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Thursday, May 5, 2016

¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

Today is the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla in which 4,000 Mexican soldiers scored a major victory over the 8,000-strong occupying French army. Cinco de Mayo is an annual regional celebration in the state of Puebla and has become widely celebrated in the United States, even though it is not really Mexico’s independence day. That date would be September 16, which is the anniversary of the Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores) in 1810, which kicked off the war of independence against Spain. Dolores (full name: Dolores Hidalgo Cuna de la Independencia Nacional, or Dolores Hidalgo Cradle of National Independence) is a small town in the state of Guanajuato. September 16 is the major annual celebration within Mexico.

The original Cinco de Mayo, i.e. May 5, 1862, was followed by more battles and eventual French victory. A little over a year later there was a Second Battle of Puebla, which the invaders won and which was quickly followed by the fall of Mexico City. France then installed the Habsburg archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph as emperor of Mexico. His wife was Charlotte of Belgium, whose name in Spanish would be Carlota, or Carlotta as I learned it in high school. Hmmm. Maximilian and Carlotta. Wouldn’t those names fit nicely in the title of a novel…

Yes, I’m exploiting another country’s holiday to make yet one more pitch for my book.

If you don’t think you have enough—or, for that matter, any—copies yet, time is running out for buying them while Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead is still my most recent novel. With any luck, before long, it will merely be my second most recent novel. So hurry and act before that psychologically significant deadline gets any nearer.

In case you are a Scott Adams fan and are wondering, yes, I am trying out the persuasion techniques that the brilliant Dilbert cartoonist keeps using on his blog to motivate people to buy his book but, unfortunately, I think I am doing it wrong.

Have a happy Cinco de Mayo anyway.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Climbing the Wall

Reading Clae Johansen’s book turned out to be a good start for immersing myself in World War II and, by extension, the Cold War. During the extended combined St. Patrick’s Day and Easter school break, we took a few days to visit Berlin.

There were a number of reasons we settled on that particular city. It is a relatively short and easy journey from Ireland. We had heard great things about the place from our neighbors. It gave my kid a chance to practice the German language, which she is studing in school. And, for me personally, it was an opportunity to do a bit of research. You see, I can divulge that in my third book, which will be a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, my protagonist Dallas Green will venture off on another daft quest in a foreign country. Among the places he will wind up will be Berlin in the year 1980.

While the Berlin of today is a very different place from the divided city of the Cold War era, the place is brimming with museums, memorials and reminders of what that time was like. In fact, Berlin has done an excellent job of preserving and educating about its often difficult history. The German Historical Museum, in particular, does a great job of teaching the entire breadth of German history via art and artifacts. The Topography of Terror museum provides an exhaustive and stunning chronicle of the Nazi era. And, of most literary use to me, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum shows and teaches one anything one might want to know about Berlin during its divided period.

Berlin Wall
My kid and me behind a remnant of the Berlin Wall

Strangely, this was the first visit to Germany for any of us. I say strangely because I grew up thinking of myself as “German,” in the way Americans often tend to embrace a second or previous nationality. This was because my mother’s parents’ first language was German, but I eventually learned that my mother’s people were more accurately described as German-speaking Dutch nomads with little actual connection to Germany itself. There were never any ancestral places for us to go visit in Germany as there were in Sweden for my father’s family.

By a happy accident, while in the German capital we made two new friends—Berlin-dwelling friends of Irish friends—and, before bringing us to a concert at the Komische Oper Berlin, they brought us to a fun and bustling Bavarian-themed restaurant (complete with lederhosen-wearing waiters) for dinner. I had to laugh when I saw the name of the place. It was Maximilian’s! So, of course, I had to explain to our new friends that I had wanted to come to Berlin for inspiration for a follow-up to a book which featured the name Maximilian prominently in the title.

Talking about that book then and there was very strange because one of the people to whom I was describing it was a woman who—at an age only slightly younger than my own daughter is now—had to abandon her native Vietnam in the wake of the American withdrawal and fall of Saigon. She now has—or will soon have—a copy of the book, and I wonder what she will make of how that painful period is portrayed from the point of view of young men facing the prospect of fighting in that war.

Now that the school break is nearly over, I am more than ready to make use of my Berlin experiences as I continue writing book number three. But first there is the not-so-small matter of book number two. I have been getting useful feedback on the draft I sent out and, with hopefully not too much more delay, I will be getting that book finished and into the hands of readers.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Nation Surviving Between Two Devils

As promised in my previous post I have gotten the chance to read and review Claes Johansen’s new book on Finland’s experiences during World War II. It is currently available for ordering on and for pre-ordering on

Claes Johansen has given us as thorough and as considered an overview of Finland’s experience in World War II as any student of the subject could want. Johansen is an author who has written many books, both fiction and non-fiction and in both Danish and English. Until now I have mainly known him for his books on the seminal English musical groups of the 1960s, Procol Harum and the Zombies. Clearly, they were merely the tip of the literary iceberg. War has been a particular focus of his writing, and Hitler’s Nordic Ally?: Finland and the Total War 1939-45 is an English language account that follows Johansen’s Finland og den totale krig published in Danish in 2013.

While I have no doubt that serious scholars will find this 310-page tome (plus appendices and index) quite useful, it is entirely accessible and readable for those of us who are mere history buffs or who simply want to know more about an extremely interesting time and place in recent history. Many of us—especially Americans, such as myself, born after the war—have always tended to see the Second World War as a single continuous conflict between two sides—with numerous participating countries arrayed on either one side or the other. By chronicling Finland’s experience during this period, Johansen brings home the fact that the experience of each individual country was not only particular to that country but that not every nation self-identified as either a member of the Axis or as a teammate of the Allies. Smaller countries like Finland were mainly striving to survive with their independent nationhood intact. Finland, we learn, did not so much participate in what we think of as World War II as fight three separate and successive wars while other wars were raging simultaneously in Europe and in the Pacific.

Johansen lays out Finland’s complicated story by dividing it clearly into four distinct sections, corresponding to each of the three different Finnish wars and to the 15-month Interim Peace between the first two wars. The narrative alternates between detailed descriptions of the political debates and maneuverings that preceded and followed each of the wars and blow-by-blow accounts of the military actions that shifted the Finnish-Soviet border westward and then eastward and then westward again. The battle narratives are brought to life by generous excerpts from journals and first-hand accounts by participants on the ground and by many photographs of stunning quality from the war zones. The author highlights in particular the participation and accounts of his Danish countrymen—as well as other international volunteers from Norway, Sweden and the Baltic countries. Some photos—like that of a dead child being carried by a soldier or of the skeletal cadaver of a Russian prisoner of war—are terrible to see and serve to remind us how horrific things were for so many people in Europe—and during a period that was not that many years ago.

A preface helpfully sets the stage by setting out the intertwined history of Finland and the Soviet Union leading up to the Winter War. We learn that from 1809 to 1917 Finland was a grand duchy of Russia and that it gained its independence after a civil war that paralleled the one in Russia but which had a very different result. That set the stage for two decades of tensions as the Soviets worried about the security of their second largest city, Leningrad (the once and future Saint Petersburg), whose suburbs lay only 30 kilometers from the Finnish border. By the end of the book, we are appreciative of the near-miraculous fact that Finland avoided being absorbed into the Soviet Union like nearby Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. At the back of the book are six pages of maps to help the reader situate the various battle zones and the shifting border, but avid perusers not familiar with the geography may want their own detailed map at hand to glance at frequently during their reading.

What comes through clearly in Johansen’s telling is his deep admiration for the Finnish people (if not always for each and every one of their political and military leaders) and their determination to survive as an independent people. (The author clarifies at the outset that, while Finland is not a Scandinavian country, it is a Nordic one.) In an introduction he asserts that the “Finnish Army was probably the most effective fighting force in all of the Second World War. Despite being made up of conscripts, small and poorly armed, it managed with practically no outside help to keep the mighty Red Army at bay for more than three months during the Winter War of 1939-40.” For all that, his tone is generally detached and non-judgmental and he leaves no stone unturned in examining every angle of the choices made by Finnish leaders when it came to cooperating with Nazi Germany in its war against the Soviets.

His ambivalence about judging probably explains why the title ends with a question mark. It would be fair for readers to wonder why the question mark is actually there. After all, as an unoccupied country that coordinated with Berlin in advance of Operation Barbarossa (the Axis invasion the Soviet Union), Finland surely qualified as a German ally—even if Finland was never a formal member of the Axis. Yet, as Johansen is at pains to demonstrate, as non-Aryans (in the Nazi world view) the Finns were operating out of practicality and were not invested in Hitler’s ideology. Finland during this period just may be one of the best examples we have of the old expression: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And while the Winter War and the Continuation War were both fought against the Soviets, the seven-month Lapland War of 1944-45, which followed an armistice with the Soviets, was fought against the Germans. Having said that, however, we do learn that there was a current in Finnish society that aspired to a Greater Finland which would encompass the adjacent Soviet territory of East Karelia and possibly even parts of the Baltic countries, so things are never completely black and white. In the end, the Finns’ motivations and actions were complex and not always morally comfortable and, in fact, War-Responsibility Trials were held in the post-war period in an attempt to sort out some measure of accountability.

Of all the complexities and seeming paradoxes that come to light in exploring Finland’s history, probably the biggest conundrum is the one highlighted by Johansen at the very outset in his introduction: “Finland was the only nation with an elected and democratic government to fight on the German side in the Second World War.” As the author makes clear, this was largely out of necessity. The Finns would have gladly accepted support and aid from the Allies, but it was never going to be forthcoming. At every turn the Finns were thwarted by other countries caught up in their own uncomfortable necessities and their own shifting allegiances.

As is no doubt amply clear by this point, I can highly recommend the book to anyone with even the slightest interest in the topic.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Full Finnish Circle

A quick update on my writing progress. With the holidays over (Christmas in Ireland pretty much runs for 30 days and requires another fortnight for me to recover and catch up), I am happily back at it. To my surprise, I have found myself suddenly making a pretty good start on a first draft of a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. After much idea-chewing over a long period of time, the story and the characters have at last settled into something I can get really interested in, and I’m now pretty movitated to put it all down on virtual paper. So, in answer to the question that I get most often about Max & Carly, yes, the next (actually third) book will be a sequel to the youthful exploits of Dallas Green. Of course, before I get too caught up in that writing project, I really need to go back to editing and polishing the second book (the sword and sorcery one). Anyway, this is definitely the time of year to try to get these things done.

During this seemingly interminable period between the actual publishing of books, I take vicarious satisfaction in the publishing being done by other people—like my friend Claes.

My acquaintance with Claes was born out of the moment I entered the Egyptian Theatre in Seattle in 1987 for one of 68 screenings I attended during the twelth Seattle International Film Festival. I didn’t actually meet Claes way back then. But I wrote something that would eventually find its way onto the world wide web (once the world wide web had finally been invented) and would consequently draw him to me. It was a three-hour Finnish war movie called Tuntematon Sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, in English), and I took on a typical (for me) tongue-in-cheek tone in reviewing it. Thirteen years after I had written that review, Claes emailed me to take me to task. And he was in a good position to do so because he wrote the book on Finland during World War II. And I mean that literally.

His 272-page hardcover book Hitler’s Nordic Ally?: Finland and the Total War 1939-1945 will be released on February 28 and is available for pre-order on Amazon. The book is in English, which is worth mentioning because Claes has written quite a few books (both fiction and non-fiction), and not all of them are in English. Some of them are in Danish. Two of his English-language books, which I have read and enjoyed, were fairly definitive biographies of two seminal 1960s English rock bands: The Zombies: Hung Up on a Dream and Procol Harum: Beyond The Pale. Something else he wrote in English was a very good radio drama called Sam and the Animal Man, which was aired two years ago on RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, and which can be streamed from RTÉ’s web site.

When Claes and I first began corresponding, he thought (logically enough) that I was in the U.S. and I assumed that he was in Denmark. Imagine our mutual surprise when we finally realized that we were both in Ireland and that fewer than 300 kilometers separated us.

It sounds as though I might get the chance to read and write about his book in advance of its release. (Stay tuned.) Already being familiar with Claes’s writing, I am sure it will be a good read. Moreover, it will bring my very glancing acquaintance with Finland’s World War II experience full circle—more 28 years after I wandered into a Seattle cinema to see a three-hour Finnish war movie.

Monday, December 14, 2015

All the way to eleven

It has been brought to my attention that Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead is, as of this writing anyway, tied for eleventh place on Goodreads’s list of Best 1970s Historical Fiction.

Goodreads, a preeminent web destination for serious book lovers, has lots of lists, which are voted on by its members. (I am one, and I have an author page there.) One could argue that 1970s historical fiction is a rather specific category, bolstered by the fact that there are only 53 books on the list. But 11 out of 53 is pretty good, eh?

While this placement certainly does my ego good, I’m not exactly letting it go to my head. If you check the vote totals, you will see that the numbers of votes are pretty low, so this doesn’t exactly represent widespread acclaim. Still, it’s flattering to be placed on a list that includes such well known works as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (numbers 1 and 2, respectively) and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (edging me out at number 10). The fact that I placed ahead of such better known books as Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (number 25), the late Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries (number 40) and Jerzy Kosinski’s Pinball actually makes me seriously question whether the list is valid at all. But clearly that is the wrong way to think. I should be arguing that I should have been in first place.

I guess that makes this a good excuse to do some huckstering and remind people that, if you are looking a great gift for that 1970s historical fiction aficionado on your list, Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead is still available from all fine internet bookstores. Just click on one of the links on this book blog.

As for the next book, editing/polishing/revising continues or, rather, it will once the holidays are over. I know better than to expect much work to get done on it during the last couple of weeks of December. So anticipate having a great choice next year for that sword-and-sorcery aficionado on your list.

Incidentally, if you are interested in my reviews of the screen adaptations of The Ice Storm (by Ang Lee) or The Buddha of Suburbia (by Roger Michell), you can check them out on my movie blog.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is the Future Already Over?

The news reports were more than a bit surprising. Sales of ebooks peaked in 2011? Who knew?

That’s four whole years ago—and only three years after ebooks even started taking off.

Everything I had been hearing for years suggested that, as far as books were concerned, print was dying and digital was the future. I had been surprised that it was happening so fast, but I wasn’t at all surprised that it was happening. Digital was inexorably supplanting analogue in every area. So it was only a matter of time until print disappeared completely or became a niche market, like vinyl records, right?

Then I read a week or two ago that The New York Times was reporting that, according to the Association of American Publishers, ebook sales were down by 10 percent in the first five months of 2015. Various hypotheses have been offered to try to explain this. The most interesting ones are economic. Is it because ebook prices went up after three of the biggest publishers got control of their own pricing in the wake of a deal reached with Amazon? Did the market just reach a natural peak? Is it possible that sales aren’t actually down and that a portion of ebook sales have simply shifted to small boutique or self-publishers, which wouldn’t be included in the AAP figures? Of course, self-publishers like me would prefer the latter explanation. And it could make sense, if consumers are finding ebooks from big publishers too pricy, as self-published ebooks tend to cost quite a bit less.

A report last month on National Public Radio quoted experts as suggesting that readers prefer different media for different books and for different times and that the publishing world was simply settling into an equilibrium that provided the various formats they wanted—from hardcover to paperback and digital and audio. AAP CEO Michael Cader noted that sales of hardcover books were also down in the same period this year and that it had more to do with a lack of big blockbuster books, like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey, which tend to drive big book sales.

It is the pseudonymous analyst (and author) Data Guy who is quoted by NPR as suggesting that the way the AAP reports sales now misses a whole lot of self-published books. His report, published with “self-publishing phenomenon” Hugh Howey, is called Author Earnings.

“According to Author Earnings,” said NPR’s Lynn Neary in the piece, “the ebook market is thriving, but traditional publishers’ share of it has slipped to about one-third. And Data Guy believes the ebook market will continue to grow well into the future.”

So we can be pretty sure that digital books are not some mere fad that will fade with time—and neither are paper books. Of course, we don’t know what new technological changes (digital receivers in eyeball lens implants, anyone?) might come along to confuse us all again and shake up things anew.

I just wish I had thought to give myself a really cool pseudonym like Data Guy.

Monday, October 12, 2015

That Dodgy Galwegian

This blog post will conclude the official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour.

To my friends in Ireland: I apologize for including a dodgy Irish character. I know you will pick apart the way he speaks and find him inauthentic. My excuse—and I’m sticking with it—is that we are seeing him only as he appears and sounds through the narrator’s young, inexperienced American eyes and ears.

It’s a funny story how the character called Séamus came to be part of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. Well, funny to me anyway.

I had always promised myself that I would never write a novel in the first person. Maybe I’m just lazy, but it always seemed like too much work to have to write constantly in the voice of a particular character for hundreds of pages. But as I finalized my ideas for my first novel, I realized that I wanted it to be—among other things—something of an homage to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And that meant that it really needed to be narrated by its main character in his own regional voice.

But, I figured, that would be a piece of cake because the story takes place in the time and place where I myself came of age, so this would be a voice that I should know well—or so I thought. When reading over what I had written, I kept finding usages that sounded more like 21st century Ireland than 1970s San Joaquin Valley. Even when I thought I had fixed all of them, my indispensable friend Dayle found more. We went around and around for a long time over the verb “to bring” versus “to take” when applied to a person (as in “he took her shopping”). It turns out “to bring” a person somewhere is a particularly Irish usage of English—and one that I had not even realized I had adopted wholeheartedly. In short, my use of English had been hopelessly affected by all of these years living on the Emerald Isle.

This made the writing a lot more work—and a lot more frustrating—than I had anticipated. So, to amuse myself, I decided to include an Irish character. This was an entirely plausible story detail because you cannot go anywhere in the world without meeting the Irish. They turn up everywhere—even, presumably, in 1970s Mexico. And, in my deluded thinking, I figured that the exercise of actually trying to make a character sound authentically Irish would somehow, by contrast, make it easier to maintain the American sound of my other characters. At least that was theory. In practice, however, it was even more work to make Séamus sound authentically Irish than to keep Dallas and his friend Lonnie sounding like they were from Kern County.

To make it worse, there was the added pressure from the fact that the Irish tend to be extemely critical of Irish characters who do not come off as authentic to them. Not only do American and English actors get roundly slated for bad Irish accents in movie and television roles, but my wife has been known to roast perfectly competent Dublin actors for doing inadequate Connacht accents. Fortunately, it wasn’t as though I had to somehow get vowel sounds just right. After all, you cannot actually hear the accent of a character who exists only on a printed page. But the usage and tone certainly have to be right.

After the book was published, I was on tenterhooks every time I heard from anyone who had read the book and who was Irish. Strangely, to date no one has actually said they found Séamus inauthentic as a globe-trotting Galwegian. To be clear, no one has praised the character as a masterful creation either. Irish readers, at least in my limited sampling, seem to have little reaction to him at all. I would be tempted to attribute this lack of criticism to politeness, but I have never known the Irish to be polite about this sort of thing in any other situation. Even my wife—who I expected to excoriate me over the character because, well, that’s just what she does—had virtually nothing to say about him.

Yes, I would prefer that lots of people were heartily congratulating my on getting the nuances of my Irish character exactly right. But, realistically, I am actually ecstatic to be hearing nothing at all. I have convinced myself that that is actually the highest praise of all.

To everyone I know: I apologize one more time for all the bad words. It won’t happen again.

Hmmm. I may have lied about that one. I really can’t promise I will never again have any sweary characters in anything I ever write again. But I can promise that there will be virtually no expletives in my next book of which, I am happy to note, the first draft was completed over the weekend! And yes, it is written in the third person. And no, there are no Irish characters (or American ones for that matter), although there are characters with Irish names.

And I do not plan to make any apologies about any of it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Still Aboard the Apology Train

The official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour continues.

To my friends in Seattle: I apologize for the misogyny, racism, homophobia, casual acceptance of economic inequality and irresponsible gun use. The characters are most definitely not meant to be role models. Please focus on their character growth, not on their myriad character flaws.

This particular apology was really tongue in cheek. After all, the offenses I enumerated above are, after all, well entrenched features of our popular entertainment. And yet…

I did regret that there are no great female characters in the book. Marisol features somewhat prominently, but mainly as an idealized fantasy in Dallas’s feverish teenage mind. The Pérez family includes some nice women, especially Mama Marta, but they are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. No, this is a guy story told by a guy and about guys. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up in my other writing.

Also, it did concern me that the two main characters’ attitudes toward Mexicans (not even bothering to distinguish between actual Mexicans and Mexican-Americans) could be offensive. But the attitude was true to the characters and to the time and place. And the whole point of the book is how the narrator Dallas has his world view enlarged by actually getting to know Mexicans and Mexican culture, so I’m not sure that an apology is really called for.

Then there is the question of gay characters.

I do not consider myself—or any author of fiction, for that matter—responsible for presenting balanced or positive portrayals of any demographic group. (That’s the job of non-fiction writers and propagandists.) Having said that, however, it did bother me that this particular story resulted in all its portrayals and/or references to gay people being associated with pedophilia. But frankly, in that time and place, that was the only context in which I—and other guys my age that I knew—had any awareness of homosexuality. In the end, I hope that Dallas’s growth on the issue—partly from learning more of the world and partly from dealing with his own instances of sexual confusion—mitigate the thin portrayals.

Anyway, if you want a more deeply diverse set of characters, just wait until I finish my epic novel about 1980s Seattle. None of them will be role models either, but at least they won’t all be seen through the prism of badly behaving rural teenage boys.

Actually, you may not have to wait that long. Now that the end of the first draft of my sword and sorcery tale is actually in sight, I have lately been leaning toward going ahead and taking on a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. For a long time all the ideas I worked on in my head for a sequel never seemed quite right. But then I literally had a dream about something I experienced while traveling around in my twenties, and something clicked. I have to believe it is fate because the dream involved a train. And it was a dream about a young woman on a train that inspired Dan Curtis to create the classic 1960s TV show Dark Shadows.

Part of the interest in the sequel for me—and hopefully the reader—will be to see how Dallas has grown and changed in the several years since the first book. One thing will be for sure. He will definitely meet and know a more diverse set of characters.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Grapes of Minor Irritation

When I first announced the publication of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead on my movie website, I made a point of issuing a trio of apologies to my friends in various geographical locations.

While the apologies were mostly tongue in cheek, there was an element of sincerity in all of them. And, in fact, it occurs to me that they could all do with a bit of elaboration. So with this post I hereby kick off the official Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead apology tour.

To my friends in and from California: I apologize for the characters’ bad attitude toward the place where they live.

I actually did agonize over the fear that the book would make the southern San Joaquin Valley sound like a very grim place to live. After all, a lot of people there are still trying to get over the impression left by John Steinbeck when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. My home town got mentioned in that book twice. There is a famous photo, taken in 1939, of three men ceremonially burning a copy of The Grapes of Wrath in downtown Bakersfield. Two of the men are farmers from my local area.

Growing up, I remember hearing whispers about Steinbeck’s book and how it was “banned.” But the fact was that I had no trouble whatsoever finding a copy in the school library and checking it out and reading it. The book was never banned. Those three men in the photo (the third was an actual migrant farmworker) were burning a single copy as a protest. It was not an attempt to destroy every copy and to make the book unavailable for curious readers. But the act of burning a book carries unfortunate sinister resonances, and so it probably did not help the case they were trying to make—that farmers were victims of character assassination.

As a reader, I appreciated Steinbeck’s literary prowess and even his socio-political passion but, as someone who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, I did not recognize the picture he painted of the region. In particular, Tom Joad’s climactic speech (immortalized in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation by Henry Fonda: “wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there”) was stirring but I never saw any connection between it and where I grew up. I had definitely heard stories of tough times during the migrations of the Depression and the Dust Bowl era, but much more often than not those stories ended with people’s lives improving and even prospering. Between farming and oil drilling, a lot of people—at all levels of the economic ladder—made a lot of money in the years following the migrant influx.

In writing my own novel, I was very conscious of Kern County’s place in literary history, and I made a point of referring to it by having my narrator, Dallas Green, recall that his own parents and grandparents had migrated to California and now were doing so well that they had left the field work to newer migrants from Mexico.

Dallas complains a lot about where he lives but not so much because it is truly a terrible place but because he is a teenager. He does go on a lot about how hot it is in the summer, and that is definitely true. It is very hot there in the summer. And in those days a lot of us lived in homes that didn’t have adequate cooling. But, leaving the climate aside, there were a lot of good people. And I hope that comes through in my book—even though Dallas doesn’t particularly dwell on it.

What really doesn’t get reflected by the book—and, in fairness, it was meant to be a work of literature and not a chamber of commerce brochure—is the diversity of the area. Dallas and Lonnie are from a sort of redneck subset of the population, but my community also had people from all over the rest of America. My mother grew up as part of a German-speaking community of Mennonites. There was a well-established Mexican-American community that had lived in the area since the days of the Mexican Revolution. Other towns had their Italian-American community or their Armenian-American community or their African-American community. Out in the country there were families of Basque sheepherders.

Even though it has been many decades since I lived in the San Joaquin Valley, I have never ceased to think that it was a very good place to be from. In fact, the next Speaker of the House of Representatives could quite likely be from there as well. Kevin McCarthy started a business in Bakersfield at the age of 18 with the winnings from a lottery ticket he bought while visiting San Diego. As he recounted in a speech in February, “True story. $5,000 was the most money you could win. But if you put yourself back in 1984, you’re 18 years old, you just won $5,000 and you’re 10 minutes away from Tijuana, where would you end up?”

Sounds to me like Representative McCarthy just missed his chance to be the next generation’s Dallas Green.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mockingbird’s Song

By far the biggest book news to hit the world in recent times is the publication of a previously unknown novel by Harper Lee. It is the rare kind of literary event that not only gets discussed on arts programs but also on serious TV news programs. And it has been fascinating to hear all the various reactions.

On my movie web site, I like to say that a film review really tells us more about the reviewer than it does about the film. The same is almost certainly true about book reviews and book discussions. The appearance of Go Set a Watchman has been an interesting opportunity to hear many people on TV, radio and in print tell us what To Kill a Mockingbird has meant to them.

Clearly, for a lot of people over the past half-century it is a work that was huge in helping to form their literary, social and political consciousness. In hindsight, the book’s provenance and its reception seem like something magical. It was Lee’s first—and presumedly only—published work (at the age of 34), and it garnered all kinds of praise and awards. It was soon adapted into an award-winning motion picture that not only did justice to the book but further immortalized its story.

If all of that seems too fortunate to be true, what are the odds that 55 years later another novel would turn up and would overlap with the events and characters of the first? We soon learned that it was an earlier draft of Mockingbird but, because it was set years later, it turned out to be the sequel that many readers would have longed for—or thought they did. If this had been a sequel written by someone else, say, commissioned by the author’s estate like Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, which continued the story of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, it could be ignored or dismissed. But Watchman was written by Harper Lee herself and in her prime. On the other hand, it was a draft that was not originally accepted by her publisher.

From an academic point of view, it is great to have. We get a better picture of what was in Lee’s head in forming the story and that leads to a deeper understanding of her work. For sentimentalists, however, it disrupts the effect of Mockingbird. Just as the effect of a photograph is dramatically affected by the way it is cropped, a story such as that of Atticus Finch and his family is defined by where the storyteller begins and ends the narrative. Many people have been distressed to learn that, in the original version, Atticus aged into someone less noble and less admirable than the man so memorably portrayed by Gregory Peck. As Lee’s editor may have understood all those years ago, such a story may be more reflective of real life but it isn’t nearly as satisfying emotionally.

Strangely, my own words about Atticus, written just six months ago after having re-watched the movie, are out there now on my movie site haunting me: “No matter the effect this movie had on people’s feelings on race relations, it definitely made lots of people wish that Gregory Peck was their dad.”

Oddly, Atticus’s story may now parallel what has gone on in America over the past half-century. After all, the story of the Civil Rights movement is much more satisfying when the narrative stops with the triumphs of the 1960s.

As for me personally, the appearance of Lee’s long-delayed “sequel” has given me some food for thought as I continue to wrestle with the question of whether or when to do a sequel to Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. The fact is that I am happy with the story as it is. Would it become richer if we learn what happens to Dallas Green in later life? Or would I regret not leaving things as they were?

Either way, the stakes are not nearly so high as with To Kill a Mockingbird. After all, I am the first to admit that Dallas Green is no Atticus Finch.