Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Scatalogical Stravinsky and the Taste of Crayons

This past weekend, at the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books and Authors, I had an amazing time talking with a bunch of great authors and illustrators. So, what do writers talk about when they hang out together? Books, naturally, and rainbow loom. And whether one should drop lemon wedges into glasses of water or just squeeze in the juice. And this guy, the Irish novelist Flann O'Brien, on the left. Another writer turned out to be a fan and I don’t often meet too many lovers of The Dalkey ArchiveAt one point, a few of us were stuck trying to remember the library song from Beauty and the Beast. That's when I knew I was with my kind of people. The author/illustrator Laurie Keller and I also had a great conversation about the necessity of working on your weird stuff, the art or writing out there on the fringes, which is often the material that keeps you inspired. So I’m going to spend a little time on the adventures of a character named Tim this week. He’s very odd.

Speaking of illustrators, a few months ago I met the artist Greg Hildebrandt, who, along with his brother, created the iconic Star Wars movie poster with Vader looming in the background. At the time I was actually interviewing an amazing kid named Justin Beckerman, who built his own one-person submarine, and kind of thinks with his hands. If Justin wants to understand how a motor works, he doesn’t look it up online. He takes the motor apart, moves things around, cleans different parts, replaces things, and then just gets it. The final story is here, and I probably could have written it without visiting, but I just had to meet this kid. Naturally, he was standing outside in his driveway taking apart a broken jet ski when I arrived (at night!), and it was quite a bonus when he took me next door to meet Hildebrandt, his neighbor.

The artist shared a few great stories about his youth, including the time he ate crayons because he wanted to know what the colors tasted like, and this little pearl of wisdom about creative work:

“It’s not all about inspiration. It’s about slow, steady, forward movement.”

Now on to the latest installment of Emersonian Reading Series. At the Providence Atheneaeum, a wonderful library, I read the first few pages of the famous composer Igor Stravinsky’s autobiography and found this delightful passage:

" of my earliest memories of sound will seem somewhat odd...I can see it now. An enormous peasant seated on the stump of a tree. The sharp resinous tang of fresh-cut wood in my nostrils.  The peasant simply clad in a short red shirt. His bare legs covered with reddish hair, on his feet birch sandals, on his head a mop of hair as thick and as red as his beard - not a white hair, yet an old man. He was dumb, but he had a way of clicking his tongue very noisily, and the children were afraid of him. So was I. But curiosity used to triumph over fear. The children would gather round him. Then, to amuse them, he would begin to sing. This song was composed of two syllables, the only ones he could pronounce...he made them alternate with incredible dexterity in a very rapid tempo. He used to accompany this clucking in the following way: pressing the palm of his right hand under his left armpit, he would work his left arm with a rapid movement, making it press on the right hand."

That's right, ladies and gentleman, one of history's greatest composers was drawn to music because of some guy making fart noises.

A nice image early in Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October:

"The water was coated with the bilge oil of numberless ships, filth that would not evaporate in the low temperatures and left a black ring on the rocky walls of the fjord as though from the bath of a slovenly giant."

A fragment from a great passage in one of Roberto Bolano’s big books:

"...and he dreamed that to escape the bullets he ducked underwater and let himself be carried along by the current, coming up only to breathe and going under again, and in this way he traveled miles and miles of river, sometimes holding his breath for three minutes or four or five..."

And here’s the Irish playwright JM Synge, in his memoirs of time spent on the Aran Islands, noting what sounds very much like an early minimalist running trend:

"Michael walks so fast when I am out with him that I cannot pick up my steps, and the sharp-edged fossils which abound in the limestone have cut my shoes to pieces. The family held a consultation on them last night, and in the end it was decided to make me a pair of pampooties, which I have been wearing today among the rocks. They consist simply of a piece of raw cowskin, with the hair outside, laced over the toe and round the heel with two ends of fishing-line that work round and are ties above the instep."

Is anyone surprised the Irish were early proponents of minimalist running, though? They invent everything first.

Finally, after much internal reflection, I have arrived at an answer to a question a budding writer named John posed to me earlier this year during a school visit: How do you research a subject that is entirely fictional? So, to back up, in my talks I stress the importance of becoming an expert in whatever subject you happen to be writing about. Cryptography or baking supply chain logistics, for example. But John was confused because he wanted to write about mages and mages don’t really exist. To most people, anyway. So when John first asked me the question, I suggested gathering as much information as he could from other works of fiction.
Now I’ve got a better idea. John, you might not like this, as it does mean more work, but I think you have to write the book you would need to read to write your book. Hmmm....let's try that again. So, to become an expert on an imaginary person, place, or thing, you have to really think through and flesh out that subject. If you want to write a book about an alien planet, you have to build that planet in your head. As for mages, I’d at least sketch out The Complete History of Mages or Mages 101 or The Guide to Becoming a Mage, or maybe even all three, before you start writing your book. Look at that Rowling lady. The imaginary book Tales of Beedle the Bard became so real in her head that she actually sat down and wrote it out!
Sorry if that’s disappointing John, but I could tell you were a bright kid, so I’m sure you’re capable. 

Oh, and in other news, I found out one of my articles from last year was cited as a kind of honorable mention in the Best American Science & Nature Writing 2013. So that's nice.