Sleepy Hollow West

You’ve got to admire those who are determined to be writers on their own terms.  As someone who’s tried and tried again to break into even indie presses, I know few established publishers will even consider fiction from someone who’s not already established.  As my regular readers know, I’ve been reading a lot about the Legend of Sleepy Hollow lately.  So I came across Austin Dragon’s Hollow Blood.  Part of a two-volume novel set, the story takes a creative approach while retaining several of the original characters, even having clever nods now and again to the wording in the original.  Although clearly self-published, Dragon is able to let his imagination go on this one.  Julian Crane, Ichabod’s nephew, is out to avenge his uncle’s death.

In Sleepy Hollow he confronts Brom Bones with the crime, but wrongly.  It turns out that the Marshal—there are elements of the old west in this too, with cowboys and showdowns—knows where Crane has settled and offers to take the nephew to him.  So unfolds a story that feels a bit more like a western than a horror story at points.  I don’t want to give away too much since Dragon, like most of those who make their living by writing, needs to move copies to stay solvent.  The thing is, Sleepy Hollow seems to be an evergreen subject.  America keeps coming back to it.  Many writers try to take it on as the basis for more modern reboots.  Of course, I have to read the second volume to find out how it really ends.

I can’t help but think that the internet has made it difficult for writers by allowing anyone to establish him or herself as one.  If you can build a fan base, you can make a living at it.  The publishing industry faces problems of its own, of course.  Paper shortages are a problem.  Not only the pandemic, but the assumption that ebooks were going to spell the death of print led paper mills to cut production.  Funny thing—print has been seeing a resurgence of interest.  Large media seems surprised, scratching its metaphoric head and saying “People like actual books—who knew?”  But I digress.  The simple tale of a love triangle in the 1790s with a ghost on the loose has spawned a great number of offspring.  Some published the traditional way, and others on a writer’s own terms.  It’s a story worth the retelling.


Hiding What?

Who are we?  Do we really show ourselves to others, or do we wear masks?  That question applies to horror films as well as to everyday life.  Alexandra Heller-Nicholas addresses this directly in the former context in Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces.  As I write about horror films, peer reviewers suggest these more technical studies as means of adding depth to my analysis.  Most of them are revised dissertations and retain the academic language that makes such documents difficult to read in places.  Still, they contain a lot of insight.  I learned a lot from Heller-Nicholas and I was particularly impressed that she took the “shamanic imagination” as her approach to the films she analyzes.  The ritual aspect makes good use of religion and horror connections.  It’s nice to see this catching on.

Masks are more than disguises.  Yes, there’s something theatrical to them and there’s a great deal of ritual to theater.  Ritual and religion aren’t identical, but they are clearly related.  Often masks are discussed as simply a way of hiding a killer’s face.  There’s quite a lot more to it.  This is where the academic analysis comes in.  We can’t explore it in detail in the brief context of this post, but there’s a whole book out there to read on it.  Heller-Nicholas doesn’t feel constrained to major movie releases.  I did that in Holy Horror because I supposed more people would be interested in reading about movies they’d actually seen (most of them anyway).  There are a lot more examples out there.  I’m learning about more all the time.

There are many different masks in horror.  This book looks at several, some metaphorical, but most literal, and what they convey.  Or conceal.  The fact is we mask ourselves for many reasons.  It’s kind of like when we dream—our subconscious seems to know more about who we are than our waking minds do, and we really don’t share our dreams with others.  The mask in horror isn’t worn just by killers.  When it is, however, it often has a shamanic effect, or, as Heller-Nicholas points out, a trickster aspect.  This is very much like how anthropologists approach shamans in traditional societies.  Religious specialists are often tricksters and they provide an important element in cultures that are otherwise beset by rules.  Rationality is important, but so is letting go of it once in a while.  Shamans get away with things the average person can’t.  And it is just one of many masks we wear all the time.


Fictional Truth

In honor of Banned Book Week I read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Funny and poignant, it tells the story of Arnold Spirit Junior, a Spokane tribe boy on the reservation.  Born with a disability, he nevertheless overcomes adversity to become both a good student and excellent basketball player.  I suppose you’d classify this as young adult literature since the protagonist is a teen and many of the issues are those of kids in that age group.  Although it’s funny, and the illustrations underscore this, there’s a realism that account for various people wishing to ban it.  First of all, it reminds readers that white men put Indians on reservations and, despite our national guilt about this, we still refuse to do anything to try to lift them out of poverty.  And, like most boys his age, Junior likes to talk about sex once in a while.

Fiction can be the most nonfictional form of writing.  Junior describes the realities of reservation life.  Alcoholism, poverty, and violence are part of his everyday experience.  He attends far more funerals than his white counterparts.  This particular point gave me pause.  A New York Times article that appeared pointed out, statistically, that American Indians had much higher death rates from Covid than many other demographics.  It was like the genocidal introduction of European diseases during the “age of discovery.”  I suppose people would’ve grown curious and explored their world, regardless of the distorted Christian belief that they were to take it over.  At least we could’ve treated those we met with respect, as equals.

I think about the missionary mandate quite a lot.  Based on an undying literalism, it became an excuse for behaviors explicitly condemned by Scripture itself.  There’s a real danger when conviction comes with guns.  At least modern-day missionaries try to help those they’re attempting to convert with hospitals and medical care.  Still, that doesn’t help the American Indians.  They still struggle and our policies still ignore their problems.  Their plight stands in the way of capitalistic exploitation.  And when an Indian writes a fun book, honest about the experience of his people white critics begin to raise their voices to ban it.  How do we think the situation of the Indians will ever improve if we refuse to listen?  And what better time to get people to listen but when they’re young enough not to have been corrupted by our system of entrenched unfair treatment?


Express Yourself

Do you ever get excited by an idea only to be let down when it comes to the execution?  I suspect that’s a standard human experience.  For me it often happens with books.  Especially academic books.  I get excited about the ideas that are sure to be lurking between the covers only to discover that the author has unimaginatively fallen into bad academic habits, such as “scholar A says, but scholar B says.”  Just tell me what you say!  Reflecting on this I realize that building a case has become conflated with taking a test.  A doctoral dissertation is a years’ long test.  Your ideas are being compared to those who’ve gone before you—the fact that they’ve published has proven that—and you are expected to show your work.  Did you read Smith?  Have you struggled with Jones?  Is Anderson in more than just your bibliography?

This kind of extended citation leads to turgid writing that slays any interest in the subject by the end of page one.  I’m not alone in this critique.  Some famous academics, such as Steven Pinker, have noted this.  In a not nearly frequently enough cited article, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” Pinker lays out the bad habits that get perpetuated throughout the modern academy.  It comes down to, in my humble opinion, the fear of the exam.  Test anxiety.  Recently my draft of The Wicker Man came back from peer review.  While the comments of the reviewers were helpful, and quite complimentary, they felt there should be more academic dialogue going on.  I push back at this: if you don’t believe I’ve done the research, why approve the book for publication?  Most academic writing stinks and there’s no reason it should.

I’m a slow reader.  My average rate is about 20 pages per hour.  I know this because my morning routine sets aside about an hour for reading each day, and I note how many pages I consume.  Lately some of the academic books I’ve read have hobbled me down to 10 pages per hour.  I keep waiting for the narrative flow to kick in, something that I can follow and absorb.  Instead I’m learning what everybody else, often except the author, thinks about each minute point of his or her thesis.  Please, just tell me what you think!  I trust that you’ve done the research.  You wouldn’t have been granted a doctorate if you hadn’t.  The last thing I would want from my, admittedly few, readers is for them to close my book and say, “I’d rather be reading something else.”


Novelization

It must be both difficult and easy writing the novelization of a movie.  I suppose it depends on the movie as well.  Sleepy Hollow is a film based on a story already, but Washington Irving’s tale isn’t a novel and the movie was a collaboration between Irving’s original, re-envisioned by Kevin Yagher, Andrew Kevin Walker, and Tim Burton.  The novelization was done by Peter Lerangis and it, naturally enough, follows the movie.  As a novelizer, however, you need to try to make sense of some scenes where a film only implies what’s going on.  Now, in this case I’ve seen the movie many times and any deviations come across as “that’s not the way it goes” moments.  Still, it’s competently done.  It  even helped me make sense out of some things that had me puzzled since the start of the millennium.

In the “book or movie” debate I tend to think a book should be read first.  Sometimes it should go the other way around.  Novelizations are, of course, intended to increase the profits for a film.  You’ve got the box office take, and if there are advertising tie-ins or other merch, you can add to the haul.  A novelization can also help.  In this case, the movie has a somewhat complex plot with revenge and double-crossing, and so a novel helps to make all that clear.  However, when the novelist asks you to accept what a character is thinking you may have already come up with your own ideas on that point and any postmodernist would tell you that your opinion is just as valid as that of the writer.

Movie scripts tend to be a bit short for novels—if the movie isn’t based on a novel, of course—and sometimes extra material is needed.  This novelization includes the public domain story by Irving as well, even though the movie completely recasts all the characters into unfamiliar roles.  Brom, for example, is a minor part, whereas Katrina is a witch and Ichabod a constable from New York City.  All of that having been said, there really aren’t many surprises here.  I read this because I’m interested in the life of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Its many retelling and re-envisionings.  The original story was published less than fifty years after American independence and has memories closer to the time.  It tells us something of what it was like in those early days.  And this novel both retells and redacts a movie already a couple decades old itself.


Banning Together

Banned Book Week starts today.  As the political situation in this country continues to deteriorate into a Republican fascination with fascism, we find books challenged and banned for suggesting real fascists were anything other than nice, white boys misunderstood.  It will take decades, if not another World War to undo the damage Trump unleashed.  Instead of sitting in my corner worrying about the future, I read.  Banned books make up quite a bit of my reading, but I do try to read one every September intentionally in honor of the occasion of Banned Book Week.  It’s misguided to suggest children shouldn’t grow up.  A deep-seated fear of education reveals the hypocrisy at the very heart of book banning.  Adults should know better.  They should read.

I love America, but nationalism is poison.  Just like those who believe that only their religion can be right, many believe only their nation can.  Divide that up among the almost 200 nations of the world, with individuals in each thinking this way, and conflict logically arises.  Those who look at other cultures—read about them—and try to understand them, realize we each have our own way.  One of the major problems is that capitalism insists all must trade and barter the way that we do.  We think of people in terms of their “net worth”—which is, in reality, infinite—and want to know who owns more and is therefore more powerful.  Lackeys will always follow the wealthy, kissing posteriors and professing loyalty until they have enough of their own to challenge the more wealthy.  It’s enough to send any Bible-reader back to Ecclesiastes.

Books have stirred up ideas ever since they were invented.  The Bible wasn’t the first book, but it too appears on Banned Book lists.  Many of those who thump it read it with the acumen of a kindergartener.  That’s not why it’s sometimes banned, however.  It is full of sex and violence.  The bits about love and hope are far outweighed by it.  Books contain ideas and ideas will get out.  There’s a reason I surround myself with books.  They are a strange sort of castle that invites others in even as it protects.  It’s not comfortable to challenge the way that you think, but nothing fascinates like a new idea taking root and growing.  One of the best ways to meet people far distant and explore the way they think is to read.  Banning reflects our small-mindedness, and even worse, our desire to keep that small-mindedness intact.


Scary Holidays

One of the real wonder of books is that they can spawn ideas outside their specific topics.  While revised dissertations can be somewhat difficult to read, Derek Johnston’s Haunted Seasons: Television Ghost Stories for Christmas and Horror for Halloween contains quite a few such moments of birthing ideas.  While being largely British-focused, it nevertheless explores holiday horror, a phenomenon that I’ve been researching for some time.  Not really a television watcher (not any more—as a child things were quite different), I don’t really keep up with many programs.  Still, I learned a lot from this book.  One of the main questions it addresses is something I’ve long wondered about—why is there a connection between Christmas and ghost stories in England?

Johnston points out that Celtic areas tended to have Halloween or its precursors to supply an occasion for otherworldly thinking.  The English, not wanting to think of themselves as these outer-lying cultures (I’m simplifying and abstracting a bit here), developed their own tradition of the Christmas ghost story.  It pre-dates Dickens and probably goes far enough back in history that there’s no way to trace it.  Telling ghost stories around the shortest day of the year makes its own sense.  Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was perhaps the most famous example, but M. R. James’ habit of telling ghost stories (later published) to students and fellow enthusiasts on Christmas Eve also plays into it.  In Britain this led to a series of BBC Ghost Story for Christmas shows.  Meanwhile, in America, where there was quite a lot of Celtic immigration, a taste for Halloween grew.

There are so many ideas that swirl around holidays.  I’ve been exploring the topic for nearly two decades now.  Publishers, always with their eyes on the bottom line, don’t produce much like this, figuring people will only buy it one season a year, and for books that means usually the first year only.  Some people (yours truly, for one) will buy books about holidays out of season.  So much of life is preparing for special times.  I suspect that ancient people also fell into humdrum daily existences also.  Humans require stimulation, we like variety and novelty.  Holidays are a great solution—they don’t occur every day.  If they did they wouldn’t be special.  They bring something different into our workaday world and, in modern times especially, we brand them so that each one is at least slightly different.  I don’t mind seeing the seasonal displays so early in the stores—it reminds me that haunted seasons are just around the corner.


First Choice

One of the first things I do when I finish a book, unless I know about the author already, is ecosia (google) her or him.  I want to know who it is that wrote this, and the internet’s right there!  So it came as a surprise to see my first (two-star) review for Nightmares with the Bible on Amazon, where the reviewer did no follow-up.  The reviewer is quite upset that I don’t take the Bible literally, but at least s/he bothered to leave a review.  A more positive rating might bring me up to three stars, but I’ve failed classes before.  I’m a big boy, I can handle it.  In any case, if you ecosia me you’ll quickly come upon this humble website that’ll tell you what you need to know.  No, I am no longer a Fundamentalist.  And the book was about demons in movies.  (I was actually searching for reviews of the series.)

I scrolled down.  The named reviews solicited for the book I knew, so I was surprised, and delighted, that further down the page I had a Choice review.  Even a disgruntled evangelical couldn’t bring me down after that!  In case you’re not a librarian, or an academic publisher, Choice is THE periodical librarians use for deciding on which books to buy.  It is very difficult to get a review in it—I work at a prestige publisher and seldom see our books in there.  If you’re a trade author that’s not so important, but if the only sales, or majority of sales, are for libraries, to get a “recommended” status is a big deal.  That’s worth celebrating.

If you’re wondering, authors do not get notified of reviews.  Some editors will let them know (my editor at McFarland hasn’t been in touch for years).  The journals are too busy doing what journals do to send every author a copy of their review.  So I swung by Amazon’s Holy Horror page.  I’ve got four ratings there now, mostly on the lower end of the scale.  If you’ve read it and liked it (not something I assume, of course) a nice review would go a long way.  Disgruntled evangelicals (aren’t they all, these days?) may make the books look bad, but colleagues who’ve read them seem to think differently.  I hold to the publishing adage that there’s no such thing as a bad review, but good reviews feel so pleasant.  I’ve only written one negative book review in my life, and that was because I felt any other would be utterly dishonest in that particular case.  It’s a choice I make because of the Bible: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”


Social Horror

Some books get you thinking in ways you don’t expect.  That’s one of the pleasures of reading.  Lindsey Decker’s Transnationalism and Genre Hybridity in New British Horror Cinema may sound terribly specific—there are a lot of qualifiers in that title—but it actually has some very broad implications.  I was reading it specifically from the horror angle for a project I’m currently working on, but I was surprised at the social commentary I found while doing so.  One of Decker’s main ideas is to show that British horror is, well, transnational while maintaining its Britishness.  She focuses mainly on five films in the book, only two of which I’ve seen.  Very aware of the history of British cinema, she points out many characteristic features and situations that make British horror what it is.

The social commentary comes in when discussing “hoodie” horror films.  These are movies showing how the working class, particularly the youth, are dangerous and anti-society.  The more I read the more it occurred to me that imperialist, capitalist systems are built on the corpses of the poor.  Even good kids from bad situations have difficulty getting ahead in life and those above them on the “social ladder” more or less despise them and make policies to keep them in poverty.  This leads to anger and resentment, and often, in reality, this spills over into violence.  It all comes down to those who benefit from the system refusing to make it more equitable.  When the inevitable happens—those pressured without sufficient means boil over—they are blamed for their own circumstances.

Having grown up in a working class system and having struggled all my life to somehow maintain a comfortable existence for my family, I know the kinds of obstacles faced.  In my particular case, retirement is not a likely outcome.  I’ve worked, except for (and often even) when I was in higher education, since fourteen.  I’ve seen others with connections, educated parents or influential friends, get ahead.  I’ve also watched while many of us get shunted aside because, well, who are you?  Some people wonder why I watch horror.  There are many reasons for it, and at times I think maybe I’ve seen enough.  But then I look around at the corpse-strewn foundations of our current system and I see how reality plays into that fear.  Decker, I’m pretty sure, was meaning for her words to apply to mainly the fiction of horror, but there was a different kind of hybridity there as well, at least for me.


The Truth, for Free

The Book of Common Prayer, reaching back to my Anglican days, is and always has been in the public domain.  Although the poetic language and culturally relevant phrases could by charged for use, they’re not.  The idea seems right-headed to me.  Although the Church of England, like many other religious bodies, has its own specific theology and approach to things, which it believes is right, as opposed to all other belief systems, it shows its conviction in making its sacred text free.  Copyright exists to protect intellectual property.  If an individual or an institution, or a company, creates something, copyright assures them that nobody else can monetize it without the creator’s permission, and often such permission involves a royalty.  The C of E has foregone that.  Print away!

I tarried many years among the Episcopalians before it became clear to me that I wasn’t exactly the kind of saint they were looking for.  I’ve had to move on, but I very deeply appreciate the integrity of an institution that says, “I made this, but you can have it.  I really believe in it.”  If you’ve decided to print and sell religious books, however, beware the Bible.  Most of the common translations in circulation (apart from the good old King James) are covered by copyright.  Unlike the Church of England, the bodies that sponsor Bible translations expect to be paid for the use of said translation.  This is, in part, a business decision.  They have valuable property—for many the keys of salvation itself—and if you want it you should be willing to pay for it.

This contrast has often struck me as very odd.  How capitalist religion has become!  In what do Bible translating bodies really believe?  Believe me, I know that any large publishing effort requires a lot of work.  Resources.  Still, those who do the translating generally have church or university jobs.  They’ve already got a steady stream of income, no?  And yet they will expect to be paid their billed hours for bringing the truth to the world.  I’m not a good investment thinker.  Money doesn’t really motivate me.  This is one of the reasons I have tried several times to find acceptance as a clergy person.  My values seem out of sync with the rest of the world.  I even bothered to learn the original languages in which the Bible was written, the better to read, mark, and inwardly digest them.  Still, I wonder if those who truly believe would not feel more authentic giving away all they have in order to attain the kingdom of Heaven.


The Time Is Nigh

Although I have many authors I like to read, I haven’t fully explored the oeuvre of many.  I’m an eclectic reader and I’m also often limited by bookstores as to what I pick up.  I’ve read Shirley Jackson’s two biggest successes, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as well as her famous short story, “The Lottery.”  I knew she had written much else, but I couldn’t really tell you what.  When I go into a small, independent bookstore I hate to leave with nothing, and seeing Jackson’s The Sundial on the shelf, I decided to give it a try.  In some ways it was quite a departure from her usual style in that it is openly humorous.  Nevertheless, it’s clear that this is the same thinker who gave us the Castle.

Plotwise, the story is about anticipating the end of the world.  The Halloran family lives in a large mansion on the money made by the original patriarch,  but is beset by interpersonal issues.  A wealthy family, there are at least three contenders for control of the fortune.  When one of the family members has a premonition about the end of the world, they come to believe it and prepare for the event with personality quirks becoming more and more pronounced as they realize the only people that are going to be left to judge them will be themselves.  Various guests stop by and the matriarch decides on who might stay, and survive, and who must go.  A group of twelve, including two domestics, is finally settled upon.

As with all Jackson novels, there are layers here.  Things to think about.  One of the funny scenarios involves the goodhearted maid—perhaps the most innocent of all the survivors—revealing to a local villager what’s about to happen.  Not believing her, he refers her to a group of religious believers that have come to a similar conclusion.  This leads to a meeting between the matriarch of the Halloran family and the leaders of the religious group.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that their versions of the end of all things are different, and Mrs. Halloran turns them away since she can’t relinquish her secular beliefs about the matter.  As the time grows closer, the reader is drawn in by the conviction of those in the house.  Their isolation and reflections on life with no other people beyond themselves grows in intensity.  After putting the book down a sense of doom lingers.  And that, it seems, is what Shirley Jackson is very capable of doing, even if in a comedic gothic setting.


Headlines

I see many headlines in a day.  One from Book Riot caught my attention with its linked story on BoingBoing.  This particular story is poignant and points to the ridiculous polarization politicians are stoking to play for our votes.  (I swear, politicians should be made into their own country so they can ruin their own lives without affecting the rest of us.)  This headline deals with the remarkable person George Dawson.  The son of a farmer, and descendant of slaves, Dawson made a living as a laborer in Texas.  His life was probably no more noteworthy than those of many other working-class individuals, but Dawson had a story to tell.  Illiterate, he learned to read at the age of 98—let that sink in.  At two years shy of a century he decided to improve his life.  He subsequently wrote a memoir, Life Is So Good.  So far, so good.

For reading, not banning!

His story was so inspirational that the Carroll Independent School District named a middle school for him.  He became a adult “poster child” for literacy.  Now, here’s where the headline comes in.  The very school that is named after him is trying to ban his book.  As part of the reactionary Republican response to race relations, politicians—local and national—are trying to rewrite American history so the white guy is always right.  Always good.  Always Christian.  Always moral.  It doesn’t matter how many times he cheats on his wife and his taxes, he is the paragon of virtue and respectability.  To suggest that he promoted slavery and treated Black people as property and beat and lynched and left them in poverty, well, that’s just too powerful of a pill to swallow.

Banned Book Week begins this month, on the 18th.  Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book in honor of the occasion.  Censorship has been on the playlist of fascists from the beginning.  Propaganda works.  All you need to do is use emotional appeal to short-circuit the rational faculties and then laugh all the way to the bank.  Slavery?  What’s slavery?  Do you mean to suggest that white men used slaves?  Poppycock.  We have always been as upright with the same moral rectitude as the Donald.  And the Ronald.  And all white men who stand under the big R.  Pay no attention to the Black man who learned to read at an age when most of us are dead.  Is that such a big deal?  What need do you have to read when Fox News can provide all the (mis)information you need?


Wicker Back

The dilemma of my eclectic interests sometimes runs up against the natural slowness of publishing.  My book on The Wicker Man has been given the green light by Auteur Publishing and should be out next year.  I just received the readers’ reports and they were positive enough to make me blush.  The thing is, I submitted the manuscript back in January and I’ve nearly finished writing my next book since then.  It’s on a different topic for which I’ve been collecting sources since January.  I really hope this next one won’t publish with an academic press.  The endless rounds of revision from peer review can wear a body out.  Reviewers, you see, have university jobs.  Libraries at their fingertips.  Sabbaticals.  (I work with authors who won’t write unless they have one of the latter.) Now my reading shifts back to Summerisle.

For those of us with 925s that get a paltry number of holidays per year (which are spent holidaying) and paid like most working stiffs, with no academic library access, this can present somewhat of a challenge.  I see peer reviews all the time.  Academics so deeply into the subject that they don’t (can’t) think of the practicalities.  When I see a reviewer write that a book is ready for publication, but if the author could only restructure the whole thing and approach it from this angle instead… I have to chuckle.  During my teaching career I worked in situations that didn’t allow for sabbaticals.  Even among academia those given such rare benefits are privileged.  It’s a wonder that so many books get written, all things considered.

Like waking from a dream world, I suddenly have to downshift to a previous project.  I haven’t really thought much about the Wicker Man since January.  My next book, which is eclectic, has been slowly gestating over the months.  My reading has been geared towards it and is financed personally.  I’ve tried contacting the local college and university libraries.  I can’t borrow, or do inter-library loan, so the weird resources I need I have to buy.  Preferably used.  One thing reviewers like to do is point out new resources.  And yes, I have to agree that my argument would be stronger with them.  I have a strategy to the way I write my books, now that I’ve found a receptive readership, so none of this is mishap, I hope.  (Ironically, now I get quite a few readers of my revised dissertation asking me questions about ancient West Asian studies.)  That trireme paddled from shore long ago.  I’ve moved my current project to another burner, and you’ll be hearing more about The Wicker Man in coming weeks.  Next year is the film’s fiftieth anniversary, so I have a deadline that I just can’t miss. It’s time to get reacquainted with an old friend.


The Burton of Thought

I haven’t seen all of his films.  Some of them I have seen I didn’t really like.  When Tim Burton does strike a chord, however, he does so hard.  Burton on Burton is one of a series of books of interviews with directors.  This one covers all of Burton’s films up to Corpse Bride with free-ranging answers to what are really more remarks than questions.  (The book is edited by Mark Salisbury.)  Although I’ve not experienced his entire oeuvre, it’s pretty clear that I share quite a few sensibilities with Burton.  He expresses that what he’s looking for in movies is feeling.  A good plot helps, but it’s the emotion he’s after.  And he knows that the dark isn’t bad.  At many points I had to shake my head and say, “I thought I was the only one who thought like that.”

This memoir is also full of information on the way movies get made—not the technical side, but from the studio or creative side.  Someone has an idea.  It may be original or it may be an adaptation of a well-known tale.  Sometimes, especially in Burton originals, they begin as a series of sketches.  Anybody who’s watched DVD extras knows about storyboarding.  A movie is sometimes laid out in a series of cards that show, step-by-step, the action.  Before that, or maybe during, a script is written.  In order to get funded—for all this costs money—a studio or production company has to pick up the concept.  The person pitching it might be a screenwriter or a potential director.  And, as in every avenue of life, money talks.  Once you’ve had a breakout success they start to pay attention to you.

Although Burton and I grew up with similar outlooks, he notes that he never did like to read.  Being a visual artist (he got his start at Disney), that’s perhaps no surprise.  You start to realize, once you get a sense of the number of people involved, why film credits go on and on.  It takes a village to make a movie.  Not only that, directors may be involved with several projects simultaneously.  That’s not so different from being an (unofficial) writer, I suppose.  At any one time, from my experience, I’ve got at least a half-dozen projects going.  Some will never be finished, most will never be published.  And who knows?  Maybe someday one of my fiction stories might catch a sympathetic (or perhaps simply pathetic) director’s eye?  In the meantime, we go on creating.


Aging Writers

The fact that V. C. Andrews didn’t have any success as a novelist until her late fifties (a benchmark that has already slipped for me), gives me hope.  Another thing I didn’t realize about Cleo Virginia Andrews is that she was confined to a wheelchair.  She didn’t want that fact advertised and she didn’t want peoples’ pity.  She wanted to write.  Many of the books published under her name were ideas she had but that were only brought to fruition by others after her death.  She became a legacy.  Writers are fascinating people.  I only recently learned that Anne Rice was transgender.  I had assumed from her public persona something that I had taken for granted.  Gender is a complex thing, no matter how loudly religions shout.  The sheer number of people born intersex should make that obvious.

Writers express the human experience.  Some perspectives aren’t really considered worth pursuing, as I know from personal experience.  But learning about writers’ lives always gives me hope.  There are those whose lives will always contain mystery—was Washington Irving homosexual or just inept with women?  What really happened to Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore?  Who was Homer, really?  No matter how much those of us inclined to write do so, there are still huge swaths of life that are left off the page.  (Much of it boring, spent at work, or mowing the lawn.  I try to imagine Herman Melville on a riding mower, but I just can’t do it.)  Writing successfully involves a publisher or agent willing to take a chance on you.  But if you’re old enough to be a one-hit wonder (sorry John Kennedy Toole), they don’t see dollar signs down the road, so move on down to the next door, please.

I had a novel under contract a decade and a half ago.  It never materialized, so don’t look for it.  My nepenthe consists of learning about writers, whether one-hit wonders or not.  I can still look to the Frank McCourts, Laura Ingalls Wilders, and Harriet Doerrs of the literary world.  For most writers it’s the story of what happened before success that is the most compelling part.  Especially those who were older and just kept on trying.  Some had to die, ironically, before the world realized they had something important to say.  You can’t blame the world.  The world’s busy.  But the fact is nobody would remember what it was like if somebody hadn’t bothered to write it down.  So we continue to chronicle the human experience.