One of the things I need most as a writer is a routine. For me that’s not as much about what time of day I write, that varies, but about where I write. When I sit at my ergonomically gorgeous desk and writing set up I write because it is the place of writing.
Unlike many other writers I don’t have a specific moment that signals writing will commence. I don’t drink coffee so that’s not how I start my day. Some days I write for a bit before breakfast. Some days not till after brekkie, going to the gym, and doing various chores. I do have a broad time for writing: daylight. I almost never write at night. When the sun is down I take a break from writing. That’s when I get to socialise and to absorb other people’s narratives via conversation, TV, books etc.
I have found, however, that I can’t write every single day. I need at least one day off a week. And I can’t go months and months and months without a holiday from writing.
Getting away from my ergonomic set up and the various novels I’m writing turns out to be as important to me as my writing routine. Time off helps my brain. Who’d have thunk it? Um, other than pretty much everyone ever.
I spent the last few days in the Blue Mountains. Me and Scott finally managed to walk all the way to the Ruined Castle. We saw loads of gorgeous wildlife, especially lyrebirds. There was no one on the path but us. Oh and this freaking HUGE goanna (lace monitor). I swear it was getting on for 2 metres from end of tail to tongue:
Photo taken by me from the rock I jumped on to get out of its way.
This particular lace monitor was in quite a hurry. Given that they have mouths full of bacteria (they eat carrion) and they’re possibly venomous getting out of its way is imperative. It seemed completely oblivious of me and Scott. Which, was a very good thing.
Watching it motor past us was amazing. All the while the bellbirds sang. Right then I wasn’t thinking about anything but that goanna.
Which is why getting away is so important. Clears your mind. Helps your muscles unknot.1 Lets you realise that finishing your novel is not, in fact, a matter of life and death.
At the same time two days into the little mini-holiday I realised what the novel I’m writing is missing. The answer popped into my brain as I tromped along the forest floor past tree ferns and gum trees breathing in the clean, clean air, listening to those unmistakeable Blue Mountain sounds2:
And it was good. Really good.
TL:DR: Writing routine good; getting away from writing routine also good.
After their relieved that the goanna has gone away. [↩]
Next Thursday the City of Bones movie opens here in Sydney. Scott and me will be hosting a first-night screening here in Sydney, courtesy of the wonderful Kinokuniya Bookshop.1Cassie herself will introduce the film via a special, exclusive to Kino, recording of joyousness. Because that’s how special this night will be.
If you live in Sydney, and how lucky are you to live in the best city in the world,2 and you enjoy watching movies on the first night with people who are very very excited to be seeing this movie on account of having read the books several million times, then JOIN US.
Also, there’s a costume contest. I plan to dress as I imagine Isabelle Lightwood would if she had my taste in clothing. Sadly I will not be eligible to win the prize. I shall coax Scott into dressing as Magnus Bane. I predict, however, that Scott will be there dressed as Scott Westerfeld.
This is a big issue in the Urban Fantasy genre too. I’ve started more than one series where the MC, despite being thirty-something with a job and developed asskicking abilities, has zero friends and no previous relationships. (Teacher of asskicking? No, conveniently dead just like other parental figures? What about cowor- no there too? Not even other independent psychic investigators? Okay, then. Friends? Okay, okay. Just asking.)
Rachel put her finger on something that drives me nuts in many movies/tv shows/books etc. The mighty arse-kicking protag who is the master of many martial arts but no longer studies any of them. They’ve had their training montage and now their skills are perfected and they never need to study again.
Seriously? How does anyone buy that? I mean even a slight sports fan knows that all the top athletes have armies of coaches and trainers and work really hard to improve even when they’re ranked number one in the entire universe.
I have studied two different martial arts: fencing and boxing. My fencing instructors, while instructing beginner me, were themselves still studying both with top fencing instructors in Australia but they would also go to master classes in Italy and France.
My boxing trainer makes a special trip out to the USA once a year to work with her trainer. She’s won titles and has many students of her own and yet she’s still training and working with her guru. And he, in turn, who is a master of several martial arts, continues to learn other martial arts and to train with other masters, swapping techniques. Which he then incorporates into his own teaching.
Funny how often that doesn’t happen in fiction.
I do sometimes wonder if the way learning is represented in popular culture—you study hard for about ten minutes and then magically you are perfected!—is part of why so many people give up when learning something new because they aren’t perfect at it within the space of a training montage. Could it be why so many people think they can just sit down and write a perfect New York Times-bestselling novel without having written so much as a haiku previously?
Probably not. We people are often pretty lazy. But those popular culture tropes sure aren’t helping.
All my favourite fiction, whether novels or television, features strong relationships. I’ve started to think that for me the hallmark of good writing is, in fact, the strength of the relationships. So many books/movies/tv fail for me because the protag either doesn’t have any relationships or because those relationships are constructed out of cardboard.
And, no, I’m not solely talking about the lerve and the shipping. I’m talking all relationships: with mother, father, siblings, uncles, aunts, children, nieces, nephews, cousins, colleagues, neighbours, teachers, coaches, and most especially, friends.
One of the things that attracted me to YA as a genre is that so much of it is about friendship and family relationships. It’s why every time I read a YA book that doesn’t feature those strong relationships I’m deeply disappointed. To me, it’s like the author failed to understand the genre. But then I came to YA via authors like M. E. Kerr and Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. Yes, there’s romantic love in those books but there are also other very strong relationships, particularly with family members. Think of Sophy and her sisters in Howl’s Moving Castle and Laura with her brother and mother in The Changeover.
The core of the Uglies series is not Tally and whoever her love interest is either boring David or sexy Zane.1 It’s her friendship/hateship with Shay. In the Leviathan trilogy there are multiple wonderful relationships beside the central lerve one. My favourite is Derryn’s relationship with the boffin, Nora Barlow.
These other relationships are what make the central characters so rich. We know Sophy and Laura and Tally and Derryn through their relationships to other people. Our friendships are a large part of who we are as people.
Strong relationships keep me going watching a show even when the rest of it isn’t really working for me. I was very disappointed by Homeland which despite being touted as groundbreaking television I found predictable and mostly uninteresting. But I loved the relationship between Claire Danes’ character and her mentor boss played by Mandy Patikin and it kept me watching despite Homeland‘s average script and the way the show kept pulling its punches. Oh and the special and visual effects were so cheesy. Least convincing explosions I’ve seen in ages. I thought Showtime had money? Weird.
Another disappointing show was the BBC’s The Fades, which was visually stunning. OMG. That show is beautiful. It’s a pity about the incredibly boring central character—well, boring when he wasn’t being annoying—and the overloaded and out of control script. Too much stuff, people! Much of it wonderful—enough to keep several shows going but not all crammed together in the one show! Stakes WAY TOO HIGH. Pare it down, already. Also another chosen one story. *yawn* Can we retire “awkward weird guy hated by everyone—except for that one gorgeous girl with no personality—turns out to have awesome powers and be the only one who can save the world” right now, please? Thank you.
But I loved the main character’s best friend and his sister and their relationship with the really boring protag were the only times the protag was even vaguely interesting. Their relationship with each other was the best thing in the show. Those relationships kept me watching.
I often hear beginning writers complain that they’re not sure what happens with their protagonist next. That they’re stuck. Often part of the problem is that their book does not have enough relationships in it. They’ve left out the parents, made their protag an only child with no friends. The only other characters are the love interest and the villian. And none of the characters are coming to life because they’re only in the book for one reason: to be the Love Interest, to be the Villian, to be the Protagonist.
There has to be more. You get the more by complicating things. Let’s say the protag’s best friend is the villian’s sister. Already that gives both the protag and the villian another dimension: their relationship with their BFF/sister. Both characters suddenly became a lot more interesting.
I know it’s convenient—not to mention a longstanding trope—to get rid of the parents but parents add all sorts of fabulous complications and depth to your books. They can arbitrarily ground your character or be indifferent to their goings on. Or have a mysterious job. Or turn out to be the villian. Or be there full of love and advice and patching up or, all of the above. Ditch them at the peril of writing a less interesting book.
Also siblings. They complicate things too. Personally I adore them.2 The protag’s little sister in How To Ditch Your Fairy is one of my favourite characters I’ve ever created. I’d love to give her a book of her own some day.
In conclusion: Please don’t write novels with one character in a white walled room. Family and friends are good plot thickeners and givers of dimensions to other characters.
Uglies trivia: I came up with Zane’s name by the way. [↩]
And not just because my sister is the best which means I want everyone to have a fabulous sister. [↩]
Aspiring actress meets established alcoholic actor whose career is on the downward turn. He helps her get her break. They fall in love and get married. She gets more famous as he gets drunker and less famous. She tries to help him unalcoholify.1 He fears that he is holding her back and goes for swim in the Pacific Ocean. A very long swim.
Moral: there can only be one! No marriage can support two actors or two writers or two artists or two anything that can lead to fame. THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE FAMOUS ONE IN A RELATIONSHIP! Otherwise there will be long non-returning swims in the ocean. And tearful declarations of undying love from the one who doesn’t go for a swim as the credits roll.
My favourite is the 1954 version because JUDY GARLAND! The singing! The emoting! The clothes! It is hilariously divine. Though it defies anyone’s imagination that anyone could ever fall in love with James Mason. I mean, come on, the guy is super creepy. He was born to play super creepy bad guys, not heroes. Even washed-up alcoholic loser actor husband heroes. In 1954 I would have cast Robert Mitchum even though he was way too hung, er, I mean, young. Just because I really like young Robert Mitchum. Oh, okay, how about Henry Fonda. Can you imagine? No, me neither. How about Jimmy Stewart? Actually, Jimmy Stewart would have been perfect. Think of his performance in Vertigo. Totally neurotic and unhinged. Not sure there would have been much chemistry with Garland but, hey, there was zero chemistry between her and Mason so it could hardly be worse.
Wow. Now I want to recast all my favourite films that have casting issues. Oh, oh, oh! Dorothy Dandridge as Maria in West Side Story. She was too young enough! She still looked plenty young in her 30s. And unlike Natalie Wood she could sing.
*cough* I digress.
Where was I?
Right. The lesson from this much re-versioned3 film. Never get involved with someone who’s in your industry. Only one of you can be successful. There has never—in the history of the world—been a couple who were both well-known in their industry and had a happy marriage. Seriously I am sitting here trying to think of a single example and I’m failing.
Well, phew. I’d hate to think that anything I learned from Hollywood was not true.
If you feel the urge to name some of these non-existent couples you’re only allowed to pick dead ones. Or at least one of them dead. Otherwise they will break up within the week. Please, no jinxing happy relationships! Not that there are any happy artistic relationships.
They tried really hard to get Elvis Presley rather than Kris Kristofferson. Can you imagine? Maybe he wouldn’t have died in 1977 if he’d starred in it. Or maybe he would have died sooner. We’ll never know. [↩]
I can too make words mean anything I want them to mean. [↩]
Me and Scott took the day off last week to go to the movies. I cannot remember the last time we did that. Sat down in an actual cinema with actual other people and watched a movie. It was a great audience. We mocked the Australian-Mining-Will-Save-the-Environment ad together. Then we laughed and cried and cheered our way through The Sapphires.
The Sapphires restored my faith in movies. I was on the verge of sticking to TV and never bothering with movies again. The Sapphires pulled me back from that brink. I walked out of that cinema elated and happy and almost a week later the feeing hasn’t worn off yet.
For those not in Australia, The Sapphires is a new movie about an Aboriginal girl group who performed for the US troops in Vietnam in the late 60s. It is now screening in Australia and France and will be released in NZ in October and UK in November. It will also be screening in the USA but I haven’t been able to find out when yet.
If you get a chance to see it DO SO.
The Sapphires is a biopic in that it is based on the lives of a real Aboriginal girl group who performed in Vietnam in the 1960s. But unlike so many biopics, such as Ray, there’s no boring bit after they get famous and take to drugs/alcohol and then are redeemed because The Sapphires don’t become famous. It’s not that movie.
It’s also astonishingly gorgeous. The cinematography by Warwick Thornton, the director of the also visually stunning Samson and Delilah, makes everything and everyone glow. When I discovered the budget was less than a million dollars, which for those of you who don’t know is a microscopic budget for a feature-length film, I almost fell over.
Deborah Mailman is, as usual, the standout. She’s been my favourite Australian actor ever since Radiance in 1998. I would even go see her in a Woody Allen movie1 that is how great my love for her is. Wherever Mailman is on screen that’s where you’re looking. And no matter who she’s playing I find myself on her side. She could play Jack the Ripper and I’d still be on her side.
The Sapphires is a movie where you see the effects of systemic racism AND you get joy and hope and MUSIC. The movie was upbeat and heartbreaking and funny and left me full of optimism for the entire world. Things do get better! Amazing things can be achieved even in the face of racism and sexism.
The movie manages to convey how the civil rights movement in the USA was important to Aboriginal people in Australia deftly and economically. (I had just been reading about Marcus Garvey’s influence on indigenous politics here in the 1930s, which was an excellent reminder that Australia’s civil rights movement goes back much earlier than most people realise.) It covers a great deal of the terrain of racial politics in Australia in the 1960s without ever losing sight of its genre.
This appears to be a problem for many of the reviewers in Australian newspapers. The reviews are all weirdly tepid in their praise. They refer to The Sapphires as a “feel good” movie and a “crowd pleaser” as if that were a bug not a feature. Um, what? It’s like they went in expecting Samson and Delilah—a great film don’t get me wrong—and are mildly annoyed that this one didn’t rip their heart out and stomp on it. The thinking seems to go: I walked out of The Sapphires wanting to burst into song. It must be lightweight fluff.
The Sapphires is a movie that aims to make you laugh, fill you with joy, jerk some tears from you and to maybe make you think, if you’re white Australian like me, about how deep seated racism is in this country. It succeeds in all of those goals. How does that make it “merely” entertaining? Gah!
I will never understand the attitude that says serious = deep, funny = shallow. It is a widespread view. Take a look at all the award-winning books and films. Very few of them are funny. Or could be described as light. What’s up with that?
I have a list of books and movies I turn to when I’m down. What they have in common is that they are excellently well-made and they make me feel good. It’s a lot harder to write one of those books or make one of those movies than you’d think.
Yesterday I listed some of my favourite recent US TV shows. It got me wondering what your favourite shows are and why? Because I’m just about to finish the first season of Legend of Korra and will have to find something else to watch that’s every bit as wonderful.
I only noticed that I watch completely different kinds of TV in Australia than I do in the US. Here in Australia I watch lots of non-fiction: Australian Story, Four Corners, pretty much all the cooking shows, lots of sport, Rockwiz. Stuff like that. My US shows as listed yesterday are mostly fiction, genius shows like The Wire and Deadwood.
So what are you watching wherever in the world you are? Yes, anime counts. Please to tell me!
But I would sell my soul for any one of my books to be turned into a Hollywood TV show.
US TV is in a golden age. How many shows are there on right now that I enjoy? Let me see: Legend of Korra, Scandal, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Revenge, Louis, Bunheads, Justified, Nurse Jackie, Community and I’m sure there are others I’m not thinking of. Do I think they are all perfect? As diverse as I would like them to be? Not hardly. But they are a million times better than any recent Hollywood movie. Frankly, even formulaic TV like Drop Dead Diva1 is way smarter and more thoughtful and just plain better than 99% of the movies that come out of Hollywood.
Here’s the thing. Many of my friends have had their books optioned and have had meetings with Hollywood movie types and their overwhelming reaction walking away from those meetings is hysterical laughter and/or despair. “So they love my book—you know, the one that reworks the little mermaid—but they’re wondering if it wouldn’t be better if they were secretly robots controlled by a master villian on a secret island hideout. They worried there wasn’t enough conflict.” Or, “So they say they love my book but they’d prefer my teen black female protagonist was white and male and thirty-five. But he could have a teen daughter who’s best friend was black.” Etc.
Hollywood has their rule book of how movies should be. They will take your book and cram it into those set of rules and spew out their sausage movie product. They will raise the stakes until the fate of the world is at the movie’s centre. You know just like every other summer blockbuster. They will make almost everyone white. They will reduce complexity and make the ending unambiguously happy: the boy and the girl will kiss! Even if in the original book it was a girl and a girl.
It’s no surprise that the YA adaptations that have been the most successful are the ones that are most faithful to the books they’re based on. The ones that have been turned into Ye Olde Hollywood Sausage Movie die on their arses. It amazes me that no one in Hollywood has noticed that. Yet they keep optioning hugely successful books, oops, I mean, “properties” and trying to turn them into Ye Olde Hollywood Sausage Movies. Gah!
Meanwhile every year there are several wonderful new TV shows. Most of which aren’t like anything else that is on TV.
So, yes, given a choice between the two you betcha I’d prefer to have a TV show. At this point I should reveal my dread shame: only one of my books has ever been optioned and that was for the huge amount of ZERO dollars. I know it can seem like all YA books ever are instantly optioned but sadly this is not true. Also of all those books that are optioned the vast majority never makes it to the screen. I have a friend, well, husband really, who has had all of his books optioned multiple times. Nope they have never made it on to the big or small screens. Might happen. One day.
Though should Hollywood people offer me buckets of money to adapt a book of mine for the big screen I would not say no. Fabulous ballgowns don’t buy themselves, you know! Besides, as mentioned, the vast majority of optioned books never get made into movies. Especially right now when the DVD stream of revenue has completely dried up. So I could safely say yes with little fear of seeing my book desecrated on the big screen.
My secret vice or it would be if I kept it secret. What? I love Margaret Cho. Shut up. [↩]
So yesterday I came across this tumblr, Underground New York Public Library. And, fellow readers, it is marvellous! Glory in the gazillions of photos of people reading books on the subway. Complete with the names of the books. It is a truly glorious portrait of New York City. Of what I love about that city.
I am sure if you read this blog you are like me: when you are on public transport you cannot stop yourself from trying to figure out what people are reading.
I have been known to accidentally on purpose drop things so I can bend down to pick them up and thus read the title of the book that’s being held too low for me to read otherwise. Yes, I am one of those dreadful people who reads over people’s shoulders on public transport. I’m just curious is all. Not creepy. Honest!
I love to know what people are reading. Then along comes this tumblr to satisfy my curiosity. And, wow, what a wide range of books. Almost every genre under the sun. Though not that many romances. I figure those are mostly on ereaders. It’s a shame that means they don’t represent in the vast numbers they are being read.
Don’t get me wrong I love being able to read books electronically.1 But it does make it that much harder to figure out what people are reading. And has massively increased my already obnoxious habit of reading over people’s shoulders.
On the other hand it means I will never again have some arsehole being all judgey because I dare to read in public a romance or YA or some other genre certain people like to sneer at. Yes, I have had people say rude stuff to me because I was reading a book they did not deem to be good. Get over yourself, judgey poo heads! I bet you read Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski. I am sorry you are so insecure in your masculinity you have to read misogynist dross like that to make you feel better. Um, *cough* judging people for what they read is wrong.2
I was particularly filled with joy by this picture of two men reading books by women. See? There are men who are brave enough to do that! In public!
This tumblr made my heart almost explode with joy. And, um, lose several hours pouring over every photos and reading every comment. What? I’m on a break between first and second draft of novel. So it’s not even procrastination.
Happy reading, everyone! What’s the best book you’re read recently? And why did you love it?
Mine’s Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful He Might Hear You which I adored because it has sharply written dialogue and so evocatively brings 1930s Sydney to life. Also it is heartbreaking. Everyone should read it if only for a masterclass in how to write great dialogue.
In my case I read them on my phone and don’t have an ereader, but, you know, same thing. [↩]
Do not get me started on those who read Ayn Rand in a non-campy way. [↩]
Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*
Here it is:
Monsters I Have Loved
Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson
Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.
Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.
Excellently recursive, yes?
I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.
Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.
Nah, not really.
When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:
Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis
Am I right?
I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.
Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.
Me and Elvis
My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.
The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.
I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.
I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).
Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.
(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)
I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.
That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”
What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.
What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3
It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.
My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.
I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.
My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.
This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.
Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4
Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.
The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.
I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.
I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.
Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.
Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)
They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?
Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:
I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.
Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.
Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6
Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?
Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?
Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?
Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.
But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.
I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.
Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.
My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.
Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7
In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.
He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”
“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”
He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?
It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.
At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8
And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.
Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.
But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.
I am no more original than Elvis.
Can Feminists Love Elvis?
But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?
He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.
How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)
In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.
No! Yes! Um, maybe.
Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.
Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.
I adore it.
US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.
Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.
I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.
You all make up stories that go with songs, right?
That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)
Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.
I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.
But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.
So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11
As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.
And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.
My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .
Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.
At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. [↩]
I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. [↩]
You’re unlikely to get anything sensible out of me for awhile. This will be brief. First, thanks for all the responses yesterday. That was truly fascinating.
Second, we recently finished watching Fullmetal Alchemist and Read or Die and LOVED them both with a fiery burning passion. Thanks everyone who recommended them. What should we watch next? And why do you recommend it?
Third, without googling how many have you heard of Joel Chandler Harris? And what do you know about him? And where are you from? (I suspect how old you are is pertinent also.)
If you’re in NYC you can see me and Scott reading this Saturday:
First up here’s one of our lovely Eucalyptus ficifolia or flowering gum. They’re incredibly common here in Sydney. I swear almost every street in Surry Hills is lined with ficifolia. I miss them like crazy when I’m in NYC. Hence the need to have some on the deck:
Isn’t that adorable? Baby ficifolia reminds me of a puppy dog whose feet are way bigger than the rest of it. Only it’s the leaves that are outsized compared to the currently spindly trunk and branches. I do wonder how those branches manage to support the weight of the jumbo leaves. (Why, yes, that is a stake holding it upright.)
Did you notice the native violets (Viola hederacaea) underneath? Eventually those lovely violets will go cascading over the sides of the pots. It will be so gorgeous!
Here’s a close up on some NEW GROWTH. (Um, yes, I am kind of obsessed with the garden. I am aware that plants tend to grow.)
But still that’s actual new growth that happened while it was on our deck. Can you see why it fills my heart with such joy? I swear every morning when I go out to check that they’ve survived the night (*cough* *cough*) I find a new tiny spurt. *sigh of happiness*
Though I also tend to find that some evil beastie has been doing some munching! Grrr.
If I find the culprit I destroys it. How dare it eat our garden?! The outrage! Okay, yes, I know that it’s all part of the beautiful cycle of life and blah blah blah but they can go eat someone else’s baby ficifolia.
I wasn’t sure about having grass trees. They’re so amazing in the wild that I wasn’t convinced they’d look okay confined to a wee pot. But they look incredible. I spend hours on the deck just watching the wind move through their fronds. I think I am in love with our grass trees.
Lastly here is the new view from our bedroom:
That’s Syzygium luehmannii or as it’s more commonly known lilli pilli. There’s now a wall of it guarding our bedroom and giving us good dreams. Bless you, lilli pilli.
And for me to gaze at longingly when I’m far from here. [↩]
As some of you know Alexander McQueen committed suicide earlier this year. He was one of my favourite living designers. I own a shirt, two jackets and a skirt of his. I have gotten a great deal of wear out of them and yet they still look new. They’re gorgeous, exquisitely cut, not to mention comfortable. When I wear them I feel taller and stronger and more stylish. They make me happy.
It’s hard to explain to people with zero interest in fashion why designers like McQueen have such loyal followers. Why his death made me cry. It’s even harder to explain it to people who actively hate fashion. But I want to try.
Clothes like the ones Alexander McQueen made are both something you can wear and what’s more fundamental than clothing? Food, water, shelter, clothing. Those are the basics for keeping us alive. Everyone has some kind of stake in clothing whether they give a damn about their appearance or not. Now, obviously, very few people are buying McQueen just to say warm. His clothes are expensive in the extreme. But the point is that they are wearable. Their performance as clothing is spot on.1
This is one of the most beautiful dresses I’ve ever seen.
McQueen’s clothes at their best are jaw droppingly beautiful. I have the same visceral response to them that I do to any other art that moves me: great paintings, sculpture, music, writing. It’s the same feeling that overwhelms me when I see a truly gorgeous sunset or a spectacular view.
The fact that its wearable art just makes it more extraordinary.
I love the sweep of McQueen’s clothes, the use of so many vibrant beautiful colours. I love me a designer unafraid of colour. But as you can see from the first image above and the first one below he could also rock black and white and grey. I love his attention to detail. When you see these clothes up close you see the care that’s taken at every level, the buttons, the lining, and the fabric. Like Issey Miyake, McQueen’s fabrics were right at the technological cutting edge. Many of the clothes in McQueen’s final collection are printed with digitised images from European art over several centuries. Scott has a shirt of McQueens’ which is a digitised pattern of a baroque jacket. It’s exquisite. Photos of that shirt do not do it justice. As I’m sure these photos don’t come anywhere close to showing just how beautiful McQueen’s final collection was.
I love that McQueen was greatly influenced by fashion of the twenties, thirties and forties. (My favourite fashion decades of the 20th century.) I love that his influences went broader than that. I love how truly inventive he was.
All my McQueen pieces were bought on sale. If I’d been able to, I’d have bought many many more pieces of his, but most of his work was well out of my price range (as they are well out of the reach of the vast majority of the world’s population). One of the major objections to high fashion is that it is obscenely expensive. Who can afford a $10-$1000k (or more) dress? Very few of us. But then who can afford to have an original Modigliani on the wall or have Zaha Hadid design their home?
An artist’s impact is not just in their original art. It is in the light they cast, the inspiration they give, the effect that their work’s existence has on the world. I understand clothing and textiles differently because of Alexander McQueen’s work. More to the point so do other designers and makers of clothes at every level of the fashion industry from Haute Couture through to the High Street.
His influence on my understanding of fashion was strong long before I was lucky enough to buy a few of his pieces. I loved gorgeous fashion long before I could afford to buy any. I adore the work of Vionnet. I own nothing by her. Her clothes, on the rare occasions they’re available, are prohibitevely expensive. They’re often purchased by museums, which I wholeheartedly support. If they’re in private collectors’ hands my and your odds of seeing them drop exponentially. But museums are open to everyone.3
Back to Alexander McQueen. He was a great artist and he will be missed.
I’ll leave you with the last look of his collection. Apparently it made people in the audience cry. I’m with them.
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Doret Canton loves sport as much as I do. In fact, I interviewed her about that very subject right here on this blog and she said many smart and sensible things. (Except about American Football not being boring.) The reviews on her blog are amongst my favourite online reviews. Do check them out.
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Doret Canton is a bookseller who likes many of her customers. The others she runs and hides from. After working at a bookstore for so long, she has turned avoiding would be problem customers into an art form. She updates her blog TheHappyNappyBookseller regularly.
If This Book Was A Television Show
I loved Dia Reeves’ debut YA novel Bleeding Violet. It was beautifully strange. Check out this great review by The Book Smugglers. Seventeen year old Hanna heads to her mom’s hometown of Portero, Texas after knocking her aunt out cold. Portero, like Hanna, is far from normal. Before arriving in Portero Hanna only speaks to her dead father, now she can see him as well. Everything that happened in Portero was so out there I loved it. Halfway through Bleeding Violet, I couldn’t help but think—if this was a television show it would get cancelled. It would go something like this:
Week 1: Watched by a few people with nothing better to do. Week 2: Only half return. Week 3: Some convince a few friends to check out the weirdness that happens in Portero. More people tune in Week 4-8: Word is spreading about this strange show. Friends are getting together to watch. Week 9: A made for TV movie airs. Week 10: The show is bumped again. Some fans begin to worry Week 11: – A rerun. Many aren’t exicted about this but at least its back. Week 12: Another rerun. Week 13: Another reun. By now the smart fans are catching on. They know the network is merely screwing with them by showing reruns. Six Months Later: The incomplete complete box set (with never seen before episodes) is available.
So many great, not-the-same-as-everything-else shows get cancelled. I still miss Arrested Development, Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me
Thankfully Bleeding Violet is a book and not a television show. Though once this idea was in my head I started thinking about how other novels would fair. Zetta Elliott’s wonderful YA novel A Wish After Midnight would be passed over by all networks, large and small. They would totally miss its great miniseries potential. Many of my co-workers read YA. Like me, one enjoys Maureen Johnson’s novels. I asked her, If Suite Scarlett and its follow up, Scarlett Fever, (which was so worth the wait) were a television show how would it do? If the show stuck to the book, my co-worker gave it two seasons. Sadly, that sounded about right. That’s why we have TV on DVD, and, better yet, books.
Since this guest post might be read by people in Oz I shall end with a question. I loved Melina Marchetta’s newest novel Finnikin of the Rock. The year is young but I already know it’s a top read of 2010. If Finnikin of the Rock was an Aussie TV show how would it do?
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Sarah Cross is the author of Dull Boy, a YA superhero novel. She blogs intermittently, posts random videos on tumblr, and is hiding in a unicorn-and-zombie-proof bunker until this whole mess is over.
You may be wondering where Justine is.
And I am sorry to tell you that something horrible has befallen her.
She’s been kidnapped by unicorns.
Yes: these vile creatures.
You may be familiar with the zombies vs. unicorns debate, and the forthcoming anthology that was inspired by that eternal struggle. If you take a look at the anthology’s cover, you’ll see that the zombies and unicorns are engaged in an epic battle for dominance. It’s a gorgeous panorama of rainbow-colored destruction: severed unicorn heads, zombies impaled on pearlescent-yet-deadly horns, and corpses floating in a sky blue stream.
But one element has been left out of this struggle–and that, my friends, is the human element.
Members of Team Unicorn pose with their deadly mascot.
Humans will not emerge from this battle unscathed. They have been forced to take sides. (Vote here … if you dare.) Either you’re Team Zombie, or you’re Team Unicorn; and Justine, unfortunately, as the founding member of Team Zombie, has been targeted by her enemies: those sparkly, bone-crushing, rainbow-mane-shaking, marshmallow-defecating, zombie-impaling unicorns. From what I understand (I’ve been sent several encoded messages, written with a crayon that was rubberbanded to their leader’s hoof), the unicorns intend to hold Justine prisoner until she betrays the zombies and swears allegiance to her sparkly captors. Since we KNOW that will never happen … I was hoping to drum up some support for her release here.
Please, if you believe in fairies … er, believe the unicorns should release Justine, leave a comment here pleading her case. Personally, I believe that zombies, humans, and unicorns can get along. But some people are so frightened for their lives (or so passionate about unicorn domination), that they’re doing their best to disguise themselves as unicorns.
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for the next week or so. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today we have Sarah Rees Brennan, who is quite mad, which is often quite an advantage for the writing of fine fiction, as you will discover if you read any of SRB’s books. She was last here for an interview where she revealed the insanity of her writing technique.
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Sarah Rees Brennan is from Ireland, but she likes to roam the world causing havoc, and on one such mission encountered Justine Larbalestier in New York City and the rest is history (and spells your doom). She can be found saying stuff like this all the time on her own blog and she is the author of The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, first instalment out, second instalment out this May, about which more here. Her own demonic possession is an unfounded rumour that has little to no basis in fact.
So, ladies and gentlemen of the audience sitting in your chairs, happily anticipating another blog post filled with the usual thoughtfulness and wit by your favourite author, Dr. Justine Larbalestier.
I am sorry to disappoint you: said Dr. Larbalestier is currently unavailable.
JUSTINE: Oh Sarah. I fear my blog readers will pine.
SARAH: I have no doubt they will. They seem loyal and devoted sorts: they will pine like Christmas trees. (This is the kind of ‘wit’ you guys are in for. You lucky, lucky guys.)
JUSTINE: Would you write a guest blog for me?
SARAH: Oh, sure! I will try to be wise like you! Fill the void in their souls!
TEN MINUTES LATER
SARAH: Well, it was a nice idea.
So instead of Justine Larbalestier, you have me, and I am going to be talking about movies and sex! (Cue that scene when people are at a petting zoo, approaching a sweet kitty, and then . . . ‘IT’S A LION HARVEY, JESUS CHRIST, IT’S A LION, GET IN THE CAR.’)
There is a thing you need to understand about me. Sometimes, I like truly terrible things. I have watched all three High School Musical movies.
Nevertheless, I would not have of my own free will chosen to watch a movie starring Matthew McConaughey. (Apologies to all fans of this fine thespian in the audience. You may want to look away now.) But I was on a plane and had finished my book, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past started playing, I made an error in judgement.
Said movie’s plot: Matthew McConaughey is a heartless playboy about to be taught the error of his ways by apparitions from his dating life! Jennifer Garner is the One Who Got Away, who needs to be recaptured once Matthew has learned his touching and totally unexpected lesson about true love being all that really matters!
Matters were proceeding exactly as anticipated right until the point where we have the flashback to Matthew and Jennifer’s past romance, in which they banter, she softens towards him, his heart grows three sizes, and they come together in one glorious night with all the torrid passion of a box of cornflakes left out in the rain. Matthew McConaughey, sneaky playboy that he is, flees his own feelings and tries to sneak out on her as she sleeps. She wakes up.
JENNIFER GARNER: Matthew McConaughey, you beast, I trusted you!
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: . . . Why? You had a clear view of my smirky, smarmy face at all times!
JENNIFER GARNER: Because we’re on the movie poster together! I mean that’s not important now! What’s important is that there are some women you sneak out on in the middle of the night, and there are some women you stay and snuggle with, and I am one of the women you stay and snuggle with.
At this point, I turned to the lady in the seat beside me.
SARAH: I cannot believe I just saw that! Can you believe you just saw that? Can you believe we literally, actually just saw a scene in which the heroine who we’re clearly meant to agree with explicitly says that, pretty much, some women are whores and deserve to be treated like trash! While obviously Matthew McConaughey has made a mistake dealing with these trashy wenches, he is not a trashy wench himself. He’s a dude, so it’s all good, as long as he treats a nice lady right when he’s got one. Because we’re all still divided into ladies and fallen women! Argh!
MY NEIGHBOUR ABOARD THE PLANE: Je ne comprends pas.
SARAH: Oh. Oh right. COOL. Excusez-moi. J’avais . . . a fit of feminist rage. Um. Excusez-moi.
The nice French plane lady patted my hand. Clearly, she thought I was insane. Obviously, she was right, but that is not the point at this time.
I have no excuse for watching Wild Child, which is a terrible teen comedy, except that I truly and deeply in my soul love terrible teen comedies, and I went to see 17 Again in the cinema. (‘Justine, Justine’ you all moan faintly. ‘Why hast thou forsaken us, Justine?’)
Wild Child is about a spoiled American teen who is sent to English boarding school, a place which is awfully stodgy, and where many people wear tweed, and some hunt! Obviously she learns valuable life lessons, and it all culminates in an epic lacrosse battle.
But there is a specific part of the movie I wish to focus on, and it is this: at one point, our heroine’s jolly dormitory mates ask if she has ‘done it’ yet, and she says with a toss of her mane that she has! A ton! And that seemed to be that, she got on with playing merry japes and romancing the prim headmistress’s son, and I thought to myself ‘You know. I think that’s pretty great.’
Oh, that was a rash thought of mine. For at the school dance, our heroine having bonded sufficiently with her dormitory mates, she tells them that no, actually, she never has! Just like them! She’s really been good all along.
Now, the heroine of Wild Child is meant to be sixteen or seventeen. I’m not saying ‘People, we need more teenage bangin’!’ Except maybe I kind of am. (Far away in New York City, my editor just had a tiny, tiny stroke. Sorry about that, Karen!) I trust I do not need to tell you guys that the decision not to bang is a totally okay and often wise decision on the part of people of both genders, at all ages.
But really. Really, in this day and age, do we so entirely equate a woman’s moral character with her sexual behaviour? Of course, we (and by we I mean, you know, Society) do. We have a whole lot of insults for ladies who like to have sex, and we don’t draw the same line in the sand for dudes. Having our books and movies reflect that attitude so very clearly just made me think—wow, how patterns go on and on repeating. We must sit down. And take a look. And say to ourselves, ‘Oh, wow, that is pretty gross.’ (Not that I’m encouraging people to go watch Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. MY LORD NO. I’ve taken that bullet for you all. Only too happy to have been of service. SAVE YOURSELVES. I can still hear the lambs on the plane screaming about feminism.)
Another thing that I’ve been doing lately, in between watching teen comedies, is reading romance novels. Because a) I was trying to overcome prejudice against certain types of books, as said prejudice is dumb and b) turns out a lot of romance novels are pretty great, so I wanted to read more.
Quite recently I read The Devil’s Delilah by Loretta Chase, in which our heroine Delilah makes out with a rake! And she likes it. And I was delighted. Not because I wanted her to end up with the rake: I loved the bookworm hero, and Delilah and the bookworm had already made out, and it had been most excellent. But because that’s something I’d noted in a lot of (not just romance, and not just historical) novels—that heroines were given a pass on desire, as long as they desired the heroes alone. The implication of that? Women, with sexy feelings not associated with True Love! They would be no more than common trollops!
So now I have a great love for books with heroines who make out with people who aren’t heroes, and like it, and go with the hero because said hero is a better match. (As an example, if Jane Austen had written make-out scenes, which she did not, I feel Elizabeth Bennet is obviously attracted to Wickham, and could’ve had a great time snogging him, though of course it would still have been followed with the Austen equivalent of ‘Whoops, you are a tool, MY MISTAKE.’)
And—well, I just think it would be great if we could have heroines, even teenage heroines—sure, some of whom have decided to wait or haven’t decided to wait but just haven’t decided not to, but some of whom didn’t wait, had a disastrous experience and came through it just fine. Some of whom didn’t wait, had a great time, parted ways, repeated same five or a hundred times, and were also just fine. (Obviously, the reverse should happen as well, and actually, I think it’s kind of cool that one of the Most Beloved Fictional Characters of Our Time, Edward Cullen, is a self-confessed and unashamed virgin hero of a century plus. So, you know, take a bow, Twilight! If I had to pick between you and Matthew McConaughey, Mr Cullen, you would most assuredly be my sparkly date to the school dance.)
And next time you see a heroine tell people she’s Pure as the Driven Incidentally, or Not Like the Other Girls (those trashy wenches)—well, frown at the screen or the page, and think ‘Oh wow, that is pretty gross.’
Ahem. Thank you for your kind attention, ladies and gentlemen! (*surveys the audience, some of whom seem to be weeping softly and saying things like ‘Get thee behind me, Satan . . . Oh Justine, Justine . . .’*) Please feel free to tell me to get thee behind you, or tell me about kind of gross or kind of excellent portrayals of sexuality in fiction, in the comments.
Sarah Rees Brennan pointed me to this article about Gone with the Wind by Elizabeth Meryment. It annoyed me. So prepare yourself for a rant. Basically Meryment argues that all criticism of Gone with the Wind (book and film) over the last few decades has been dreadfully unfair, especially from feminists, and why can’t we all just enjoy such a women-centric book with its array of fabulous strong female characters. Now, I happen to agree that Gone with the Wind features many wonderful strong women. However, that being true does not contradict any of the criticisms made of both book and film.
Why do people find it so hard to love something and accept that it’s flawed?
Gone with the Wind is at once a tale of strong women and appallingly racist. Just as there were women who campaigned long and hard for women’s suffrage who were also members of the Klu Klux Klan. Being a feminist does not mean you can’t be racist. Alas.
When I was wee I read the book multiple times and saw the movie almost as often. To this day I can quote the novel’s opening lines: “Scarlett OHara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” (No, I didn’t have to google that.) Until my discovery of Flowers in the Attic1 there was no book I loved more than Gone with the Wind. I haven’t re-read it in more than a decade but I still know it better than any book other than Pride and Prejudice. I’m in a good position to unpick Meryment’s claims:
Scarlett O’Hara [is] a woman of substance. No cowering southern belle, here is a woman who is resourceful and resilient and does what she must to survive.
Yet critics and academics, in the seven decades since the film’s release, have been almost unanimous, and disapproving: Scarlett is no feminist but a damsel in distress who relies on feminine charms to get her way. She steals other women’s men, has an insatiable lust for Melanie’s dreary husband Ashley Wilkes and suffers from a chronic flirting problem. Worst of all, she allows Rhett to ravish her during a night of passion that she finds rather enjoyable.
Here’s the thing, all the above is true. Scarlett O’Hara is a woman of substance but throughout the course of the book she also relies on her feminine charms to get her way and has flirts with pretty much everyone who’s male and white. She is a multiple stealer of other women’s men—including her own sister’s—she does have an insatiable lust (which she confuses with true love) for the deadly dull Ashley Wilkes, and she does get ravished by Rhett in an extremely scary scene which (in the movie) cuts to her smiling and happy in the morning.2
As Meryment points out Scarlett O’Hara’s story begins when she’s sixteen and ends when she’s twenty-eight. During that time she lives through a war, sees many people she cares about die, loses two husbands, has three children, and goes from being a simpering southern belle to a shrewd business woman.
“Scarlett is a survivor,” says Toni Johnson-Woods, a professor of popular culture at the University of Queensland. “She’s the sort of person who would cut up the curtains to make a dress. She gets dirty. She works. She doesn’t actually do anything bad. She’s manipulative, but what person isn’t when they have to be?”
Johnson-Woods seems not to have read the same book I did. [Scarlett] doesn’t actually do anything bad. What now? Let’s leave aside all the lying and those two stolen husbands. I mean India Wilkes and Scarlett’s own sister, Suellen, clearly had it coming. Wanna keep your man? Then hold on to him tighter. Let’s put aside Scarlett’s multiple attempts to commit adultery with Ashley Wilkes.3 And let’s forget that Scarlett saw nothing wrong with slavery. She was sixteen when the war started and brought up to believe in such an evil system. But how about her using slave labour after the war is over in the form of convicts to work her saw mill and allowing her manager to beat them half to death? How’s that for an actually bad thing?
Now I happen to think that Scarlett O’Hara’s ethical impairment and selfishness is part of what makes her such a dynamic and believable literary creation. She lies, she cheats, she does pretty much whatever it takes to survive and save herself, her family and her land. But you don’t have to pretend that she never does anything bad to find her complex and three-dimensional. Many of my favourite literary creations—Mouse in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, Highsmith’s Ripley, pretty much any character ever written by Jim Thompson—do many bad bad things. I don’t need to pretend that they’re good in order to enjoy reading about them.
Scarlett has many good qualities but she has plenty of bad ones too. Frankly I would not want her for a friend because she’s one of those women who only notices men. She doesn’t even realise what an amazing friend Melanie has been to her until Melanie’s on her death bed. Scarlett is not BFF material. And she’s not a feminist. She doesn’t care whether women get to vote or not, she doesn’t care about women as a group, only about herself and her family. She has no political consciousness at all.
Film critics also have been circumspect about Scarlett’s place as a feminist symbol, as well as horrified, in more enlightened times, by the glorification of the slave life on the southern plantations. As The Australian’s film critic Evan Williams noted in a 1981 review, published at the time of a re-release: “The film’s attitude to blacks (referred to constantly as ‘darkies’), to say nothing of its attitude to women, would scarcely find favour today. Slavery was glossed over; male authority taken for granted.”
Yet, for all its perceived flaws, the film and the novel are deeply loved, and remain the top-selling novel of all time (more than 30 million sales worldwide) and the highest grossing movie ($1,450,680,400 in box-office takings, adjusted for inflation). Now, in the US, where hardcore feminism has been decried for more than a decade, new perspectives about the film are emerging.
Evan Williams is spot on. Pointing out the film’s popularity does not change that. Lots of racist and sexist novels and films are deeply loved and do incredibly well. Success does not render a book or movie free of flaws.
Meryment writes “perceived flaws” as if to imply that Williams and other people who have criticised Gone with the Wind‘s racism are just imagining it. We’re not. None of the black characters in the book are fully-realised, three-dimensional characters. None of them have lives or dreams or aspirations outside of O’Hara and her family. They live in order to serve their masters. Before and after the Civil War. The book and the film are caught up in a poisonously romantic view of slavery wherein the slaves were happy to be slaves, were miserable when the South lost the war, and just wished their masters would keep looking after them. It’s only the bad negroes who make trouble. (The book and film’s language, not mine.)
In Gone with the Wind the Klu Klux Klan are the good guys.
Yeah, right, we’re imagining the racism.
Why just look at the character of Mammy, says Meryment, she’s a strong character! That proves the book isn’t racist:
Of all the strong females, perhaps Mammy is the most galling for ardent critics of the film. Black, enslaved and conforming to 1930s stereotype of the loyal, usually overweight, woman who offered cheerful servitude to her owners, McDaniel’s Mammy is nevertheless a complex and confronting creation. Indomitable and opinionated, she largely does as she likes, whether her masters like it or not. (“I said I was going to Atlanta with you and going with you I is,” she tells Scarlett at one point.)
Mammy is every bit the stereotype. With no life other than to look after Scarlett, which the quote above proves. The reason she’s disobeying Scarlett is in order to look after her. Not to do something for herself like find her own kin. The only reason so many argue that Mammy breaks with the stereotype is because Hattie McDaniel was a wonderful actor, who transcended the extremely limited and belittling role. There’s no such respite from the stereotype in the book. (Don’t get me started on the character of Prissy.)
To echo Meryment’s language, it is galling that a book first published in 1936, when the civil rights movement in the USA was already underway, and turned into a movie in 1939—the year that Billie Holiday first performed and recorded “Strange Fruit” about lynching in the South—could be so astonishingly blind to the evil that is slavery. That it could spend a gazillion pages and hours glorifying a system that was built on the kidnapping and enforced labour of hundreds of thousands of people appalls me. The glorious south that Margaret Mitchell is so nostalgic for was built out of exploitation, murder, and rape. But it’s even more galling that here in 2009 there are still people trying to pretend that Gone with the Wind isn’t profoundly racist so they can enjoy all its other aspects.
Yes, Gone with the Wind is an amazing book and film.4 Yes, it’s the tale of two extraordinarily strong women, Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes, and their enduring friendship5. For many years I loved it. Feel free to continue loving it, but please don’t pretend that us critics are being unfair, or in some way misreading Gone with the Wind when we call it on its nostalgic longing for an era in which the white upper classes lived decadent useless lives dependent on the blood of black people.
From various sources, I see that a few people are a little freaked when the tips Scott and me have been sharing don’t work for you. Please to relax. No writing tip works for everyone. And even if it does work for you now, it might not always. For instance, I no longer use square brackets though once I found them extremely useful. My last novel had no zero draft. Some novels I write without paying attention to daily word counts, some novels I do. I’ve not used a time line for most of my books. I’ve never dialogue spined an entire novel.
I recently learned that in certain fandoms OTP stands for One True Pairing. That is, the two characters who are meant to be together. This has made me look at everything with entirely different eyes. Do any of you watch Community? Me and Scott have decided that Abed1 and Troy are that show’s OTP. Our favourite part of Community is their bit after the credits at the end of every show. Fills my heart with joy:
I’m off to spot all the other OTPs in the universe.
Abed as Batman is the best thing in the entire universe. [↩]
Certain things1 lately2 have been making me just a tiny bit tetchy and upset so I thought I would work out my feelings by watching Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman in Girlfight.
I love this movie. Saw it first when it came out in 2000. Loved it even more on this second viewing. There aren’t many movies about female rage. There aren’t many movies about powerful, strong women outside of science fiction, where they’re all too often sexualised and trivialised.3 Guzman is a girl who wants to learn how to box and she’s really good at it.
So Girlfight is a sports movie. Outside of dance movies there’s nothing I love more than sports movies.4 I love that they all have the same basic elements:
Protag with burning desire to be a dancer/athlete who convinces unwilling guru to take them on as a student.
Family and/or financial obstacles.
Lots of training.
Girlfight has all of these, but never feels cliched. What keeps it fresh is how real the movie is: the script is excellent, particularly the dialogue, the casting spot on, and the location shooting and sets are so real you can smell the dank sweat and grime of the gym.
And Michelle Rodriguez seethes. But is also vulnerable and raw and, yes, real.5 She reminds me of Micah Wilkins, the protag of Liar. Not physically, but emotionally, and in the way she moves and navigates through life: her pain and her anger are very like Micah’s. I wonder if subconsciously I was thinking about Girlfight when I wrote Liar? Diana Guzman even has a younger brother (though he’s lovely) and lives in a tiny flat in New York City (though it’s Brooklyn not Manhattan).
The fights are totally convincing.6 It totally looks like punches are being given and received. Even her black eyes convinced me.7
The romance works. It doesn’t feel tacked on. I love seeing a male and female boxer negotiating what it means for them to fight each other in the ring. A female fighter is not perceived in the same way that a male one is. Most people see a fight between the two as no win for the guy. If he loses he’s a wuss, if he wins, well, der, of course, he’s the guy. Or he’s a thug.
I love that there are gentle, loving men in this movie who are able to show it. I love Hector, Diana’s trainer. I love her brother Tiny. And her romantic interest, Adrian.
And, yes, this movie passes the Bechdel test. Diana’s best friend doesn’t have a big role but she’s there and they talk about things other than boys. Could that be because it was written and directed and produced by women? Karyn Kusama’s brilliant writing and directing of this movie almost makes me want to see Jennifer’s Body which she also directed.
Did I mention that Girlfight is totally YA? Diana’s in her final year of high school.
The final fight is AWESOME. But the resolution is even better.
I guess what I’m saying is if you haven’t seen Girlfight then you really need to. Like NOW.
It makes me want to write a proper sports novel. I do have a kernel of an idea for a WNBA one . . .
Like the people who responded to Rihanna’s moving interview about domestic violence by talking about her forehead being too big. WTF? 1) Her forehead is gorgeous 2) Way to attempt to change the subject. Talking about domestic violence makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Poor baby. [↩]
I’m not going to link to any of the horrific events that have taken place over the last few days. Too upsetting. [↩]
You know what I mean. All those movies where the main response is: “Girls kicking butt is hawt!” [↩]
I am more and more convinced that any movie without a training montage is not worth seeing. [↩]
Last night we watched Bong Joon-ho’s The Host again, which is probably my favourite giant monster movie ever. If you haven’t seen it do so immediately! It more than stood up to a second viewing. We then watched the Making of The Host documentary, which was way better than those things normally are. For starters, they barely talked to the actors at all—always a very good sign. Pretty much every aspect of film making was covered: from the initial idea to the storyboards to sound design. Q: How did they create the monster’s voice? A: Painstakingly.
A lot of time was spent on the logistics of filming on location in sewers. Every cast and crew member had to have preventative shots. On account of they’d be working in raw sewage infested with parasites and rats and hideous diseases. Yum! The smell was overwhelming. Many of the cast & crew were barely able to keep from vomiting. They had to deal with the non-mixability of electricity and water. Yet there they were filming in a great deal of (raw sewage) dampness. Summer shooting meant they had to be alert to flash flooding. In winter the ice had to be scraped up before every day’s filming. What larks, eh?
The doco left me extremely grateful that I write novels. I can create giant monsters living in sewers without having to spend weeks and weeks in an actual sewer. I can write about winter from the comfort of summer. I can create pretty much whatever I want without having to change out of my pyjamas or worry about how much it will cost or whether it should be a physical or post-production effect or if it’s possible to get that many extras. Luxury.
And that’s why I write novels and don’t work in the film industry.
Yesterday I shared the US trailer for Liar, today it’s time for the Australian Liar trailer:
Whatcha reckon? It’s difficult for me to say seeing as how that’s my words and my voice, and me and Scott shot some of the footage. I can say that I think the team at Allen & Unwin did an awesome job editing it all together. They’ve managed to make me sound smarter and more coherent than I actually am. Thank you.
Oh, and good news for those of you in Australia and New Zealand. I’ve been told that Liar‘s official release day is 28 September but it will probably start appearing in book shops from 23 Sept in Oz and 25 Sept in NZ. I.e. in less than a week. Colour me excited.
Because I have been talking about my love of Avatar quite a bit lately people have been asking me if I’m excited about the forthcoming live action version.
I am not.
One of the many things I adore about Avatar is how incredibly rich and complex the world of Avatar is. This is largely because it was based on various Asian cultures. None of the characters in Avatar are white.
We came up for the concept for “Avatar” 3 years ago. Nickelodeon wanted to make a “legends & lore” type of show with a kid hero. That’s a genre we are very interested in, but we wanted to create a mythology that was based on Eastern culture, rather than Western culture. Although “Avatar” isn’t based on a specific Asian myth, we were inspired by Asian mythology, as well as Kung Fu, Yoga, and Eastern Philosophy. We were also inspired by Anime in general. We wanted to create a story that inspired people’s imaginations and that had elements of comedy, drama, and action.
2. You guys are not Asian so how did you come up with such an Asian cartoon?
We read a lot about Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese history. We also have several consultants who work for the show—a cultural consultant that reviews all the scripts; a Kung Fu consultant who helps choreograph all the bending moves so that they are accurate to the style on which they are based; and a Chinese calligrapher who does all the signs and posters in the show. We don’t use any written English words in the show.
Avatar has been hugely popular among kids of all races. There was no backlash against an all-Asian show. Much as those who watch anime don’t freak out at the paucity of white characters. Yet, somehow the Hollywood producers think the live action version has to be white washed. Except for the villians, of course, it’s okay for them to be brown. I think they’re wrong.
I’m not the only one who’s upset at the absurd casting choices of the movie version. There are severalcommunities that have been protesting it.
Sadly, though there seem to be just as many fans who don’t care that the movie version has white actors playing Aang, Katara and Sokka. Glockgal offers a possible explanation:
For people who’ve never learned/seen/been exposed to anything Asian beyond fortune cookies and sweet-and-sour chicken balls, I suddenly understand that when they watched the cartoon, all they see is ‘fantasy’. All the architecture, clothing, food, writing, names, movements—EVERYTHING that is so plainly and clearly Asian to us? Is just to them . . . a fantasy. It’s all made-up. They don’t know that so much of the world is based on real cultures, they don’t get how much attention to detail and research the creators put into the cartoon, because they’ve NEVER SEEN THESE CULTURES, IN REAL LIFE.
I will not be going to see the movie version. I’m sick of white washing. I’m sick of Hollywood taking the things I love and transforming them into generic pap. I want them to make more films that reflect the diversity of the world I live in. I don’t understand why that’s such a huge ask.
Um, can someone help me with an anime rec? I watched one episode a long time ago and I can’t remember what it was called but it was recommended to me.
It starts with a girl falling through the sky. then there are all these kids at a school — they’re angels, with little wings and halos. And they are cleaning up in a library that has what looks like a giant cocoon in it. And then you see inside the cocoon and the girl who was falling is inside of it.
Anyone know what series she’s talking about?
And thanks everyone for all the amazing anime recs. I can’t wait to start watching. I’m particularly excited about Read or Die cause I love the manga and didn’t know there was an anime.
This year my favourite show is Avatar. Scott and me watched all three seasons in a greedy one-week rush. Loved it, loved it, loved it. If you haven’t seen it you really really should.
Ever since I’ve been wanting to watch something that hits the same spot. Thus far without a lot of success. Miyazake’s films, which I adore, have some of the same feel, but I’m in the mood for a series, not a standalone movies. I want interesting world building, plots that make sense, strong female characters.
The last is particularly important to me. We’ve been watching Death Note and while there’s a lot I like about it, the main female character, Misa Amane, is absolutely appalling—clingy, immature, stupid, annoying. Ever since her first appearance I’ve been steadily losing interest. I cannot stress how much I never ever want to watch a show with a character like Misa Amane in it. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been so irritated by anyone—character or real person. I loved the character of Naomi Misora but sadly she was only in a few episodes. A show all about her would be awesome.
Fire away with recommendations, please.
And does anyone have an opinion on whether the Naruto anime is as good as the manga?
A few of you were a bit scathing about my attempting to recast Kiss Me Kate as relevant to my 1930s NYC research. There can be no nay sayers to the following snippets of research.
First up the genius Duke Ellington & his Cotton Club Band with “Old Man Blues” from 1930:
Duke Ellington is far and away my favourite USian composer. Just for his & Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite” alone. Oh, how I love “Isfahan”. Yes, I know they didn’t write that until the 1960s, but there was so much wonderful music before then. Including one of my favourite songs of all time: “(In My) Solitude” from 1934.
Next up a particularly nutty Busby Berkley number from Footlight Parade (1933):
Go, cats, go! The kid that shows up around the minute marks is SO disturbing. And I don’t want to be rude but Ruby Keeler? Not the world’s most impressive hoofer. She was no Eleanor Powell. Her singing wasn’t up to much either.
Footlight Parade’s one of my favourites of Busby Berkley’s insane extravaganzas. For some reason every single one of them features a woman putting on and taking of stockings very slowly. And many weirdo dance numbers. What is not to love? Added bonus: Footlight Parade has my favourite poster boy for ADD, Jimmy Cagney.
I’ve talked about Fredi Washington previously. If you haven’t seen Imitation of Life (1934) you really should and skip this next bit cause you wouldn’t want spoilers, would you? Reveals a lot about class, race and gender at the time. Plus I have a crush on Fredi Washington.
Here’s a pivotal scene with Fredi and Louise Beaver:
Lastly, more insanity. American fashion designers predict future fashions:
Oooh! Swish! Want. Pretty much every outfit. And the hair styles. Why aren’t we dressing like that? I sure would like to see Scott decked out in that last number. Bless!
Are you all starting to understand why I’m writing this book? Is just an excuse to swim about in an ocean of 1930s fabulosity. Music, movies, clothes, books. Everything really.
I was actually looking for “Brush Off Up Your Shakespeare” cause it’s brilliant plus it’s clearly inspired by Damon Runyon who published many of his best stories in the 1930s and is thus within the period of my next novel, which makes it vaguely research-ish. Not to mention Runyon’s stories are almost all set in NYC. A highly imaginary NYC, I grant you, but still.
(Er, for those who don’t know my next novel is set in NYC in the 1930s. I’m only reading and watching and listening to 1930s stuff until the novel is written. I’m being extremely strict about it except for sometimes my interpretation of “1930s” gets a teeny tiny bit elastic.)
Sadly, I could not find a version of that genius song that I liked well enough to share with you. I know for some of you this might have been the first time you’d heard “Brush Off Up Your Shakespeare” and that experience must be PERFECT! (Especially for the Corialanus line.) So instead I’ve opted for “Always True To You In My Fashion”.
It’s also from Kiss Me Kate and thus also written by the fabulous Cole Porter (who wrote many of his best songs in the 1930s) and I love it muchly. It’s relevant to my research on account of I do believe there might have been women who were occasionally unfaithful in the 1930s and, um, it was written in 1948, which is not that far off the early 1930s.
Oh, never mind just enjoy:
Aren’t Ann Miller and Tommy Rall darling?
And just to push this slightly closer to the 1930s: have some lindy hopping featuring Frankie Manning. Yes, this footage is from 1941 but the lindy hop was invented in the 1930s 1920s, okay?
I have a couple of dancing fool friends, Lauren and Margaret, who say that I really need to learn the lindy hop in order to write my book properly. But don’t you all think that’s a little bit extreme? I would have to have a mighty big incentive to go that far!
Summer Glau as a killer robot. (It’s the same role she had in Firefly only a MILLION TIMES better.)
Shirley Manson’s clothes.
That there’s an Australian in it with her own accent! (You know, Mely & Karen, if you’d told me that I would have watched it AGES AGO.)
That the end of the second season was pure genius and MADE TOTAL SENSE.
There was stuff I didn’t like about it. Some of the episodes in the middle of the second season trod water in extremely annoying ways. Some characters and plot lines begun at the beginning of season two were completely abandoned. Though as I was uninterested in those characters or plot lines I didn’t mind so much.
This is a show that is at it’s best when it sticks to the driving, obsessive, tense-making arc plot. Going off on an episode-length tangent is just annoying. I hope that if there is a third season they remember that.
Except for one thing. The cover is so terrifying I can’t even look at it, let alone pick it up. Until it’s repackaged into something that won’t give me nightmares (or I discover the Oz or UK edition has a non-scary cover) I’m not going near that book.
A friend of mine refuses to read Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth because the mere title of it terrifies her. Even though we keep telling her the book itself is not only excellent but not particularly scary.
Don’t get me wrong I love ghost stories. I enjoy reading scary books. I can’t deal with images of scary dolls or clowns but I can totally read about them no problem.
Are there books any of you won’t pick up because cover or title is too scary? But not because you’re afraid to read the actual book. Let’s stick to discussing packaging.
We’ve worked our way through the first season of Mad Men and I didn’t enjoy it. I can see that it’s well written and acted. The costumes and sets are remarkable. It has a very shiny kind of verisimilitude. I can see why it wins awards. But it leaves me cold.
Actually, worse than that—it make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I watch with pursed lips and my arms crossed tight.
I don’t feel like they’re exploring the sexism and racism of the period I feel that they’re skirting a line towards reproducing it. Why are there no black characters? The black cleaner or lift operator could easily have been major characters. Instead they’re rarely seen and less often heard. There are many more female characters but they don’t lift above the level of a cipher. I don’t know who they are or what they’re thinking and none of them gets anywhere near as much screen time as Donald Draper.
Everything revolves around Draper, whom I’m clearly meant to empathise with. I don’t. I don’t like him at all. Or his bosses. And don’t get me started on his work colleagues. I have no sense of who his wife or girlfriend or children are so it’s hard to like or dislike them.
The only reason I’m watching is that I’ve heard such great things about it. We just finished the first season. Maybe it gets better in the second. I doubt it and I’m wondering why I’ve spent time watching a show that so carefully recreates a truly appalling milieu and time without the kind of overt critique that would make it tolerable. Also the theme music makes me want to kill myself.
It is possible to create television that engages with the racism and sexism of a place and time without making viewers feel complicit. The Wire does it brilliantly. I haven’t figured out what went wrong with Mad Men but watching it makes me want to take a shower. Not in a good way.
Am I alone in this response to the show? Cause so far I have heard only praise.
One thing I like about it? The women’s clothes. But I don’t have to watch the show to see them.
Lately I’ve been talking with many of my film-obsessed friends about romantic comedies. Specifically we’ve been trying to come up with one made by Hollywood in the last five years which wasn’t misogynist rubbish. We’ve been failing.
Sarah Dollard, a dear friend, wonderful writer, and fellow romcom addict, pointed me to this excellent Guardian article on the problem. Kira Cochrane agrees with us completely:
It’s not only women who have noticed the shift in the romantic comedy genre. Peter Travers, a film critic for Rolling Stone magazine described He’s Just Not That Into You as “a women-bashing tract disguised as a chick flick” and Kevin Maher has written in the Times that the “so-called chick flick has become home to the worst kind of regressive pre-feminist stereotype”. Dr Diane Purkiss, an Oxford fellow and feminist historian, feels that we have reached a nadir in the way that women are portrayed on screen, and says that there’s been “a depressing dumbing down of the whole genre. That’s not to say that I want all movies to be earnest and morally improving. But I think that you can actually have entertainment with sassy, smart heroines, rather than dimwitted ones.”
As many of my readers know I’ve spent the last year watching heaps of movies from the 1930s. I find it shocking that so many of these movies are less sexist and appalling than the ones being made now. The female leads in so many of the 1930s movies are smarter and more interesting than any of the mostly deeply stupid women in the likes of Made of Honour, Confessions of a Shopaholic, License to Wed, He’s Not That Into You, Bride Wars and 27 Dresses.
These movies fill me with rage. There is no equality between the romantic leads which has been the heart of a good romance ever since Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy first met. In recent Hollywood romcoms the women are insecure, neurotic, needy, obsessed with marriage, and neither witty nor fun. The men are bemused by the women as one would be by a naughty puppy dog. That is not my idea of equality nor is it my idea of romance.
As Cochrane points out “the people making these films” seem to “genuinely dislike” their audience. Which I think is a good explanation for how stupid, insulting, and dumb so many recent romcoms have been. They’re made by men who hate women. Wow, does it show. It’s why I’ve stopped seeing them. It’s too painful.
Sometimes all the research I’ve been doing on the 1930s gets me down, because it forces me to realise that there are so many ways in which our current world is every bit as sexist as it was seventy years ago. And in some ways it’s worse: Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn never ever played stupid women. In their movies the audience was invited to side with them just as often as we were supposed to side with their male sparring partners.
Tonight I saw Alan Cumming sing an Abba song! Well, okay, he said he was going to sing an Abba song because it was Sydney and he knows that all Australians love Abba and that Abba had more number one hit records here than anywhere else in the world, including Sweden.1 But the song he said was an Abba song wasn’t an Abba song. Cause he’s Scottish and they’re tricky like that.
He did sing a song by Dolly Parton, Victoria Wood and songs from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Cabaret and a musical I never heard of. Also some Gershwin.
He was incredibly charming and name droppy and did the whole cabaret I’m-fabulous!-You’re-fabulous!-We’re-all-fabulous! thing excellently well. I am always amazed at how charmed I can be by a cabaret show when the performer doesn’t have that great a voice. But we walked out all happy and bouncy.
We’ve learned that the flying foxes fly past at the same height as our flat—so we can see and hear them clearly—mostly when it’s raining or there’s low cloud cover. They’re way up high when the skies are clear. So, um, there has been much praying for rain. There weren’t nearly as many flying foxes in Sydney when I was a kid so I never get tired of seeing them.
Same for rainbow lorikeets. They’ve been everywhere over the last week. Yesterday they decided to distract me by landing on our deck directly in front of where I sat writing on our couch. I mean seriously how am I supposed to keep working with them frolicking about in front of me? Here’s a photo Scott took after I called for him to come down from the study and check ‘em out:
And here’s a close up:
They hung around for about half an hour. Chirping to each other and to the other lorikeets perched on nearby buildings. Um, no, I got no work done during that time.
Why, yes, I am loving our new digs. It’s amazing how having a view changes everything.
And, I kid you not, another flock of ‘em flew past just as I was about to publish this. Their brilliant greens, reds, blues and yellows even more intense against the grey sky. Leaving this place is going to be such a wrench. I want to stay forever.
Got up to watch the inauguration—3:30AM here in Sydney—glad I did. I already knew Reverend Joseph E. Lowery was fabulous but his benediction was AWESOME:
And while we have sown the seeds of greed—the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.
And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.
. . .
With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around . . . when yellow will be mellow . . . when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.
Barack Obama is now president of the USA. At last. I am full of hope.
No, not my homeland, the movie. I went and saw Australia because my sister, Niki Bern, worked on it. I doubt I’d've gone otherwise. I’m not a fan of Nicole Kidman’s acting unless she’s playing a psycho or a bitch. Her turn in Moulin Rouge is one of the worst pieces of miscasting I’ve ever seen. The ads for Australia are full of Kidman’s eyes afluttering and Jackman looking all manly. They did not fill my heart with hope.
Also the title put me off. Was Lurman claiming he could sum up my country’s history in one film? That he could encompass everything important in one movie? Right. Good luck with that, Baz.
Or, worse, was he pandering to dumb and kitschy expectations of non-Australians? I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve met on my travels who are astonished to discover there are cities in Australia. Or are convinced that the entire country is one great big desert and that all Australians are just like the crocodile hunter. To which, sigh.
It was not as bad as I expected. There are worse ways to spend three hours (or however extremely long it was). I wasn’t bored that often, which was more than I expected. For which I thank Brandon Walters playing Nullah. This eleven-year old actor single-handedly saved the movie. When he’s on screen that’s where you’re looking; when he’s not you pine for his return.
Lurman should have ditched the tedious Kidman/Jackman story and told Nullah’s instead. I wanted to know more about him, more about his mum and about King George. Walters was by far the most convincing and interesting actor in the movie. The only one who didn’t seem to be embarrassed by his lines. The only one who made the cliches seem fresh. If the movie had been about Nullah, it could have been amazing. Instead it was a frequently cringe inducing, occasionally beautiful, sometimes funny, but mostly an embarrassing big fat mess.
Other than Nullah the highlight for me was seeing my sister’s name in the credits. Her biggest one thus far: Compositing Supervisor. Go, Niki!
If you’re going to see Australia wait till it’s on DVD—that way you can skip all the bits that Brandon Walters isn’t in.
Love is Hell, an anthology including stories by me and Scott as well as Melissa Marr, Laurie Faria Stolarz and Gabrielle Zevin is now available in the US of A. The extra good news is that it’s a paperback. Cheapness!
A portion of the proceeds of Love is Hell will benefit College Summit, a nonprofit that helps more kids get into college.
Let The Right One In is a Swedish vampire movie set in the early 1980s. It’s also one of the best genre movies I’ve seen in years—scrap that—it’s one of the best movies—no modifier needed—that I’ve seen in years. You all need to go see it. Not least because every time I think there’s nothing new that can be done with vampires, someone does something new and fabulous.
The movie version of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist turned a crappy day into a lovely one. While it’s not as good as the book, it left me grinning and happy. It managed to be faithful to the feel of the novel as well as a real crowd pleaser. All around me people were laughing, squealing, and sighing. Sighing a lot whenever Michael Cera so much as quirked an eyebrow. I don’t think I’m ever going to understand his charms, but this movie gave me a bit more of a clue. He’s kind of like a young James Stewart—awkward in his own skin, totally harmless, safe, gentle and quietly smart. Kind of like a sentient teddy bear or something.
I’m adding Nick and Norah to my list of fun teen films. Although most of the cast—as usual—looked to be a few years older than they were supposed to be it wasn’t as egregious as some teen films and TV series. Most importantly, the cast sounded like teenagers. Unlike Juno who’s eponymous character speaks and thinks like a cynical thirty-something. I didn’t buy anything in that movie.
I had the privilege of hanging out with Nick and Norah‘s authors, Rachel and David, afterwards.1 They’re both over the moon happy with the film and its reception. And not just because it’s propelled their book onto the New York Times bestseller list. (Woo hoo!) The odds of having your book made into a movie are very very small, but having your book made into a good movie? Smaller than small. David and Rachel lucked out big time and they know it. Couldn’t have happened to nicer people. Go Rachel! Go David!
If you haven’t already read Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist go do so immediately!
They went to three screenings on the opening day. Talk about dedication! [↩]
2) The Magic or Madness trilogy has sold in Korea! Woo hoo! Chungeorahm Publishing have made a very lovely offer for the trilogy and I have said yes! For those keeping count the trilogy is now published in eleven different countries: Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States. My happiness is huge. All hail Whitney Lee of The Fielding Agency who made the majority of those sales. She’s incredible.
1. It has at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.
I’m very proud that all my books pass the test. But then so do the books of the majority of women writers. And I can think of quite a few YAs by blokes that pass. It’s Hollywood movies that really suck at this test. To such an extent that if you were to apply it you would see very few movies.
It depresses me that twenty years on the test is still an accurate criticism of Hollywood. In fact, there are probably fewer Hollywood movies that pass the test now.
One of the many things I love about The Middleman is that it passes the test. Wendy Watson (Dub Dub) and her best friend, Lacey, talk to each other often about a range of subjects. So do Dub Dub and Ida. I will miss them now that what I hear is the last ep of the season has aired. I haven’t watched it yet though: SPOIL ME AND DIE.
I can’t tell you how relieved I am to hear that rumours of the show’s cancellation have been much exaggerated. Phew!
If you haven’t been watching it do so. You’re missing the best show ever!
I don’t care about fonts. I know this is a shocking revelation coming from a writer. But there it is. I am also not in love with stationery—spending more than ten seconds in a stationery shop is my idea of hell—and I actively hate paper.
Fonts, though, just have my indifference. This came up recently because Scott wanted to watch a documentary about Helvetica and I, um, did not express sufficient enthusiasm. I may have mentioned the words “boring” and “paint” and “drying”. Possibly.
I’m not even sure I could recognise Helvetica. Truly, it was only pretty recently that I learned the difference between serif and san serif. And I still don’t much care. I have never had a favourite font. I tend to write in whatever font I’m told I should write in. For years I wrote in courier because everyone said I should. Then a friend insisted I switch to Times New Roman so I did.
I am writing the current novel in Optima because that’s Scrivener’s default font. Scott was shocked when he found out and delivered me a long lecture on how you can’t write a novel in Optima. “But I just did!” I protested.1
Obviously there are some fonts I wouldn’t write in. Heavy gothic fonts. Any font that resembles handwriting. Especially my handwriting. Basically if I notice the font then I can’t write in it. But run-of-the-mill fonts are fine. And, frankly, I can’t really tell the difference between them. Once I’m writing and deep in the story I don’t see the font anymore.
Am I alone? Am I the only writer in the world with font indifference? I fear I am. Or is it like coffee and chocolate hating. We are a rare breed but we exist.
Well, almost. Novel is very nearly almost practically finished. [↩]
One aspect of the strong fan reaction to Meyer’s Breaking Dawn is the notion that some of them have that Stephenie Meyer owed them a particular book and a particular ending.1 As a writer I have to say that does my head in. No writer owes their readership anything. NOT A SINGLE THING. They have to write the book they have to write. Writers should not be thinking about giving their audience what the audience wants. For starters there is no unified audience. They don’t want all the same things. So pleasing them is IMPOSSIBLE.
On the other hand, Joss Whedon owes me big time for the mess he made of season seven of Buffy. The creators of Veronica Mars owe me BIG TIME for the monstrosity that was season three of Veronica Mars. And do not get me started on the egregious ways in which Weeds has jumped the shark. Head should roll!
So, um, I appear to be in two minds on all of this. Writer Justine does not agree with fan Justine. But whatever the contract with the reader is it does not include having to fulfill all the reader’s desires. On account of that not being possible.
Hmm, I repeat myself. What do youse lot think?
My apologies for the worst sentence ever I’m hoarding the good ones for the Liar book. [↩]