Thursday, October 1, 2015

Recommended Reading

Ive been fascinated by American cultural and social history for decades, but for most of my life my interest was focused on the decades after the First World War. I wrote books about comics and television that essentially started in the 1920s and ran on to the 1980s, sometimes beyond but never before. For most of my life Ive had a decent grasp of the historical matrix thats held jazz, Hollywood, comic books, sitcoms, hard-boiled fiction, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and S. J. Perelman.
       Then, about seven years ago, I set out to write a book called The Undressing of America that centered largely on the strange figure of Bernarr Macfadden, who created the “true story” genre that revolutionized mass publishing in the 20s. That required me to stretch my knowledge back to the days when he first made his transition from professional wrestler and body builder to publisher, the 1890s. As I worked on that, I came to realize that I also had to understand his great antagonist, the censor Anthony Comstock, which meant I had to become comfortable with the American culture of repression that bloomed in the wake of the Civil War. And then...well, one book led to another, and during the past couple of years, working on Nation of Faith & Flesh, Ive found myself deeply immersed in the 1820s and 30s.
       Its been a wonderful journey, and among the most enjoyable aspects of it have been the guides Ive enlisted. Within the great mountain of material Ive been reading, a few books have drawn me back again and again, and their authors have shaped my own narrative enormously. If you want to spend some rewarding hours exploring the strange cultural and social landscape of the so-called Jacksonian Era, Id say you cant go wrong with these:

The Murder of Helen Jewett. Patricia Cline Cohen uses the murder of a New York City prostitute in 1836 as the axis for a vivid portrait of a transformational moment in American sex roles, crime, justice, economics, and the press. This isnt an Erik Larson sort of journalistic narrative; Cohen takes us carefully through her process as a historian, piecing together portraits of people and institutions from elusive and fragmentary sources. But she makes her own detective work nearly as compelling as the crime and its aftermath.

City of Eros, by Timothy Gilfoyle, opens a wider lens on the same topic, reconstructing the whole social and cultural context of prostitution in New York through the 19th Century and into the 20th. This is a more classically academic book, moving steadily through its subject matter, full of hard data and charts. But Gilfoyle never loses sight of the human realities and day-to-day choices that supported and characterized the business of sex and made it such a revealing mirror of the above-ground elements of American history.

Helen Lefkowitz HorowitzRereading Sex may be my single favorite cultural or historical treatment of sex. Its what American studies should be but too rarely are: she doesnt lack a political point of view, but it never clouds her compassion for and understanding of the assorted parties fighting to define sex and morality in our still-forming republic.   Her focus is on the interplay of forces and ideas from the 1820s to 1840s that laid that foundation for so much of American culture ever since, specifically what she identifies as three distinct bodies of sexual understanding: the radical, the reform, and the one thats usually ignored, the “vernacular. But in writing about ideas, she never ceases to write about people. 
       Those three writers, Cohen, Gilfoyle, and Horowitz, also teamed up to edit The Flash Press, an anthology, with great background essays, of art and writing from a genre of newspapers for “sporting men in the 1840s that stand as a sort of fountainhead of all mens magazines and kicked off a significant component our still-unresolved censorship wars. 

The Kingdom of MatthiasPaul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz. Another murder case, this one from 1834, is the axis for a slim, lean, fast-moving story that nonetheless manages to convey a tremendous amount of information about aspects of religious passion, cultural conflict, and race relations in American history that are rarely discussed. It also has a great cast of characters and a kick-ass final line. 
       Sean Wilentz, on his own, wrote Chants Democratic, a compendious and revelatory book about American class relations and labor conflicts. It tracks the growth of working mens political movements in New York City in the first half of the 19th Century, but its focus is always (as it is with all the historical works I like best) on people in action, with all their contradictory messiness, and it treats political theory only in that human context. 
        Paul E. Johnson (not to be confused with the British Paul Johnson, as in Modern Times) has also written some superb books about the period on his own, my favorite of which has to be A Shopkeepers Millennium. There was a day when I never would have believed that a book about Presbyterian revivals in Rochester, New York 185 years ago would mean anything to me, but that just shows how young and foolish I was. Its got as much about the essence of American cultural history in it as any book Ive read.

The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum, isnt especially germane to what my book is about, but it taught me a lot about Americans and how we tick just by tracking the development of our modern Christmas, mostly in New York City in the first third of the 1800s. Ive never read a better exposition of our peculiar ways of using consumerism, holidays, and family sentimentality to shape our culture and our social classes (and usually without even knowing were doing it).
        In my own book, Ive made much more use of an earlier book by Nissenbaum, Sex, Diet and Debility in Jacksonian America. It centers on Sylvester Graham, a mostly forgotten but very significant (and wonderfully, bizarrely American) figure from our past, and it does an economical job of pulling together a wide range of individual and social threads: Jacksonian politics, market economics, physiological theory, diet fads, and the great masturbation panic of 1834.

These books are all still in print, and theyre by living authors who probably wouldn’t mind picking up some royalties. Get started on that Christmas list now! (Then read Stephen Nissenbaum on the origin of Christmas lists in the mercantile culture of Boston and New York during the “market revolution of the 1830s and '40s.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Under the Gun (Again)

So Im doing again what I swore I wouldnt do this time, the same thing I did on The Undressing of America, Men of Tomorrow, and Killing Monsters. Today is exactly four months before my publishers final, truly-drop-dead deadline for the first full draft of Nation of Faith and Flesh, and Im way behind where I want to be, so as of now I have to go deep into a hole where I can do nothing and think of nothing but getting the thing written.
       When this happened on Killing Monsters it was because Id delayed myself with my own brain, had a hard time pulling some of my arguments together well enough to suit me. When it happened on Men of Tomorrow, it was because Id made some late discoveries in my research that caused me to rework parts of the book heavily in the eleventh hour. When it happened on The Undressing of America, it was because I was still struggling to rein in what was becoming a too-sprawling story (which ultimately, as previous posts have discussed, led to me shelving that book for a while and writing this one instead).
       This time I thought Id avoided all those problems. I had the shape and scope of the book clearly in my head, and although I still have some research holes to fill in Ive been thorough enough to feel safe that there are no book-changing discoveries out there waiting to be made. I was ready for a diligent but steady, sanely paced march to the end of the book. Then my wife and I decided to sell our house and move. That knocked about three full months out of my work schedule. And here I am again.
       Heres where a psychologist would say that Im obviously creating these situations myself, that I must hold some core belief that I cant actually finish a book unless I create a panic situation at the end. But you know what? I dont have time for psychology. I’m on deadline.
       So deep I go again. For four months, Ill lay off social media, see no students or clients, go to no book readings or comics conventions, answer all my wifes questions with “uh-huh,” and refuse to think about anything that couldnt have been found in New York City in 1836.
       Oh, but with exceptions, of course. Life will never stop demanding exceptions. I have a new book being published next month, My Pal Splendid Man, another humor collaboration with Will Jacobs, so Ill pop my head up briefly to acknowledge its release. But even there Ive told the publisher that I wont be able to help with promotion until February. And Ill still be helping move the next book forward, Lost Hero, although Ive had to ask my cowriter Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson to carry nearly the whole load herself for the next few months (and to please not hate me too much).
       Wish me luck if youre so inclined. I hope to climb back out of this hole with a good book clenched on my weary fist. Or, at the very least, a whole book.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

109 rejections and just one lousy career

One of my writing students-cum-clients, Miranda Maney, having recently finished her first Young Adult novel (an ingenious, hilarious Young Adult novel) and begun the dreaded quest for an agent, asked me to tell her my “how I got my agent story. Instead of answering her question in a thoughtful and useful manner (which would have robbed me of at least ten valuable minutes, never to be recovered) I linked her to this:


This is me at the inaugural presentation of the now notorious Regreturature, a celebration of embarrassing juvenilia read by writers who have since gone on to make something of themselves (something less embarrassing, one hopes) put on by the San Francisco Writers Grotto and LitCrawl. What I’m reading is the query letter that I and my collaborator Will Jacobs sent out to agents in 1981, when we were young and brash and arrogantly stupid. Coming off years of having all our books rejected, we had decided to go for broke and pitch nine books at once (three of which we hadn't even written yet) to every agent we could find. And every one of those nine pitches was grotesquely overdone.

      Miranda found it ridiculous and funny, just as she was supposed to, but she also said something that put a new spin on it for me. Because part of what I relate in the video is that we sent a letter to 110 agents and got only one positive response. Which, taken as a numerical fact, sounds like it should have been dismal and ego-deflating...except that that one agent agreed to represent one of the books we were pitching, The Beaver Papers. Then she sold it to a publisher, then it came out and sold pretty well. Which led to the sale of a second book to the same publisher, The Comic Book Heroes, which is what got me into writing both comics (and from them, screenplays) and nonfiction about popular culture, which between them comprise the big, two-hearted river of my whole career. 
     So Miranda said, “This should be an inspirational ‘keep trying’ video that everyone shares on Twitter for discouraged people.”
       Im dubious about the Twitter thing, because you actually have to watch eight whole minutes of my humiliating self-evisceration before you get to the inspirational part. But I get what she’s saying. 
       Honestly, I’m not sure what concrete advice I should pull out of this experience. If you’re not getting anywhere doing what you think youre supposed to do something ridiculous? Do something you’ll make people cringe and laugh at decades later? Or maybe something. Then do another something. And another something. And another something. Until one of those somethings actually turns into something.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Nation of Faith & Flesh

A few months ago I wrote about about how Id come up with “God, the Flesh & America as the working title for my book in progress. The more it rolled around in my head, though, the more it annoyed me. There are just too many of those noun-noun-conjunction-noun titles. The book Im writing is pretty unusual, has a distinct voice and rhythm, and I didnt want to lock it implicitly into a too-familiar nonfiction beat. It also just didn't seem to catch the essence of the story I was telling.
      I thought about single-noun phrases, but then I realized that that would never work, because the book is essentially about conflicting cultural forces, about theses and antitheses. It needs a dyad, a pair of nouns squaring off against each other. But it also needs a synthesis, an umbrella noun to hold the conflict. A third noun, but not a simple serial.
       So now Im calling it Nation of Faith & Flesh. Which is almost noun-noun-conjunction-noun, except its actually noun-preposition-noun-conjunction-noun. And the addition of that preposition changes the whole thing, not only the rhythm but the topography, as the last two nouns lie under the first, as modifiers, rather than just rolling along in sequence. Its a story primarily about a nation, the way a national identity rose from the interplay and opposition of two distinct moral and ideological spheres. Which is more what Im writing about. (And for claritys sake, Im adding the subtitle, The Moral War That Shaped America.)
      I could still change my mind, of course. Or someone at FSG could change my mind for me. But right now its saying what I want to say to myself about the story Im telling. And at this point, thats what a working title should be: not a marketing hook, which can wait until the book is done, but a way of reminding myself what Im saying.

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.