Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Story of my Book

In about a year, my first novel, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, will be published by William Morrow. It's a thriller about a man that reunites with his college girlfriend twenty years after she disappeared. She comes back into his life to ask for a favor, and he winds up involved in a heist, several murders, and a rekindled romance.

I know that I'm always interested in the behind-the-scenes stories of books, so here is mine, a long-winded post for those of you who might be interested.

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart began life as a short story that quickly became a novella. I had just finished writing a complicated novel that involved multiple timelines and characters. Before revising that novel, and preparing to send it out to agents (I did, and no one was remotely interested), I decided to work on a story idea I'd had for a while. The spark of the story was, and this is the usual case with me, one of those "What if" questions. In this case, the "What if" question was: What if you were a high school student who had gotten into college, and didn't want to go? What if someone else went in your place? First of all, I thought that it could never happen nowadays. Too many Facebook pages, and cellphones, and digital histories. But when I went to college--back in the 1980s--kids just showed up and matriculated, and no one knew anything about anyone. It was a completely fresh start. And I thought that it could be done, that two seniors in high school could switch identities so that one could go to college, and one wouldn't have to.

If I were a different type of writer, this might have turned into a love story (well, it kind of is), or a comedy, or a piece of literary fiction about the temporal nature of identity, but I turned it into a thriller. I was partly inspired by the movie Brick, written and directed by Rian Johnson, in which a noir sensibility is fused with a story of high school students. I wanted my novella to feel like pulp fiction, but with college freshman in 1986.

I wrote it relatively fast (for me). As William Shakespeare famously said, "This shit writes itself." It turned out to be about fifteen thousand words, which is a terrible length. Not long enough to even consider padding into a book, and too long for most short story markets. I knew, however, that Mysterical-E accepted novella-length stories, so I sent it there. To my eternal gratitude, and surprise, Joe DeMarco published it.

About a year after it was published, I received an email from Nat Sobel, an agent at Sobel Weber Associates. He had read "The Girl" because it had been nominated for a Spinetingler Award, which was news to me. Nat told me how much he liked my story and asked me if I had an agent. After googling Nat and discovering that he was an actual, successful New York agent (and not a Nigerian prince looking for a bank account), I told him that I'd love to work with him. I sent him some of the novels I'd previously written, and he liked some and didn't like others (one thing about Nat is that he will always tell you exactly what he thinks), but what he was really excited about was the possibility of turning "The Girl" into a novel. I told him that I'd thought about it, but I didn't think there was enough "story" there. Nat agreed, but wondered what would happen if my two characters, George and Liana, met again twenty years later. I gave it some thought, and came up with an idea, and that was how the novel version was born.

It took me about a year and a half to write the book, bouncing ideas back and forth with Nat, and it was hard-going. At one point, after delivering a full manuscript, Nat suggested I change from first person to third person, and restructure the time frame of the whole novel. It was this particular revision that was the hardest to do but the most productive. The novel began to work in a way it hadn't before. By late summer of 2012, there was a manuscript in place that Nat was considering bringing with him to The Frankfurt Book Fair. I was thrilled, but I was also cautious. I had been trying to get published for over ten years and had gotten very used to disappointment.

That September, my wife Charlene and I went to Bermuda for a week. Just before leaving, Nat told me to check my email while I was there because he might have some news for me. I don't usually bring my laptop with me on vacations but I brought mine along. We had rented an apartment in St. Georges, and internet was spotty, but one afternoon I got an email asking me to call Nat right away. When I called him, he told me that I had a two-book deal with William Morrow. It took me a while but finally I believed him. That night we celebrated (Dark 'n Stormy's were involved), and Charlene and I felt like we had suddenly entered an alternate reality. We hadn't taken a trip in two years for financial reasons, and suddenly we were on this beautiful island, and celebrating a book deal. It didn't feel like our real lives.

Since then, Nat and his partner Judith Weber have sold the book to several overseas publishers. As of now, The Girl will be published in the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, The Netherlands, Japan, and China. And since then I've been working with my amazing editor, David Highfill, on getting The Girl ready for publication, and I've been working on my new novel, tentatively titled "The Lonely Lives of Murderers."

Oh, and all of this is a long preamble to explain why I don't blog as much as I used to. I just don't have time, even though I'm watching as many movies, and reading as many books as I used to. This blog might change a little, become more of a writer's blog and less of a critic's blog. It's a trade-off I'm happy to make.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Joyland Cover Art

I love that Stephen King publishes on the side with Hard Case Crime, a paperback publisher that replicates the pulp novels of sixty years ago. They publish new authors, but also reprints. Their cover art looks like it comes from another era. Here's the artwork for King's second book with them.

It comes out in June but I wish I had it right now. That cover is first-rate. King's first book with them, The Colorado Kid, was ultimately disappointing. It was essentially a meta-take on storytelling and legend, which is kind of the opposite of pulp. Pulp is about bad things happening to bad people (good people as well), but most importantly, shit happens. Heists go wrong. Guns get fired. People die.

Let's hope Joyland lives up to that cover art.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Downton Withdrawal

There's plenty of winter left and no more Downton Abbey. Here are some viewing recommendations for surviving the coming months.

A Room With a View (1985)
For your Maggie Smith fix. She plays Charlotte Bartlett, chaperon to the young, and inappropriately-in-love Helena Bonham Carter. She begins as a purely comic creation that ends up being slightly tragic. Judi Dench is also excellent as a know-it-all novelist, and Daniel Day Lewis has an early role as a silly fop.

Rebecca (1940)
Mrs. Danvers, of course, has to be the prototype of O'Brien. This is upstairs/downstairs drama as a horror story, and one of the greatest Hitchcock films.

Monarch of the Glen (2000 - 2005)
This BBC series is not quite at the level of Downton Abbey, but it's a cute look at a modern day heir trying to keep his estate viable in Scotland. Downton creator Julian Fellowes has an acting role in this, and recently deceased Richard Briers (in picture) is worth seeing in anything.

My Man Godfrey (1936)
The Brits aren't the only ones with butlers. In this timeless screwball comedy, Carole Lombard plays an American aristocrat, and William Powell is the hobo (or is he?) that she turns into her butler.

The Rules of the Game (1939)
The original upstairs/downstairs creation. This French film, that takes place at a country-house weekend, is about everything: love, death, sex, and rabbit hunting.

Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Don't bother with the recent movie-version. This miniseries is arguably the greatest miniseries in television history. It shares many themes of Downton, as Charles Rider (Jeremy Irons) becomes embroiled with a troubled aristocratic family, and their beautiful country home.

Gosford Park (2001)
This Robert Altman film was penned by Julian Fellowes. In some ways it is remarkably like Downton (Maggie Smith as a very similar character) but in some ways it's an opposite, darker version, one that explores the more sordid side of the upstairs/downstairs relationship. This film grows on me every year--a late Altman masterpiece.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Happy Birthday ...

to Kim Novak, 80 years old today ...

Ten Best Films of 2013

10. Perfect Sense
For being the most terrifying apocalyptic film I've seen, coupled with a strange romance, and a beautiful score by Max Richter.

9. Lincoln
For Tony Kushner's brilliant script and Daniel Day Lewis' towering performance.

8. The Deep Blue Sea
For Rachel Weisz, giving the best performance of the year as a woman made psychotic by love.

7. Pitch Perfect
For being consistently funny, and for having great music, and for not degenerating into a mean girls bitch fight.

6. Zero Dark Thirty
For those last thirty minutes, and for Bigelow's direction, resisting action-film cliches, and big emotional moments.

5. Moonrise Kingdom
For the two in the above picture, living the pain of nostalgia while it's happening.

4. Haywire
For being the closest thing to a great Modesty Blaise adaptation I'll ever get, and for Gina Carano's thighs.

3. Looper

For taking chances--emotional, structural--in a sci-fi actioner, and for Rian Johnson's whipsmart camera moves.

2. The Cabin in the Woods
For being the best time I had in a theater this year. Funny, scary, and surprising up until the very end.

1. Django Unchained
For Tarantino, who makes every movie as though it's his only one.

Michelle Obama/Bree Daniels

A good look for both of them ...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Istanbul Dance

I don't watch Bunheads. I tried, but the patented Amy Sherman Palladino dialogue rhythms didn't quite work for me. I was actually a fan of about three quarters of the life of The Gilmore Girls. She does write good dialogue, and I don't mind visiting a world where characters reference old movies, and speak in witty, clipped sentences. But sometimes it gets a little much, especially when all her characters sound the same.

So I missed this single-take dance sequence to the excellent They Might Be Giants song. This is what dance on film should look like--thank you Emily Nussbaum for alerting me to its presence.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Book Report

A little bit of snowstorm reading ...

I pulled this Travis McGee novel from my MacDonald shelf in my office just because I wanted to quickly read something I've read before. Lo and behold, it's a good possibility I'd never read this one. If I did read it, I was probably fifteen years old, but it didn't ring enough bells. It was a good one, with McGee avenging a friend's death, but through an economic con game instead of his typical means. The wounded bird of the novel, Puss Killian, turns out to be more of a girlfriend figure for McGee, and her fate is particularly heartbreaking but not in the way you'd think.

Less a murder mystery and more of a comforting novel about a widower returning to his home in Yorkshire, buying an old house, and trying to solve the decades-old mystery it contains. Slow-moving but in a good way.

This well-plotted novella plays on Rear Window and The Daughter of Time, as Lippman's detective Tess Monaghan solves a crime while on pregnancy bedrest. Funny and clever, and then quite touching.

Poetry Monday


by Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging in them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterward, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone,
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love;
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.