Monday, January 28, 2008

The Analogy of the Farting Horse

Just when you think you're being insulted, it turns out you're being enlightened.

So I'm working on the book proposal. My friend Susannah recently read a rough draft of the overview. She said, and I'm paraphrasing, "Look, it's a mess, but you're just rusty. It's like you were a horse that was cooped up in his stall all winter, and then he gets let out in the paddock, and he's bucking and farting and bucking and farting, you know?" And after I had finished reeling, and staggering, and after I'd said, "Wow, I've heard rough drafts compared to vomit, and excrement, and saliva, but never a horse fart," she explained, "Hey, it's not a criticism. No one stands there watching that horse thinking he's stupid because he's bucking and farting. He just has to get that out of his system."

So, I think I'm going to embrace the farting horse analogy, actually. There's something joyful and mad about a farting horse. If you've never experienced it, I can't explain it. I'm not going to say it's sublime or anything, but it makes you smile. And bucking, farting horses are certainly not concerned with how their moves are going over in the press.

Monday, January 21, 2008

My Future Shelf

This is the shelf where my non-fiction book will be sold in the future.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sweeney Todd and Cloned Beef

I am a big fan of Tim Burton. I am a big fan of musicals. I abjectly love Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. And I really like steak. My prediction was that watching Sweeney Todd was going to be the pinnacle of my existence thus far, and that eating cloned beef was going to be pretty much unnoticeable and unexciting. Unfortunately, the movie failed to deliver the kind of rapture I was anticipating. I was ready to revise my top ten list, people! I was ready to make space next to Evita and The City of Lost Children and The Nightmare Before Christmas! We even imposed on our only local relative so we could go and see it in an actual theater. But Sweeney Todd failed to transcend.

The whole thing was a little claustrophobic. The shots too tight. The storyline too controlled. The surfaces too grimy. Where were the sweeping shots, the dazzling landscape, the bitter contrast between in and out, Halloweentown and Christmastown, the woods and the hearth, the suburbs and the castle? In one number only, Burton emerged: during Mrs. Lovett's "By the Sea" song, we saw everything his movies can be: it was like Big Fish and Corpse Bride all in one song.

But that was all, really. The rest was very tight, very close, very monotonous. Johnny Depp looking haunted next to this window, Johnny Depp looking haunted next to that window, and Helena BC rushing up and down the stairs. Did I love it? Well, yes. Of course. Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman sang a duet, using their own voices. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen made me laugh. The two little birds he cast to play the young lovers were swell. But it just didn't go there, for me. It wasn't beautiful. It wasn't grand. Dark is great, terrible is great, but I need a more expansive scope, a broader arc, a higher swell. Dan says my expectations were too high.

But never fear. A light is dawning on the horizon. Surely cloned beef will satisfy my intestines, where Sweeney Todd has failed to thrill my soul. Or, at least, it will go through my digestive system completely unnoticed, a perfect simulation of regular meat that came about via the original reproductive process. People are cranks. They say it's unnatural, weird, creepy; some even say "abominable." Ever the optimist, I approach my cloned beef consumption with a bright spirit. No, it won't be labelled. No, I won't have any idea when the cloned beef is about to pass my lips. But I have faith that when I spoon up that next bite of chili, so full of such a technological wonder, that I, like those poor souls in Mrs. Lovett's shop, will eat hungrily, happily, without concern. Forget the barber upstairs, people, and enjoy your damned meat pie.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists

Joyce Carol Oates is nominated by the National Book Critics Circle in two categories: Fiction and Autobiography. Her autobiography is called The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982. Well, that's one way to do it. I don't know about you but I'm totally pissing my pants with anticipation -- how will I put in the long lonely months before The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1983–1992 comes out?

Her fiction is called The Gravedigger's Daughter, in the glittering tradition of naming things The X's Daughter, where X is something dark and unsavory. Hey it worked for Loretta Lynn and Amy Tan.

Other notable nominations: A biography of Thomas Hardy. A book called American Transcendentalism (How long are people going to waste their time promoting the myth of Emerson?) And finally, the poetry nominees rip their wigs off and light up the night with their awesome titles: Elegy, Modern Life, Sleeping and Waking, The Ballad of Jamie Allan, and New Poems. Next to the stage: Storage, Breathing In and Out in a Steady Predictable Rhythm, and Sand.

CRITICAL MASS: The 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Renee Zellwegger is Two Girls, Fat and Thin

Before Chick-lit, there was Mary Gaitskill's novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin. My graduate school conspiritors/comrades and I always held this book up contemptuously as one of those books where women sit in the bathtub (no bubbles) and contemplate their thighs (the shape) and feel dreary. That may or may not have actually happened in the text. I may or may not be unfairly remembering this novel as one characterized by half-drawn curtains. I do think that this book is what Chick-lit was, before Chick-lit realized it would be better if books about women didn't make readers want to drink poison. That maybe comedy would occasionally be nice. Anyway, the title of this book has stuck in my mind, across the long merry years, and it's what I was thinking of this week as I watched Renee Zellwegger first in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, and then in Miss Potter.

Bridget Jones was a screaming nightmare from start to finish. Not funny, nonsensical, and hard to watch. Everyone played their characters so firmly and purposefully and dutifully that we ended up with a Bridget too ruddy, too shiny, too stiff, a Colin Firth with too giant a brick up his too pearly ass, and a Hugh Grant aping across the screen as such an unredeemable playboy, my arms fell off. Nothing good. Particularly nothing good about Renee Zellwegger's complexion. It'll put your eye out. If you're seeking a really exhaustive collection of unflattering necklines, this movie is a must-see. Otherwise, skip. If you haven't already. Which I had. Until now.

Miss Potter, on the other hand, was a mild delight. Ewan MacGregor was freshfaced and bouncy. Renee Zellwegger wore those long heavy skirts like in Cold Mountain. And Emily Watson, who I have relentlessly loathed, ever since she spent all of Breaking the Waves running around in Scotland crying, "JAN, JAN" and biting her lower lip, was actually fantastic. I almost forgive her all that Scottish snivelling. Yeah maybe it wasn't Scotland. Whatever. In this movie, she was kind of horse-boned and likeable. The movie was nearly great -- of course I did *want* to like it, so I may be feeling generous in my response to it, but I really feel like at times it was piercingly beautiful, and really fell through a thousand meanings at once. Not the whole time. But some of the time.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A New Experience

Today I did something I haven't done in ten years. I cold-queried agents. Bolstered by the support and advice of my friends and husband, energized by a new idea for a non-fiction project, I googled and spreadsheeted and perused, and then I sent off my seven little queries.

Just doing that made me feel pretty happy. Every time I clicked "Send" I got a little sicker and a little more interested. I had this idea for the book two weeks ago, and I wrote the chapter list this weekend. Today I worked on the query letter, incorporating significant wisdom and womance from Susannah, and sent it off. So far I've had two positive responses. The next step is to write the book proposal and send that.

This afternoon when I went upstairs, the light coming in the window in the bedroom looked kind of different. We are having a weird kind of indian summer here in Virginia. Or it's because I put my foot on a different kind of pedal than I have put my foot on before. This is not the strange, amorphous pedal of clove smoke and brain waves that is literary fiction. Sometimes pressing on that pedal gives you a sore throat, or a poodle, or a trip to Paraguay. This is a firmer, brighter, more substantial pedal that you can actually see and feel, and if you exert pressure on it, it actually moves according to the Newtonian laws of motion.

At least, that's the impression I have today.

Friday, January 4, 2008

I Have Discovered A Meaning

Sometimes you realize the true meaning of a familiar story suddenly. As if a curtain has been lifted on the face of an old friend, and you suddenly realize that the friend looks like Alf. Or, something more sublime than that.

This hardly *ever* happens to me because I fancy myself so mercilessly perceptive. I block off all possible meanings that I don't immediately perceive. Like, if I didn't get it already, it ain't there to be got.

Tonight, however, I had one of those epiphanies like other people get, you know, people who don't pierce through literature to its underlying message with the scathing accuracy of a whisper-thin rapier.

I figured out what Beauty and the Beast is *really about.*

There is a Chinese fairy tale called "Sing Sun and the Tartar," which has a lot of parallel elements to Beauty and the Beast. Three daughters, one really pretty and smart. The father goes off on a journey, promising to bring each girl a present. The sisters ask for expensive, frivolous things, and Sing Sun asks for a piece of the great wall. While he's hacking off a piece of the wall, the father lets a Tartar through (A tartar is like a hun but more hairy). The Tartar immediately imprisons the father, but promises to let the father go if Sing Sun will marry him. Sing Sun decides to comply, so she goes to live in his nasty tent on the other side of the wall. She rots there, lonely and bored, until he cries over the fact that she'll never love him. At this pivotal moment, she takes pity on him, kisses him, and BAM -- the world is full of butterflies and he's a handsome prince! I left out the part about a goldfish telling her, "You have to be kind to the Tartar, or you will never marry the prince." Everyone is happy forever and Sing Sun has her prince to marry. Excellent.
I realized, reading this version of the story, that the point of the story isn't that appearances are deceiving, that sometimes princes don't always look like princes, etc. The point of the story is that LOVE TRANSFORMS. So, you could say that the beast was a prince all along, or you could say that the PRINCE IS STILL A BEAST. Are you totally feeling me? In the Chinese version, there is no fairy, no enchantment, no last petal of the rose to drop. The Tartar is the Prince is the Tartar. The beast is the man is the beast. What changes is not the man, but the woman.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Never Admit Defeat

I guess it may turn out to be that I am the last person in the universe to conclude that I am incapable of writing books for children.

My two closest friends, both successful writers, have expressed deep concern over the state of this manuscript. One has said, repeatedly, "It is the worst thing you have ever written." The other said that you need to be 50 years old to read it. In other words, not accessible to the 8-12 year old market for which I am aiming.

My two closest family members loved it. Beyond measure. Well, bully for me. I managed to convince my husband and one parent. I must be a freakin' genius. Kristen likes it. That makes one person who's not related to me. One.

The thing is, I do not believe the negative criticism. At all. I think it is a great book. It may not be finished, but it is great. More importantly, it is what I want. I want to write this book, perfect this book, publish this book, and read this book in public. None of my other projects, more sophisticated and literary in nature, make me feel pride. They all seem like, well, okay, I wrote this knobby thing. It may divert you.

I have concluded that the book needs something major, something sweeping, something to change the entire thing. Something holistic. Something never seen before under the sun. When it has that, the diction won't matter.

For now, I am going to keep working through it, revising and embellishing it. It's like decorating a lamp with buttons and beads. If you really love the lamp and every bead makes you love it more. Liking the work this much, how can I be completely wrong about it?

In the process of doing this, I will have a big idea that will change the whole book. I have them for other people. Why shouldn't I have one for me?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year

I've been trying to watch the movie "Miss Potter" for months. It's one of those movies that I have to bring into the house at the proper time, to prevent marital unrest. It seemed like tonight was the night: husband is mildly ill, swamped with work, and looking forward to playing Age of Empires for a couple hours before falling into a Nyquil fog.

Me: Hi. Will you watch Miss Potter with me tonight?
Him: Miss Potter. What's that about?
Me: Love in the 19th century. And Aunt Jemima Puddleduck.

I would say it has Renee Zellwegger but that is not a selling point. He likes to see the whole pupil, if you know what I mean.

Him: Um, yes. Whatever. I'm probably going to die in a few minutes anyway.
Me: YES! I promise, you don't even have to watch it. You can pretend to watch while you play the game. And I won't bring any more chick movies into the house this year.
Him: Urg.


So we watched "Trust the Man" on HBO On Demand instead. It was actually pretty great. Applause, David Duchovny. Applause to you.