Where All the Ladders Start

I have looked at the novel I’ve been working on in all different seasons, at all different times of day, and I have finally decided its title is Where All the Ladders Start.  Readers of a poetical persuasion will recognize the quote from the ending of the Yeats poem The Circus Animals’ Desertion:

I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Deciding to give the books in my Last P. I. series titles lifted from poems is one of the many ways in which I strive to be a commercial failure.  Couldn’t I have come up with something clever — liking naming them after numbers, or colors, or letters of the alphabet?

Anyway, I am declaring the novel “pretty much done.”  So you’ll have a chance to take a look at it before very long.

Wanna see my son in a Jordanian sitcom?

“Wait,” you say, “there are sitcoms in Jordan?”

Yes, there are.  This one is called My American Neighbor.  It’s a mild cross-cultural satire: Jordanians misunderstand American customs; Americans misunderstand Jordan.  In this episode, the American guy living in Jordan is getting married to a local girl, and his family arrives from the States.  They show up at around the seven-minute mark.  His kid brother is wearing a Red Sox cap — hey, I recognize that cap!  Later he wears a Celtics jacket, and in another scene he wears a green shirt with the Narragansett “Hi, neighbor!” slogan on it.  I recognize that shirt, too!  Clearly he’s giving off a New England vibe.

Here’s the show:

Anyway, I think James is pretty good (not that he got paid or anything).  The best part of the show, though, is the Mona Lisa print on the wall with duct tape covering her décolletage.

Writers in movies: Bright Star

Another in an occasional series.

Like The Invisible Woman and Hemingway and GellhornBright Star is about a real writer — this time, John Keats.  The movie covers the last three years of Keats’s life, focusing on his relationship with Fanny Brawne.  

Unlike Dickens and Hemingway, Keats was not a jerk.  He is, in fact,  just about the most lovable great writer I know of.  This is, of course, problematic in a movie.  Here is what the director, Jane Campion, had to deal with:

  • All Keats’s friends loved him.
  • His relationship with Fanny Brawne was chaste and “appropriate”.   Fanny’s family loved him as much as his friends did.
  • At the end of the movie he’s gonna die, and we all know it.  (He dies because he catches TB taking care of his beloved brother.)

So you have a sort of tragedy — the romance is doomed, and Keats is doomed to think that he will die a failure.  But that’s just sad; it’s not dramatic. Where do you find your conflict?  Campion finds a little between Fanny and Keats’s roommate, but that’s about it.  For the most part, watching this movie is like watching very elegant paint dry.  It’s well acted; the costumes are great; but there’s just not that much going on.  

There’s a little bit in the movie about writing: we see Keats and Charles Brown, his roommate, sitting around during the day trying to find stuff to write about.  And then there’s the famous scene of Keats sitting in Brown’s yard one morning writing “Ode to a Nightingale”:

According to Keats’ friend Brown, Keats finished the Ode in just one morning: “In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of the nightingale.”

But really, there’s not much you can do to dramatize that.  This is the essential problem with writers in movies: a young guy sits in a chair, listens to some birds, and scribbles out an immortal masterpiece.  It just isn’t very cinematic.

Anyway, let’s all enjoy Bright Star:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
         Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
         Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
         Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
         Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
         Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
         Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.


Faulkner on inspiration

Two of my favorite writing quotations come from William Faulkner:

I only write when I’m inspired.  Fortunately, I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

And in a similar vein:

I don’t know anything about inspiration because I don’t know what inspiration is; I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.

I was thinking about these quotations recently as I came to the conclusion that my next novel should be a sequel to The Portal. Fine, but what should the sequel be about?  The thing to do, I have found, is to open up a blank document, start asking myself questions (starting with What is this book about?), and start trying to answer them.  

In less than two hours, over the course of a couple of mornings, I had the title and the basic idea.  They will probably change completely before I’m done, but at least now I’ve got a direction to head in.  

The point I wanted to make here is not that I’m especially creative, but that when I say “morning”, I mean 6:30 in the damn morning.  Years ago, I couldn’t have imagined being creative at that ungodly hour.  But nowadays that’s the way may life happens to be organized, so that’s when I have to get my “inspiration.”  

Faulkner knew what he was talking about.  And it seems like someone thought that first quote was worthy of an inspirational poster:


“The Kiss” and Chekhov’s Gun

The Kiss, from 1929, was the last silent movie for both MGM and Greta Garbo.

There’s no to watch it except for Garbo.  That’s because there’s just not much going on in it.  As the web site Silent Volume says:

I got the feeling that The Kiss, Garbo’s last silent film, was acted on the sly, as though everyone knew the Temptress had run its course and wanted to see how little they could build around the character and still make it work. For The Kiss is short: 62 minutes; without a subplot of any kind, one scant scene of comic relief; a barely resolved second act and no real third act at all.

A commenter on the site suggests that the studio just gave up on the film because it knew that talkies were the future and didn’t want to waste time and money on something no one would watch.

I’m always interested in plots that involve Chekhov’s gun, however, and The Kiss includes a very rudimentary implementation of the technique — every bit as rudimentary as the one in The Two Mrs. Carrolls.  In an early scene we see Garbo’s husband dropping some papers, and then opening the bottom drawer of a file cabinet to insert them into it.  Inside the drawer we and Garbo see — a gun!  Later on (spoiler alert!) Garbo is trying to stop her husband from beating up the callow young man he has seen her chastely kissing (Lew Ayres, appropriately awful). The husband thrusts Garbo aside.  She is on the floor — she suddenly recalls the gun in the file cabinet next to her — she takes it out — she shoots!

I don’t know the state of forensics back in the 20’s, but it seems odd that the jury lets Garbo off on the theory that her husband committed suicide.  The bullet, after all, was fired from a gun at least half a dozen feet away, held at the level of the husband’s kneecap.  Such details aren’t worth worrying about in this movie, however.  Better to just look at Garbo.

I am loathe to criticize anyone but . . .

I have a somewhat respectable day job in which I’m supposed to oversee a couple dozen highly experienced writers.  In the past week, two different writers have sent me emails containing a sentence like the following:

I am loathe to make any changes to the content at this late date.

I generally don’t like pointing out mistakes in emails.  We’re always writing fast; we don’t don’t have time to go back and edit what we’ve written.  But for some reason I decided to point out to one of the writers that the word she should have used was loath.  She responded:

I’m so sorry!  I thought both words were one in the same.

One in the same!  I started to get a pit in my stomach.  Was the language changing without my even noticing?  Or should I start getting more persnickety about emails?