commuting into The Loop into one of those beige buildings into an office with no windows at a grey desk. I never was a morning person, so  I pretty much spent my day yawning and waiting to get home to sleep. It’s hard to find your creativity doing that, you know?

why
Why I Fight

I’ve always had an aversion to the old dead white guys of the traditional cannon, because they were the ones I was being told I had to pay attention to and connected to the least. All through undergrad and grad school, I searched out the people that didn’t live like me, that didn’t write like me and who’s voices sounded nothing like mine so that I could really see how they found their own sound. I studied Spanish lit and Latin American writer, like Lorca and Borges and Garcia Marques. Later on in grad school, as I started to find my main character, Wyatt Reaves’, voice, I really started to pay attention to Sandra Cisneros and Junot Diaz and Herbert Selby for their powerful individual expression of singular voices. I also love reading in the morning before I start, reading to be inspired, to feel that feeling of “I want to try to do that!” so I’ll read Toni Morrison or William Faulkner or poetry or even a friend’s work until I just have to turn to my own writing.

Do you feel any different now that you can wander into a bookstore and find your work on the same shelves as writer’s you’ve admired your whole life?

Funny you should ask, because that’s what I’ve been telling everyone: “I just want to be able to walk into the local bookstore and see my novel there, then I’ll feel satisfied, feel relieved.” I’ll also say that I’m glad that Joyce Carol Oates wrote a Young Adult book, so mine can sit next to hers.

Like a lot of writers, you spent time studying your craft in an MFA program. What was the most important aspect of that experience?

Boy, I’ll tell you that for anyone looking for an MFA program, I really recommend checking them out to find one that works for you, because everyone has different needs. I was so impressed by Columbia College’s Fiction Department, which emphasized oral storytelling translating to the page and really find one’s voice as well as reducing the amount of pointless criticism and competition that can occur in other programs. The only competing I felt with my colleagues at Columbia was, “Man, I want to write something as good as that. Now how did she DO that?!?!?”

What have you learned in the years since graduating? How have you changed as a writer?

Oh, jeez. That is a hard one. I’ve learned so much by being active in a vibrant literary community like that in Chicago. I’ve been active in an astounding theater company called Serendipity that produces “2nd Story” which is a highbred a reading and a performance. You can check it out at www.storiesandwine.com. I’ve gotten to learn how to really stand in front of an audience and give my voice. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with one of the best editors, Richard Jackson, a truly talented man who understood how to guide me as a writer toward the strongest writing. He knew I needed to do all the work, when it came to page, letting me learn along the way through 4 FULL rewrites of the book! And the list goes on of what I’ve learned, because I feel like as artists we have to be constantly learning or we get stagnant.

How long did it take you to get to the heart of “Why I Fight?”  How long have you known this story was a novel?

You know, I think “the heart of WHY I FIGHT” was what told me it would have be a novel. At the time I wrote the very first scene, which I assumed was a short story, I felt like there was something much larger there, and if I listened carefully it would tell me what else it had to offer. I feel like Richard Jackson taught me to really listen to what the work demands and not force it into something it’s not. So to answer your question, I think that WHY I FIGHT was always a novel, whether I knew it or not….

You’ve been working on this project for a long time.  During that whole time were you ever tempted to abandon that project and focus on something else, or abandon writing altogether?

I never thought about abandoning writing. I’ve always known I’d do that whether it was seen by others or not, but there was a drive there to share my work with more people than just family and friends. I did work on this book a long time. I finished the first draft in 2000, and the reality is that it sat in a drawer for 4 years while I did the business of writing, that’s the other side of it people don’t really talk about enough. Art requires some serious drudgery as well as creation. I do think though that a writer should have more than one project going so that they don’t get sucked into the whole of that one work. I always seem to have 5 or 6 documents on my computer’s desk-top and I pop into whichever is taking my attention that day. The worst thing is to work on something that you can give no passion.

What gave you hope or confidence along the way?

It’s really the who that gave me hope. Everyone I work with on writing wants everyone else to succeed, so we are all pulling for each other. Not to mention, Mom and Dad. But I also have to say, writing is my career and a career just takes putting aside the insecurity and getting down to business, you know?

Where do you turn, outside literature and writing, for inspiration?

Everywhere! It’s the world. I carry a little journal with me all the time so I can write down a conversation I over hear on the bus or a description of a bit of graffitti I see or a name or an adjective that tastes good in my mouth. I’m writing all the time. That’s a blessing and a curse.

If you were to take a road trip to clear your head, what type of vehicle are you in, what’s playing on the stereo, and where is the road?

I don’t own a car, since I live in the city and take the train, so ANY car would be great! I’d love a sun roof and a really big stack of CDs including some great jazz, bossa nova and some surprises. That road would be heading toward water because I really really REALLY could use a little time at the beach. Sigh. But I’d have to take my journal with me, even if I was on vacation. I don’t want to miss anything.

What’s next?

I am working  on #2. It’s tricky to find time when I need to work on getting the first one out there, but I’m so glad to have something else to work on. It takes place partly in Spain, soooooo…. I’m thinking research trip is in my future, right? Wish me luck and I’ll keep you posted.

Read more about Jeff at his site, buy his incredible book and look for Part 2 of the Q&A soon.

– DB

Book Description

Wyatt Reaves takes the seat next to you, bloodied and soaking wet, and he is a big-fisted beast. Tell him to stretch out like an X across asphalt and you’ve got a parking space. But Wyatt’s been taking it lying down for too long, and he is NOT happy.

Since he turned twelve and a half, he’s been living with his uncle, a traveling salesman of mysterious agenda and questionable intent. Soon, Uncle Spade sees the potential in “kiddo” to earn cash. And that’s enough to keep the boy around for nearly six years.

But what life does Wyatt deserve? Alcohol? Drugs? Bare-fisted fights? Tattoos? No friends? No role models? Living in a car?

If you’re brave enough to stay and listen, you’ll hear an astounding story. It’s not a pretty road Wyatt has traveled, but growing up rarely is.

Praise for WHY I FIGHT

“A breathtaking debut with an unforgettable protagonist…His painful and poignant story is a wonderful combination of the unlettered and the eloquent.” –Booklist (starred review)

“For male reluctant readers.” –Kirkus Reviews

Fourteen Drafts

I just finished Draft 14 of a script that is currently in pre-production. Some of the drafts have been minor rewrites, and others have featured sweeping changes, including the elimination of several characters and plot threads.

In some cases, newer drafts have featured reversion to original scenes. The current opening page is virtually identical to the opening I typed raw and unfiltered into the blank page of the word processor during Draft 1 a couple years ago. But, this latest draft features a series of dramatic changes to the backstory and the political context.

What I’ve learned is that you have to be flexible and willing to try suggestions during development. If you have trust and a good working relationship with the production team, then you should be able to compare two drafts side by side and all agree which is stronger. This isn’t compromising, but rather collaboration.

I’ve heard the term “development hell” tossed about frequently.  I’m sure that can happen, and it can become especially onerous if a project is stalled and killed because parties can’t agree. And often this is a result of factors far beyond a writer’s control, such as key actors pulling out at the last  moment, or a switch of directors.

But I’ve also heard the term applied to the extreme length of the process and the sheer number of rewrites often required. But I’m finding that this continuous rewriting is not only beneficial, but exhilirating. It’s amazing when an offhand comment in a meeting becomes a key part of the script. Or when a margin note becomes one of the best lines of dialog in the whole film.

So here I am at Draft 14 of this project. I’m hoping this will be the one that goes out for casting. But I had the same hopes for Draft 9.

Saved by poetry

I work a full-time gig putting in plenty of extra hours. I’m not saying this to whine, only to point out that it takes time and effort to do a job as well as you can, and jobs are what pay the mortgage. I also turn out a script or two, squeezing in time at the fringes to write. It’s not easy to balance these two. Mostly it’s the writing that suffers.

I just returned from a trip to LA to meet on a project in development. I came back with a head full of notes and a deadline for the next draft. And somewhere along the way back to the job I saw my kid and realized that she had grown in the few days I was away.

Jim Harrisons latest book of poetry is called In Search of Small Gods
Jim Harrison's latest book of poetry is called In Search of Small Gods

This can all be overwhelming and serves to dampen creativity. Add to that the fact that the vet told me my cat was probably dying, and you’ve got a recipe for creative impotence.

But then I found a package from Amazon buried under a stack of bills and I ripped open the box to find Jim Harrison’s latest book of poems. For those who don’t know, Jim Harrison is the greatest living American poet. He’s a true American writer who makes love to the landscape and lives for the small details like the shapes he finds in the undersides of bird wings or the damp smell of a thicket after a rainstorm. He’s also a fine novelist and a retired screenwriter.

His latest book of verse, In Search of Small Gods, is absolutely amazing. If you’re a screenwriter and you don’t read any poetry, you should think about that. Poetry exists for the richness of language and imagery. In many ways it’s like writing for film, though for a theater of one that exists within the soft, mushy side of the skull.

I pick a poet depending on the script I’m working on. For my first optioned script, it was Pablo Neruda. For my current project, it’s Whitman’s, Leaves of Grass. But Jim Harrison’s poetry works for just about anything. I tore open the box and read the first poem and was quite choked up. Rescue your creativity. Read good poets.

I believe in steep drop-offs, the thunderstorm across the lake in 1949, cold winds, empty swimming pools, the overgrown path to the creek, raw garlic, used tires, taverns, saloons…

That’s about all I need. I’m ready to get started. Thanks Jim.

Where does it come from?

That’s a question about creativity raised by the film “Starting Out in the Evening.” It follows an aging and mostly forgotten literary novelist who is forced from his routine when a young graduate student enters his life, ostensibly to research her thesis. It is a wooden and stilted film with some (mostly) unintentional awkward moments, though it does achieve a sort of grace by the end. The last thirty minutes are wonderful, and Frank Langella patiently builds a character, whom he proceeds to allow time to dismantle block by block.

I’m not a film critic, so I’ll stop with the analysis. What I should talk about is the subject…this is a film about the writing process, and, ultimately, the origins of creativity. Where does it come from? How do we channel it? The film doesn’t provide any real answers beyond the only one that someone who makes up stories can give: writing is just something you do.  Asking why and from whence is for critics and English teachers. What matters is the process, which is what this film dwells upon and also what makes it interesting for writers.

Roger Ebert seconds this notion of the naivite of interviewers who ask the same old questions for which novelists and screenwriters have no real answer beyond what they think might sound good in quotes. About the graduate student who is interviewing Langella’s character, Ebert notes:

Soon she is discovering what every interviewer learns from every novelist: He doesn’t know what anything in his books “stands for,” he doesn’t know where he gets his ideas, he doesn’t think anything is autobiographical, and he has no idea what his “message” is. I am no novelist, but I am a professional writer, and I know two things that interviewers never believe: (1) the Muse visits during, not before, the act of composition, and (2) the writer takes dictation from that place in his mind that knows what he should write next.

Ebert’s two statements offer some of the truest understanding of the process as it works for me. Viewers who aren’t writers might drift off, but this film will raise interesting questions for anyone who spends a large portion of their time making up stories, tapping the keyboard with a limited idea where they are going and little to guide them beyond the faith that a story will eventually reveal itself if you are true to your compulsion and if you hang on long enough.

Hiking with kids

The hearth killed more poets than alcohol, according to William B. Yeats. But like Jim Harrison, I prefer intense domesticity. Or maybe that’s just what I say because that’s what I have and I’m of no mind to change it.

It's hard to gain the solitude necessary for writerly artistic meditation when you have a five-year-old in tow, but if you follow these steps, you'll neverless have a pleasant hike in the woods
It's hard to gain the solitude necessary for writerly artistic meditation when you have a five-year-old in tow, but if you follow these steps, you'll never less have a pleasant hike in the woods

I fully believe that any writer has to master the skill of capturing a sense of place in his or her work. I was earnest when I recently wrote that one way to develop this sense of place was to sit on a stump for four hours in the remote forest of your choice. That’s, of course, more easily done in rural Missouri or Oregon, the locales I’ve most recently called home.

Stumps are easy for me to come by, especially in Oregon where there’s a vista of stumps around just about any bend. This state has a reputation for being green and sustainable, but there are also a whole hell of a lot of clearcuts with nary a huggable tree in sight.  So I’ve got plenty of stumps nearby. It’s the isolation and the four hours that are hard to find these days.

Like many people, I’ve got a kid. And despite being a big-time-famous writer (sic!) on nights and weekends, I’ve also got a full-time, mortgage-paying job. And a wife whom I hope stays sane. So, unlike that diminutive and celibate little bachelor Henry David Thoreau, I rarely have four hours to sit on a stump and develop my sense of place. I try to sneak away for a weekend backpack, or sometimes I send my wife and kid to the in-laws in Phoenix so I can wallow in solitude and hiking blisters, but still, I need little woody quick-fixes.

I had one such forest jaunt this morning. But I had to bring my daughter along because it my turn. We hiked 3 miles through an Oregon Coast Range forest. I found a nice stump and we sat there for twenty minutes drinking coffee (me) and eating animal crackers (kiddo). I think that writers as a type need to hike in wild (or mostly wild) places for a variety of reasons. It’s best if you can do it alone, but if you can’t, here are a few tips if you must bring a small child along. I’ve developed these tactics over the past few years with my own kid (currently 5-ish), but I assume they work with a range of ages and even multiple children.

  1. Bring a day pack with a smallish blanket, a nature guide, water, coffee, healthy and not-so-healthy snacks, a magnifying glass, layers of clothes for all parties concerned and a camera.
  2. Start your hike by going uphill. If you live in a mountainous area, look for a loop hike with a gradual uphill gradient, with the second half of the hike all downhill to your car. If you live in washboard topography (like Missouri), stick to the flats.
  3. When they start complaining, take a snack break. Even if you’re less than an hour into your hike, stop anyway. Spread out the blanket and have a picnic. It’s okay to have multiple picnics.
  4. Make your second picnic stop before they start complaining for the second time. This will surprise them and they will inexplicably begin to trust you and believe that you are not going to march them to death.
  5. Engage on several collection games during the hike. It can be wildflowers (to be pressed in the nature guide) in season, heart-shaped rocks, slugs, photos, animal tracks, leaves, whatever you can think of. You’ll wind up with a pocket full of stuff that you will have to bring home, but it’s far better than incessant whining.
  6. The magnifying glass makes collection games more interesting. Binoculars can also work. Allowing your kid to take photos can also get them engaged in the hike. Sometimes they can look for limbs or clouds of an interesting shape.
  7. Set ground rules for piggyback rides before you start. I give my daughter 1 free piggyback ride to use when she chooses.  She usually blows this one early in the hike and then soon starts whining that she wished she would have saved it for a steeper stretch of the hike. I’ll usually give her another free shoulder ride later on in the hike. If you’re following the other steps, she’ll forget and probably won’t use it for the rest of the hike.
  8. Don’t read the warning signs about bears and mountain lions out loud to your kid. You’re the one who has to be wary, not her. No need to make her more scared of the woods than she needs to be. You, of course, should be vigilant.

If you follow these techniques, you’ll soon learn that your little anti-hiker who whines and cries when you tell her it’s time for a forest walk might even begin to ask you when you’re planning to go again.

Of course, these techniques aren’t limited to writer-types.