Maplewoods Mirror #34 - February 2009
Welcome to my monthly newsletter on life and
writing. If you want to see my website for past issues and other
news, please visit www.chrismeeks.com. I also have an author site (click
To see a three-minute video about my newly
published book, click here.
In This Issue
In the last issue, I gave the wrong day and
time for my reading of The Brightest Moon of the Century at Vroman’s
Bookstore. It’s on publication day, Saturday, March 7 at 5
p.m. Two more readings have been added, in Minnesota. Here’s the
Saturday, March 7 – Vroman’s
Bookstore, 5:00 p.m.
695 E. Colorado Blvd,
Pasadena, CA 91101; 626-449-5320
Saturday, March 21 – The
Bookcase in Wayzata, 7:30 p.m.
607 Lake St E,
Wayzata, MN 55391; (952) 473-8341
Sunday, March 22
– Kingman Art Studio, 6:30 p.m.
901 Grand St. NE,
Minneapolis, MN 55418; (612) 306-4597
I'd also like to encourage you to buy The
Brightest Moon of the Century, my first novel, on March
7th, to bump up the sales on that particular day. That should
increase the sales ranking incredibly, perhaps getting bookstores and
Amazon in particular to notice. If you have a calendar, please make a note
for that date.
Brant Kingman will host a discussion of my new book at his studio in March
THE ROAD TO PUBLICATION: A HOW-TO IN
I recently heard from a former student, J.J.
Strong, who, with his master's degree, is now trying to make a living
in writing. Heck, with a name like J.J. Strong, he has a chance,
While in my playwriting class at USC, he wrote
a stunning full-length play. A year later, a one-act play of his was
produced in the USC One-Act Play Festival. One of my colleagues, screenwriter
Coleman Hough who had J.J. in her screenwriting class, also found his
work fabulous. He's just created a blog that's displaying, warts
and all, the road to his novel's publication--or not. You can keep up
with his journey at http://strongnovel.blogspot.com/.
You may have noted J.J. writes plays,
screenplays, and novels--isn't that too much? Most graduate writing
programs have students focus on one genre only, such as novel writing, but
in USC's Master of Professional Writing program, trying one's hand in
multiple genres is encouraged. That's because today's creative writer
needs to be conversant in multiple forms. I started off writing non-fiction
articles, wrote screenplays for a while, then stage plays, and now novels,
so I can empathize with the process. One learns a lot from each genre.
These days, one needs not only talent in
multiple forms, but also drive. The fact that J.J. has a blog is a
good sign. When a marketing guru and friend encouraged me a couple of
years ago to create a newsletter and/or blog, I'd balked. I said,
"John Irving isn't doing this." He said that if John
Irving had to start today, he would.
The New York Times recently had an
article on this subject of today’s writer and promotion. To read the
here. It says the first big publisher to create a website for a book
was Random House bringing attention to The Da Vinci Code by Dan
The article brings up the effectiveness of book
videos, saying that they are done more and more, which made me think I had
to tell my friend Skye about this article. Then the article noted: “In
2005, Todd Stevens, an executive producer of Friends, and Skye Van
Raalte-Herzog, an executive at Warner Brothers, quit their jobs to start
Expanded Books, another company that produces and distributes book videos,
under contract with the Microsoft Network. Van Raalte-Herzog and Stevens
have sent production crews all over the world, often getting creative in
order to gain access to a desired location.”
Skye has created two of my book’s videos. If
you haven’t seen them, click
here or here.
The proof is in the pudding. Have they increased sales? It’s hard to
say. With over 23,000 streams of the videos among 14 different portals so
far, however, I figure someone has to have bought books.
I read somewhere that a buyer needs to see a
product mentioned or advertised seven times before it sticks in his or her
mind. Thus, with my own miniscule marketing budget, I do what I can to meet
The difference between what J.J. is doing and
what I’m doing is he’s using the internet in hopes of drawing publisher
interest. I’m marketing a book already available. What he learns with his
blog will surely help him once his book is published.
I’m now balancing the spinning dishes of
promotion on the poles of advertising, publicity, book readings, and book
reviews. The very first review of The Brightest Moon of the
Century just arrived, and I am now filled with hope that people will
fall for the novel. You can read the review by
As I write this, my play, "Who
Lives?" is casting and moves toward a new production, which opens in
Los Angeles on March 12, 8 p.m. The play is published and can be
purchased at Amazon and other places. There will be a publication party,
too, for The Brightest Moon of the Century at Vroman's
Bookstore in Pasadena earlier that week, March 7 at 5 p.m. For ticket
The road to publication and productions is
long. Becoming a lawyer, doctor, or bookie is probably more of a sure
thing. Still, this is the only life we have, so you may as well
pursue what you adore. Good luck J.J.
OF MAINSTREAM AND
At a party earlier in the month, I overheard a
female book editor talk to a male author. Both are friends. He told
her that he wrote fiction. “What category?” she asked.
“Mainstream books,” he said.
“Chick lit?” she said, astonished.
“No,” he said, “Just good stories, general
“Literary, you mean?” she asked.
“That isn’t mainstream anymore, alas.”
That made me realize how different things are
now from when, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were writing.
After the party, I researched the best-sellers
from last year, 2008, and it wasn’t chick lit, actually. Stephanie Meyer’s Breaking
Dawn and J.K. Rowling’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Standard
Edition topped the list, both fantasy. I haven’t read Stephanie Meyer,
but I’m a huge fan of the Harry Potter series because those books, more
than many others I’ve read in recent years, reminded me how good stories
are told. Such elements as an empathetic main character who is humble,
well-meaning, vulnerable, and flawed, is important, as are chapters that
end in a spot where you, the reader, just can’t stop. You have to turn the
There’s a lot more that go into Rowling’s
books, and she became a stronger writer as the series went on. I use the
first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in my children’s
literature classes as a way to look at story structure and how to involve a
reader. I tell my writing students, “People stand in long lines for
hours, sometimes days, to read her books. Wouldn’t you want that for your
own writing? Wouldn’t it be worth studying what she does?”
Rowling gives us scenes in which to
participate. As Harry is introduced to magic, we are introduced to
magic. Harry has questions about what is going on just and we have the same
questions. Harry isn’t extraordinary; he’s an everyboy—an
everyperson—someone who feels to be an outsider as all people do at some
point in their lives.
Children’s books usually are aimed at one sex
more than another, and at an age level, yet the Harry Potter series is
enjoyed by young and old, male and female. That’s partly because Hermione
Granger is a strong character, and Harry is not a lone superhero; he needs
and relies on her, Ron Weasley, and others. To relate to friends is the
world that most of us know.
I’ve learned from Rowling. I wrote my first
novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, which is about to be
published, as a series of interrelated short stories. It was the only way I
could talk myself into writing such a big thing as a novel. It all came
together, and there’s a symbiosis among the chapters. I’m pleased with the
book. It has little to do with Rowling’s style or structure, but Rowling
wrote what was close to her heart, and so did I.
When I decided to write a something closer to a
mystery, a book titled Falling Down Mt. Washington, I decided to end
my chapters when I could at a heightened moment. Still, is the book
mainstream? Or a mystery? Not really. I’ve learned to accept and embrace my
style, which is closer to literary.
This brings me back to the conversation I
overheard at the party. When did “literary,” which used to be about
contemporary stories that people liked such as The Great Gatsby or
Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, become a word like
“liberal”—something once embraced and now shied from?
I happened to search for this answer and found
a great essay at The Virginia Quarterly. (To
read it, click here.) It's titled, “American Literature and
America, 1925-2000” by author Sanford Pinsker. What I received from it was
that in each decade, the events in America helped shape its stories.
World War I, which ended in 1918, changed the way Americans saw things. The
tried-and-true no longer worked, and so writers “replaced certainty with
doubt and faith with skepticism.” When the stock market crashed in
1929, stories then became political and polemical.
So we have to ask what we as authors are
reacting to right now? Why have readers been buying up fantasy books
and going to the movies about superheroes? That’s not hard to say when
American’s standing in the world feels lower than it has in a decade.
Wars wage around the world. Our economy stands in the toilet, and baby
boomers have been watching their retirement portfolios plummet.
At the party, a recently retired psychologist
told me, “I always thought that planning was everything, and I planned my
retirement carefully, listening to specialists. Planning doesn’t mean
anything, it turns out. My worth has been cut in half in the last year.
Thankfully, social security is helping me.”
It’s these kind of truths that should seep into
stories written today about today’s world. My main aim when I write: to
tell the truth.
Sansford Pinkser also speaks of truth when he
writes, “As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to
simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la
Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the contradiction,
not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction,
lies the tormented human being.”
Today, we’re all tormented human beings,
no? Yet some of us are sensing hope. This isn’t so different from one
of my other favorite books, The Great Gatsby, published in
1925. Its narrator, Nick Carraway, is living in a similar time.
As Matthew Bruccoli writes in the preface to a recent reprinting of the
book, “The Twenties were a time of stock-market speculation and
peculation…. The Wall Street crash marked the end of the Twenties boom and
initiated the Great Depression of the Thirties. What Fitzgerald called ‘the
most expensive orgy in history’ was over.”
Now we're getting to experience the end of what
was an even bigger orgy. Thus the truth that Fitzgerald felt reverberates
today. Maybe now, too, "literary" will have resurgence.
To more specifically discuss the “expensive orgy,” my former
colleague at USC, Paula Brancato, now living in New York, writes the
OUR FINANCIAL CRISIS
By Paula Brancato, reporting from New York City
“They told me to buy the stock for my old age…
and it worked perfectly. Within six months I felt like a very old
--Eddie Cantor, comic 1929
Each year, I attend eight or ten corporate
holiday parties. They are usually at Le Cirque or the Helmsley.
They usually serve appetizers ranging from roast beef en papiote to caviar
on toast. They usually have open bars that include all you can drink
premium cru champagne. And the bars are not crowded because so many
people are gainfully employed, off working and making money and unable to
This year, I attended only three holiday
parties. One was at Tommy’s Wharf where they served pigs in a
blanket, extra for the mustard, and diet coke and rum from the well which
you had to pay for yourself. The second was at a friend’s apartment,
BYOB with a corkage fee. She was collecting a fee so she could repay
her husband who owned an ailing Domino pizza franchise for the food.
The third was the McKinsey & Company annual
holiday party which was, indeed, at the Helmsley Palace, with roast
beef--far less of it than in prior years and tucked away in a corner. To
McKinsey’s credit, the party also provided a complimentary bar, but it was
so crowded with out-of-work alums slammed together ten bodies deep that one
could barely reach the bartender to squeak out an order for the local beer.
The lack of SEC and FRB oversight, the Bernie
Madoff scandal, Drier fraud -- the prestigious lawyer who used the offices
of his clients, including GE and the like, to sell fake bonds -- and the
collapses of IndyMac, Fortis, WaMu, Merrill Lynch (who fled into the arms
of B of A) and Lehman Brothers nearly shut down Christmas this year.
You could still get to the tree at Rockefeller Center, see the Rockettes
and watch the ball this year in Times Square, of course. In fact, it
was easier to do so – there was simply no one around. It was a wonder
Santa, whom I hear fell prey to re-mortgaging his reindeer, was able to
slip down the chimney and give out any gifts at all this year. All in
all it was a lousy year, my friends, the tail end of which I am glad to see
in my rear view mirror.
Some facts about 2008: the Federal Reserve
Bank, whose role is to stabilize the money supply and prevent economic
bubbles, pocketed a cool $63 billion on Day 1 of the Lehman bankruptcy,
getting its money out while leaving the little investor hung out to
dry. This year the SEC, originally set up to protect investors, was
run entirely by Wall Streeters who make money if other Wall Streeters make
money, kind of like letting the fox run the henhouse. As a result,
the SEC was more interested in disguising bad loans and investments created
by Wall Street than in doing its job.
Mr. Fulk and the fellows who ran Lehman walked
off with combined compensation of over $1 billion for their five-year
stints at crucifying that firm. (I would have done it for a mere
million.) Plus the government is yet again bailing out failing
automotive companies. I don’t know why, especially since a ten-year
vet on the GM production line makes over $200,000 a year, way more than my
So what’s going on? I have a
theory. It goes like this: economic growth is not good.
Before you protest, listen. Ask any seven-year old what happens to a
fish in a fishbowl when you keep feeding him enough he grows 14% per year?
Doesn’t that fish eventually get squished up against the
fishbowl? Isn’t he a dead fish, dead as a doornail?
Let me clue you in. Earth is a fishbowl,
and unless we are able to annex Mars post haste, we’ve got bigger problems
than even the financial system – though of course it was the financial
system that has driven us to this wrack and ruin. Supporting economic
growth ad infinitum, which all of us do, even people in other countries, is
madness. Pointing fingers, blaming anyone at this point, won’t help.
We are running out of food, oxygen,
water. Capitalism does not value any of these resources appropriately
– no one knows what would be an appropriate valuation. No one is even
asking the question. We do not sufficiently re-use, re-condition, re-source.
Our insistence on “growth as progress” has created increased financial
volatility, risk and instability, within which we are losing the middle
class. And if we keep going this way, with economic growth as our primary
indicator of progress, we will soon be as dead as fish squished up against
the proverbial fishbowl.
Our current governing methods are over 400
years old! Ancient, unworkable. Surely we can do better.
Financially speaking, we are trying to get to Alpha Centuri using Newtonian
physics. And it isn’t working. Newton’s theories are fine if you are
sitting under a tree trying to explain why an apple fell on your head, or
even if you are trying to get to the moon. But to get to Alpha
Centuri, which is light years away, you need the theory of relativity.
And today, our problems are complex enough and long-tailed enough and
interwoven enough that they are like trying to get to Alpha Centuri.
Only finding the economic theory of relativity can get us there.
This may seem incredibly obvious, but you do the same things you get
the same results. No one in Washington seems to have yet figured out
that waving the banner “economic growth is good” cannot move us
forward. Don’t get me wrong. It is not that capitalism and
democracy are bad, per se; don’t misunderstand me. It is simply that,
like Newtonian physics, they are neither thorough nor rigorous enough to
get us from this point to where we now need to go. It is time to stop
holding on to the ghosts of our forefathers, who didn’t have and probably
couldn’t even conceive of our current problems, and move on.
I believe that innovation is the sudden
cessation of stupidity. I believe that the basic tenets of capitalism
– predicated on economic growth – are stupid. So if it all falls
apart, well and good. That is the beginning of necessary
change. The whole system, all of it, needs to be changed. And
we can only do that by gathering together all of the specialists in a room
and listening to them. For what we are tasked with is no less than
finding that financial theory of relativity. We are tasked with being
Top to bottom, bottom-up and top-down, we need
to scrap the system and start again. If Mr. Obama can do one thing,
simply facilitate the discussion among the specialists, it will be
marvelous. We need to get our Einsteins in a room and lock them in,
until they come up with something better than what we have now. The
theory of financial everything. Financial string theory. Can we
even take a step in this direction?
I, for one, am looking forward to the sudden
cessation of stupidity.
MY AFTERNOON WITH SCULPTOR ROBERT
Sculptor Robert Graham recently died, which
reminded me of my wonderful afternoon once with him. Let me explain.
During the 1984 Olympics, I came upon two
bronze sculptures of nude and headless male and female athletes installed
just outside the Los Angeles Coliseum. Even though they stood above
me, I was speechless. Sometimes I’m struck dumb coming across beauty
when I least expect it—much as I am when going to my car at sunset and
noticing the sky is an orange and white parfait, and I just have to stop and
At the time, there was controversy about whom
the artist, Robert Graham, had sculpted. He wouldn’t reveal who had posed
for him, and for my Christmas card that year, to end the debate, I stuck my
head on the male athlete and my wife’s head on the female one. Once
receiving the card, my father called to say we’d been brave to pose nearly
nude. “Dad, didn’t you notice that the bodies are black and our faces are
“I thought you’re just wearing revealing body
stockings.” To this day, I’m glad my father thought I looked that good.
In 1988, I happened to be at the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art when I came across miniature statues of nude women,
but they seemed amazingly real. The detailing awed me, and as I moved into
the exhibit, there were larger statues, and then one of Duke Ellington at his piano,
held up on the heads of many nude women. It was called the “The Duke
Ellington Memorial in Progress.” Man, who did this? Incredible. It was
When I’d spent much of 1975 going to school in
Copenhagen, I’d become of huge fan of the modern art museum Louisiana,
where I met Keith Harring painting a mural in a hallway—a very affable
person who had chatted with me. I’d also come to witness the super-realism
of sculptor Duane Hanson, who made his artworks life size, with what
appeared to real skin and wearing real clothes. You’d turn a corner
and see someone leaning against a wall, shooting heroin, and then think the
person might be dead because he wasn’t moving, and then you noticed a
sunburned woman on a chaise lounge and a man reading a newspaper to learn
these were statues.
And Robert Graham’s work looked just as real to
me, even though his were nude and in bronze. I’d also come across Graham’s
work in the Louisiana Museum, but I didn’t know it at the time: tiny nude
women running inside a Plexiglas box.
While Hanson worked by using moldings from real
human bodies, Graham sculpted using beeswax or clay. That is, he observed,
then re-created, and it’s this ability that has fascinated me. He could
“see” and translate what he saw into art, which is really what I try to do
In an interview with KPCC’s Kitty Felde a few
years ago, upon her questioning why he sculpted women so often, he said he
liked how the sensuality and eroticism lets the viewer see the world
through a single figure. He said, “They're not fantasy women, they're
individual portraits. The difference between even twins is tremendous, you
know. You have to observe it and that observation, that focus is what
allows you to get into that other door. It's like a very individual shape.
If you look at this model and you look at this, and there's two different
I came to see and love Graham’s work all over
Los Angeles. At the Music Center, there’s a doorway made with the images
of women. The sculpture garden at UCLA has many
of his pieces. There’s a nice big work, a woman’s torso, in
Venice. I was having lunch one day in the Wells Fargo Building
downtown, and I saw in the fountain a piece by Graham. In fact, if you live
in L.A., click here for a map of places to see his work in Los Angeles, click
The artist was born in Mexico City in 1938 to
Adeline Graham and Roberto Peña. His father died when he was six, and young
Bob was raised by his grandmother, Ana, his Aunt Mercedes, and his
mother. His three “mothers” moved him to San Jose when he was eleven,
and he discovered he loved making art in high school, where he was known as
Bob Peña. He later changed his last name to his mother’s maiden name.
After a stint in the Air Force, he studied at San Jose State College, then
enrolled as a painting student at the San Francisco Institute of Art.
This takes me to my very first English class I
taught at Santa Monica College in 1998, and a woman in red sat in front,
and she was unlike any of the other students. First, she was in her
thirties, unlike the teenagers and early twenty-somethings of the rest of
the class. Second, she dressed well—not the T-shirts and jeans or cargo
shorts that many of the other students wore, but she had a stylish red
dress. Third, she seemed serious and asked a lot of questions.
Fourth, she had an unusual first name: Neith.
One day I’d mentioned in class that I taught at
CalArts, too, and she came up to me after class to ask if in applying to
CalArts one needed to take the SATs or otherwise pass a math test. I
told her no, and she looked happy. “I’m having the hardest time in
math, and I want to go to a school that doesn’t require math.”
I told her she needed to be good in art,
though, and that one needed recommendations. She smiled and said that
Eli Broad, perhaps the biggest name in art philanthropy, would write her a
recommendation, as would sculptor Robert Graham. “You know Robert
Graham?” I asked.
She nodded and said, “I used to be his
model.” I didn’t quite believe that she knew Broad or Graham, but
some months later, I came across a bunch of Graham sculpture at UCLA’s
sculpture garden, and there was Neith in bronze. The plaque beneath
her said, “Study for Duke Ellington Memorial, Column 1 (Neith).” Graham
also has a statue of a horse there—he could do animals as brilliantly as
Shortly thereafter, I learned she’d been
accepted into CalArts in the art school’s photography program. My
friend Ken Young, director of admissions at CalArts, said that indeed Neith
had recommendations from Eli Broad and Robert Graham, and Ken had been
charmed by her personal statement, too. Neith was a good writer, he said,
which also I had seen in my class.
Neith later told me she had lived with Graham
before he’d met actress Anjelica Huston, whom he married in 1992. Neith
came to take my writing class at CalArts just after she’d given birth to
her daughter, fathered by a fellow art student. Neith breastfed in class,
which everyone seemed to enjoy. Her baby was happy, the students were
happy, and Neith could talk seriously while her child nursed. Talk about
One day in 2000, Neith asked if I’d like to
meet Robert Graham. “Are you kidding?” I said.
“I remember you said you’re a fan of his work,
and I’d be happy to arrange a tour, if you like.”
“I can’t afford any of his stuff. What would he
want with me?”
“He likes interesting people. I’m sure he’ll
“I’d love to go,” I said, but still wondered
what we’d talk about. I’d interviewed many well-known artists for the
articles I wrote for CalArts, people including Tim Burton, Werner Herzog,
Don Cheadle, John Lasseter, Alexander Mackendrick, Charlie Haden, Carolyn
Forche, and others in the fields of art, music, dance, theatre, film, and
writing—but this wouldn’t be an interview.
Graham and his former model, Neith, with some of his exploratory pieces of
In May, we came to Graham’s studio door in
Venice, not far from Main Street, a place I’d probably passed many times.
His studio was here? Neith rang the bell, and the door opened. A
smiling Robert Graham in a white pressed shirt, dark pants, and a stunning
head of white hair and a white beard held out his hand, and we shook.
He had a cigar in his other hand. I learned later, he typically dressed
this way: the gentleman sculptor.
We went into one room of his studio, which was
filled with his work on the walls and on the tables. I could see he could
draw and paint just as well as sculpt. On one table was a model of FDR in a wheelchair.
“This is one of the things I finished a few
years ago,” he said. “FDR has never been portrayed in a wheelchair,
but I think it’s important. Even though he couldn’t walk, he could
lead the country well, and that should be celebrated.”
The time went quickly, but he seemed to be
taken with my many questions. He took me into another room, a bigger room,
where against a wall, he was creating what would be the doors for the Cathedral
downtown. The door had panels, and some of the panels, he said, tied
into the Indian heritage of California. He wasn’t going for just Catholic
imagery, but imagery that connected to the people who first found this
land. I was thinking to myself at the time that a man best known for his
nude women really could not be categorized easily.
He put me so much at
ease that he encouraged my curiosity. He said that Neith had been a
wonderful model, and said, “I think I still have some of the modeling
pieces of Neith around here somewhere. He dug and came up with two
head-and-shoulder moldings in blue wax of Neith, and then a larger head. It
was Neith of fifteen years earlier.
In Kitty Felde’s interview, he talked about how
the right pose reveals personality: “That is the beauty of a kind of pose
that somehow conveys personality, the kind of look of a person is really
the thing that takes them through their whole life, how they look, how
people perceive 'em, you know.”
That day, just part of a day of his life and
part of one in mine, he revealed his own personality. He never boasted
about his work, but rather explained what he did as a process. He seemed
amazed that the magic of the process kept working for him. Each piece was a
challenge, but he always found a way through it.
Not once did he look at his watch or make me
feel the day was squeezing him. After an hour, I started feeling guilty,
and I said we should go. We left within a half hour. He didn’t rush us out.
The time he spent with me has meant a lot. I’m
saddened to learn he died last week, but the ripples of his work and his
personality linger around us, to be appreciated for years.
column of Neith in UCLA's sculpture garden
See you next time,
For reviews or more
information on my books below, click on the cover. Who Lives? will
be mounted in a new production in Los Angeles starting March 12,