Thursday, July 26, 2007

This Wizard Business

I haven’t been keeping up on Harry Potter since I read the first book and saw the first movie in 2001. In an earlier e-mail incarnation of these postings, I offered my opinion. I now submit it again edited, but still held.

I’ve read the book. Seen the movie. Now my report on the matter.

When I finally read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a few short weeks ago, it was already sagging under its fame. Thanks to the juggernaut of modern post-movie Hollywood (they haven’t made films or movies in decades; it’s all product spinoff now.) we have not a fine children’s book that’s transcended its intended audience like Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh, but the phenomenon of ballooning expectations, punctured by oversell.

While initially enthusiastic, I finally found the novel entertaining, but rushed and perfunctory. J.K. Rowling draws her inspiration from two English storytelling traditions: the schoolboy novel (Tom Brown’s School Days) and the sturdier, enchanting tradition of the fantasy (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis). But her voice is modern: straightforward and spare. She seems to take for granted the wizard world that Harry enters and so, it seems, does Harry and everyone else. It’s meant to be whimsical and sometimes it is funny, but in rushing to tell a breathless story, Rowling misses something I need in any alternate universe story: a sense of being there: that feathery touch of poetry that seduces me into believing in Harry’s world as much as my own.

For example, just what does Hogwarts School look like? We don’t get much of an idea as Rowling sums up Harry’s first look at this supposedly wonderful place in a brief and uninspired paragraph: No sense of landscape, drama or awe. The book never feels “as real as a dime,” to quote Dashiell Hammett’s description of M.P. Shiel's The Lord of the Sea, another adventure classic.

True, I’m being a Muggle about a book aimed at preteen boys, who may be bored by that much detail (Full disclosure: at eleven years, your correspondent was attempting, badly, to read Dr. Zhivago).

But this does raise a question: how have the Harry Potter books managed to leap into the warm embrace of grown-ups, many of whom presumably remember Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbitt?

I’m not an expert on the English whimsy/fantasy tradition (I prefer their supernatural tales) but I do remember that sense of “being there” in The World of Pooh. Like I could look out my window and see A. A. Milne’s furry befuddled creatures wandering right through my snowy back woods in Lake Mohegan, New York. A recent re-reading of those tales poignantly confirmed my nostalgia. Milne’s stories are short, but the sweet details of Pooh’s universe are chosen right, supported by E.H. Shepard’s vivid drawings and watercolors: A remarkable feat for a book written seventy-five years ago for an audience younger than young Potter’s.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” never got that close. It reads more like a Hardy Boys adventure, and really, who among you has ever re-read them and cried like babies? I finished Harry Potter with a shrug and hurried on to The Fellowship of the Ring which, whatever its problems, creates a world as real as Hammett’s dime.

In that respect, the spectacle recently rolled out by Hollywood genuinely tries to bring Harry Potter to visual life. It does conjure up some of what Rowling’s prose missed. Especially impressive is how the wizards douse the neighborhood lights during the opening. The special effects for the Quidditch match are shaky, but the film makers imagine it well and cleared up my confusion about this Polo on Broomsticks.

The film was shot at numerous old English schools, so nothing looks like a set. It all feels rightly British, thanks especially to the adults in the cast including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith and the transcendentally evil Alan Rickman, whose Professor Snape deserves his very own movie. The second Rickman bounds onto the screen like Basil Rathbone or Vincent Price on steroids, the movie springs to magical life. Too bad they didn’t make more use of him. (Never mind the kids; they’re *all* terrible: Next to them, Haley Joel Osment looks qualified to play Hamlet.)

Finally, the movie suffers from the very Harry Potter phenomenon itself. J.K. Rowling was understandably fiercely protective of her creation, and as are its millions of readers. But the film makers wind up chained by the material. With a mob of fans armed with torches and pitchforks ready to storm the set at the first sign of tampering, there wasn’t much they could do with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone except shoot the Classics Illustrated version. They include only a lame wisp of the amusing dragon incident, when they should have cut it altogether. The ending lacks suspense (The only surprise is that main villain Voldemort looks amazingly like, of all people, Lee Van Cleef!)

In a sense, it’s a shame that Terry Gilliam, who was touted as the original director, didn’t get to turn his wizardly eye on Harry Potter. But that may have resulted in his burning at the stake and the reduction of Warner Brothers studio to rubble, no matter how well the movie stood on its own, which all good adaptations must do.

REMINDER: The blog will be on vacation until August 12! Thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Culture Vulture in a Cage

Congratulations to everyone who made it through two hours of President Cheney.

Numerous editing projects and work on that someday-to-be-a-skyrocketing bestseller of mine—the one I know you’re going to buy because you read these postings—has lately kept me caged at home. I know the description above promises you essays on travel and nature, but when you live in a place like Emeryville, California, it really is a long way from here to there: a lush desert island surrounded by a grey sea stretching to a flat gray horizon . . .

In my spare moments, I’ve been watching DVDs and, on occasion, getting out to the movies. For example, Live Free or Die Hard, which met my—and its own—not-too-high expectations. If you hate Bruce Willis and loud action movies, your mind will remain unsullied by change. I’ve pretty much lost my taste for the second item, but I’ve enjoyed Mr. Willis in the past (16 Blocks is a recent movie of his I liked) Justin Long—to Americans, the straight guy in those hilarious Apple commercials on TV featuring "Daily Show" Resident Expert and blogger on this service, John Hodgman (sorry, no link)—is the expected sidekick and does well playing . . . a computer, now that I think of it, albeit one that has been hacked by bad guy Timothy Olyphant, a central member of that wonderful Deadwood ensemble. Olyphant here takes a spin with Alan Rickman-type villainy . . . but maybe that’s not quite his tea (also, he suffers a very boring death for this type of movie). What I liked most is the use of real stuntmen for most of its cartoony—and typically confusing--action sequences. For sure, this movie is likely the last of its kind I’ll see for awhile. Back to Gunga Din and The Wild Bunch for me.

Apparently, the New York Times critic closed his review of the new Pixar animated film Ratatouille with “Thank you.” As I live two blocks from that rightfully legendary studio, I suppose I’m obliged to say likewise, but . . . . OK, as animation, Ratatouille shows Pixar blowing past the edge of all that can be done. The colors and shading of every frame are enchantingly beautiful, especially the shades of blues and reds and the full design of the characters . . . thank God, it distracted me from the flat script and story. I also admire the amount of research they did, not only on French culinary practice, but on rats. Unfortunately, I didn’t laugh much through most of it, until the end when . . . well, I won’t spoil it for my readers in Spain and Tunisia.

The great S.J. Perelman wrote a series of essays called “Cloudland Revisited” about his experiences rereading the books of his childhood as an adult. In an earlier post, I offered some thoughts about nostalgia. Of course, I couldn’t have written such a thing if I wasn’t caught in its grasp. My Netflix subscription—an American DVD rental service, for you international readers—acts as my time machine.

In the past year or so, I’ve revisited such boomer childhood TV highlights as The Wild Wild West, the James-Bond-Out-West spoof that ran for four years. I’m happy to say this has weathered well and seems to get better as I slowly move through the first season. Aside from Robert Conrad’s terrific stunt work (I just know Jackie Chan was a fan), there’s his rapport with his sidekick, the pseudo-master of disguise Artemus Gordon, played by the exuberant *Ross Martin.* The scripts are often funny; their spoofy aspects are played with straight faces, which is why this show is funnier than Batman. The episodes where Jim West battles the evil dwarf Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn) and his sidekick Voltaire (Richard “Jaws” Kiel) have been the best so far. (Fun note: the series creator, Michael Garrison, was openly gay . . . and it shows.)

When it came to The Untouchables, I couldn’t wait for Netflix and so bought disk 1 of season 1. This gangbuster series that ran from 1959 to 1963 has been a favorite of mine forever. Even so, I confess that it’s a mixed bag now: its view of law enforcement is pretty stale and its way with 1930s gangland history is stupidly cavalier, even though I forgive the nonsense of Eliot Ness (pictured here) fighting every gangster who ever lived. But this ancestor of Miami Vice and The Sopranos is a great production with punchy action, wonderful old cars, great clothes and scenes full of chewy dialogue spoken by a parade of the great character actors of the day.

The best surprise of all has been Combat!, a World War II series that stretched out that conflict for five years from 1962 to 1967. For its time, and considering its TV budget and censors’ restrictions, this manages to sometimes be a very evocative and unglamorous picture of Men at War. The scripts are thoughtful and even stretch toward daring in their treatment of certain themes. The best episodes so far have been helmed by a director known to serious film lovers everywhere: Robert Altman.

BLOG NOTE: Next weeks’ schedule will be altered. I’ll post briefly this Thursday or Friday but I will be absent the following Sunday, returning 8/12. And I may have actual Adventures in Nature to share!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

SHOP TALK#2: WRITE BADLY! (Second in an occasional series)

As I read the first draft of my novel The Vampire of Alpine Canyon for the very first time, I heard the critics thunder:

“Worst novel I’ve ever read! I’ve always been a First Amendment stalwart, but this vile excrement has changed my mind!”—San Francisco Chronicle.

“It wasn’t until I closed the book and threw it in the incinerator that the stench that permeated the room faded away”—The New Yorker.

“Makes Dean Koontz look like Michael Ondaatje. Clearly written by a chimp. City Council should pass resolution expunging author’s birth records from city files—“ Peekskill Evening Star.

“I can’t take it anymore! Hand me that revolver!” Publisher’s Weekly (deceased).

OK, it wasn’t that bad . . . but reading Draft #1 was rather like a high school memory: a sauce of
embarrassment and anguish. Sometimes, I glimpsed glittering life floating on a black mysterious
pool; sometimes, it was just algae rotting in oxygen-deprived water. I could see where I hadn’t a
clue I what was doing. (Toward the end, I realized I’d neglected an important character and spent fifty pages fleshing him out to uneven, but very helpful, effect.)

Draft #1 was the bad unpublishable book I expected: There were so many loose ends it looked like octopi in a front-loading washer. But when you get right down to it . . . Big Fucking Surprise. And without any guilt or paralysis. Why?

Because I hadn’t shown it to anybody! Not even darling Elizabeth. I figured out many years ago that the only lesson I ever learned from showing anybody a first draft was the most obvious one: “Your book sucks.” Usually, this comes in an angry tone of schadenfreude designed to crush the morale needed to get through the second draft, which, if ever finished, is written so as not to provoke further rage: And so it ends, with a nice, formulaic safe book, praised in workshops across the nation.

In other words, I had to figure out where, how and why my book sucked before letting any other human eyes near it.

Bad as the book was, I still felt I had something. Despite the flat characterizations, rushed
storytelling, dithering plot lines and paucity of convincing detail, my basic story still seemed a
good one. The ending seemed to work especially well—very unusual for a supernatural novel, which, even after the best, most exquisitely drawn and designed buildup, often collapses in bloody fiery confusion.

Bad as it was, it still recalled that night under Sierra stars. There were moments where it flew
like a dream, whispered from my shadow, snickered from the darkness.

Draft #1 came out around 500 pages. When I finished Draft #2 two weeks ago, it was longer by ten chapters and a hundred-plus pages. (Three of those chapters were ripped from that fifty-page monster I wrote in the first draft.) But that was not a bad thing. It was longer, I suspect, because I knew and understood more. I predict that when I read it (right now, that would be starting yesterday), that everything—character, motivation, plot, story, setting, drama, emotion—will be clearer and stronger.

By the time I’d started Draft #2, I’d drawn a crude map of the location. The real Alpine County,
sadly, turns out to be a little too under-populated and lacking certain geographical features for
the tale I’m spinning. So, I created an imaginary county, though I left some local landmarks with new names. I not only got my geographic features, I created a whole new town. Some work remains to be done in this area.

As I marched through Draft #2—only a handful of days off for illness and holidays—I used a calendar from a previous year to construct an “events calendar.” As I finished each chapter, I entered the following information:


This was but one step in that “serious bureaucracy” mentioned in my last posting. Creating this
Flying Monster’s-Eye view helps establish a window of time within which the action would take
place. It assists with plot, continuity and pacing. It will undoubtedly help with analyzing and
cutting chapters and scenes and joining episodes.

A side note here: Over at literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog, the subject of point of view (POV) came up, an essential decision in all fiction. Genre fiction is often told in the first person. Dracula did this through diaries, letters, and articles, allowing Bram Stoker to flit in and out of various POVs. Ghost Story by Peter Straub (my favorite of all) goes in and out of first and third without the media and with great success.

I chose a more conservative path: Third person, singular POV; two major, four or five minor; one POV per chapter (with one or two exceptions). I briefly toyed with cutting down to two POVs only. While this might create a more intense experience, it might also make it a more claustrophobic, subjective story, maybe like those written by the English master Ramsey Campbell. But that’s not what I’m angling for with this tale.

This time, I’ve taken off only two weeks. My sense of urgency grows; my need to get on with it sharpens. The Muse that says “I think you’ve got something here” now sings another tune: “Wait no more! Go on! Suck all you want! But write!”

Monday, July 9, 2007

Shop Talk #1: There's a Draft In Here! (First of a Series)

“’Bob opened the door.’

“Dear Diary: Today, I wrote ‘Bob opened the door.’ Tomorrow I will write another exciting sentence as we discover what Bob sees through the now-open door—"

John Caldwell cartoon caption.

en days ago, I finished the second draft of my debut novel—and this blog’s real raison d’etat—The Vampire of Alpine Canyon.

Don’t fret. No spoilers lurk ahead. But I will try to answer the questions that have so many folks bouncing like frisky kittens: “Gee whiz, Mr. Burchfield! How’d’ja do it!? Gosh! It must be fun to write a novel! What’s it like?”

Well, it’s like this: Several years ago on a summer evening stroll along a High Sierra road in beautiful Alpine County, California, my wife Elizabeth, who misunderstood my anxiety over the eighteen-wheelers that thundered close by us like elephants looking for small animals to squash, made an off-hand tease that set my brain on fire.

That moment was one of those that every writer—especially fiction writers—pray for. As I looked at the saw-toothed, tree-lined wildscape around us, and the sky dimmed with the last crimson smear of sunset, turning to a sparkling moonless black, I saw what that title is meant to make you see.

At the time, I’d been swamping around up to my hips inside a different book. My day job was flattening my brain, rusting my soul. I was already putting down the floor on my editing business. Sometime after that night in Alpine County, I decided the first book—entitled Hill of the Dead—would be entombed for another day (maybe forever). This new idea kept flitting around in my skull—soft black wingtips whispering off towering cave walls. I kept seeing scenes from it, like a movie.

I even briefly considered writing it as a screenplay. But I’m too old to sell screenplays anymore, and my Muse insisted it would work better as a novel. I could take it places strictly forbidden by screenwriting’s rigid molds. I could try to evoke the beauty of this mountain place I love and the lives of its fictional inhabitants.

This would be my fourth attempt at novel writing. Until I read Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art, I didn’t think that you could fail at writing a novel, come back and try again, several times even, before finally publishing one. I thought everybody was like Pynchon and Salinger: bashing home runs at first bat. Or at least getting on base.

On Monday, November 7, 2005, I got up around 6:30 AM, pressed the coffee pot button and watched the Today Show with Elizabeth for half an hour. Then I dressed, entered the office, sat down at my desk, turned on the computer, put on some music, and thought and typed, thought and typed for maybe an hour or two. Then I went and tried to make money.

As I do with workshops, I avoid “how-to” books (one or two will do, in my mind.) but I read a lot about writers’ working lives: how they go through (and survive) their work days. Here’s a problem I shared with many:

One memory of my previous three cracks at writing a novel was that a lot of it was as boring as the job I slaved at. Trying to figure out the how and the why of a Vampire opening a door, for example, is very a much a technical matter, not much more inspiring than coding towers of legal documents. A stultifying amount of detail needs consideration: kind of like doing inventory a nail factory. There’s serious bureaucracy involved.

And I couldn’t think of those details all the time, either. Most of the time, I blundered on, from one chapter to another, like stumbling through a house, room to room. “Worry about it later,” became a frequent mantra. As Truman Capote once nailed Jack Kerouac for doing, I was only typing. Of course, this is not On the Road. It’s not even Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a genre novel, a classic example of This Happened and Then That Happened. Details? I knew if tried to count all the nails, I might as well get a job at a real nail factory.

I thought and typed and thought and typed until August 21, 2006. I made no outline, though I made a character and location list. Many writers swear by outlines; others jump right in with only an idea of their destination. I took the second route. Like all the writers I read about, I had to find my own way of doing it. Sometimes I felt inspired. Many times, I was . . . typing . . . but even then, it seemed to go smoothly. I never lost the sense that I was writing a book that I eventually would want to read. I was haunted. To my bones. Enough to show up six days a week.

Typing THE END felt awfully good. Finally! I finished one whole draft of one whole book! After three tries! I spent a month sleeping late and thinking about other things (like how to make money). But I knew I’d only flown over this new territory once and hadn’t seen much more than moonlight and shadow. Before long, I would have to take to the sky and fly it again.

So what happened next? Surf by, next week . . . .

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Great Nostalgia Mashup

So many are writing about the Summer of Love this summer, I figure I might as well, too. Sure, I remember 1967. Yes, I witnessed the Summer of Love . . . on a 24-inch black and white RCA TV in a tiny living room on a second floor apartment in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Honestly, my memories of that summer amount to a small pile of (mostly) feces. I may been a little baffled and sacred of the silvery shadowy broadcasts of hairy people running around the streets and the newscasters’ mutterings about a mysterious far off land called “Berkeley.” (“You must’ve been stoned,” you snicker. “No,” I snicker back, “but I shoulda been.”)

Memory tells me that, in the summer of ’67, I was an alienated and strident 12-year-old Republican-in-Training and Vietnam War supporter. Just the year before, I’d been removed from my Tom Sawyer/Christopher Robin world to a midwestern town that was as flat and dreary as a parking lot. While everyone liked the Rolling Stones, I liked Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. (Why I had the attitudes, tastes, and opinions I did is grist for another mill. Except for Ennio Morricone, I made a lot of bad picks that year.)

That summer, I paid my annual visit to my father, who was then living in Coral Gables, Florida, in a ranch style house in a suburban neighborhood. It was—unlike rural south central Texas, where I spent two previous summers—extremely humid. Like Oshkosh, it was very flat. For a natural wanderer, there was little to wander around in. The days seemed mostly empty.

I remember early morning weekend fishing trips on my father’s 18-footer, “The Hindri” in Biscayne Bay. I liked those trips: an incredible cornucopia of fish in good numbers, even though it was out of season. Words like “overfishing” and “global warming” had yet to haunt our world. I loved the thunderstorms that sailed in over the Bay and how the distant columns of rain plunged down from the billowing purple clouds and made the storms look like atomic explosions: My innocence indicates a certain lack of moral awareness.

That’s pretty much all the nostalgia, except for a bookstore located a few blocks away where I bought novelizations of the Get Smart TV series with my allowance. (No, they weren’t funny. Nor do I regret their loss.)

Most people missed the Summer of Love and still had a swell time that year: Maybe even a better one. But there are those who didn’t: rioters in Newark, soldiers in Vietnam. And the Vietnamese themselves. Not to mention all those lost alienated adolescents.

During the 1990s, I joined the Retro-Swing scene. I had a great time wearing that snappy early twentieth-century fashion and swinging to that swinging brassy music. One of our crowd declared he wished that he had lived in the 1920s and 1930s, instead of now. That nostalgia was rightfully mocked: our friend would also have lived through the Great Depression; World War II; The Holocaust—and don’t forget the great dental care.

But that’s not denying good things happened then (like Duke Ellington). Nor is it wrong to wish that the best of those good things were with us now. I recall watching George W. Bush’s first televised speech after 9/11 and sorely wishing for a time machine to bring back Franklin Roosevelt, because he was the one we needed to hear that night. My reaction may not even have been nostalgic, but a sense that we were in bigger trouble than we realized, even then.

I know: We‘re stuck right now with the Completely-Not-FDR, but I wouldn’t dispense with nostalgia. So much of human culture, especially art, music, poetry, fiction, and especially memoir—would be impossible without its misty, sin-sweetened ambience. (We would, for example, miss the shimmering iridescent prose of Vladimir Nabokov.) Without nostalgia, memory would be a pure mechanical function. Houses wouldn’t be homes, but mere rock shelters. Burning away the past makes swell ranting rhetoric, but no one’s ever been able to live with the results as a tour of social realist monuments in post-Communist Europe might show.

Nostalgia also lies and sprinkles its golden dust over evil: Both Nazism and Bin Ladenism are nostalgias for a past that never existed: medieval utopias that demand the extermination of millions living now in order to rebirth those Halcyon Days of Whatever.

When I remember the past, I’m sometimes confronted with how good and evil, happiness and regret, so often twine together. Pulling up a good memory sometimes pulls up a bad one, a very living (and horny, hungry, and angry) corpse, from its grave. Getting lost in the past can mean failure to make the best of now and leave something better for tomorrow. (Right now, somewhere, someone, maybe my age, sits in his couch, watching the complete DVD set of The Brady Bunch. What pleasure will this memory give him on his death bed?)

I think it was Brendan Gill, in an article on architectural preservation in The New Yorker some years back, who said the point of preserving the past was not to bring back a supposedly better time, but to enhance our own. To that, I’d add that those who live in whatever future is coming might like to find a treasure to remember our times by. Whatever good and new things we make now, might count sweetly in tomorrow’s memory.

(Photos from Dave Harper; 120 negative; Virginia University; the National Archives)