The Maplewoods Mirror

(Something odd is going on here.)

 

  

The 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 here)

  

To see a three-minute video about my newly published book, click here.  

 

In This Issue 

CORRECTION:

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 full schedule:

 

     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.

 

Artist Brant Kingman will host a discussion of my new book at his studio in March

THE ROAD TO PUBLICATION: A HOW-TO IN PROGRESS

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, no?  

 

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 article, click 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 Brown.  

 

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 that.

 

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 clicking here

 

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 information, click here.

 

 

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 GATSBY

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 reading.”

 

“Literary, you mean?” she asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“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 page.

 

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 following:

 

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 man.”

                                    --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 attend.

 

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 middle-class income.

 

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 financial Einsteins.

 

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 GRAHAM

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 stare.

 

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 not?”

 

“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 Robert Graham.

 

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 words.

 

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 worlds there.”

 

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 here.

 

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 people.

 

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 multitasking.

 

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 like you.”

 

“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.

 

Robert Graham and his former model, Neith, with some of his exploratory pieces of Neith

 

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.

 

A column of Neith in UCLA's sculpture garden


See you next time,

       --Chris

 

 

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, 2009.