Friday, July 3, 2015

The Whole USA in One Chorus

Independence Eve and watching an old movie called Blues in the Night. Not a masterpiece. Rough and hasty, plot depends on a ridiculous turn, Richard Whorf isnt strong enough to carry the lead, Betty Field plays a femme fatale like a bad parody of Judy Holliday. But there are great things in it. Songs by Arlen and Mercer (that odd, compelling title tune in an equally odd, compelling setting), some solid jazz, including Fletcher Henderson and His Orch on screen. Snappy visuals, thanks to Anatole Litvak and Ernest Haller, with some nifty surreal montages by Richard Fleischer. A fun supporting cast: Jack Carson, Howard Da Silva, Wally Ford, Lloyd Nolan as a thug, Billy “Dead End Halop, Priscilla Lane (as a character named Character), a few scenes stolen by a goofy young Elia Kazan. A punchy script from Robert Rossen, full of boxcar-riding populism.


But what Im liking most right now is a scene about ten minutes in, where our jazz-musician heroes are in a jail cell talking about forming a band. And Whorf, as the boogie-woogie piano player, makes this fast, sweaty, grinning, impassioned speech:
       Its got to be our kind of music, our kind of band! The songs weve heard that have been knocking around this country, real blues, the kind that come out of real peopletheir hopes and their dreams, what theyve got and what they want. The whole USA in one chorus! And that band aint just guys blowing and pounding and scrapingits five guys, no more, who feel, play, live, and even think the same way. That aint a band, thats a unit! Its one guy multiplied five times, its a unit that breathes in the same beat. Its got a kick all its own and a style thats their own and nobody elses. Its like a hand in a glove, five fingers, and each one fitsslick and quick.
      Sure, its overwrought and improbable and almost silly, but theres something exciting in there too, something I miss in our self-aware times. No musician would have said anything like it even in 1941, but people were at least willing to pretend that he might. I like the idea that popular art could try to capture the spirit of the nation, could have a shot at uniting and defining a people, and that an ambitious young musician wouldnt be embarrassed to say so. Its a vision of art that suggests theres something bigger than individual glory or private expression, a vision of the republic as a living body, and it seems to me this raw-nerved and threadbare old country could use some of that.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Between J and K

In October, 1974, when I went to get my picture taken for the Gilroy High School yearbook, I barely knew Jennie Kajiko. We had some friends in common, might have exchanged some words when we sat near each other in Senior English, but that was about it. In the spring, though, when she came to my house to help with an editing session for the literary magazine (back when editing mostly involved scissors and rubber cement), things started to change. By the time the yearbooks came out, just about exactly forty years ago, we still hadn't done anything that could be called “dating, but we were getting very creative at finding ways to spend time together. Which made it seem awfully significant when this is what appeared in our yearbook:


Significant to me, at least. Jennie, ever more realistic, saw it as nothing but an alphabetical accident. (She was far more concerned with the fact that theyd called her “Jenny.) But I was determined to find meaning in it. 
       Some months later, in the sad but warm spell after wed survived a few hard conversations and a near-breakup, I told Jennie that I had a very strong feeling about our future. I said that I had a feeling we might not always be together, we might even break up for long periods, but somehow I believed we would ultimately be together. Jennie found it a sweet sentiment but not a very realistic one, and I suspect she may have felt a bit confined by it. A joke seemed called for as an antidote to my overflowing romanticism, so I said something about how it must be true, because why else would we have been side-by-side in our yearbook? Underneath the joke, though, I think I sort of believed it.
       Clearly it was just the sort of thing an eighteen year old says, and clearly such things arent to be taken seriously. But forty years after that yearbook came out, here we are.



It hasnt been an easy road. Thereve been hard times, and long times when our lives barely intersected. Weve decided that the relationship was over more than once, most recently five years ago. But here we are still, or here we are again. And we’ve finally figured some big things out, learned how to make life together as good as we both want it to be. Im not silly enough to try predicting the future anymore, but I dont see this ending any time soon.
       I’ve mostly stopped thinking about that yearbook page. It was just a matter of alphabet, after all. We were in a small high school, and there happened to be no one named Judson or Kable to muscle between us. But if I were going to write a romantic story about a long, difficult, and ultimately wonderful relationship, and if I werent too worried about coming off as corny, it would be a great detail to use.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Geek Love

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival finished yesterday. This was its twentieth straight year, fourteen of which Ive attended, and I think it was my favorite so far: five days instead of the usual four, twenty-one program events, including sixteen feature films, all but one with live music. Fascinating movies, some stunning, some hilarious, from six nations, in every genre, all gloriously preserved and presented. And (much of the joy for me) suffused with the energy of passionate geeks wallowing joyfully in the stuff they love.
       The festival brings in a big audience. The evening performances usually sell out the 1400 seats of the Castro Theater. Even at its slowest moments (an obscure Blanche Sweet comedy from 1919 playing on a Monday afternoon) it can bring in 600 or 700 people. Not all of those people come in as aficionados of silent motion pictures. But the core of the community, the sources of the energy, the leaders of the audience responses, are people who live and breathe for the things. I like that kind of community. I havent really been part of one since I eased out of the comic book subculture fifteen or so years ago, but I enjoy visiting them. Its like spending a few days with a very warm but rather peculiar family.
       Rituals are essential to geek families, especially in-jokes. The crowd didnt waste any time creating new ones for this festival. When Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress, introducing the first movie, made a reference to it being restored on 35 millimeter film, a smattering of applause broke out. He made some wisecrack about how no other audience would applaud the words “35 millimeter. This time the whole audience clapped. For the rest of the festival, assorted scholars and film restorers introducing the movies would milk “35 millimeter as a laugh and applause line. 
      The full, geeky, inspiring unity of the family came home to me, though, on Monday afternoon, the last day of the festival, as I approached the theater. Every geek family creates its own parent figures. In comics, we made Jack Kirby and Will Eisner our collective fathers, our demiurges and role models. For the community of silent-movie restorers, collectors, historians, and enthusiasts, the ur-father is Kevin Brownlow. He had started collecting silent reels as a boy in post-War London, when hardly anyone had any interest in the things. In 1968, his book, The Parades Passed By, essentially created silent-film history. Through the decades since, hes done more than anyone to find, rescue, and call attention to the films, culminating a few years ago in the restoration and international presentation of Abel Gances colossal Napoleon
       This was by no means the first time Brownlow had appeared on stage at the festival. Hes been there a few times, introducing movies and signing books, including last year. But this year, the 20th Anniversary year, his restoration of Ben Hur was scheduled as the concluding event. His name was invoked again and again as the festival went on. On the third night, when he came on stage to introduce Flesh and the Devil to a full house, he got a standing ovation. On the last night, before Ben Hur, he was interviewed on stage by Serge Bromberg, one of the younger heroes of film restoration. On the Castros marquee for that last day, Kevin Brownlow got the treatment that only stars and a few directors ever got in the heyday of the movie palaces: his name above the title.
       I love the movies at the festival. I love the music, I love the history, I love the theater, I love sharing it all with my friend Joe Filice (my annual companion and the only other person I know whos willing to spend Friday watching silent movies for thirteen hours straight, then come back to do it again Saturday and again Sunday). But I think what makes me set the days aside every year to immerse myself completely in the experience is the quality it has of an annual family reunion. A loose-knit and diverse family, formed around an uncommon passion, but, like all the best geek families, held together by love.
       


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

First Baby

Well, this is fun! Ive been running my Finding Your Story workshops at the San Francisco Writers Grotto for a few years, and Ive had some great experiences helping other writers pull their books together, but this is the first of those books to see print. Its from a smaller publisher, but its legit: on sale in bookstores and airports, carried by Ingram and other major distributors. Its a memoir, a funny and touching one, called Karma, Deception and a Pair of Red Ferraris, and its author, Elaine Taylor, was one of my favorite students. She came into my workshop with a lot of rich material and a determination to get the book written but not a clear enough focus on the direction, and I loved helping her zero in on the heart of the story. Its gratifying to see it all together in a real book, and to see that the storytelling is so strong. (And, of course, to see myself thanked in the acknowledgements.)
      The last couple of years Ive been emphasizing my own writing much more than my teaching and coaching, and I generally expect to keep going in that direction. I developed that “auxiliary career during a period when the writing was slow, when I was buried by the research and organization of whats finally evolved into the next book. But this does remind me of why I dont think Ill ever stop working with new writers. Its a lot more lively than being lost in my own narrative for days on end, and it makes me glad to see that someone has genuinely benefited from my help. And I have other past and present clients out there, clearly moving toward publication in both fiction and nonfiction. Its not quite like being a parent—actually writing my own book is the more parental jobbut a proud godparent, at least.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Mickey Rooney Memorial Newspaper Rack

This is one of those things that fascinates me but I cant really tell you why. There are a lot of newspaper vending boxes left empty in my neighborhood, as there are in most neighborhoods, installed years ago, when people still actually bought their news printed on paper, abandoned over the past few years. Some distributor or other sold USA Today in one of those boxes up until exactly one year ago. I know the date, because the last edition left in the rack never sold out, and the front page still sits there, fading and yellowing but faithfully announcing the NCAA Title Game, the continuing search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and the death of Mickey Rooney.



To tell the truth, “fading and yellowing” is a bit melodramatic, because, except for a loss of vividness in the red ink and a slight jaundice, its in remarkably good shape. I suppose thats because it has a northern exposure and faces a building across the sidewalk, which means it never gets any direct sunlight. Glancing at it in my peripheral vision, I might think it was todays paper, if I hadnt been so conscious of it for months as an accidental artifact. Ive been watching it, you see, recently beginning to hope it would make it for a full year. I dont know why that mattered, but it did. And I was strangely pleased this morning to discover that it had.


I suppose its Mickey Rooney, really. Ive always been kind of fascinated by him, by the bizarre American icon of Andy Hardy, by the frantic desperation in his performances during the decades of his long decline, by his sheer durability, by the fact that an actor whose first movie was a silent comedy starring Coleen Moore was still making movies in 2014. There was something significant about his death, not only the cutting of a string to a long-ago time but the final victory of time over a stubborn soul who fought harder than anybody who ever lived to stay in the spotlight. I like the fact that his death didnt just flicker away with the next edition of USA Today but that, in at least one vending machine, where I see it when Im walking the dog or going for coffee at Martha & Bros, its still a headline.



Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Emily Post's Guide to Etiquette and Transcontinental Highways

Last year I blogged about my tentative plans to drive the length of the Lincoln Highway on its 100th anniversary and write about it. That first designated automobile route across the breadth of North America has fascinated me for a long time, as an important element in American history, as a road I love to drive, and as an odd piece of my family history: my parents both grew up along it, 1000 miles apart, during its early heyday. 
     The year I counted as its 100th anniversary was 2015. The route had actually been laid out in 1913 (which is why the Lincoln Highway Association celebrated its centennial two years ago), but 1915 was the year that the first caravan of cars actually went the distance from New York to San Francisco. (Which the Lincoln Highway Association is also celebrating, in more muted form.) Last summer, my son and I took a driving trip from San Francisco to Chicago, and we covered some long stretches of the original road. I thought of that as sort of a scouting trip for the centennial.
     Sadly, Im not going to be able to make the drive this year. When I shelved The Undressing of America to write its prequel, I committed myself to a lot more workand meanwhile, Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson and I are getting rolling on Lost Hero. Next year, though, I should be able to make it work. Which means I can either change this to a 99th anniversary tribute...or, more satisfying to my sense of narrative, come up with something from 1916 that it can be the 100th anniversary of. And I think Ive got it.
     The hardy caravan of 1915 called attention to the highway, but people were not immediately convinced that this 3,389 mile drive over mountains and across deserts, much of it on dirt and gravel roads, was really a plausible undertaking for the normal American. It wasnt until the next year that ordinary vacationers began to work up the courage to try it and that the idea of a cross-country road truly became part of American culture. Specifically, July 1916 saw the publication of the first commercial travel book about the highway, By Motor to the Golden Gate, written by Emily Postwho was then just six years shy of becoming famous as the author of Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, the most popular and influential book ever about good manners.
     What especially appeals to me about this is that Emily Post figures (not significantly but, in her brief appearance, heroically) in my Undressing of America. That book is mostly about the early 20th century battles by a wide range of truth-tellers and free-speakers against the censorship and culture of reticence that had dominated American culture for decades, and very early in the century Emily Post struck a significant public blow against hypocrisy and shame. The whole story is pretty ornate, but its basically this: the sleazy publisher of a gossip magazine, who made more money by blackmailing New York socialites than with the magazine itself, threatened to expose Edwin Posts affairs with chorus girls unless he paid up. Post, who had squandered his own money on said chorus girls, rushed home to his wife Emily, whose father was rich, and begged her to pay the blackmail so his shenanigans wouldnt be publicized and humiliate them both. And Emily said, Fuck you.
     Well, she probably didn't literally say Fuck you, what with being the future queen of American etiquette and all. But in essence she said Fuck you. She called the cops, got the sleazy publisher arrested, publicly dumped Edwin for screwing around, and basically said that she didnt see why a woman should be shamed because her husband was a dick. Then she picked up her own career as a novelist and journalist, which eventually ended up with her and a couple of relatives driving the Lincoln Highway for Colliers magazine.
     So next year I hope to drive, as closely as possible, the length of the original Lincoln Highway, and then I hope to write about the road and what it says about America and how the country has changed in the last hundred yearsall of it at least partly in honor of the fearless Mrs. Post. And if I work things right, the book will come out in 2019, which happens to be the centennial of the highly publicized first US Army convoy along the road, the moment when the federal government gave its stamp of approval to the idea of national highways. And in that convoy was a very young Dwight D. Eisenhower...but thats the next part of the story.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Watership Down

A cool internet thing: About six years ago, while engaged in a conversation in the comments section of Farran Smith Nehmes wonderful film blog, Self-Styled Siren, I expressed my long-time fondness for Martin Rosens animated Watership Down. And somehow, when the people at the Criterion Collection were preparing their restoration of the movie last year, their fabulous editor Liz Helfgott discovered those remarks, buried deep in the Sirens archives, and asked me to write an essay of appreciation as the introduction to the DVD and Blu-Ray.  
       Which felt kind of miraculous, considering that the movie isnt just one I admire but one that holds a fairly meaningful place in my life. Heres an excerpt of my Criterion introduction, describing what I love about the movie and what it means in the context of my family. The full essay includes more behind-the-scenes filmographic stuff...but this is the essence of it.
 

When the British Board of Film Classification gave Watership Down a U for Universal, it opined that, although it “may move children emotionally during the film’s duration, it could not seriously trouble them once the spell of the story was broken.” It’s an opinion that has inspired a fair amount of derision over the years, and I understand why. This movie has troubled me ever since I first saw it—and I first saw it at twenty-one.
       In most ways, Watership Down is a children’s movie of the classic shape. A group of lovable characters are forced into a perilous journey, come up against a terrifying enemy, win an unexpected ally, and join together for a triumph against all odds. Its tone is earnest and muted, its rhythms gentle, its setting an English countryside of watercolor hedgerows and meadows warmed by flute and oboe. There’s violence in it, some blood, some pain, some brief but stabbing suspense. What’s most haunting about it, though, is also what sets it apart from nearly everything of its type: its sweet, sad wisdom about the nature of life in the shadow of death.
       That wisdom comes straight from the original novel by Richard Adams. More than any other writer of talking-animal fantasies, Adams was committed to letting his animals be animals, to postulating what life might feel like if experienced through a consciousness comparable to ours. His creatures don’t drive cars like Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad, they’re run over by them and left flat and bloody on the roadside. They then do their best to make sense of these murderous but indifferent hrududil based on what they know of the world, as we humans have always tried to do with our own symbols of death.
     Adams’s speculations reached beyond the intellectually amusing and touched on the genuinely profound when he asked what existence must feel like to not only a thumbless, burrowing quadruped but also a prey animal. What myths would we create, what philosophies of reconciliation would we embrace, if we were fitted by evolution or God to be yummy morsels for countless other creatures, able to survive only by running, hiding, and breeding rapidly? 
       To me, the most impressive thing about Martin Rosen’s adaptation of the book is the fact that he did not sacrifice that essential question. It would have been the easiest and most tempting of elements for a moviemaker to abandon, especially a moviemaker eyeing a “family” market. He could have used death only as a threat to the hero, a resolution for the villain, a tear-jerking mechanism, or a way of raising the plot stakes, as movies typically (cynically, reductively) use it. But he was brave enough to let it be what it was in the novel: a defining element of existence, an ever-present note of melancholy, the sleep that rounds our live
       Death is an emotional, visual, and philosophical presence in the story from the start. The most memorable and unusual character, and the one who does the most to drive the plot forward, is a trembly little rabbit named Fiver, who has visions of “something bad” coming—visions that we see as a flow of dark blood across the green meadow. When he and his friends flee through the wooded night, we follow their journey through the eyes of prey; it’s not just that a badger bursts from the brush to threaten them but that they are grateful to see that it has blood on its lips, proving that it has just killed some other small creature, because otherwise “it would have been faster.” When the group’s only female is taken suddenly by a predator, all the rest can do is move on more quietly.
      Their experiences subtly but steadily make us see the commonplaces of our own world as deadly dangers in theirs. That ordinary lump of roadkill in the foreground of the car scene reminds us disturbingly of our protagonists. The farm dog loose in the woods is no red-eyed Baskervillian monster but a goofy, floppy-tongued mutt who could well be the comic hero of some other cartoon. We catch on fast, however, that to our heroes, he represents a quick, bloody death.
       And then there’s the movie’s one musical interlude, a central moment in the narrative, when the ghostly image of the Black Rabbit of Death appears in the sky, and a song rises about that most terrible of mysteries. “Is it a kind of dream / Floating out on the tide / Following the river of death downstream? / Oh, is it a dream?”
       What keeps all this from being simply depressing—what makes it comforting, even—is that three-minute myth at the very beginning, before the credit sequence, before the first wistful notes of the theme music. Old-school funny-animal gags and Australian aboriginal art are pulled together in a telling of Adams’s lapine creation story that still hits with the freshness of a living myth. We laugh, but we also understand why the sun god Frith gave the rabbits “a thousand enemies,” why he made them speedsters and tricksters, why the Black Rabbit is not only to be feared but also to be welcomed.
       Watership Down delivers all the stuff of a solid animated adventure. Its visual style is naturalistic, even cautious, but often quietly lovely. There’s clever interplay among the nervous Fiver, the gently heroic Hazel, and the blowhard Bigwig. The climactic battle is ingenious and exciting. General Woundwort is one of the truly scary cartoon villains. That solidity gives us a comfortable place to stand while the story opens up to less familiar terrain.
       When I first saw the movie, my biggest disappointment was its hasty treatment of Cowslip’s warren, that haven of boundless carrots, empty burrows, and hints of unnamed wrongness that nearly snares our heroes early on. That was one of the best developed episodes of Adams’s novel, one that led us deep into an eerie culture of death and gave our heroes’ journey far more meaning, but here most of it was sacrificed to the conventional plot demands of popular cinema. Watching it again, though, I’m grateful that Rosen so clearly understood why losing the sequence entirely would have hurt still more. Although it’s only a brief pause between plot turns, Cowslip’s poem on the “dark journey” and “the silence” is the moment when we realize what this story is ultimately all about.
       The British Board of Film Classification drew a lot of heat for that U certificate, mostly from parents who learned the hard way that the idea that Watership Down could not trouble a child past the end of the movie was ridiculous. And ridiculous it is, but there’s also something a little ridiculous in the implication that a “family” movie should aspire to tell a story that children will promptly forget. What is most troubling (and haunting and moving) about this film is that it asks us to spend time with those elements of existence that we will always find most troubling (and haunting and moving), and that we so rarely allow our children’s culture or our own entertainment to dwell on. Because as much as we try to cajole our kids into assisting us in our own denial, as much as we use their fantasy lives as pretexts to create our own neverlands where we can pretend to forget what we know about life and death, the truth is—they know too.
       They understand very well what the brief lives of pets, the savage play of dogs and cats, and the meat on the family table signify. They know this whole thing is temporary. They know, and we know, that even the most arrogant, upright, thumb-wielding predators are no mightier than little Fiver and his friends when the Black Rabbit comes. My wife and I read Watership Down with our son when he was ten, and soon after we finished, we showed him this movie. Twelve years later, he still says it’s his favorite novel, and he still feels the movie does well by it. He admires it most because its makers were “willing to be dark.”
       That word dark is used a lot in movie talk, but usually to mean some combination of the self-consciously cynical and the manipulatively cruel. In the fantasy business, it’s worn as a badge of tough-mindedness and sophistication, although usually with that adolescent look-at-me-not-being-childlike pose. Few movies embrace the real dark the way this one does—the dark of night, of dreams, of sorrow and terror and peace. And, of course, it’s against that darkness that the light looks brightest. Which is why the bright moments of Watership Down can be so simple, so understated, and yet so transportive. It’s why the ending—which I won’t reveal but which you’ll know, long before the movie’s over, is inevitable and right—is as joyous as it is poignant. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

God, the Flesh, and America

I really like “The Undressing of America.” One of my personal favorites among the titles I’ve come up with for my own books. And titles I like aren’t easy to come by—I like “Men of Tomorrow” a lot, and so far “Lost Hero” feels good for the book Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson and I are starting to write. But “Killing Monsters” was one of those “best the editor and I could come up with before we ran out of time” titles, “The Comic Book Heroes” is fine but none too thrilling, and “The Beaver Papers” was the publisher’s suggestion, not bad when people still remembered the Pentagon Papers but not so evocative now. I’m fond of “The Trouble with Girls” because it’s such an odd match with the subject matter (and the subject matter is so odd), but it doesn’t have that perfect-title-for-the-project punch that’s always so nice to find.
      But “The Undressing of America” had that, and it had the additional appeal of coming to me slowly, after a series of other titles that never quite cut it. So I’ve clung hard to it, continuing to use it as the working title of this book even as the book evolved and evolved. I still think it’s the perfect title for that book.
      The trouble is, this book ain’t that book no more. It’s evolved so much over the years that it’s become an entirely different story, with a subject matter only partially overlapping the original’s. And that title, while still an intriguing set of words, no longer matches it. It’s like calling a creature Tyrannosaurus rex and thinking what an awesome name it is, but 65 million years later you discover it’s evolved into a house finch. It’s still a great name, but calling that bird stealing crumbs off your picnic table a Tyrannosaurus rex somehow just doesn’t...ring.
Tyrannosaurus rex
      I’d probably still be tempted to try to get away with using Undressing (and it does almost, kind of, work), except that I actually intend to finish that original book one of these days. I wrote a whole rough draft of it, after all, and polished up quite a bit of it. It’s still a very appealing story: a bodybuilder/health guru who accidentally creates the whole “true confessions” approach to publishing while fighting with Christian moral reformers for his right to show pictures of women doing calisthenics and so changes the course of modern media. (That’s a bit glib, but it’s more or less it.) It’s just that the current book, which started as a sort of prologue to that one, demanded to be finished and published first. The Undressing of America has become the perfect sequel.
      So I’m saving that title for the book it was meant for, which means I have to come up with a new one for this book. It’ll only be a working title, of course, because the editor and the marketing department and several other people will want to have some input into it before FSG commits to it. But I find working titles powerful. They shape what I’m thinking about the work, standing as a sort of micro-mission statement for the whole project, and they affect how I feel when I tell people about the book in progress. Saying a title I don’t like makes me feel lame, and saying I don’t have a title yet makes me feel lamer.  
Not
       To find my way toward a new title, I wrote a list of the things the book is most about. There are quite a few—media, morality, censorship, exposure, privacy, social reform, church vs. state—but there are three that, more than any others, drive what the people in the story do and send them into interesting collisions. There’s all that stuff about sex, desire, and the body, including prostitution, pornography, health education, and a lot else. There’s religion in all its forms (in which I include a certain kind of secular political idealism). And there’s the forming of the United States—politically, culturally, religiously, morally—in its first sixty or so years.
      Those are each boil-downable into quite a few pithy phrases, but I kept coming back to “the flesh” for the first. Broad in scope but with an archaism and a slightly Biblical edge that evokes the people and times I’m focusing on. For the second, I liked the monosyllabic punch of “God.” For the third, “America” felt a lot stronger and brighter than “the republic” or “the United States.
      I like three-word titles. They’ve been done to death, of course. Guns, Germs, and Steel is only the best of many, and now we're seeing a lot of the Elizabeth Gilbert variation: Noun, Noun Noun, no conjunction. But still, there’s something so intrinsically, almost biologically satisfying about the rhythm of three that I’d hate to abandon it just to seem different. I also like the flow of starting with a shorter word and building to something longer. All of which brought me to the title I’m calling this book by, starting today: God, the Flesh, and America
      And that’s the title I intend to keep calling it by until...well, until I change my mind. Or my editor talks me out of it. Which could be tomorrow or never. I have to admit, it doesn’t hit me with the instant on-the-nose perfection of The Undressing of America. But it does resonate strongly with the story I’m telling and the voice I’m using to tell it. It focuses me when I say it to myself, like a little mantra. And that’s the most important thing about a working title. That it helps me work.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Happy 125th, Old Man

One thing Ive learned about myself as a writer is that I cant write well about someone unless Ive come to care about them. Theres a process of building compassion and connection I have to go through thats not unlike the process of building a friendshipand unless I hang in with it, the story I tell is going to be too cool and too distant to make anyone care.
       Ive also learned that the strongest bonds are built (and I think this may be true in real-life as well as literary relationships) when Ive started off by misjudging the person. So it was with with Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, whom I initially dismissed as a colorful oddball who sort of accidentally founded DC Comics and so laid the foundation for the American comic-book industry. It was only after Men of Tomorrow came out that some of the Majors descendants, especially Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, made me see him as quite another person entirelya military hero and extraordinary non-conformist, a writer and liver of great adventures, and the true father of the comic book as we know it. A man worth writing a whole book about, in fact. Which is just what Nicky and I are doing now, with a book called Lost Hero.
      So it is with affection as well as respect that I wish the old man (as his family still calls him) a happy 125th birthday. He was born in another world, the Tennessee of 1890, but he went on to discover and build some things that are still vitally part of the world we know. He was a complex guy, capable of great invention and boldness but also of great overreaching and self-sabotage. He possessed extraordinary knowledge and competence in a wide range of fields, but at the same time a strange naïvété about how the world worked. But it was those contradictory qualities that make him, for me, worth caring about and writing about. I think they were also what enabled him to play such an important role in the complex and often contradictory history of popular culture.
      He never did get his due. His company was taken from him, right before the character he discovered, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shusters Superman, saw print. His role in history was buried and distorted by the people who took over the industry he founded, then neglected by generations of fans and historians (like me) who didnt yet realize how deep the roots of comic books run and how far they branch through the soil of American history. Discovering his life has helped me understand a great many things about my country and its culture, as well as about the medium in which I worked for so many years. Im remembering, today, that it will be good to give a little bit back to him by helping to tell his story to the world.