Monday, July 30, 2012

Gillian Flynn's new novel is a summer sensation.  People carry it to the beach.  It is #5 on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list.  Women's magazines (which I read at the hairdresser and dentist) are raving about it.  So I bought and read it.
The writing is good, the characters interesting, the plot twists interesting and (by me, at least) unforeseen.  Nick Dunne's wife Amy has gone missing.  The marriage had deep problems, but just how deep they went only becomes evident as the plot twists and turns.  I was thoroughly engrossed for the first three-quarters of the novel.  Then something happens--not to the characters (although, that, too) but to the story.  I don't want to give anything away, but for me the ending just did not work.


Really, really did not work.  As in, the author betrayed her protagonist as she'd drawn him until then.


Wanting to know if I was alone in this disappointment, I began reading reviews of GONE GIRL on both amazon.com and the Web.  I am not alone.  Some people loved the book, some disliked the ending.  Virtually nobody disliked the first three-quarters.  But then I began to notice another thread among the negative reviews, one that has come up over and over again in the writing workshops I teach.  Readers -- some readers -- disliked the book because "by the end, none of the characters were likable."  


In my view, protagonists do not have to be likable, only interesting.  But there is a large, LARGE group of readers of commercial fiction who think otherwise.  For them, a book does not work unless they have someone to root for.  So if you are writing a book that you hope will have commercial (as opposed to literary) potential -- make nice.  Or else.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Thrilled at the Movies

Recently I saw the indie film BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, which won major prizes at both the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals.  I was blown away by the movie.  This one is a genuine original.
The protagonist is Hushpuppy, a six-year-old living with her father on a Mississippi Delta island pretty much forgotten by the world.  Hushpuppy is played by a completely untrained little actress, Quvenzhan√© Wallis, who is astonishing.  This child makes no distinction between what is "real" and what exists in her powerful imagination.  (When her father disappears for a few days, she says, "Daddy might have turned into a bug or a tree.  There was no way to tell.")  Her teacher has told her about aurochs, prehistoric creatures that are just as solid to Hushpuppy as the fish she and her father catch in their ramshackle, improvised boat.  What is wonderful is that the movie makes no distinction, either.  When Hushpuppy imagines something, it appears, and we don't know if it's "really" there are not.


This makes for a rich, sometimes baffling, and always absorbing trip through two alien worlds: the island culture, and Hushpuppy's mind.  Her mother is dead, her father is dying, a huge storm hits and mostly destroys the island, aurochs appear, polar ice caps melt and crash into Louisiana, her mother comes back, maybe -- it's a visual feast with its own individual logic, in which longing and imagination trump linear thinking.  Don't miss this one.  SF has nothing as alien or complex as this little girl's brain and the film that creates it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant

One is not supposed to argue publicly with one's fellow writers.  Or at least not when it's their show, and they are also your publisher.  Nonetheless, last night at Seattle's University Bookstore I got into it, in a friendly way, with Kelly Link, one of SF's brightest young stars, whose husband Gavin Grant runs Small Beer Press.  Small Beer published my recent collection of short stories, FOUNTAIN OF AGE AND OTHER STORIES.


First, both Gavin and Kelly read:
Then, during the Q&A, Kelly asked the audience a question: How many people in the audience read a novel out of order?  Many did.  Kelly said she does, too, sometimes: reading the end, peeking at the middle.  "But..but...." I sputtered, "you can't do that!"


Obviously she can.  Kelly said it lessens the tension over wondering what will happen, and that when she knows the outcome, she can relax and better appreciate the build-up.  I said that as a novelist, I don't WANT the tension lessened -- I work hard to arrange things in a sequence that will increase it!  The audience laughed.  Kelly, who is a very sweet-natured person, explained further in the soothing tone when uses to calm down disturbed dogs.  I was not convinced.


And I'm still not.  


But the reading was good.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Happy at the Movies

Last night I saw the new Woody Allen film, TO ROME WITH LOVE.  I admit to bias here: I like Woody Allen (despite strenuous arguments with Connie Willis, who hates him and last week explained to me why, at length), and I went to Rome in April with Jack and had such a wonderful time that the visit probably colored my reactions to the movie.  On the other hand, I disliked LA DOLCE VITA, which featured the same romantic views of Trevi Fountain.
This is a movie about environment, in three senses.  First, it's a valentine to the city, which is photographed in loving detail in golden light.  Second, it's about the need for certain environments to accomplish certain things: an opera singer can only sing well in the shower.  A girl on her honeymoon becomes a wilder and more abandoned person only in situations far removed from her daily life.  

Mostly, however, this is a movie about the environment of fame.  In the funniest of four interwoven stories, Leopold, a middle-class clerk, wakes up one morning to find himself famous for no reason whatsoever ("You're famous for being famous!")  Paparazzi pursue him.  Television audiences are fascinated by whether he wears boxers or briefs.  He is thronged for autographs.  His multiple reactions to this celebrity underscore the other characters' reactions to their fifteen minutes of fame -- the opera singer, the retired impresario, the actress finally offered a part, the girl lunching with a famous movie star.  


This is not a perfect movie -- in places Allen is straining too much.  But I found it both fun and, weirdly, thought-provoking.  I asked the two people I was with if they would choose to be really famous, if they could be.  One said yes, one said no.  As for me (who just attended multiple events with and for George RR Martin, who must now be shielded from his fans) -- yes.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

George RR Martin and Connie Willis

Last night at a fund-raiser for Clarion West, after a wine-and-buffet reception, Connie Willis interviewed George R.R. Martin.  It was an entertaining and interesting interview, which opened with Connie saying, "I haven't seen you for a few years, George -- have you been writing anything?"  The author of THE GAME OF THRONES series answered at length, saying, "Connie told me at dinner to make my answers long.  She doesn't want to work too hard."

Interesting tidbits from George:

As a kid he made up monster stories and sold them to neighborhood children for a penny each.  Eventually, the price went up to a nickel.  There are no extant copies of these stories: "I hadn't mastered carbon paper."

He was enormously influenced by the movie ALIEN, in which the character who first appeared to be the hero gets killed, and someone else (Ripley) becomes the hero.  "That's how it often is in real life -- you don't know who will turn out to do what."  This, he says, is the reason so many of fans" favorite characters, such as Ned Stark, end up dead. 


When he began to write the series, he didn't realize how long it would be, or how long it would take him to write each book.  "That's partly because I've said yes to too many speaking engagements."  At one point, his editor was coaxing him to finish a book with a unique ploy: George wanted to see the cover, and she would only mail it to him in little strips after he sent her more pages.  


He uses charts, maps, and genealogy trees to keep all those characters straight.  ("Don't you have 736 viewpoint characters now?" Connie asked, with wicked innocence.) 


No, he does NOT know when the next book will be finished!


His secret vice is chocolate doughnuts. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Charmed at the Movies

MOONRISE KINGDOM is a very strange movie -- but, then, it was created by Wes Anderson, whom one either loves or hates (I once saw a shouting match erupt at a dinner party in D.C. over THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS).  KINGDOM is also, in its own wonky way, utterly charming.


In 1965, two twelve-year-olds run away together, one from Scout camp and one from home.  These kids are both loners, Sam disliked by everybody in his Scout troop and Suzy the object of a brochure her parents have acquired, HELP FOR THE VERY TROUBLED CHILD.  Suzy, played by Kara Hayward, has the spookiest intensity I've ever seen in a young girl, enhanced by great quantities of eye makeup.  She and Sam are in love.


This could have been a set-up for an icky script, sentimental or too knowing or even tragic, but it's not.  The movie plays the kids' escape dead-pan, and it is both hilarious and moving.  These kids know they're both outcasts and they glom onto each other as if clutching life rafts, although with a childish consideration for the other person that none of the adults in the film are able to muster.  Suzy's mother is having a juiceless affair with the local sheriff.  Suzy's dad is teetering on the edge of despair.  The scoutmaster takes refuge in doing everything by the book, which means his charges are completely out of his control.  The Nurse Ratched-like woman from Social Services (which is the only name she is addressed by, as in "Social Services, we found them") is frozen inside.


The movie mixes the concrete with the improbable, all narrated by a gnome-like figure in a knit hat who earnestly explains, with the aid of many maps, the geography of the island where the kids are hiding, as if narrating an important historical battle.  Suzy and Sam are resourceful, committed, and touching.  If you met these kids in person, you probably wouldn't like them, but seen from a safe distance, they're admirable.  See this movie -- but only if you have a taste for the whimsically weird.