from The Genius of the System, Thomas Schatz.
Thomas Wolf took that one for Wikipedia.
Can you remember anywhere in John Steinbeck’s fiction where he discusses San Francisco? Whole books about Monterey, but does he even mention the place? I couldn’t remember. A friend’s been working on Steinbeck’s letters, he couldn’t think of any mention either.
Turns out Steinbeck does talk about San Francisco in Travels with Charley in Search of America. The chapter begins:
I find it difficult to write about my native place, northern California. It should be easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world. But I find it not one thing but many – one printed over another until the whole thing blurs.
He mentions growth:
I remember Salinas, the town of my birth, when it proudly announced four thousand citizens. Now it is eighty thousand and leaping pell mell on in mathematical progression – a hundred thousand in three years and perhaps two hundred thousand in ten, with no end in sight.
(The population of Salinas is, in 2022, 156,77.)
Then he writes some about mobile home parks, and property taxes, concluding:
We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague. Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species.
Then he gets going on San Francisco:
Once I knew the City very well, spent my attic days there, while others were being a lost generation in Paris. I fledged in San Francisco, climbed its hills, splet in its parks, worked on its docks, marched and shouted in its revolts. In a way I felt I owned the City as much as it owned me.
A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of a medieval Italian city which can never have existed.
Steinbeck can’t stay though. He has to hurry on to Monterey to cast his absentee ballot (it’s 1960; he’s voting for John F. Kennedy).
Critics and bystanders who concern themselves with the plight of the Hollywood screenwriter don’t know the real grief that goes with the job. The worst is the dreariness in the dead sunny afternoons when you consider the misses, the scripts you’ve labored on and had high hopes for and that wind up on the shelf, when you think of the mountains of failed screenplays on the shelf at the different movie companies…
brother, I hear you, but also c’mon, it beats working for a living.
An old-timer in the business, a sweet soul of other days, drops into my room. “Don’t be upset,” he says, seeing my face. “They’re not shooting the picture tomorrow. Something will turn up. You’ll revise.” I ask him what in his opinion there is to write, what does he think will make a good picture. He casts back in his mind to ancient successes, on Broadway and on film, and tries to help me out. “Well, to me, for an example – now this might sometimes come in handy – it’s when a person is trying to do something to another person, and the second fellow all the time is trying to do it to him, and they both of them don’t know.” Another man has once told me the secret of motion picture construction: “A good story, for the houses, it’s when the ticket buyer, if he should walk into the theater in the middle of the picture – he shouldn’t get confused but know pretty soon what’s going on.” “The highest form of art is a man and a woman dancing together,” still a third man has told me.
During a stay at a beach cottage recently I picked some books off the shelf.
Paperback version of a beloved classic. But is this even readable?
Yeah I dunno…
Recalling that I read a section of All The King’s Men at a high school speech and debate contest. “Interpretive Reading” was not my strongest event.
Does this lady ever miss? Check out this plot:
Quinn Blackwood, Sugar Devil Swamp, Goblin. YES! How about:
This sounds like a bodice ripper but for men:
I put these books back and didn’t read any of them. If I had to pick I’d read about Goblin!
Another staff writer with a rather unconventional but valued talent was Kate Corbaley. At $150 a week, Corbaley was one of the few staffers whose salary was in the same range as Selznick’s…
Her specialty was not in editorial but rather as Louis Mayer’s preferred “storyteller.” Mayer was not a learned or highly literate man, and he rarely read story properties, scripts, or even synopses. He preferred to have someone simply tell him the story and he found Mrs. Corbaley’s narrational skills suited him. She never received a writing credit on an MGM picture, but many in the company considered her crucial to Mayer’s interest in stories being considered for purchase or production at any given time.
That’s from Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.
Storytelling is a current obsession in business. A few days ago I searched “storyteller” under Jobs on LinkedIn and found 35,831 results. Amazon, Microsoft, and Pinterest are all hiring some version of “storyteller,” as are Under Armor, Eataly and “X, the Moonshot Factory.” The accounting firm Deloitte is hiring Financial and Strategic Storytellers (multiple listings, financial and strategic storytellers are sought in San Diego, Miami, Chicago, Charlotte, Tampa, Las Vegas, and Phoenix).
It’s reported in City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s that one afternoon in May, 1936, Kate Corbaley summarized a novel that was already perceived as hot property. She told Louis B. Mayer
a new story about a tempestuous southern girl named Scarlett O’Hara.
Mayer wasn’t sure what to think, so he sent for Irving Thalberg, who declared:
Forget it, Louis. No Civil War picture ever made a nickel.
(This seems improbable: in 1936 Birth of A Nation would’ve held the record as one of if not the biggest movie of all time? Must track this tale to its source, will report.)
You don’t need to have read a single book by Philip K. Dick – there are 44+ – to feel his influence. Ridley Scott told Dick he never read his source material (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) before making the adaptation Blade Runner. Total Recall, Minority Report, Man In The High Castle, The Adjustment Bureau, these are a few of the filmed versions. In Slacker Richard Linklater films himself telling stories of Dick’s life and beliefs; later he made a version of A Scanner Darkly. PKD was picking up a signal and asking qs that pretty soon everybody would have to think about:
what if there were a robot so good that you didn’t know it was a robot?
what if there was a robot so good it didn’t know it was a robot?
what if we’re living in a simulation? what if our art and dreams and visions are what’s real and the rest is… what? A trick?
what does it mean if we can invent worlds the feel realer than world world?
what if we were all on so many powerful drugs we lost the thread of reality?
what if we were all on so many powerful drugs we found the thread of reality?
what if surveillance became so elaborate that we ended up surveilling ourselves?
It’s one leap to come up with ideas like this, but another to make them as vivid and lived in as PKD did. (Take even the term “blade runner” – what??)
Despite (because?) of this profound, influential imaginative work, PKD led a marginal existence, almost all in second-tier California towns, ending when he was found unconscious in his apartment in Santa Ana in 1982 and was “disconnected from life support” (an idea he would’ve invented if it hadn’t already existed) days later.
Wrapping your head around this guy isn’t easy, especially since he spent about eight years writing a million plus word “exegesis” that got launched when the fish symbol around the neck of a pharmacy delivery girl convinced him VALIS (vast active living intelligence system) was communicating with him while we were all living in an unending Roman empire.
Imagine what it was like for PKD:
The drugs he had taken during the 1960s, he was convinced formed a chemical soup in which his brain now stewed.
Mostly prescription stuff; he took LSD once and had a real bad time. His place got broken into, and at first he thought the FBI might’ve done it, but then he wondered if he’d done it himself. He was somewhat plausibly worried government agents were monitoring everything he did, but then he wondered why, or if it was even possible he was monitoring himself. Imagine how he felt, then, when the President of the United States (also an Orange County bro) was investigated (on TV) in regard to a mysterious break-in, caught by his own hidden surveillance system that he’d apparently installed to try and remember what he himself had been saying, and thus all his paranoid obsessions became the national, still-unraveled narrative?
Tough challenge for the biographer.
The book you hold in your hands is a very peculiar book. In it I have tried to depict the life of Philip K. Dick from the inside, in other words, with the same freedom and empathy – indeed with the same truth – with which he depicted his own characters. It’s a trip into the brain of a man who regarded even his craziest books not as works of imagination but as factual reports.
Mission accomplished. This is one of the best bios of a writer I’ve ever read. It passes one of the key tests, telling us what Philip K. Dick ate (frozen meals, stuff he got at the local convenience store). It functions as useful psychic history of California from 1950-1980, from the Communist scene in Berkeley to the turn from druggy hippie near utopia to speedfreak nightmare to a semi-religious recovery. Towards the end, PKD was half-convinced he might be living in the Book of Acts (which he hadn’t read), but also thought it possible he was just losing it.
Terry Car, the Ace paperback editor, used to joke that if the Bible had been published as science fiction, it would have had to be cut down to two volumes of twenty thousand words each; the Old Testament would have been retitled “Master of Chaos,” and the New Testament “The Thing with Three Souls.”
How about this?:
[PKD] told the doctor what John Collier, the British writer of fantastic fiction, had said – that the universe was a pint of beer and the galaxies nothing but the rising bubbles. A few people living in one of the bubbles happen to see the guy pouring the beer, and for them nothing will ever be the same again. That, said Phil, is what had happened to him.
In a way PKD was sort of an anti-Joan Didion, who took a deadeyed look at the results of the nightmare, while he himself wondered if the nightmare might be the fruit of his own imagination. Where did one end and the other begin? A wild ride.
The first story PKD sold, “Roog,” kinda hints at it all, here is the summary:
“Roog” is a story told from the point of view of a dog named Boris, who observes his masters carefully storing food in containers outside of their house day after day. Unbeknownst to the dog, these are the human’s trash cans for garbage. The dog is later horrified to witness some food being ‘stolen’ by garbagemen who the dog believes are predatory carnivores from another planet. The dog comes to know these beings as ‘Roogs’, and tries to warn his master of each ‘theft’ with cries of ‘Roog!’ ‘Roog!’. The humans, unable to comprehend the hound’s message, think the dog is just being rowdy. Thus they attribute the sound the dog makes to be the sound that all dogs make when they are excited: ‘Roog!’ ‘Roog!’ The tale concludes with the animal being somewhat distraught, barking “ROOG!” very loudly at the garbagemen before they make off once more with trash in their garbage truck.
Poor PKD was kinda like Boris. You can’t help but like him.
Roog is apparently also “the Supreme God and creator of the Serer religion of the Senegambia region.” That’s the kind of thing that would’ve sent PKD spinning for weeks in his apartment in Santa Ana.
This book is very illuminating if you’re interested in studio screenwriting methods of the late 1930s and early ’40s, although at some point the effort to pick apart Faulkner’s contributions to particular screenplays becomes an unknowable bit of textual archaeology. Faulkner would often be one of 5-7 writers working simultaneously or overlapping on the same property. Faulkner didn’t take Hollywood personally. He managed his Hollywood career better than Fitzgerald did, and later benefited from his collaboration with Howard Hawks, who seems to have both liked Faulkner as a guy and liked having the legend around. Faulkner was fast and hard working. If I have the timeline right, he worked on Gunga Din (his version not used) while also revising Absalom, Absalom.
Have been mulling over Paul Graham’s statement here: does this apply to all writing? Think on the compelling novels. Don’t they usually combine authenticity and domain expertise? Even if the domain expertise is gained by a passionate amateur, as in Tom Clancy.
Last terrific novel I read was Elif Batuman’s Either/Or: authenticity and domain (Harvard, literary studies, sexual trauma) expertise? Check and check on that one.
Or here’s John Grisham:
I read a lot of books written by other lawyers–legal thrillers, as they are called–I read them because I enjoy them, also I have to keep an eye on the competition. I can usually tell by page three if the author has actually been in a fight in a courtroom, or whether he’s simply watched too much television.
(Grisham in that speech itemizes three essential elements of voice: clarity, authenticity, and veracity).
Or how about Ellison on Hemingway‘s authenticity and domain expertise:
when he describes something in print, believe him
Somewhere Shelby Foote said that the reason his Ken Burns interviews were compelling was simply that he knew what he was talking about, he’d been thinking, reading, writing about the Civil War for twenty years. (He still got some stuff wrong).
Is it that simple? Is the key to writing just 1) being genuine and 2) knowing what you’re talking about?
Gotta work on this.
In the history of most relaxing vacations, Goethe’s 1775 trip to Switzerland gotta be up there:
if you don’t make a decisive break with your past did you even go on vacation??
Poe told us to expect [humiliation], too. When, near the end of his career, he laid out a formula for making great art, he said:
If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own—the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple— a few plain words—“My Heart Laid Bare.”
There’s just one catch, Poe said: “this little book must be true to its title.” And that is why “no man ever will dare write it.”
“No man could write it, even if he dared,” Poe concluded. “The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.”
The ten year anniversary of Helytimes rolled around without our really noticing. We started this website* in February 2012. The posts from that month are as clear a reflection as there is of the idea (extinct links and lost images are a curse but come w/t/territory).
There wasn’t a master plan. “I should know something about writing for the Internet.” The directness is powerful (and frightening): what writer of the past wouldn’t have dreamed of an instantaneous worldwide publishing platform you could control? A piece published on Helytimes generates a link that’s as accessible as a link to The New York Times. How could we not try that? Authors had websites; I’d published two books and hoped to do more. The magic of putting up pieces that entered the great Google library, the creation of a personal wondermuseum, it seemed fun.
A strong sense memory lingers about the day of origin: I was in my office on the TV show The Office. Across the hall was my college Alison Silverman. Our offices were in an annex trailer in the parking lot, which often roasted in the sun. Inside between our offices was a treadmill people sometimes used. That was a funny time and place. I told Alison I was thinking of starting a blog and I remember not having any reaction at all. It was like I said I’d had a salad for lunch. But what was I expecting?
WordPress provided the structure. I’m not sure I’d recommend WordPress, it feels flimsy, it feels like it could collapse tomorrow. GoDaddy sold us the URL. Although GoDaddy’s name and TV ads make it seem ridiculous, they are really dependable, we’ve never had a problem. I copied a simple design template my cousin was using and off we went.
Since then we’ve published 1,624 posts. Some of the most popular are:
– a guest post by Hayes about a local political issue, No on Measure S (No prevailed, and thank goodness). This post shows the value of possessing an easy distribution platform
– a post about the alleged subject of Gordon Lightfoot’s song Sundown. People Google this person and find the site, it’s celebrity gossip.
– a comparison of the UK in size to California. Another Google inbounder.
– Mountaineering movies on Netflix (needs updating, The Alpinist and 14 Peaks both great)
– an investigation of whether the last joke Abraham Lincoln heard was funny
– a consideration of how a mosaic at Disney World was made by Hanns Scharff, one of the Luftwaffe’s top interrogators (and revealing insights in interrogation)
– a look into the darkness of Donald Trump’s father and the destruction of Coney Island
Anything about Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger will pop.
We consider Record Group 80 to be kind of a signature post.
Ten years as an amount of time is significant. We once heard an interview with Joseph Campbell, he was talking about a young student who was asking Campbell about whether he thought he, the student, could make it as a writer.
Well, can you go ten years without making it?
was Campbell’s question. A good question to ask.
What would “making it” mean? We don’t profit off this website, but it’s very valuable as as storehouse of material that caught our attention. And it feels contributive. It’s brought about many connections and friendships of great value, even if you can’t put a price on them.
Once I was talking to a guy who knew a thing or two about SEO and metrics and online business about the site. He suggested we should pick any one specific niche and go deep, make that our thing. For instance, “Navy photos.” But that’s not the idea (and it would be boring).
Once I was talking to a successful Hollywood type guy who’s a reader of Helytimes. I asked him what I should do to get more readers. He looked at me like I was kind of an idiot.
Write about the Kardashians
That’s not the idea here either.
This isn’t any kind of business. During the lifespan of this website we published a book, wrote several other books, wrote lots of television, co-hosted hundreds of episodes of The Great Debates. This is a straightup side project. But sometimes that’s where the life is.
My life times out so my growing up parallels the Internet growing up. My age 18 was close to the Internet’s age 18. So I followed and tracked the rise of what we unfortunately have to call blogging.
Andrew Sullivan was an early one. Blogging eventually burned him out and he had to stop. Matt Yglesias was my near contemporary in college (I don’t think I ever met him). He seems built to be a blogger and has made a job of it. That takes stamina, focus, and drive we don’t have.
Hot takes aren’t the game around here. Unless they’re hot takes on something from like the 15th century.
We maintain this site out of desire to clean out the brain-attic, to keep an independent publishing vector open, to settle anything that’s gnawing at us, to share (and clear the mind of) passions, obsessions, curiosities and discoveries.
Over the years we’ve had a worldwide readership, lured in some surprising customers, lost one contributor to death by tragedy, and had some touching comments. The funniest people reach out to us. Usually about content we never would’ve thought anyone would care about.
We made a scratchmark on the cave wall, which, what else are we here for?
So, onward! Thanks for reading, we really appreciate you.
* the word blog just isn’t a winner, is it folks?
Steel typically writes for 20–22 hours a day when working on a book, she says. Sometimes, she goes past the 24-hour mark. Someone who works for her will often put a plate of food on her desk that she’ll realize she’s eaten only when she looks over and notices the plate is empty, she says.
Amazing. “Danielle Steel on Starting Her Day Off with a Virgin Mojito” by Lane Florsheim in WSJ.
In one famous Brando origin story, Adler asked her students to pretend to be chickens as an atomic bomb drops. While everyone else was flapping in a panic, Brando peaceably squatted down. “I’m laying an egg,” he told Adler. “What does a chicken know of bombs?”
reading Alexandra Schwartz on Isaac Butler’s book about method acting in The New Yorker. A shifting concept, perhaps we can agree?
“the Method” is describes a set of techniques, practices, and concepts for helping actors achieve emotional life and truth in their performances. The Method is based on the teachings of Stanislavski, developed at the Moscow Art Theater, interpreted in the United States by teachers like Lee Strasburg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner and by actors like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe.
Defining things is hard, I’m already quibbling with myself!
Maybe Wikipedia’s is better, Wikipedia really is a miracle, isn’t it folks? Sainthood for Jimmy Wales.
Some of what the Method seems to get at, like chunks of reality, precision of memory, the blend of emotional and physical experience, reminded me of Hemingway on focusing as specifically as possible on the connection of sensation to specific detail. What did you feel, what exactly made you feel it in the moment?
MICE: How can a writer train himself?
Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exact it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had. Thatʼs a five finger exercise.
Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Donʼt be thinking what youʼre going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When youʼre in town stand outside the theatre and see how people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.
more on that.
In order to be maximally compelling, protagonists should be active, the principal causer of effects in the plot that follows. Textual analyses reveal the words “do”, “need” and “want” appear twice as often in novels that feature in the New York Times bestseller list as those that don’t. A character in a drama who isn’t reacting, making decisions, choosing and trying somehow to impose control on the chaos isn’t truly a protagonist. Without action, the answer to the dramatic question never really changes.
That’s from The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. On first attempt I put this book down in frustration, because the book itself is not framed in the form of a story. But encouraged by Rob Henderson I picked it up again and found a lot of value in it. Storr talks about how stories are framed around a central question: who is this person? He gives a good illustration from Lawrence of Arabia:
When he finally makes it out of the desert, to the shores of the Suez Canal, a motorcyclist on the opposite bank spots him. Curious about this strange white man in Arab robes emerging from the desert, the motorcyclist shouts across the water, “Who are you? Who are you?” As the question fills the baking air, the camera freezes on Lawrence’s troubled face.
Storr also spends a good deal of time with Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of The Day, a story that’s heartbreaking even when summarized. We the reader, and Stevens the butler, are both asking who this man is?
I found Storr’s discussion of the “ignition point” of a story, and his “sacred flaw” method to developing stories to both be thought-provoking and potentially block-breaking for a storyteller.
The textual analysis bit comes from The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. This book is a tiny bit ridiculous: the authors fed lots of books into some kind of computer algorithm they’ve got rigged up at Stanford, and produce charts like this one:
The Y axis there is “emotion.” While I might hesitate to trust the suggested precision of a graph like this on something as squishy as storytelling, the basic insight – that thrilling stories have a lot of ups and downs – is valuable and rings true.
More on key words from bestsellers:
Both Storr and Archer & Jockers cite the work of Christopher Booker, who wrote a titanic volume called The Seven Basic Plots. When Booker’s book dropped, I was working as a professional TV storyteller and amateur novelist, and I bought it, and set down to study, eager to crack the code.
Booker’s seven categories were kinda wide, though. One of them, for instance, is comedy. I grew suspicious. When I got to this part, I laughed out loud:
I felt like Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon when he realizes the Eastern cancer treatment he’s gone for is just some cheap fakery. Really Booker? Did you miss the FIRST FRAME OF THE MOVIE?!
Too funny. Booker’s work wasn’t in vain, there was still much to consider, but it did reveal the somewhat ridiculous nature of trying to distill stories into simple forms. There will always be tricky exceptions, they escape from containment like mercury.
Guides to story and storytelling remain a passion. The urge to quantify these things seems to drive people half-mad. We all know what stories are, we know one when we hear one, and yet they’re surprisingly hard to pin down.
It occurred to me that NEED WANT DO could be a way to map out your day. You might wake up, for instance, and think:
- I NEED: breakfast burrito from Cofax
- I WANT: breakfast burrito from Cofax
- I will DO: go get breakfast burrito from Cofax.
It says in your biographies that you were a grouse beater. Please explain.
My first summer after leaving school I worked for the Queen Mother at Balmoral Castle, where the royal family spend their summer holidays. In those days they used to recruit local students to be grouse beaters. The royal family would invite people to shoot on their estate. The Queen Mother and her guests would get into Land Rovers with shotguns and whiskey and drive over bits of the moor from shooting butt to shooting butt. That’s where they would aim and shoot. Fifteen of us would walk in formation across the moor, spaced about a hundred yards apart in the heather. The grouse live in the heather, and they hear us coming, and they hop. By the time we arrive at the butts, all of the grouse in the vicinity have accumulated and the Queen Mum and her friends are waiting with shotguns. Around the butts there’s no heather, so the grouse have got no choice but to fly up. Then the shooting starts. And then we walk to the next butt. It’s a bit like golf.
Did you meet the Queen Mother?
Yes, quite regularly. Once she came round to our quarters, frighteningly, when there was only me and this other girl there. We didn’t know what on earth to do. We had a little chat, and she drove off again. But it was very informal. You’d often see her on the moors, though she herself didn’t shoot. I think there was a lot of alcohol consumed and it was all very chummy.
from his Paris Review interview. How about this?
I was at a writers’ festival in Australia, sitting on a beach with Michael Ondaatje, Victoria Glendinning, Robert McCrum, and a Dutch writer named Judith Hertzberg. We were playing a semi-serious game of trying to find a title for my soon-to-be-completed novel. Michael Ondaatje suggested Sirloin: A Juicy Tale. It was on that level. I kept explaining that it had to do with this butler. Then Judith Hertzberg mentioned a phrase of Freud’s, Tagesreste, which he used to refer to dreams, which is something like “debris of the day.” When she translated it off the top of her head, it came out as “remains of the day.” It seemed to me right in terms of atmosphere.
Was there ever a better charity sermon preached in the world than Dickens’s “Christmas Carol”? I believe it occasioned immense hospitality throughout England; was the means of lighting up hundreds of kind fires at Christmas time; caused a wonderful outpouring of Christmas good feeling, of Christmas punch-brewing; an awful slaughter of Christmas turkeys, and roasting and basting of Christmas beef. As for this man’s love of children, that amiable organ at the back of his honest head must be perfectly monstrous. All children ought to love him. I know two that do, and read his books ten times for once that they peruse the dismal preachments of their father. I know one who, when she is happy, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; when she is unhappy, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; when she is tired, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; when she is in bed, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; when she has nothing to do, reads “Nicholas Nickleby”; and when she has finished the book, reads “Nicholas Nickleby” over again. This candid young critic, at ten years of age, said, “I like Mr. Dickens’s books much better than your books, papa”; and frequently expressed her desire that the latter author should write a book like one of Mr. Dickens’s books. Who can? Every man must say his own thoughts in his own voice, in his own way; lucky is he who has such a charming gift of nature as this, which brings all the children in the world trooping to him, and being fond of him.
so said William Makepeace Thackeray, arguing for a connection between humorous writers and “the sweet mission” of love and tenderness, in his 1852 speech “On Charity and Humor.”
A footnote adds:
Note 2. This generous tribute to Dickens, at the time of the greatest rivalry between him and Thackeray, has been much admired and often quoted to Thackeray’s credit.
I was listening to Chuck Palahniuk on Bret Easton Ellis podcast (is this the second post in a row where I mention this podcast? It’s not for everybody but I’m into it!)
You know, if somebody had given David Foster Wallace or Sylvia Plath fourteen issues of Spider-Man to do, they’d both still be alive
says Palahniuk early in the episode. An outrageous claim. But hey, I guess outrageous claims were what I was signing up for. Would ❤️ to read a Sylvia Plath Spider-man series.
Palahniuk isn’t a writer I’ve read much of, gross out, extremist fiction not being my kinda milkshake. But when Palahniuk mentioned that he’d written a travel book about Portland, that got my attention. Travel books I’m into. So I got Palahniuk’s travel book, fugitives and refugees: A Walk In Portland, Oregon, which it turns out is part of a series Crown put out, Crown Journeys, where writers do a walking tour – sometimes pretty literally, sometimes in quotes – of a place they know well.
Turns out I’d read one of these already, Frank Conroy’s Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket. I’d read that a few years back during a weeklong stay on Nantucket, but I remember nothing from it. The book about Nantucket I like is Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, where I learned there was a neighborhood on Nantucket called New Guinea, full of people of color of various kinds. Nantucket’s worth a post of her own someday.
Stuck homebound, I got a bunch of these Crown Journeys books. An appealing quality of them is their size, just right to stuff in a bag:
Let’s start with Palahniuk’s. It’s a travel guide plus a memoir, the voice is strong and he shows, even rubs your face in, the weirdness of that town, the grubbiness and beauty all swished up together.
Katherine’s theory is that everyone looking to make a new life migrates west, across America to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, the cheapest city where they can life is Portland. This gives us the most cracked of the crackpots. The misfits among misfits.
The memory and madness:
Days, I’m working as a messenger, delivering advertising proofs form the Oregonian newspaper. Nights, I wash dishes at Jonah’s seafood restaurant. My roommates come home, and we throw food at each other. One night, cherry pie, big sticky red handfuls of it. We’re eighteen years old. Legal adults. So we’re stoned and drinking champagne every night, microwaving our escargot. Living it up.
Palahniuk is clearly more into the sex trade, underground (literal and figurative) side of the town, but he covers the gardens too, along with the Self Cleaning House and Stark’s Vacuum Cleaner Museum and the standout landmarks, along with a semi-autobiography full of vivid, intense incidents, like a beating and a moment with the mother of a dying hospital patient.
Although this book was published in 2003, reading it gives insight into why Portland is the arena of choice for “antifa” and far-night political violence LARPers and a fracture zone of America 2020.
Next up, Roy Blount Jr.’s Feet On The Street: Rambles Around New Orleans.
This one’s the best organized, divided into seven rambles: Orientation, Wetness, Oysters, Color, Food, Desire, Friends. It’s full of jokes and stories and anecdote. Of all the Crown Journeys I read, this one’s unsurprisingly the most focused on food. How can you not want a “roast beef sandwich with debris” from Mothers, or a pan-fried trout topped with “muddy water” sauce: chicken broth, garlic, anchovies, and gutted jalapeños and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.”
Blout’s book is full of autobiography too, quoting from letters he wrote as a young man, describing nights and dinners, what New Orleans meant to him as a young man and what he found on frequent returns.
I’ll bet I have been up in N. O. at every hour in every season,
he says, a cool claim.
Towards the end of the book, Blount Jr. turns kind of reflective, ruminating with some regret on an incident of insensitivity, somewhere between misunderstanding and even cruelty, towards a homosexual friend that ended badly. There’s an air of regret to it, and maybe that’s part of New Orleans, too. Feet On The Street might work best of all of these, as a book. I’ve read a lot of guides to New Orleans and this one’s a fine addition to the canon.
Blount’s a figure who doesn’t seem to quite exist as much any more, the sort of literary semi-comedian raconteur, where books are just one expression of a humorous personality. Christopher Buckley’s another guy like that.
Washington Schlepped Here is, in my opinion, the worst titled of these books. It’s a pun, first of all, but second, George Washington simply never “schlepped.” Didn’t happen. He was not a schlepper. Buckley spends a paragraph or two dealing with the title, although he seems quite pleased with it. “Pleased with himself” might be the most accurate criticism you could make of Christopher Buckley, but it’s hard not to be a little won over by his privileged charm.
Buckley’s Washington is strictly the Washington of our nation’s capital. You won’t find anything in here about the majority black population of that city. How can you write a book about Washington that doesn’t mention Ben’s Chili Bowl? E. J. Applewhite’s Washington Itself, which Buckley quotes from copiously, is a richer one volume guide to the city. But there’s a Yale-grade wit to Buckley, I won’t deny it.
I’ll let you prowl about. There’s a lot to see: the Old Senate Chamber, Statuary Hall, the Crypt, the Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Hall of Columns, along with enough murals, portraits, busts and bas reliefs to keep you going “Huh” for hours.”
Buckley takes the walking tour conceit the most seriously of any of the writers. There’s a bummer element hanging over this book, as Buckley keeps pointing out how post-9/11 security procedures and jersey barriers have made wandering the capital city less free that in it used to be. There’s a bit of filler to this one, too, as if Buckley’s sort of just taking the Wikipedia page to certain buildings and adding a few quips. A few pages are devoted to musing on specific works in specific Mall art museums. Several of the jokes rely casual shared stereotypes about politics, like that Republicans like martinis, that now feel like they’re from another universe (the book was published in 2003).
The best parts of this one come from Jeanne Fogle’s book Proximity to Power and Tony Pitch’s walking tour, both centered on Lafayette Square, which bring to life people who lived here. Places are only so interesting. It’s people that get your attention.
James M. McPherson’s Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg is just terrific. A concise, powerful tour of the battlefield, rich in detail and incident, you’re clearly in the hands of a master storyteller who knows his stuff deeply. One of McPherson’s gifts is to take us not just to the battle as it happened, but to the battlefield as it’s remembered and preserved. McPherson talks about the way the woodlands on the battlefield would’ve been more thinned out in 1863, who could see what from where, how small features of geography shaped those three days. On the artillery barrage that preceded Pickett’s Charge:
Confederate gunners failed to realize the inaccuracy of their fire because the smoke from all these guns hung in the calm, humid air and obscured their view. Several explanations for this Confederate overshooting have been offered. One theory is that as the gun barrels heated up, the powder exploded with greater force. Another is that the recoil scarred the ground, lowering the carriage trails and elevating the barrels ever so slight. The most ingenious explanation grows out of an explosion at the Richmond arsenal in March that took it out of production for several weeks. The Army of Northern Virginia had to depend on arsenals farther south for production of many of the shells for the invasion of Pennsylvania. Confederate gunners did not realize that fuses on these shells burned more slowly than those from the Richmond arsenal; thus the shells whose fused they tried to time for explosion above front-line Union troops, showering them with lethal shrapnel, exploded a split second too late, after the shells had passed over.
On such things does history turn? McPherson tells us details like that Company F of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina included four sets of twins, every one of whom was killed or wounded in the battle.
I’ve been to Gettysburg twice, and was pretty familiar with the shape of the events and landscape. But I’d wager this book would provide a pretty clear and readable introduction to the battle, even if you didn’t know very much about it. Certainly it’s much easier to comprehend than Shelby Foote’s Stars In The Courses, another short volume about Gettysburg, which has a poetry to it, but good luck using it to decipher what happened where.
Kinky is not a word that I love, and comedy music makes me uncomfortable. So I’ve never gotten too into Kinky Friedman. But The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic: a “walk” in Austin is pretty companionable. Kinky is friends with George W. Bush, and has nothing bad to say about him (this one was published in 2004, so pre Iraq catastrophe).
There are a couple of notable omissions in this book. The coolest part of Austin to me is Rainey Street, but that section’s conversion of porched houses into bars may post-date this work. There’s also nothing about the Texas State Cemetery, which I believe is unique in the United States and tells you quite a bit about the values of Texas. Maybe worth a book of its own. Also, without explanation, Friedman tosses off that he’s never been inside the Texas Capitol Building, which is the centerpiece of Austin.
Is Austin the place of all these that has changed the most in the last twenty years?
Still, you’re on a fun ramble with a personality who’s committed to entertaining. A thin volume, thick with schtick. I really liked Kinky’s introduction to Texas history, and the stuff about the ’70s music scene. If you think calling a ghost an “Apparition-American” is funny, you’ll enjoy this book. Really, any small book about Austin in this time of home-bounditude would’ve been appreciated by me.
Compact, entertaining guides to places, by writers who really have a voice – there should be more books like this. I ate these up like cookies. Surely Boston, Los Angeles/Hollywood, Seattle, San Francisco, Savannah, Nashville, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Honolulu, Charleston could all use books like this. Brooklyn?
Hell I’d even read one about San Diego.
This is a book about a scene, and the scene was Key West in the late ’60s-’70s, centered on Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Buffett, and some lesser known but memorable characters. I tried to think of other books about scenes, and came up with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, and maybe Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh, about Van Morrison’s Boston. Then of course there’s Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, referenced here in the subtitle, a mean-spirited but often beautiful book about 1920s Paris.
I was drawn to this book after I heard Walter Kirn talking about it on Bret Easton Ellis podcast (McGuane is Kirn’s ex-father-in-law, which must be one of life’s more interesting relationships). I’ve been drawn lately to books about the actual practicalities of the writing life. How do other writers do it? How do they organize their day? What time do they get to work? What do they eat and drink? How do they avoid distraction?
From this book we learn that Jim Harrison worked until 5pm, not 4:59 but 5pm, after which he cut loose. McGuane was more disciplined, even hermitish for a time (while still getting plenty of fishing done) but eventually temptation took over, he started partying with the boys, eventually was given the chance to direct the movie from his novel 92 In The Shade. That’s when things got really crazy. The movie was not a big success.
“The Sixties” (the craziest excesses bled well into the ’70s) musta really been something.
On page one of this book I felt there was an error:
That’s not the line. The line (from the Poetry Foundation) is:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ MenGang aft agley,
Part of what these writers found special about Key West, beyond the Hemingway and Tennessee Williams legends, was it just wasn’t a regular, straight and narrow place. Being a writer is a queer job, someone’s liable to wonder what it is you do all day. In Key West, that wasn’t a problem.
Key West was so irregular and libertine that you could get away with the apparent layaboutism of the writer’s life.
Some years ago I was writing a TV pilot I’d pitched called Florida Courthouse. I went down to Florida to do some research, and people kept telling me about Key West, making it sound like Florida’s Florida. Down I went on that fantastic drive where you feel like you’re flying, over Pigeon Key, surely one of the cooler drives in the USA if not the world.
The town I found at the end of the road was truly different. Louche, kind of disgusting, and there was an element of tourists chasing a Buffett fantasy. Some of the people I encountered seemed like untrustworthy semi-pirates, and some put themselves way out to help a stranger. You’re literally and figuratively way out there, halfway to Havana. The old houses, the chickens wandering, the cemetery, the heat and the shore and the breeze and the old fort and the general sense of license and liberty has an intoxicating quality. There was a slight element of forced fun, and trying to capture some spirit that may have existed mostly in legend. McKeen captures that aspect in his book:
Like McGuane, I found the mornings in Key West to be the best attraction. Quiet, promising, unbothered, potentially productive. Then in the afternoon you could go out and see what trouble was to be found. Somebody introduced me to a former sheriff of Key West, who helped me understand his philosophy of law enforcement: “look, you can’t put that much law on people if it’s not in their hearts.”
I enjoyed my time there in this salty beachside min-New Orleans and hope to return some day, although I don’t really think I’m a Key West person in my heart. I went looking for photos from that trip, and one I found was of the Audubon House.
After finishing this book I was recounting some of the stories to my wife and we put on Jimmy Buffett radio, and that led of course to drinking a bunch of margaritas and I woke up hungover.
I rate this book: four and a half margaritas.
Alcohol was his salve against a modern world he saw as a conspiracy of mediocrity on its ruling levels. Life was most bearable, he repeated, at its simplest: fishing, hunting, talking biggity in a cane chair on a board sidewalk, or horse-trading, gossiping.
Bill spoke rarely about writing, but when he did he said he had no method, no formula. He started with some local event, a well-known face, a sudden reaction to a joke or an incident. “And just let the story carry itself. I walk along behind and write down what happens.”
Q: Sir, I would like to know exactly what it was that inspired you to become a writer.
A: Well, I probably was born with the liking for inventing stories. I took it up in 1920. I lived in New Orleans, I was working for a bootlegger. He had a launch that I would take down the Pontchartrain into the gulf to an island where the run, the green rum, would be brought up from Cuba and buried, and we would dig it up and bring it back to New Orleans, and he would make scotch or gin or whatever he wanted. He had the bottles labeled and everything. And I would get a hundred dollars a trip for that, and I didn’t need much money, so I would get along until I ran out of money again. And I met Sherwood Anderson by chance, and we took to each other from the first. I’d meet him in the afternoon, we would walk and he would talk and I would listen. In the evening we would go somewhere to a speakeasy and drink, and he would talk and I would listen. The next morning he would say, “Well I have to work in the morning,” so I wouldn’t see him until the next afternoon. And I thought if that’s the sort of life writers lead, that’s the life for me. So I wrote a book and, as soon as I started, I found out it was fun. And I hand’t seen him and Mrs. Anderson for some time until I met her on the street, and she said, “Are you mad at us?” and I said, “No, ma’am, I’m writing a book,” and she said, “Good Lord!” I saw her again, still having fun writing the book, and she said, “Do you want Sherwood to see your book when you finish it?” and I said, “Well, I hadn’t thought about it.” She said, “Well, he will make a trade with you; if he don’t have to read that book, he will tell his publisher to take it.” I said, “Done!” So I finished the book and he told Liveright to take it and Liveright took it. And that was how I became a writer – that was the mechanics of it.
Stephen Longstreet reports on Faulkner in Hollywood, specifically To Have and Have Not:
Several other writers contributed, but Bill turned out the most pages, even if they were not all used. This made Bill a problem child.
The unofficial Writers’ Guild strawboss on the lot came to me.
“Faulkner is turning out too many pages. He sits up all night sometimes writing and turns in fifty to sixty pages in the morning. Try and speak to him.”