Quote from the book I’m reading right now: I have always been suspicious of countries (or subcultures) in which a majority of the men wear mustaches, but Tunisia is a delight.
Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don’t see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson’s “Letters From Baghdad” in the New Yorker.) Simpson’s story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson’s World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it’s filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.
When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s, I had a buddy named Tim Johnstone who introduced me to the joys of drawing and, more broadly, to the pleasures of letting my imagination off the leash. The Johnstones were an odd family. For one thing, they owned a foreign sports car, a curvaceous XK-120 Jaguar from Great Britain, which was regarded as an act of unpatriotic heresy in the Big Three church of Detroit. Not content to have a prosaic pet, Tim mailed away for a baby ferret, which he proceeded to toilet-train.
Tim’s father was an engineer who traveled the world supervising the construction of factories he had designed. Whenever his enormous blueprints had served their purpose, Mr. Johnstone gave them to Tim, who spread them on the rec room floor, blank side up, and invited me to help him fill them with elaborate panoramas that sometimes took us weeks to complete. We always settled on a theme — the Wild West, the Civil War, the deep sea, the Middle Ages, dinosaurs, outer space (this was those jittery years after Sputnik) — and then we spent hundreds of hours sprawled on our stomachs, pencils moving non-stop, our imaginations carrying us backward or forward in time, deep beneath the sea or out into the cosmos. t was bliss.
The itch to draw, born on the Johnstones’ rec room floor half a century ago, has never left me. One reason I was barely an above-average student was that I spent most of my time in school drawing pictures of my teachers and classmates instead of taking notes. Over time my focus narrowed to drawing one thing: the human head, in all its infinite variety. As I pursued my life-long dream of becoming a writer, the focus narrowed further. I started drawing the heads of writers. Then the focus narrowed yet again. Since I’m convinced that people tend to be more interesting once they’re dead, obituaries have always been my favorite part of the newspaper. So whenever a noteworthy writer died, I started drawing the picture that accompanied the obit, eventually adding drawings of noteworthy long-dead writers. Here, then, is a gallery of a few of those literary giants, along with brief explanations of what was going through my head as my pen (or, in a few cases, my pencil) was fashioning their heads.
Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) — Operating under the assumption that any writer who influenced Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck has got to be worth reading, I dove into Sherwood Anderson’s most famous book, Winesburg, Ohio, some thirty years ago. It bored me silly, and I came away scratching my head over what the fuss was all about. I tried again a few years ago and found the book even more boring on a second reading. So when I set out to draw Anderson, I wanted to capture a sharpie who has just pulled a fast one and is laughing at us dupes out the side of his mouth.
Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) — Here are three simple sentences from Flannery O’Connor’s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” that changed my life: “The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.” These words taught me the invaluable lesson that my youthful hunger for experience was beside the point if I wanted to become a writer. I was already a fan of Flannery’s fiction, but her non-fiction made me realize she saw things the existence of which I had not even begun to imagine. So I wanted her eyes to look like they could see straight through anyone who pauses to look at this drawing.
Robert Lowell (1917-1977) — A brilliant poet, Robert Lowell was also a tortured man who tortured others, especially the ones he loved. When 852 pages worth of his letters were published in 2005, I drew his head from a photograph that accompanied the review in The New York Times. I tried to convey that this was a man whose spirit was being pushed earthward by a pulverizing weight, a man who was no stranger to the dark precincts of madness.
Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)– The only way Philip K. Dick could have written so many books — and so many fine weird ones — was with the help of chemistry. I imagine him slamming a typewriter all through the California night, jacked to the gills on speed, weed, booze, caffeine, maybe a hit of acid to take the edge off. Out poured a river of words that often had a manic, paranoid, bi-polar flavor. Or maybe the word I’m looking for is gnostic. Dick was a visionary chronicler of life’s moral chiaroscuro, its black evils and moments of shining virtue, which made him an ideal subject for a black-and-white ink drawing that features a blinding source of light and its inevitable counterpart, dark, dark shadows.
Irving “Swifty” Lazar (1907-1993) — Though not a writer, Swifty Lazar was the agent of Hemingway, Faulkner, Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov and Tennessee Williams, along with half of the Hollywood galaxy. I’ve always thought of him as the colossus of the 15 percent crowd, gazing down at us mere mortals through ashtray glasses that magnified his big barracuda eyes. (He also had sharp little barracuda teeth.) Cross this man at your peril.
William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) — As radical — and funny– as his writing could be, I’m never able to think of William S. Burroughs without remembering that he shot his common-law wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in 1951. Burroughs admitted that the (accidental?) killing haunted him for the remaining 46 years of his long and prolific life, and as a result I’ve always imagined him as a man split in two by the trauma, then put back together all wrong.
Naomi Schor (1943-2001) — Those lips! That hair! What’s not to love about the literary critic Naomi Schor? But it was the contents of her obituary that clinched it for me: “Dr. Schor once said she had love affairs with intellectual ‘ism’s,’ including fetishism, realism, idealism, universalism and feminism, her favorite.” It gets better. She also “explored the notion of male lesbianism, suggesting ways that Flaubert and other male authors seemed to speak from a lesbian perspective.” Wow — Flaubert was a male lesbian! This revelation convinced me I needed to read more literary criticism, but fortunately I came to my senses and drew this picture instead.
Shelby Foote (1916-2005) — Shelby Foote’s magisterial three-volume narrative history of the Civil War has been called America’s Iliad, and I’ve got to believe that devoting your life to such a project exacts a price. I think of Foote more as a monument than a mere man, so when I drew him I tried to make him look like he was carved out of stone. And I wanted him to be doing what he did for so many years while composing his masterpiece — staring into the blackest, bloodiest abyss this nation has, so far, managed to conjure.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
Sloganeering rightly takes me to task for my sloppy framing of the NaNoWriMo debate – primarily the fact that I make no attempt to present the opposite point of view – and does it for me by pointing to Websnark’s pro-NaNoWriMo post from a year ago.Clearly some people find NaNoWriMo useful (or at least fun) or it wouldn’t still be around, but I question the idea that it’s good for aspiring writers. Websnark presents four reasons why NaNoWriMo is an instructive exercise. The first three touch on the idea that if you want to be a writer, you have to stop being lazy and/or afraid and you have to write every day. This is undoubtedly true, and at the very least NaNoWriMo shows people how hard this really is, though I have my doubts that very many people continue to write every day on December 1 and beyond, which is the point, right? Essentially, I’m not convinced that there’s an easy trick to learning how to write every day, or even that it can be taught at all.Websnark’s last reason for liking NaNoWriMo is that “There are worse reasons to form a community than creativity,” and that is about the best defense of NaNoWriMo that I can come up with as well. There certainly worse, less productive things one could do with one’s time, and NaNoWriMo makes a solitary, often grueling endeavor fun and social, if only for one month out of the year. But, then, if writing weren’t solitary and grueling, we’d all have novels out.
Reuters is reporting that several prominent publishers, currently tethered to larger companies and media conglomerates, could be the target of bids from private equity firms looking for the steady cashflow that their backlists would provide. At the top of the list is Penguin, currently owned by Pearson, but News Corp’s HarperCollins and CBS’s Simon & Schuster could be separated from their parents as well. So far Houghton Mifflin is the only major publisher to have been extracted from its parent (Vivendi in this case) by private equity firms.Is this good news for publishers? Since they’re not very profitable, publishers are often forgotten alongside the other holdings of these large media companies. At the same time, however, private equity firms’ primary motive would likely be getting a return on their investment, so cost cutting could probably be expected.
It’s not just July, it’s the “Harry Potter month” to end all Harry Potter months. With book 7 coming out on the 21st, the frenzy will be ramping up over the next couple of weeks.Amazon has been doing its best to stoke the flames (recall the Harry-est Town in America promotion). A new press release from the online bookseller is breathless even by the form’s loose standards. “Harry Potter Mania Reaches All-Time High on Amazon.com” it proclaims, and I imagine millions of foaming clickers rampaging through Amazon’s digital halls and tearing the place to pieces. Alas, by “mania” Amazon means pre-orders, which at last count are approaching 1.6 million, eclipsing the record total set by book 6. Amazon continues to incite the madness, however, with its new offer of a $5 “promotional certificate to spend in August” for customers who pre-order the new book. Go crazy, Harry Potter fans.
From the WSJ, a story of how the Cuban government has licensed franchises of La Bodeguita del Medio, a watering hole where Ernest Hemingway supposedly once hung out. “The concept clicked, and La Bodeguita outlets spread across Latin America and European cities including Paris and Berlin. Even in former communist capitals like Prague — where some locals call the restaurants ‘McCastro’s’ — the Hemingway link attracts business.” It sounds like a Cuban Hard Rock Cafe that’s Hemingway-themed rather than aging rocker-themed. My favorite part of the story is the lead paragraph:A life-size likeness of Ernest Hemingway greets diners entering La Bodeguita del Medio bistro near Stanford University here. Patrons at La Bodeguita del Medio in Prague order The Old Man and the Seafood plate. And in London’s new version of the same restaurant, which opened last month, the owner says Hemingway novels will be available for perusal in the men’s room.Separately, and more seriously, an article about how The Nature Conservancy came to own Hemingway’s last house, in Ketchum, Idaho.