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Remembering Nora

24 Jul

Once again I must apologize for taking so long to get back to blogging. My life has been like a twenty-four hour news show, only mine is called “All Mom, All the Time”. If you’ve read the subject of my last posting, you know that I’m taking care of my 90-year old mother, who is suddenly showing rapid deterioration in her mental and physical capabilities. The past month has been a round of emergency room visits, follow-up doctor visits, new doctor visits, tests, etc., each taking an incredible amount of time, most of it taken up in just waiting around. The good news is that she seems to be regaining a lot of her faculties; the alternate news is that I know we’ve entered the Next Phase, and it’s not going to be pretty. But (long deep breath) we seem to have stabilized for a while. Thanks to all of you who wrote so kindly about their own troubles with caring for their parents, and who so generously offered their wisdom and advice. It’s wonderful knowing that you’re out there, and that I have friends I’ve not even met.

So, that’s my update about The Situation here at home. Now – back to my blog.

During this tension filled time one of things that really hit me hard was the death of Nora Ephron. I was not a great fan of her movies, but I liked them well enough. Her books were better, I thought. In fact, one of my favorite recipes is found in “Heartburn”, and I make it frequently – Linguini all Cecca, a hot pasta dish with a cold, fresh tomato and basil sauce.
Even more than her books, I particularly loved her essays. Nora Ephron was a font of common sense, and her truest gift was in the ability to make her readers (me) believe that she was having an intimate conversation with them. In my own mind she had become one of my best friends, and it was with profound shock that I heard of her death.

I didn’t even know she was sick!

Then my friend Randy sent me an article about her star-studded memorial in New York, which was attended by Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep, among others. I was so charmed by their comments and the obvious depth and warmth of their memories of Nora that I told Randy that I wanted them at my memorial, as well, and to please arrange it. A little while later I received his reply. “I asked. They all refused.”

He’s. So. Funny.

I also felt bad that I knew no one to whom I could send a sympathy card, so I guess this blog will have to be it. I need to honor her life in some way because of what she meant to me, even from such a great distance. Fortunately, attached with the article about her memorial was a link to “Nora’s Five Favorite Books”. I read her short reviews of them and decided then to read all of them as well. What better way to honor her memory?

After recovering from the shock of NOT finding my own books on her list (what the hell kind of best friend is THAT?), I went to my local library and found all of Nora’s recommendations. One, a cookbook by Ina Garten, I decided to forego since I am foregoing eating for the summer in what will – no doubt – be a futile attempt to regain my svelte silhouette. The rest consisted of three novels and one nonfiction work:

1. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout
3. “White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga, and
4. “Bright-Sided” by Barbara Ehrenreich, the non-fiction work and the one that Nora said changed her life forever.

In a future blog I will review these books and let you know what I think of them, and what I think they say about Nora. So far I’ve finished “Gatsby” – embarrassed to acknowledge that somehow this American classic never came into my purview during my 61 years. My overall impression is that it’s exquisitely written, but one of the slightest works to have ever earned such a powerful reputation. More on this later.
Right now I’m in the middle of “Olive Kitteridge”, which I’ve wanted to read since I read its review in the NY Times. All I can say is that I’m falling in love with it and that Elizabeth Strout is perhaps in danger of becoming my new Nora. Again, more on all these books later.

In the meantime, I’m thinking of you, Nora.

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Interview on Curling Up by the Fire’s Blog

17 May

We just passed 6000 unique views and with nearly 1000 followers between WordPress and Twitter– I thought I’d reintroduce myself. Head on over to Curling Up by the Fire‘s blog for an author interview we did last January.

Book Review–“Restless Souls”, by Alisa Statman and Brie Tate

14 May

“Your girlfriend’s dead.”

That’s what Randy’s Mom announced to us on August 10, 1969 –with an odd smile, yet.  It was about 11:00 a.m., a Saturday morning, and I was hanging out in Randy’s bedroom listening to his latest LPs (probably something by Joan Baez or Diana Ross).  I had just graduated from High School and Randy was already in college.  We had been best friends since 1967, and it was the kind of friendship where we completed each other’s sentences and never had a disagreement of any kind because our interests and souls were so in tune.  Mainly, we were interested in movies, not only in the current releases but in the stars and the industry that made them.            A new exciting crop of stars was rising, too, celebrities who seemed much more hip and in tune with the sixties – stars like Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow – and we were fascinated by them.  Directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese were just beginning their careers and even then were remaking “the movies” as we knew them.  It was all so incredibly exciting.  In particular there were Roman Polanski and his amazingly beautiful wife, Sharon Tate.

Randy and I followed their lives intensely.  He was such a film genius, and, for me, she was the only woman who could equal Elizabeth Taylor in beauty.  We became so immersed in their glamor and bits of gossip that this was why, on August 10, 1969, Randy’s mother came to announce her terrible message.

We were in total shock, and instantly turned on the television.  News reports only said that something had happened in the Benedict Canyon area of the Hollywood Hills, and that five people were dead.  We immediately thought that it could only have occurred because of a gas leak or a landslide…maybe a fire.

But then the details of the Manson Family’s butchery came out.  There were three horrible events that had occurred in rapid succession that turned me into an adult, i.e. they had stripped away the myths I was currently telling myself – how a second brother in the Kennedy family could be assassinated; that a school mate from my high school could be killed in Viet Nam just weeks after we had graduated, and that a pregnant woman, a movie star, could be stabbed to death in her own living room.  Somehow, I truly believed that pregnant women had special guardian angels, that no one could ever be so perverted as to kill a woman who was within two weeks of giving birth.

I grew up fast that summer.  So did Randy.

All of these scenes have been going through my head, replayed over and over, as I read Restless Souls”, a compendium of unfinished biographies written by Doris Tate, Sharon’s lioness of a mother, Paul Tate, the steely army intelligence colonel (who was just a trifle bit weird), and Pattie Tate, the little sister who was only twelve when Sharon was murdered.  Apparently the Tates were compelled to write their own stories so that other victim’s families might take heart from their courage, or to simply correct the record.  For it turns out that there was another phantom victim in all the tragedy, and that was Sharon’s own reputation.  She had participated in Black Masses and orgies, and downed immense quantities of drugs, or so screamed the headlines.  The Polanski’s were little better than wealthy hippies, it was said, who let anyone into their home at any hour, just so they could partake in sex games devised by the diminutive Polanski, the maker of weird horror films, and his depraved wife.  Somehow Sharon Tate had to be blamed for her own murder.  As always, there was something very comforting in conspiracy theories; that somehow the victims had brought their own demise on themselves.

Until now, none of the Tate family’s stories ever saw the light of day; they had been laid aside, probably too painful to finish.  Instead they have been compiled – not too cleanly – into one volume, juxtaposed and heavily edited, by writer Alysa Statman and Patti Tate’s daughter, Brie.  The result is mesmerizing, if not literary.

Like a rock thrown into a pond, making waves that keep on going and going, washing over distant parts of the pond far removed from the initial turbulence, the crime at Cielo Drive had horrible consequences for everyone concerned.  For three years Doris told herself that Sharon was merely away making a movie in Europe.  Paul Tate went underground in an ineffective search for Sharon’s killers, then became a recluse that haunted his own family.  Patti Tate grew into a scared and shivering adult, convinced that the remnants of the Manson family were out to kill her, too.  (Breast cancer killed her instead – another tragedy for that unfortunate family.)

From August 10th until their deaths many years later, Sharon’s murder continued to haunt, bedevil and ruin her family’s peace.  Doris ultimately fought back by founding several Victims Family Rights groups, becoming the fierce advocate of her dead daughter, and ensuring that the beasts who had murdered her stayed in prison.  “That old bitch” is what the Manson followers called her, and the sobriquet became the greatest joy of her life.  But for all of that you can’t forget her anguished cry at Sharon’s coffin – “This can’t be the end!”

There is not much comfort in this book.  You do get glimpses, however, that in her mere 26 years of life Sharon had packed a lot of living into it.  She was destined for major stardom, yet seemed coolly detached from the entertainment business, far more interested in being a wife and mother.  Polanski, whose own mother had been murdered in a concentration camp, had just come around to believing enough in the goodness of life to finally have the courage to welcome a child into the world.  And then August 9th happened.  He would go on to continuously voice the belief that had he been there that night (he was in London) he could have somehow averted the cataclysm.

The book leaves you with the question about who is luckier – the slain victim or the loved ones who lived on with such gruesome images playing in their head?  Instead of “Restless Souls” the book could just as easily have been called “Blighted Lives.”

Do I recommend this book?  Yes.  Did I like it?  Find it well-written?  Not particularly.  But it was indeed fascinating, even though I found myself unable to read it for long stretches of time.

Field Trip!

9 May

Head on over to Precious Monsters, the blog and check out my new post. Precious Monsters was created by Jolie du Pre, the author, editor, blogger and monster lover. Her first novella, Litria, Book 1 of The M Series, will be published in July of 2012 by Logical-Lust.

Trafficking with Movie Stars– Meeting Elizabeth Taylor

29 Apr

I’ve always needed to meet the people whose creative work has profoundly influenced or touched me.  I want to see how they behave, to know what’s inside their heads, to discover how their temperament differs from mine, etc. etc.  Those of you who read my blog know that the movie “Cleopatra” and its writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz were profoundly influential on my life.  When I saw the film for the first time, when I was twelve, I became infatuated with the actors, it’s true, but soon I wanted to know about the man who created it.  Why had the film so affected me?  In film school, in my college years, I produced an award-winning thesis, “When ‘The Movies’ Went Out of Style”, in which I interviewed many members of the cast and crew, including Joe Mankiewicz, and over the years I became the person known as the “unofficial cast member of ‘Cleopatra’”.  I have been a “film historian” in two documentaries about the movie, which are being packaged with the release of the blu-ray.  (Talk about having a whim of iron!  I now co-star with everyone!)  Roddy McDowall in fact became a friend and even visited me in Washington, D.C., when I lived there.

But I had always managed to avoid meeting HER.

Truth is, I really didn’t want to meet her.  I was quite content to know Elizabeth Taylor through her performances.  When you meet stars and celebrities, you always run the risk of major disappointment.  They can be dull and vaguely stupid a lot of the time.  Or so dominated by their loathsome agents and managers that all you want to do is run screaming from the room.  And, being a historian at heart, they certainly don’t want to meet me.  Stars never want to be known as an artifact from another time.  They are NOW, they are HAPPENING, they are RELEVANT.  It doesn’t matter if they haven’t made a film in thirty years, everything is about TODAY!  (Only Roddy McDowall truly had a sense of history, and knew his own place within it, and that was the basis of our friendship – he loved to talk about his days as a child star and all the famous people he had worked with.  Even his Cadillac’s license plate said “EX MOPPET” on it.)  The technicians and craftsmen are the interesting ones – the behind-the-scenes people always have the best stories.  Stars – rarely!

In 1997, however, I finally got to meet Taylor through the intervention of Roddy McDowall.  We had gotten permission from Twentieth Century-Fox to at long last mount a search for the missing footage from “Cleopatra”.  Mankiewicz had delivered a five-and-a-half hour film, from which the studio removed about an hour-and-a-half.  (You can learn the story behind the film’s editing on a new documentary that I’m in, packaged with the blu-ray, called “Cleopatra’s Missing Footage.”)

Though Bill Mechanic, then-president of Fox, had said “yes” to the project there was one hitch to our plans.  The film was still owned in part by Elizabeth Taylor and we needed to get her permission to go forward.  (This was but one of the many unprecedented clauses in her contract with Fox, and never to be seen again in any celebrity contract.)  Roddy said that he would handle her, and he set a time for the meeting.  At the last moment he asked me to come along, saying that I could speak for the recently deceased Joe Mankiewicz.

I was filled with trepidation, not only because of the reasons stated above, but because Taylor scared the hell out of me.  Everyone I had interviewed had talked about how intimidating she could be, particularly if she sensed you needed something from her.  (Stars are always being approached by people seeking money, gifts and favors and they are deeply suspicious of any stranger.)  Even Richard Burton, who I talked with on the telephone, told me that she alone had taught him “how to squeeze the balls of the executives” in his dealings with film studios.  I was fond enough of my balls in their current position and did not relish the idea of her being anywhere near them.

Well, anyway, I went to the meeting.  Really – wouldn’t you?

We traveled in Roddy’s Cadillac up to her surprisingly small house in Bel Air, and proceeded to sit in her living room for over an hour.  She was upstairs and apparently did not mind keeping her very best childhood friend waiting.  I got to look at her Van Gogh up close, however, and that helped to pass the time.

Finally, she appeared.  She was white-haired at that phase in her life and swept grandly into the room.  I remember that she was barefoot beneath a long white caftan.  Roddy introduced us and she said in a slight English accent, “It’s so-o-o-o-o gude to meet yew.  Joe Mankiewicz – ”  (she was the only person I knew who ever pronounced it Mahn-kuh-vitch) “ – spoke so highly about yew.”

Nervously I launched into my spiel.  “Well, thank you, Miss Taylor – it’s because of his memory that I’m here.  We’ve finally been given permission by Fox to restore ‘Cleopatra’ to his first cut and we need your permission before we can do it.”

Gone in an instant was the English accent.  Gone was any pretense at friendliness.  The sand-papery voice became charged with Virginia Woolf volume.  “Blow it out your ass!” she screamed at me.  “I never made a DIME off that goddamn movie!”

She had in fact made $7 million from overtime on the production alone.  Later, when Fox had sued her after the film came out, claiming that her and Burton’s “immoral” behavior had proved “detrimental to the financial performance of the film”, she had actually won that suit, and another $2.6 million dollars (10% of the film’s actual budget, proving Mankiewicz’ claim that the film never cost $44 million as the studio claimed) was settled on her – with the stipulation that the books would be closed on “Cleopatra”.  This is why the film is always shown as making only $26 million; it will forever be seen as only breaking even, and never going into profit.  Taylor’s additional ten percent of the gross income of the film, once again guaranteed by her contract, was to be covered in the $2.6 million payment.  “Cleopatra,” however, went on to make money all over the world in various international markets and later by sales to television and home video – the profits of which were denied Taylor by the court settlement.  This was one of the few times that a studio had out-maneuvered her and was she bitter!  Though she had “not made a dime on that goddamn movie” she had actually made almost $10 million – and in 1960’s dollars!  Dimes are obviously of different value to stars of her magnitude.

So what did I do when she told me to “blow it out my ass”?  I’m afraid I laughed out loud.  This was perhaps the only thing that saved me, because she was not expecting it.  Apparently other people cringed before her tempers – Eddie Fisher once told me that she had taught him how to scream for anything that he wanted – but I knew right then that I had a great story suitable for any cocktail party, and one that I could dine out on for the rest of time.  I didn’t need her, you see – I was under contract to Disney at the time, and frankly they didn’t take too well to the fact that I was consulting to a rival studio.  It was her film, and if she didn’t want to do the project, well…it was no skin off my ass.

But Roddy calmed her down.  “Now, Elizabeth!  Elizabeth!” he purred.   He finally maneuvered her to the point where she growled, “Okay – but I’m gonna get my lawyers on it!”  Once again he dissuaded her, saying that such a move would destroy any chance we had for finding the footage.  He convinced her instead to wait until the work was finished before she initiated any legal proceedings.

So that was my encounter with La Liz.  I never met her again.  But then I didn’t want to, either.  Once was quite enough.  Besides, it was never my goal – as it is with so many others who get into show business – to have lunch with movie stars.  I wanted to make stuff, to tell stories, to work with great talents – not hover in the celestial orbits of the rich and infamous.

How to Write Dialogue, The Art of Being Invisible

19 Apr

Dialog for theater, for films and television, for radio and finally for novels share a lot of things in common, but ultimately they are different species of animals.  In theater, dialog is always the most effective method of conveying information; but the motion picture has brought the entire world into the theater, or rather, brought the theater out to the real world, and so dialog is used differently.  The basic rule of thumb in films and TV is that it’s better to show an action, rather than talk about it.  Film and television use their own visual grammar to tell a story, with their use of close ups, long shots, panning and dollying, etc.  But novels are just words, words, words!  (That’s a reference to Hamlet, by the way.)

Yes, there are great films with plenty of dialog that are wonderful – and I, for one, am partial to well-written dialog in a film.  Some of us love the rise and fall of good conversation, and become orgasmic about how the rhythms and stresses of speech become actual poetry in the actors’ mouths.   In fact I find good dialog every bit as exciting as any car chase or yellow explosion.  My friend and one-time mentor, the late great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, used dialog primarily to propel his films.  (There’s an old joke that Joe’s idea of an action sequence was to have one of his actor’s throw their hat on a bed.) Yet he still managed to win four back-to-back Oscars during his lifetime utilizing dialog as his chief weapon, and if it’s good enough for him…

Dialog has three purposes in all the media I’ve mentioned –

  1. To reveal (or suggest) the nature of each character
  2. Provide the audience with essential information
  3. To advance the plot

And in a novel, there is a fourth task:

4.  Get into a character’s head and actually learn what he is thinking.

These are all pretty big responsibilities – right?  But think about the reason why it’s more effective (with novels perhaps being an exception) to use actions to demonstrate the essential truth of a scene or character?

ANSWER:  Because people lie.

More to the point – people can lie to themselves.  They obfuscate, reinterpret, put the best spin on things, flatter, manipulate, and say things all the time that are not strictly true.  But actions seldom lie, at least in fiction.

Most beginning writers believe that the best dialog is the kind that most approaches reality.  But this isn’t so.  Remember that dialog in all the media I’ve mentioned should only give the appearance of reality, but should not attempt to create it.  (Leave that to the medium of soap opera, an art form as tedious as life itself).  Effective speech in all these media utilizes economy, simplicity and invisibility.  Novels can once again be the exception to this rule, because ostensibly you have pages and pages to tell a story and are not limited to a film producer’s clock watch, where productions are broken down to ½ hour and 1-hour time slots (as in TV or Radio), or 2-hour running times (motion pictures.)  That being said, the publishing industry today looks askance at anything over 300 pages and mentally calculates that x-amount of pages over this figure will result in a higher publishing cost.  Let me assure you – they like economy too.  Simon and Schuster was adamant that my mystery novels not exceed 85,000 words and edited them to fit within that page number.  That’s why it’s best to follow the rule about economy and simplicity in novels too, because more and more they have “running times” imposed on them as well.  (However, when you’re a J.K. Rowling or a James Cameron, you’ve earned the right to do anything you want; these artists are rarely known for their economy or simplicity these days, are they?)

In addition to economy and simplicity, good dialog should also be invisible.  By this I mean that the writer should never call attention to how clever s/he is.  The reader/viewer must ideally be lost in your work, and when you become overly clever or self-reverential you risk losing them entirely.  Let me give you an example – the Oscar winning screenplay by James Goldman for “The Lion In Winter” was a first-rate effort with one glaring defect:  Goldman was forever complimenting himself on what a clever line he had just written.  “Oh, you’re good – that’s first rate!” the characters would crow at some particularly witticism said by another.  If I’ve learned anything – if I have an altar to which I kneel – it is the altar of invisibility.  Nothing should come between the reader/viewer and/or the page/image – not even the author.  Hemingway used to ruthlessly cut out his favorite parts of his manuscript, because if he loved them he knew they were only getting in the way of the story.  Follow his lead.

A note on trendy words – they may make our screenplays sound current, yes; but – conversely – nothing will make our screenplays (or novels) sound so dated as yesterday’s trends.  Today’s awesome soon becomes yesterday’s groovy.   Use these words judiciously if you have any ambition to write a timeless work.  There’s nothing wrong with using wonderful or great to convey the same meaning.

How to Write a Mystery Novel…

16 Apr

I’ve got a few new tricks up my sleeve this week and thought I’d revisit a topic that I posted about early in the life of this blog. I’d love to hear from the aspiring and published writers on this topic. Enjoy! Brad

How to create a mystery novel?  Of course, the answer is to read as many mysteries as possible.  There are no better models than the classics by Raymond Chandler or the modern thrillers written by Martin Cruz Smith – who I unashamedly admit to be my lord of lords, creator of the Moscow-based detective, Arkady Renko, who first appeared in Gorky Park.  (I would sacrifice a very private portion of my anatomy if I could write a fraction as well as Mr. Smith can – the left one, in fact.)  You can even learn something from Janet Evanovich, who is more machine these days than writer.  Though her plots may be thin and repetitious, they still obey certain rules that a new writer can observe, internalize, and replicate.

I never wanted to write mysteries.  I wanted to write historical novels along the lines of those written by Mika Waltari (The Egyptian) or Gary Jennings (Aztec).  But no one wants to read these epics today, and certainly no publishing house wants to publish them either.  (All those pages – such expense!)  But historical mysteries are another matter.  Mysteries, you see, rarely take more than a month to solve in a novel’s timeline.  They are never epics.  I like to tell my students that mysteries are not like symphonies, with hundreds of musicians, but more like chamber pieces with eight musicians at most.

So my first mysteries were set in Ancient Egypt and Babylon respectively, allowing me to write about history, true, but using the format of a mystery and keeping the action fast, hard-hitting, and distinctly non-epic.  My books have been called, as a result, “pharaonic noir” and my detective, Semerket, the clerk of investigations and secrets, an “Egyptian Sam Spade.”

I like it best when a detective is a flawed man, like my poor, alcoholic Semerket, so that in addition to solving the mystery at hand he must also solve part of the mystery within himself. Like the protagonists in Martin Cruz Smith novels, they also become the seat of moral authority.  All around them are crimes, official corruption, and indifference, but they remain committed to the truth, regardless of how unpleasant it is.  No matter how dark or dismal they are, they become heroic in the process – and your readers root for their success.

As to the plot, I like to think of it as a beautiful, decorated plate – intact and gorgeous – that has been viciously smashed to pieces by the crime at its center.  It is your detective’s task to pick up the pieces one by one, to find how they once fit together.  He or she is constantly picking up this piece and that piece in random order, until by the end of the book the plate has been put back together – irretrievably damaged, of course, but whole.  And though the mystery is solved, the denouement (literally, “untying” in French) should always resolve itself in a melancholic mood – for by solving the crime we come to know how unpleasant and corrupt the detective’s (and our) world really is.

In a mystery, the secondary characters are almost as important as your detective protagonist, because they will mostly fall into two groups – the criminal(s) and the “information passers”.  Each of these characters has one of the pieces of the plate in their possession; for reasons of their own, usually because they are implicated in the crime, they are sometimes reluctant to surrender it.  Others may be too willing to give up their piece, their information, but they are suspect, too.  Not only must your detective gather these pieces, the clues, but also perceive why and how these people who surrender them to him are connected to the crime, and how valuable their information really is.

Now, having said this, I have to confess that my latest mystery, The Stand In, violates most of these rules.  There is no real central detective; instead, the readers themselves take on this role.  This is because the story is actually a “smoke and mirrors” mirage – a special effect, if you will, something that Hollywood does so well – and Hollywood is the location of the novel, after all.  What is the truth?  What is really happening?  It’s all there in front of your eyes, yet it seems like something else is happening altogether….  Some will figure it out right away, others must wait until the very last sentence in the book…which is last piece of that plate.

Background Music–Inspiration for Writing

12 Apr

When I’m really serious about writing – when I want to completely become one with the page – my headphones are the resource I utilize first.  There is something about the lull of music that makes the writing process easier, allowing my imagination to soar and dive and rise again.  Of course, I can’t write to just any music; I can’t, for instance, lose myself in prose if the music has lyrics.  Words from other sources invariably conflict with my own (although I have been known to play Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” from time to time and it hasn’t unduly affected my output).

Classical music works, too, particularly from the Russian masters of the 20th century.  I’m speaking now of Prokofiev and Shostakovich primarily.  But perhaps some of you already know what these two geniuses have in common…?  The answer is that in addition to symphonies, concerti, and oratorios they also wrote soundtracks for Soviet films.  Prokofiev’s music from “Alexander Nevsky” has in fact become a concert staple, though it was first written as an accompaniment to Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film masterpiece.

My first choice for music that helps me to write is always movie soundtracks.  They are always highly colored, they run the gamut of emotions, and are written to go under a scene, to punctuate the film’s intent, as well as to make clear what at times the dialog and action cannot.

My first choice is always the music of Alex North.  His magnificent score for Cleopatra – which was released in its entirety about a decade ago – will instantly put me into the writing mode.  As the playwright Arthur Miller once said, “Alex North can break your heart in three notes.”  What’s also interesting is the fact that North studied under Prokofiev when he went to the USSR in the thirties.  At times he is jarringly dissonant, at other times lyrical.  But he never becomes sentimental or gauche; his supreme intelligence always shines through.  His music is everything I want to accomplish with my prose.  I’ve written many a page to his wonderful music, and I heartily encourage you to listen to all his works.  Perhaps you’ll be inspired, too.

In fact, one of my favorite tasks at the beginning of every new novel – a task that I liken to hurling myself down a well and painfully climbing back up to the light again – is to choose the novel’s music.  Each new work has its own primary background music (though I mix it up with others.)  Lately, the music of the Italian composer, Ennio Morricone, has come to my aid.  Though he’s mainly known as the composer of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, he is easily as insightful and intelligent as Alex North.  For my latest novel, The Chronicles of the Sanguivorous, I have chosen his score for Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet”, which starred Mel Gibson and Glenn Close.  It’s reliance on folk song motifs is both haunting and tragic, particularly in the music he has composed for Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s themes.  The music seems to fit the hunter and gatherer culture which I depict at the beginning of the novel, for it is both simple and rural at the same time.  Another of his scores, the one for “Days of Heaven” is another great score which accompanies my forays on the keyboard.

So what music inspires you to write?  Send me your own suggestions, because I’m always desperate to discover ways to make it easier.  I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you.

Excuse Me, Are Those Your Fangs in My Neck? Part Two

8 Apr

 I’ve just released the first half of my vampire book, The Chronicles of the Sanguivorous – The Rising as an eBook.  I had started the book almost two years ago after reading Charlaine Harris’s “True Blood” series.  Inspired, I knew I could write about vampires through the lens of my own specialty, historical fiction, and actually tell the history of civilization (albeit through the eyes of vampires) in the seven volume series.  I did enormous amounts of research about vampires’ historical/mythological origins and discovered they were first mentioned in early Mesopotamia, around the time that the city of Ur rose to prominence (or “Ur of the Chaldees” as the Bible calls it.)  This was a fortunate turn of events, because I had already versed myself in Mesopotamian history for my second novel, Day of the False King.

I had long been a devotee of Egyptian history, and the one thing you discover about ancient Egypt is how consistent its historical flow was when compared to other civilizations.  Protected by its deserts, Egypt developed slowly, always in the service and celebration of its God-Kings.  But the study of Mesopotamia (called Assyriology) is a heartrending hodgepodge of invasions, battles, and massacres.  The people of the river plains between the Tigris and Euphrates did not deify their kings; rather, whoever was in charge was simply called the Big Man; and these men changed with stunning swiftness.  Armies of invaders would sweep in, establishing a turbulent new culture, only to be swept away again a few generations later.  Egypt possessed regularity in abundance; Mesopotamia was all chaos and confusion.

So, getting back to the vampires, I had a good head start on my first historical locale.  I wrote about 150 pages of the book and then made the mistake of going to my public library and seeing the array of titles in the New Books section.  Every other one of them was about vampires.  Disheartened, I put my writing aside – though all my friends who had read it loved it and pleaded for more.

One of the most fun things about attempting to write this series is creating a new mythology for my own vampires.  It seems  one of their first mythical Big Men, Lugal (actually the father of Gilgamesh, the greatest semi-divine hero in Mesopotamian literature) was known for his incredible licentiousness.  In other words, he’d sleep with anything.  Wind Demons who populated the river plains wanted a corporeal body, so they offered themselves up to Lugal.  Their mating indeed produced offspring with bodies that resembled humans, but they also came equipped with a terrifying appetite for human blood – i.e., vampires.

So MY vampires are actually a form of super-predator that have been around for as long as humans have been; one of their powers is that they can actually utilize telekinesis that enables them to control the winds (which is where we get the myth that they were the offspring of Wind Demons.)   In my books, when the winds blow – watch out, for that is how they hide their rising after years of hibernation.  They do NOT get burned by the sun, nor do they sleep in coffins.  Their aversion to light, however, exists because they hunt humans only at night and their keen vision enables them to see as clearly in the dark as we do during the day; they avoid strong light simply because it’s agony on their eyes.  They are immortal, in the sense that they do not age, but the CAN be killed by several methods.

Their main defense, however, lies in the fact that after a few generations of terrorizing the countryside, they are driven by a hibernation instinct to burrow into the ground and disappear.  During the time they are gone, mankind forgets about them and turns them into myth.  Generations later, the vampires rise again – by this time merely shriveled bags of bones and leather – to once again maraud and terrify and feast.  The blood they ingest enables them to “read” the cellular memories of their victims, allowing them to understand the current language and to know what has occurred while they slept.

In my first volume, The Rising, the vampires discover that mankind has developed something fairly new – organized religion.  Their great predatory powers of swiftness and strength can convince humans that they are gods, and they begin to co-opt the temples.  They no longer have to hunt, you see, for they invent a new ritual – human sacrifice.  Thus their prey is driven to them.

Each book ends with the vampires once again “going to ground”, and in the next volume they rise into an entirely new historical era.  (In the second book they will become the gods Homer’s “Iliad”; the Trojan War, you will discover, was an internecine struggle between various tribes of Vampires, who utilized humans in their own civil war.)  And in the third book, set in Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago, we will see how Christianity itself was their product, too.  Surely you’ve heard of all that “blood into wine” stuff…well, now you know why.

Uniting all this will be my central couple, Aron and Enna.  Theirs is a love story that quite literally spans five-thousand years of history.  Newlyweds separated by the rise of Vampires, themselves made victims of it, they search for one another across time.  Aron will increasingly wish to discover what Vampires really are, and why some of their victims “turn”  – the only way they can reproduce – while others simply die.  In some volumes, Aron will be on the run, for humans (particularly in that little burg known as Transylvania) soon get wise to their ways and begin to hunt them down.  But through it all, we will see how Vampires were present at every great moment of human history.  It is also my conceit that when they rise, human fascination with vampires in arts and culture rise as well.

The last time they rose, you see, was in the late 1800s – just about the time that Bram Stoker’s little novel made an appearance.  But this new modern age is also an era when religion has receded for the first time and replaced by secularism – the biggest threat to the Vampire race.

That’s my Chronicles of the Sanguivorous in a nutshell.  I’m not going to give away anything more; for that you’ll have to plunk down your 99 cents. Whether you’re a fan of historical fiction or vampires, I hope you enjoy them – and be sure to write and let me know what you think.

Excuse Me, Are Those Your Fangs In My Neck? Part One of Two Parts

2 Apr

I don’t know when I first became enamored of vampires.  I read “Dracula” when I was very young, and though it didn’t terrify me, it nevertheless made quite a creepy impression.  I remember how Dracula is first introduced as a decrepit old man who then grows progressively younger and more vigorous during the course of the book, as the blood of his victims begins to rejuvenate him.  The most vivid impression that remains was of the Count slithering up the side of the castle like a reptile.  There was a mixture of the effete and the bestial in Stoker’s vampire, which is still a horrifying alchemy.  When would this tuxedoed gentleman inevitably bring his darker nature to the fore?  After all, we were simply meals to him.  This touch of cannibalism also brought with it a further creepy factor, that of ending one’s days in the jaws of a feral beast.  But not just any beast, but one that disguised its terrible predatory habits by simply resembling us.

I had seen the 1931 “Dracula”, of course, the one starring Bela Lugosi, when I was very young.  In 1950s Southern California, we had the Million Dollar Movie on Channel 9, which showed the same film over and over again for five nights a week, and consequently I saw “Dracula” probably every day of that week.  (This was well before videotapes and DVDs – we never knew when we would ever see these films again and had to store up the experiences.) Lugosi, with his middle European accent and fluid, balletic gestures seemed the quintessential blood-sucking nobleman of my youth.

Then in 1967 I saw Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers”.  My best friend Randy and I were diehard film addicts and we had long heard of this mangled masterpiece by the Hungarian wunderkind.  It had been recut by MGM to feature its slapstick humor and general quirkiness, and a toning down of the violence had supposedly occurred.  (It a parody of all the Hammer epics starring Christopher Lee, you see.) What I did not expect was the full-blown horror that the film showed alongside the slapstick.  Polanski’s vampires were once again elegantly attired royalty inhabiting a seedy castle.  But when the blood lust came upon them they became animals, sporting huge jagged fangs that ripped into their victims’ throats with horrifying rapacity.  No delicate little puncture holes for our Roman Polanski; in fact, the man who designed the fangs was given a screen credit.  I remember being so terrified during the attack sequences that I had to go stand in the lobby.  I was in love with Sharon Tate back then, too, and “Valley of the Dolls” had been released earlier that year.  I remember saying to Randy that my one overwhelming memory of Tate would always be the moment when she turned into a vampire at the end of the film.  Alas, she was to be remembered for something far more dreadful.

My real conversion occurred when Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” was published in 1976.  (I still have the first edition).  She literally redefined the genre.  It was the time of the disco sex revolution, and I was just old enough to participate in all of it, and somehow the goth-influencing Rice novel seemed a mirror of it all – the infernal highs of mind-bending drugs (which is how the vampires described their ingestion of blood) and the gender-bending concepts of love and devotion.  It was all very perverse and exceedingly glamorous.  Just like Louis and Lestat, we were all night time prowlers looking for sex in all the wrong places.  And we were all so deliciously bored, you see, by our perceived immortality and the constant parade of flesh that paraded through our lives with barely an acknowledgment.  (Except that our immortality lasted all of five or so years before the dying set in.)

I never got into the “Twilight” phenomenon.  I read the first book because I decided that I must know more about this craze if I were to be a knowledgeable writer.  But it just didn’t take.  Perhaps I was the wrong age, and/or the wrong sex.  I was much more a creature of the rampaging 70s than the timid 90s, and it all seemed so vapid.  Was I really supposed to believe that the first question that the 100 year old vampire Edward asks Bella is “What’s your favorite color?” Really?  That’s it?  I simply don’t buy it; I believe that any 100 year old creature would be so mentally advanced when compared to a 17 year old high school girl that I wonder if he could ever think of her as anything other than a comestible…?

Nevertheless, inspired by both the success of Twilight and Charlaine Harris’ wonderful “True Blood” series (which I am unashamedly addicted to), I have decided to take the plunge and write my own vampire saga, called “The Chronicles of the Sanguivorous”. You can buy it here for a mere 99 cents.

Sanguivorous means “blood eater” and I’ve taken the story all the way back in time to the very first mention of vampires in history…to the river plain of Mesopotamia, to Ur of the Chaldees.  Each book will begin in a new time, until by the seventh we arrive in the 21st Century.  They also give to mankind both the art of writing and…religion.

What do you think?  Should Anne Rice become one of the vampires in the last volume?  After all, my heroine starts off with the name Enna.  Could she be one and the same?

Sometimes I think it’s the only explanation.

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