Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tom Stoppard and "Parade's End"

THIS week on HBO, Americans can catch up with a literary adaptation that hit hard in the UK last year: Parade's End. Godlike playwright Tom Stoppard adapted this series of four short novels by the underrated Ford Madox Ford -- published in the '20s and set around World War I.

Yours truly had a story today on the miniseries and the process of adapting a very long and difficult text. It meant, among other things, that I got to sip coffee with Stoppard at the Chateau Marmont while the crew set up for the Vanity Fair party. (Overall, I'd rather have a serious conversation with a major writer, so I don't mind not being invited this year.)

I have more good cuttiny-room-floor material from this story than I usually do, including a long interview with Benedict Cumerbatch, who plays the lead role. I'll post some of it here once I clean a few things up.

And here is my original ending to the piece, which will make the most sense to those who've seen most of the miniseries:

Tietjens’ wife doesn’t have the same regard for him. Hall plays Sylvia as a lusty, restless redhead – Molly Ringwald’s evil twin. But she’s not, Hall says, simply evil: The actress was in awe of her character’s audacity as well as her contradictions. “I thought, if they don’t hate me by the end of the first episode, I’m not doing my job. And if they don’t like me by the end of the fourth episode, I’m not doing my job. I have to play those extremes.”

            The stubbornness of these three characters puts them on a collision course that resolves in the mini-series’ last scenes. Stoppard, in his initial meetings with the show’s producers, emphasized that this was not going to be a war film: The war serves, instead, as a metaphor for changing times in the same way that Crawley manor does.

            “It was the war that forced British society to go through this sea change,” he says. “In 1918 women got the vote – [though] not all of them. Social values, moral values. All the arts kind of went berserk in the face of the horrors that had been witnessed. And you can see how absurd it would have seemed for Tietjens to hold onto his prewar worldview. Or his view of himself for that matter.”

Photo credit: Nick Briggs/HBO

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Jim Gavin's Los Angeles Stories

IT'S not often that a book of short stories as good as Jim Gavin's Middle Men rolls across our desk -- rarer still when a book of any kind captures Los Angeles, especially its overlooked, non-mythic aspects, quite so intelligently.

And don't take our word for it: The galleys of Middle Men come with so many raves from execs, editors, and publicists at Simon & Schuster than I can picture dewy office interns being flogged by their bosses, "Write a rave for Gavin now or you are out of here!" But it's all in the service of a great work, so we here at The Misread City are happy to see this kind of medieval method applied.

Gavin has been in and around L.A. for a long time, and pursued a number of "failed careers," including gas station manager and quiz-show gopher, and seems to have paid close attention all the way through: There's also an understated comic quality from the very first paragraph.

Among the things we have in common with Gavin are an obsession with California detective writer Ross Macdonald, a connection to Loyola Marymount University, Irish Catholicism in the family (though less unalloyed than in his), some years on Curson Avenue in the Fairfax district, and some serious damage from the 2008 Wall Street crash.

This dude is there real thing. Check him out at Skylight Books on March 14. And don't miss Middle Men.

Here is my Q and A with the author.

These stories seem to view LA from a number of fresh angles – from the middle you might say. What is your experience with Los Angeles – what ‘hoods have you lived in and what kinds of things have you done here?

I’m fourth generation SoCal on my dad’s side, which is always a smug and annoying thing to say. My dad is an old Long Beach guy, a “scholar and champion” from Long Beach Poly. I grew up for the most part in Orange, CA.  
As a kid, I played tons of sports, went to the beach in the summer, ate lots of fast food, lost my mind when Gibson went yard in ‘88. I graduated from Loyola Marymount University in West LA. While there I was a DJ for their radio station, KXLU 88.9 FM, which broadcasts all over Los Angeles. I loved it and spent a lot of my time going to shows at a lot of places that no longer exist, like Jabberjaw and the Alligator Lounge. 
After college, I worked on the sports desk of the Orange County Register.  Later, I lived up north in Berkeley for a few years, and when I came back down I lived in Long Beach, in an apartment called “The Versaille.” It was significantly less opulent than the one in France. After that, I lived in the Miracle Mile, within smelling distance of the La Brea Tar Pits. My local tavern was Tom Bergin’s, which recently went through a bunch of pointless renovations. Basically, they just made the menu more expensive, and they no longer serve chicken tenders. I’m not happy about these developments.  
I moved back up north between 2007-2009, and then I spent a year in Boston, my first and hopefully last winter.  
I currently live in Culver City, a block from the Culver Studios, in one of those little bungalow courts from the 1920s.  I’m pretty sure my apartment is haunted by a hack screenwriter who hung himself in 1947.  I can walk to Trader Joe’s and the new Expo line station, which is awesome. I’ve gone downtown more in the last six months than in my previous 36 years of existence. I also love driving down Sepulveda between Pico and Jefferson, because if you squint, it’s like your driving through Los Angeles in 1973. 

The city, here, seems about as far from the old “sunshine and noir” trope as I’ve seen in literary treatment. We don’t have a sense of a palm-treed utopia, a paradise lost, or of a seedy underbelly. Do feel a connection to any of the classic writers of LA or California fiction who help build those mythologies?

Ross MacDonald is one of my favorite writers.  I’ve probably read more books by him than anyone, though they do blend together.  But he is brilliant, and Lew Archer is my favorite LA detective (followed closely by Jim Rockford).  Based on a few off-hand references, I figured out that Archer’s dingy bachelor apartment was in the Miracle Mile, somewhere north of Pico, and east of Fairfax.  I was living in that neighborhood when I figured this out, and suddenly the Spanish fourplexes on Curson Avenue took on a new and brilliant grandeur.  
Raymond Chandler casts a long shadow too, of course, and I can’t drive Mulholland without thinking of him.  One of my great dreams in life is to be tailed by goons.   So I love the noir legacy, and part of me wishes I had the ability to write a detective novel.  I love all the great Hollywood novels too.  One of the stories in my collection is based on my experience as a production assistant for a certain game show. It views Hollywood from the bottom, but I think it still fits in that tradition.  
But like the detective novels, most Hollywood novels are written by people who didn’t grow up here and so they can only see it as it as a nightmare funhouse populated by tawdry phonies.  It certainly is a nightmare, but there is a whole other realm of experience in Southern California that, like any other part of the country, can only be captured by someone who has been here a long time and who can see the place on its own terms, not refracted through the vision of Hollywood.   
In the last few years,  wonderful writers like Victoria Patterson, Dana Johnson, and Michael Jaime-Becerra have staked out their own territory, and as a native, reading their work provides a special kind of pleasure.  I get to see a familiar world for the first time. 

Craft typically sets the story apart from the novel. How do you approach craftsmanship? Where does a story usually start for you, where does it go from there, and do you revise like crazy?

I always know what I want to write about, I just don’t know how.  There will be some experience that haunts me in some way, but I don’t what the story is. I just know that I can’t get a certain image or moment or line of dialogue out of my mind.  Months will pass, years, and I’ll bang my head against a wall for a while, but then I’ll write a sentence that has a certain spark to it .  There’s a coiled energy in the tone and voice, and I try and let that sentence lead the way.  
I had wanted to write the story “Bermuda” for over a decade.  I had actually been there as a young man on a doomed romantic mission, but I had no idea what the story was, or who was telling it, until I wrote these sentences: “Ravens nested in the lemon tree and each morning a woke in the shadow of a minaret. Plus we had cheap cable.” For whatever reason this gave me the narrator and the rest of the story fell into place.  
I spend a lot of time on the opening page of a story.  Everything has to be there.  The tone, the language, the hierarchy of characters. The ending is always in the beginning.  I tend to revise as I go. I don’t write a first draft and then go back to the beginning.  Instead, I spin my wheels, rewriting the same sentence over and over, but I think that’s when you’re writing the rest of the story.

I can’t quite figure out Max Lavoy – the Walloon quiz show host, self-absorbed history buff, etc. – from the story “Elephant Doors.” Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about him, either. Give us a sense of where he came from in your imagination, how he fits into your vision of the story, the book, the city.

I remember hearing a story about Mad King Otto of Germany.  I have no idea if this is historically accurate, but apparently he got it in his head that if he didn’t execute a peasant each day, the kingdom would collapse.  So each day his handlers would fetch a peasant who worked the royal grounds and they would put him in front of a wall and hand Otto a rifle.  He’d shoot the peasant and then go about his day.  But as soon as he departed, the “dead” peasant would get up and go back to work.  
The whole thing was staged.  The gun shot blanks and the peasant pretended to get shot.  All these people went through this ridiculous charade every day to appease the whims of a king.  
I don’t if this actually happened, but I think it is a brilliant illustration of how all organizations essentially work.  There is a king at the top, and everyone down below, scrambling to appease.  This is true in the corporate world, in Hollywood, and in many families. I had this in mind when I was writing the character of Max.  
He’s a king, of sorts, and gets whatever he wants, which, in a way, means he will always be isolated and unhappy.  Someone on the other end of the spectrum, like Adam, the production assistant, has to perform any number of ridiculous charades while convincing himself that this kind of humiliation is worthwhile and necessary.  Adam is just as narcissistic as Max, but he at least knows this about himself, and in the end he chooses to humiliate himself on his own terms, by rededicating himself to stand-up comedy, rather than jumping through any more hoops for Max. 

The book as a whole feels shadowed by the crash of 2008, and the diminished expectations, that followed -- without being “jaded” in a hackneyed way. I expect much of it was begun back in the good old days, but did the downturn have an influence?

Yeah, I think it had a big influence.  My family has always had lots of ups and downs, so being broke isn’t anything new to us.  
In “Play the Man” there’s a sort of sub-story about the collapse of his family, though the narrator is too wrapped up in his own life to totally understand what his parents are going through, financially and emotionally. But this recession got us good and we lost the house in Orange where I grew up.  It was a long and exhausting process and I still can’t bring myself go down to Orange. It makes me too sad.  
At the same time, I feel lucky that I got to grow up in a house, and I can only hope that I can provide something similar if I ever have kids.  A simple middle class wish, but it’s becoming harder and harder to come by, especially in California.  
Our house already had multiple mortgages but the whole bankruptcy/foreclosure process started in earnest after 2008 crash.  I remember those months, the shame, the fear, the insomnia, the sense that something had been irretrievably lost.  That mood definitely worked it’s way into the stories, especially “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror.”  
It seems the worst of it is over, but like everyone else, my dream is no longer to get rich, it’s simply to get out of debt. 

One element that sticks out is what I’ll call “non-Latino Catholicism,” or judging from your surname, Irish Catholicism. How did growing up with some relationship to the church (school perhaps) shape your approach to seeing and writing?

It’s been a huge influence.  I grew up with a lot of kids whose parents were born in Mexico and Central America, so when I think of the Catholic Church, I’m more likely to think of Archbishop Romero and the Maryknoll sisters, than the grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica.  
My parents made a lot of sacrifices to put me and my sisters through Catholic elementary school and high school and later I went to a Jesuit college.  I have fond memories of all those places, but that has more to do with the people I was lucky enough to meet than with any real understanding of the Church.  
In typical lapsed fashion, I had to drift away from the Church to finally become interested in its history and theology.  Sixteen years of Catholic school and I was never assigned the Divine Comedy!  I had to discover all that on my own, and sadly I think that’s pretty common. 
Everything that is beautiful and inspiring about the Church has been buried under the rubble of a few conservative talking points and the ongoing horror of the sex abuse scandals.  
All the characters in the collection come out of this parochial environment, and though Catholicism isn’t always foremost on their minds, they can’t escape its influence, and they see the world accordingly.  My favorite songwriter, Dan Treacy of Television Personalities, has a beautiful line in “Everything She Touches Turns to Gold”:

Catholic school, the pain the guilt
My story is no different to tell
Every young man’s hell
Just waiting for the bell

That could be another epigram for the collection.  In fact, I’m kind of annoyed that I didn’t use it.  
In any case, there is the pain and the guilt but there is also this idea of mercy that I think plays a central roll in the book.   I think we all want mercy, and a few of the protagonists are lucky enough to find a person who is selfless enough to provide it.  

Congrats on Middle Men. What’s next for Jim Gavin?

I’m working on a novel and trying to improve my golf game. I play at Los Feliz.  $7 for nine holes and the greens are littered with cigarette butts. If I can start hitting under 30 on a consistent basis, I will be very happy. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Return of the Shoegazers

FOR a few thousand of us, last week marked one of the musical events of the decade. After more than 20 years of near-silence, My Bloody Valentine released a new, noisy, hazy, dreamy new album. I spent part of 1990 in England, where the shoegaze revolution was roaring full force, and passed much of the '90s sulking through record stores trying to find out of print EPs and import singles by this glorious band. (In the early '90s I saw Ride at the "old" 9:30 Club and the band was so loud my then girlfriend fled the venue and met me on the sidewalk outside after the show.)

So while I've not really had the chance to turn the new MBV up to 11, it all sent me back to my love of the genre, and to a story I wrote a few years ago about the shoegaze movement. The dreampop field was so out of fashion then, and so limited to fellow powerless Gen Xers, that I had to plead mightily for the space for this modest piece. It begins:

About a decade ago, while the Seattle grunge movement was drawing most of the music media's attention, a loose collection of mop-topped British and Irish musicians who explored guitar textures, converted noise into dreamy melody and experimented with hip-hop beats made some of the most compelling music of their era.

These days, a number of younger bands are emulating the rush of the original late '80s/early '90s shoegazers. One of those is The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, who also bring in other early indie movements. A former member of the band -- L.A.-based Chris Hochheim, who calls himself Ablebody -- has a fine new EP. Like his old band, it's hardly a carbon copy of Ride or MBV or Slowdive, but feels deeply connected to those bands.

Here is a link to listen to Ablebody's All My Everybody EP.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Benjamin Nugent's "Good Kids"

EVERY once in a while, something – a book, a short New York Times story, an n+1 essay – appears by a mysterious character named Benjamin Nugent, and damn if every time it isn't funny, smart and insightful.

Now Nugent – who I’ve interviewed over the years on Elliott Smith, songcraft, and the history of nerd-dom – has a new novel called Good Kids. All I can tell you so far is that its opening chapters have some of the best, most well-observed writing I’ve seen on the blurry mystery of teenage-dom: I expect the publisher and reviewers will compare the novel to Noah Baumbach’s movie The Squid and the Whale, and not just for its kid's eye view of marital discord.

Nugent lived from time to time in Los Angeles during the oughts, which included, I think, a hipster/celebrity brush with greatness I will not get into here. Now back in his native New England, where he lives in Somerville and teaches at Southern New Hampshire University, Nugent happily walked down memory lane a bit for us here at the Misread City. He’s at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Thursday night.

So what years did you live in LA, and how did that time shape or influence your book?

I bounced back and forth between LA and New York from 2003 to 2009. LA was a dominating influence on Good Kids. I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, a college town with an insular culture that followed its own peculiar codes. And it looked like a place that lived by its own closed system of rules. It valued decreptitude and liberalism and Jungian self-scrutiny. 

But LA fascinated me because it was this anarchic miasma of a place, a massive spill of broken glass glimpsed from a plane. And yet the little world of people I knew in TV and music was an insular brother/sisterhood, just like Amherst, with its own initially inscrutable codes. There's a scene in Good Kids at Disney Concert Hall downtown where everybody runs into each other watching Joanna Newsom play with the Philharmonic, and I loved writing it. I was intrigued by this tribe that drew together accidentally from time to time, despite being dispersed across a thirty-mile zone.

Now that you are relocated back to New England, what do you miss most from our shores?

The smell of the hills in Silver Lake; it's like really strong weed mixed with really healthy cat pee.